From wellness to beauty; fitness to fashion, body positivity has gone mainstream. What began as a movement spearheaded by the fat-acceptance activist circles of the 1960s, has since become commodified, as brands wake up to the profit potential of making consumers feel seen and empowered. But an ad slogan to “love the skin you’re in” by applying an all-natural moisturizer or the occasional runway inclusion of a plus-size model doesn’t seem to be enough. The reality is, people remain deeply unsatisfied with their bodies, irrespective of age, size or identity.
In 2018, more than three quarters of Americans reported feeling negatively about their body, according to an Ipsos study. “The past statistics are scary with facts such as 91% of women being unhappy with their bodies,” says Emily Ward, co-founder of The BodCon, the first virtual conference solely dedicated to body confidence. Looking to fill in where the body positivity movement has lost its way, Ward co-created the one-day virtual conference with Jess Hunichen to help people find self-acceptance.
Some of the world’s most influential body confidence activists—namely, Jameela Jamil and Sarah Nicole Landry—will come together this February 21to explore how fatphobia, diet culture and body shaming manifests not just in the mirror, but in our relationships, fitness spaces and everyday life.
Model Hunter McGrady will share her experiences with fatphobia as the first plus-size woman to grace the cover of a bridal magazine and the curviest swimsuit model to ever appear in Sports Illustrated. While fitness trainer Chrissy King, creator of The Body Liberation Project; and Chelsie Hill, founder of the Rollettes wheelchair dance team and adaptive fashion line Ability Jeans; will discuss how the fitness industry can encourage body confidence.
We asked McGrady, King and Hill to weigh in on the body positivity movement and inclusivity in fitness and fashion, and most importantly—for their tips on cultivating radical self-acceptance. Read on for a boost of body-confidence.
Where does the body positivity movement go wrong?
The term body positivity has become commercialized— brands use it as a form of luring the customer in. Their heart is in the right place but it muddles the true meaning. You can’t be body positive unless everyone is represented. A lot of brands use the term “inclusive” and then go up to an XL. That’s not inclusive—you’re leaving out 70% of the population. Over the years people caught on to body positivity and instead of staying authentic to it, they capitalized on it.
People are put into beauty boxes—”she’s in the plus-size positivity box,” “she’s in the disability body positivity box,” “he’s in the acne positivity box.” But people are never just one thing; our struggles are all-encompassing. There is an expectation that once you’re known for something then you always have to be positive about that thing. Some days I don’t feel super positive about my disability and that’s okay.
It doesn’t consider intersecting identities; if you live in a marginalized body loving yourself is harder to do within a system that values Eurocentric beauty standards. We have to be thinking deeply about how we’re working to dismantle systems of oppression, so that regardless of your body, you have the ability to feel safe and secure in your own skin. Body positivity has also been co-opted by thinner and medium-sized white women who are already really close to the standards of beauty, taking up space within a movement that was made to help people find acceptance with themselves.
Is fashion becoming less fat-phobic and ableist? How can it become more inclusive?
We’re in a better place than we were 5 years ago, however we still have a long road ahead. As a plus-size model, I was always told to be the “perfect” plus size. When I gained weight, brands wouldn’t hire me because I was too large, even exclusively plus-size brands. We’ve been brainwashed to believe beauty looks a certain way and skewing any other direction is a “risk.” I always tell brands, take that risk. Nothing good ever comes out of staying comfortable. Change doesn’t happen that way.
The fashion industry is afraid to ask what people with disabilities need and put the proper budget towards it. Some companies have such small budgets to create adaptive clothes. They don’t realize that so many adaptive adjustments can be made to clothes that also work for able bodies. But there are several big brands that are taking a stand and creating adaptive shoes, clothes and accessories. I love seeing that.
Brands are becoming less fatphobic, but I don’t know if it’s genuine—diversity and inclusion are buzzwords, it can be performative. The sizing is still not nearly inclusive enough. Extra-large or XXL is not inclusive at all. The bodies included are specific types of larger bodies, like hourglass-shaped, that are still palatable to people. We have to keep digging into these narratives about what acceptable and fat bodies are supposed to look like.
What does a fitness space that encourages body confidence look and feel like?
Whenever I walk into a gym or a workout class I ask, am I represented here? It starts behind the scenes, hiring people that are plus size. Size is not indicative of health. One of the hardest cycling classes I’ve taken in my life was led by a plus-size woman. I’ve taken classes where the only goal was to “imagine” the thinnest possible you. How is anyone supposed to feel comfortable in that environment? It’s toxic and needs to be addressed in a big way.
Coaches and facilities that don’t limit people with disabilities. Trainers that aren’t afraid to listen and create a positive, accepting fitness environment. People with disabilities know what they can and can’t do physically. Don’t tell us what we can’t do, find a way to work with what we can do. It should be normal to see people with disabilities working out in your local gym without people making them feel weird about it.
It has to be a diet culture-free zone, focused on movement as a source of joy, nourishment and self-care, not to change the way we look or to earn food or burn off what we just ate. For so long fitness has been looked at as punishment or something that you have to do, instead of moving our bodies in ways that feel good. Our relationship with our body is the most important relationship we have because we’re the only person that we spend our lives with. So how do we nourish our relationship with movement in a way that is filled with compassion and love, and not shame, guilt or judgment?
How do you feel body confident when you’re having an insecure day?
When I was 16 I was told in therapy to strip down to my most vulnerable form, which was right after a shower, naked, no makeup, hair slicked back so I could see my face. She told me to say five things I wanted to love or believe about myself, to myself.
I said, “I love my hips, I love my stretch marks, I am enough, I am worthy, I am valuable.” I’ve said these five things to myself every day for the last 11 years.
[Initially] my “I am’s” were strictly about the way I looked. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve shifted the mindset to be more about the way I want to feel, what else I offer, what my body can DO.
I love self-care days. I’ll put on aromatherapy, a book on Audible and take time to organize my space. When my space works for me, I feel more grounded. I’m also lucky to be surrounded by incredible women who are always lifting me up—it helps on days that I don’t feel my best.
When you’re struggling, setting realistic expectations and giving yourself compassion is really important. If you’re not in a space where you love and appreciate your body, maybe the goal is to get to a place where you feel neutral about your body. I can learn to love, accept or be neutral with my body—but in all these iterations, it’s important to remind ourselves that our bodies are meant to change.
We can be really kind to our friends and family members—that same language we use for other people, we deserve for ourselves. I’m also a big fan of unfollowing or muting people on social media if they’re making you feel a certain way about your body.
What does radical self-acceptance mean to you?
Not apologizing for taking up space; for being loud, strong or assertive; for my body or my intelligence. It’s being fully enamoured with who you are and not letting anyone have a say in changing that.
Still going after your big dreams despite the limits people place on you. Radical self-acceptance aligns with our mission at Rollettes: to live boundlessly mentally, physically and emotionally.
Unapologetic love and respect for myself, and appreciating the differences that make us all unique.
My body is not what makes me who I am, it’s what allows me to have this human experience. I have specific magic that I’m supposed to create in this world and it doesn’t have anything to do with what I look like.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.