Rebecca: I'm Rebecca Ibarra in for Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway. This month, and unretouched and unauthorized photo of reality star Khloe Kardashian standing poolside in a bikini was posted to Instagram. Kardashian and her team scrambled to take the photo off social media, reigniting a conversation about the unrealistic beauty standards that celebrities like the Kardashians have perpetuated and monetized while publicly embracing, "body positivity". Over the years, the myth that one standard of beauty fits all has waned, and the so-called body positivity movement has gained momentum in the mainstream.
What started as a movement meant to center the marginalized bodies of fat people has been co-opted by affluent thin white women as a means to celebrate themselves. We're joined now by Charlotte Zoller, writer of the column Ask A Fat Girl for Teen Vogue. Charlotte, thanks for joining us.
Charlotte: Thank you for having me.
Rebecca: Ivy Felicia, a certified holistic wellness coach and body image expert. Hi.
Rebecca: Charlotte, let's start with this incident. In her explanation for wanting the photo removed, Khloe Kardashian said in a statement, "It's almost unbearable trying to live up to the impossible standards that the public have all set for me." Now, without negating Khloe's feelings, does she not carry some of the responsibility for bolstering that impossible standard of beauty to begin with?
Charlotte: Yes, the Kardashians have profited off body positivity, while at the same time perpetuating, as you said, those unrealistic beauty standards. Khloe specifically, actually, has used body positivity to her profit. She has a size-inclusive denim company called Good American, which says it's committed to challenging industry norms and it's 100% inclusive, always. She's using this body positivity for profit, while without the penalties and discrimination that come along with being in a marginalized body.
Rebecca: How do you square outwardly projecting perfection and posting heavily filtered or photoshopped photos and then purporting to support body positivity or size inclusivity?
Charlotte: Well, her response to this photo was a missed opportunity to lead by example. She's in a position of power where she could authentically show up as herself but has chosen not to, and that sends a signal to her followers who are also customers, to be perfectly honest.
Rebecca: Ivy, you call yourself the Body Relationship Coach. How does this incident with Khloe Kardashian that we've been talking about fit into conversations about, "body positivity" today?
Ivy: I feel that the body positivity movement has definitely become watered down, I think because we've taken our eyes and our focus off of the original intent. The people who were coming from this space of a lived experience, which I think was mentioned in the conversation earlier, that makes all the difference. I think it becomes problematic when we start to center people and uphold people who don't even hold the same values that this movement was originally created for. Of course, they're going to make decisions that are somewhat off-kilter and don't necessarily align with the purpose of, "Let's center marginalized people."
"Let's make sure that we are thinking about, when we post pictures, when we post captions, let's make sure that we're thinking about those people when we do those things." I don't think that it's any coincidence that these types of things happen, because we're centering the wrong people.
Rebecca: You said the original purpose of the movement, how did this movement start off?
Ivy: Well, it started off with centering marginalized people who were in larger bodies. Black and people of color originally started this movement and originally started the fat acceptance, fat activism concepts. Then it's something that became watered down and people who were fat got pushed into the margins and got decentered. If you're fat and you live in a fat body, you've lived in a marginalized body like I do, you know what it feels like to be erased, to be pushed into the margins. You have that lived experience always inside of you. Sometimes when you're making decisions, those things help to remind you how to show up in public and the things that you do.
I think that when we have people who have pretty privilege, who have social-economic status, they're thinking those interests. They're not thinking in the interest of the people who are watching, the people who are struggling with their bodies, the people who are struggling with their body image.
Rebecca: Then Charlotte, hearing all this, has body positivity become then a buzzword or does it still have meaning?
Charlotte: No, body positivity has been a lifeline for those who struggle with mental health and body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and more. Everyone can benefit from it, but definitely echoing the fact that it was rooted in the fat acceptance movement that, fast forward 60 years, those radical ideas have been distilled down pretty far now.
Rebecca: Ivy, fat stigma has deep roots in misogyny and racism. What can you tell us about that?
Ivy: Absolutely, because, fat stigma and fatphobia, they come as a result of the patriarchy, they come as a result of racism. They actually are showing up now in body positivity, because it's marginalizing the people it was meant to save and to help, and to support at the beginning.
Rebecca: Charlotte, what happened as body positivity became part of the mainstream discourse on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok? Speaking from personal experience, I'm a 33-year-old woman so I'm grown, hopefully, but I still go through Instagram and TikTok and have to catch myself from thinking, "My body is not enough." Have those apps been good for the movement?
Charlotte: I think that's a great question. It goes both ways. Social media, and specifically Instagram and TikTok, can help hurt or help your body image, it really just depends on what corner of the internet you're in. It's an amazing tool to normalize bodies and to see bodies that look like your own, but you have to be following them first.
