The Problem With Body Positivity

Story by A.B.

It’s a never-ending to-do list.

First thing in the morning, wear sunscreen. Dab a bit of toner. Set an appointment for an eyelash perm. Shave every patch of hair on the legs. Put on a concealer to hide the most minuscule blemish. Workout in the afternoon. 

Every day, women embark on this instinctive drill of feminine adornment to make themselves feel beautiful – this is the cost of being a woman. 

It must be worth it, because the rallying cry of the body positivity movement is that “everyone deserves to feel beautiful.” It was originally coined by women to reclaim agency of their bodies and resist the white and thin ideal.

And yet, it didn’t eliminate the fact that beauty is still the metric by which women’s value is measured. Rather, it invited more women to be beautiful, so that they are taken more seriously, paid a higher salary, treated with more respect and included in the upward mobility of ranks. 

For the longest time, women’s bodies have been trapped where capitalism and patriarchy meet – both trying to turn women’s bodies into exploitation mines. The body positivity movement didn’t really give women the power to free themselves; it handed them instead a self-autonomy that exists within two systems that do not share their best interests.

A rude awakening

Growing up, Rogin Losa, a content specialist for an eyewear company, basked in the glory of charming the people around her with her chubby and cute kid charisma.

Her momentous ‘victory’ in a fat-phobic world, however, didn’t last long and was quickly shattered by a word of caution about her weight from bullies when she was only six years old.

“I wasn’t aware that [being fat] was a bad thing in some people’s eyes. And ever since I was made aware of that fact, I began desperately trying to change it, even resulting in unhealthy ways of trying to change it,” said Rogin.

Women are taught from a young age that the highest compliment they esteem is to be “beautiful.” It’s deemed as the most valuable and attainable trait, but it’s also something that she could not decide for herself.

Similarly, Danielle Gorre has spent 24 years of her life under the scrutiny of society’s harmful body ideals.

As a child, her relatives named her “popcorn nose” because of the tip of her nose. As a teenager, her father named her “thunder thighs” to taunt her body shape. Recently, her male boss made fun of her for weight gain during the lockdown. 

“You can imagine what being subjected to that constant belittling can do to a girl’s self-esteem,” said Danielle.

Thanks to body positivity, society has become more celebratory about various skin colors and body sizes, for women have protested and used the social justice pulpit to shame beauty’s gatekeepers into opening the doors wider. 

Yet, along with this diversification is the heightened compulsion of Filipino women to be beautiful. The movement didn’t eliminate beauty standards; it simply broadened it.

The pressure is still there: women can be dark-skinned only if they’re posing for a magazine; they can be plus-sized as long as they wear those flattering athleisures; they can have underarm hair but they must post endless selfies to prove they’re confident.

“What’s not working with me with body positivity is that I have to love my body all the time. I don’t love my body all the time. I just need to be okay with my body,” said Rogin. 

Beauty as influenced

Back then, beauty was merely glimpsed at dazzling magazine covers and towering billboards. But at the height of body positivity, it can be readily accessed on social media, where everyone is encouraged to brandish their bodies.

“It’s basically what I was fed when I was a kid, but just in a different medium,” said Rogin, recalling how commercials used to be her vantage point of beauty.

Unlike high-profile celebrities, women find people on the internet a more realistic comparison, one study reported. Those images of others’ physiques – whether a friend’s gym selfie or an influencer’s beach snap – are forcing us to compare our bodies to theirs.

Sociologist and women’s studies professor Athena Presto explained that social media exacerbated the desire to be beautiful, because of the illusory power of curation. Such is the reason why facetune and filters are making us ‘look better’ while making us feel worse.

“In TV, your looks are edited by other people and not you. But on social media, you’re the one who edits your pictures. You curate whatever you post, that’s why it gets more personal and it’s easier for people to be influenced,” said Presto.

Women may just be mindlessly scrolling through online content, but they are subconsciously soaking it all up, and before they know it, they have become a participant in a constant cycle of objectification. They capture the “perfect” shot, edit it to the tiniest pixel, upload it on the platform, then go scroll through everyone else’s, as they wait for others to validate theirs.

Beauty as marketed

Fortunately for companies, body positivity is market-friendly. The beauty industry has earned billions, from using beauty standards to using body positivity to sell a product. Essentially, the end goal hasn’t changed; just its packaging.

Danielle is well-aware of this, yet she still cannot help but fall victim to this marketing strategy. She earnestly contours her nose to make it look narrower, regularly waxes, shaves her body hair and tries to lose weight to avoid getting too fat.

“The cosmetic market still thrives on women’s insecurities, non-white women’s, especially,” said Danielle. “[T]hese insecurities wouldn’t exist in the first place if it weren’t so ingrained in us.” 

Capitalism needs women to attain beauty standards to continue its profiteering scheme, said Presto. By telling women what they want to hear, companies have convinced some women that their liberation can be bought in their products.

Makeup is no longer a way of concealing blemishes, but a tool of confidence. Gym memberships aren’t just for losing weight, but for gaining strength. Plastic surgery is done not to chase eurocentric ideals, but to boost self-esteem.

This type of oppression is, in fact, not only rooted in the inequality of how we present ourselves, but also in terms of our socioeconomic classes, added Presto.

Ang mahirap dito ay nakaangkla ito sa beauty na fino-forward ng kapitalismo. A lot of women are being left behind, especially women who can’t afford,” said Presto.

The beauty revolt

In history, generations after generations of women are taught that their bodies are subject to scrutiny, judgment and preferential pseudo-objective beauty standards.

However, Rogin and Danielle have had enough. After struggling their entire lives for their bodies to be loved, they have already grown exhausted. They neither want to bow down to any beauty standard, nor glorify their bodies anymore.

“I’m just tired of losing and gaining, so I just stopped. Because if I lose weight, I need to lose more, so I’m unhappy. If I gain weight, I need to lose weight, so I’m unhappy. So I just stopped altogether,” said Rogin.

When asked what her worth is if not beauty, Rogin was stunned into silence. All those years of equating her body to her worth have rendered her clueless. Still, she believes that she’s in the process of defining it. 

“I think my value is if I’m happy and make others happy about something. That’s what my value is. I can’t say if it’s my writing or my art, yet,” she said.

What they seek now is mere acceptance of their bodies. They don’t want their physical appearances to define their worth; they are simply a part of the way they’re built.

Beyond the illusion of inclusion

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with modifying our appearances as they desire, but women must actively assert a resistant stance that they are more than their physical appearances.

“This is not to shame women whose choice is to enhance their bodies. But let’s not discount the fact that that choice is heavily influenced by the fact that we still consider certain forms of bodies as beautiful, in a conventional manner,” said Presto. 

Even if the playing field of beauty becomes leveled, women still don’t make as much money as men, still experience discrimination in workplaces and schools, and still get harassed in the streets. And above all, this government is still keen on stepping on women’s rights.

Body positivity has not eradicated the pressures of being beautiful but rather entrenched it and made it even more expensive. Women are fooled – with the encouragement of such kind of feminism – that they took over an illusory power that limits their thoughts, position and actions.

Truth is, women don’t free themselves by being beautiful. Their liberation can be won — not through their physical appearances — but in workplaces, schools, homes and society as a whole. After all, there’s no hashtag or filter that can dismantle the systems that oppress women.

“In order to accept my body, I need to love it all the time? I think, no. We just need to be okay with our bodies. And we also need to realize that whatever we look like, it doesn’t dictate our worth,” said Rogin. “You define that for yourself.”

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