Rebecca: Ivy, online we've seen thin individuals spread messages of body positivity, alongside photos of themselves while pointing out things about their bodies that they don't love. Has the body positivity movement, in a way, been co-opted or maybe confused with just self-love?
Ivy: I do feel like it's everyone's right to love their body, to celebrate their body, to post pictures of their body, I think it becomes problematic when we don't have a diverse group that's being represented. Then it starts to look like one body over and over again. I think that's what we're talking about, even in social media, that because of the algorithms and just how things have been calculated, we're not seeing a diverse group of bodies. Therefore, it looks like body positivity is only one type of body. Therefore, it is starting to be correlated with, "This is what self-love looks like."
I think if you can intentionally curate your own feed, which is what was also mentioned earlier, if you can curate your own feed and create diversity in your own feed you can have a much more diverse, deeper, and more supportive experience with body positivity, body image, fat acceptance, all of that.
Rebecca: Ivy, I want to talk about the growth of body positivity. The thing is, we as a society continue to associate thin bodies with hard work and health. Why is it so hard to dispel that notion?
Ivy: It's intentional. It's intentional, because if we go back to what we were talking about, racism and patriarchy, if one type of person, which would be thin affluent white males, is what beauty standards have been built by. Then it centers then affluent, socially, economically empowered white women have been put at the forefront of the conversation. When you have those people as the foundation of the movement, of course it's intentional to marginalize anything that doesn't look like that. If we believe that Black people, people of color, are lazy and not hardworking, if we believe that fat people are lazy and not hardworking and unhealthy, and we build an understanding and a movement around those beliefs, then we start to perpetuate that. Now there's the concept of, "People of color or fat people of color are both lazy and unintelligent and not hard working." Then the movement starts to align with that as well.
Rebecca: Charlotte, for years influencers and celebrities, including the Kardashians, have used Instagram to market and sell products like waist trainers and flat tummy tea to their audiences. What does that mean to the millions of people who follow them, particularly young and impressionable people?
Charlotte: Khloe and her sisters have promoted products. Just like you said, waist trainers and appetite suppressant lollipops, and that does send a potent message to their followers, which is that you're not okay the way you are, the body you're in. We live in a society that holds thin, white, abled people above all others. I think there's also a real disconnect here between promoting health and promoting weight loss. The diet industry is extremely profitable. In 2020 alone, the US weight loss market was valued at $71 billion, which gives you just how big of an indication, how deeply diet culture and fatphobia are ingrained in our society.
Rebecca: You say diet industry but, in a way, what I hear now as wellness industry. It all seems very thinly veiled diets.
Charlotte: They're becoming pretty interchangeable, which is upsetting and concerning.
Rebecca: Brands, Ivy, have also jumped on the fact that there's a huge demand to see more than one type of beauty standard showcased. Has the "body positivity" movement been commodified to a certain extent, Ivy?
Ivy: Absolutely. When brands are more focused on trying to appear, to be progressive and to go with a trend rather than actually changing what they're doing and who they're showing and why, I think that's when it becomes problematic because we still see them staying close to that same body type. Although they might have someone who's a little bit bigger or they might bring in some color, what we really need to think about is how do we bring the most marginalized people into this representation. Then also, what does it mean to change the social-economic state of these people that they're bringing in with brands?
What does it mean to pay them well? What does it mean to hire them consistently? Not just to be pretty pictures, but to actually be influencers and to be part of the brand and part of the team that creates the products that they have.
Rebecca: Lastly, how can, well-meaning individuals who have used the body positivity and self-love movements interchangeably be better allies to those with marginalized bodies? Ivy, I'll start with you.
Ivy: Sure. I think that what people can do is, first of all, listen to people with marginalized voices. That was what I say. Listen to those people, listen to their lived experiences, listen to their knowledge. Then secondly, I would say to amplify those voices. Amplify the things that you hear, the things that you listen to, the things that you learn. Amplify that into your community, out to your friends, in your board, and in your companies. Thirdly, I would say compensate, hire those voices and those people. It's not just about taking, listening and learning, and amplifying, but also making sure that you're giving back to those people and that you're actually helping to elevate their social-economic status as well.
Charlotte: Piggybacking on what Ivy said about listening to fat folks, I think, unfortunately, there is no easy one solution to this issue or even just one way to be an ally here. I think it's really looking internally and looking at your own internal anti-fat bias, because we all have bias. That's not the issue, it's what we do with our bias that is the important thing. I think specifically around health, challenging the notion that someone doesn't need to be healthy or prove their health to you to deserve respect.
Rebecca: Charlotte Zoller is the writer of the column, Ask a Fat Girl for Teen Vogue and Ivy Felicia is a certified holistic wellness coach and body image, expert. Thank you both for joining us.
Ivy: Thank you, Rebecca.
Charlotte: Thank you very much.
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