The idea of body positivity is being actively explored on the Interent today. In social networks and blogs, people share their stories and pictures of “imperfect” bodies in order to remind everyone: the patriarchal culture normalises and distorts our ideas of the human body and beauty.
The ephemeral notion of beauty and society’s condemnation of everything that doesn’t fit the norm were the reasons for the emergence of such phenomena and terms as fatphobia (disgust and contempt towards overweight people), skinny-shaming (shaming and mocking someone for being thin), lookism (a discrimination tactic favoring attractive people in communication), ageism (age-related prejudice). All are strategies discriminating against undesirable corporeal manifestations and are subconsciously related to prejudice and people’s habit to judge others by their looks.
In the mid-‘90s, on the crest of the third wave of feminism, the desire to fight stereotypes about appearance peaked and took the form of multiple movements, including body positivity. An attempt to counter the normative body representation in culture and media, it denies discrimination the right to exist and emphasises that a person’s relation to their own body is strictly their own intimate business, and others’ incursion into this sphere is unacceptable.
Disapproval and envy show up when we project our own problems and complexes onto other people. If we are honest with and accepting of ourselves, we will hardly make such projections. When we are in harmony with our own bodies and realise that perfect appearance is subjective, criticising others loses its appeal. In the first place, body positivity starts with ourselves.
Photography is often used in the body positivity movement as a practice of reflection. In 2014, an art project called Body Positive: I Am Not Afraid was launched in Belarus. One of the project’s organisers was Daria Trayden.
Body positivity is a movement that proclaims that third parties have no right to interfere with one’s relations with their own body. It rejects traditional views regarding the norms of appearance and recognizes everyone’s right to look the way they want. The world of patriarchy is a world of gender stereotypes with “real men” and “real women”.
Everyone who doesn’t fit in the normative template feels social pressure, faces disapproval and aggression.
Some question the connection between the body positivity movement and feminism. They don’t want to have anything to do with the latter and don’t understand its ideas. This is a superficial and biased way to look at things: any attempt to explain discrimination based on looks will lead, sooner rather than later, to the realisation that norms and taboos are social constructs formed by patriarchy. Body positivity denies the dependence of beauty on weight, height or make-up. Body positivity is about being able to wear any kind of clothes, ignoring the taboos on horizontal stripes or crop tops for chubby people, and on short skirts for the skinny. Body positivity means you don’t have to hide what makes you special.
The idea behind Body Positive: I Am Not Afraid belongs to my co-author Ania. There aren’t no projects like this in Belarus although there are people who need them. There are only three of us in the team. Together we discuss the concept for each photoshoot: Sasha takes photos and draws the storyboard, I work on the stories… It may seem that working in a team of three we are doomed to have a lot of disagreement, but that’s not the case. We agreed from the start that we would share opinions, argue, criticise one another, make suggestions without taking the criticisms personally or as devaluation. And this rule exists in word and deed, too. Of course, everyone gets tired from time to time and thinks that what we do is merely fighting windmills. But then you come to a photoshoot, meet the participant and understand that we are stronger than any windmill out there.
Difficulties already emerged at the second photoshoot: we got the attention of those who had comfortably integrated into the discrimination system and saw no reason to change it. It got me thinking: either we weren’t articulating our position clearly enough, or part of the people weren’t inclined to hear it. After I read the feedback where people spoke of the importance of the project to them, I landed on the latter explanation. There will always be those who like to use the rule of force and their privilege to take away the defenceless’ every right. But there will also be those who are open to rethinking what they believe, who oppose conservatism and can accept new ideas. Our target group are people who are ready to listen, those who experience discrimination and can’t accept themselves. Every photoshoot is yet another argument for self-love and respect towards those around you.
Belarusian gender researcher Elena Minchenia shares her view on the implementation of the body positive project in Belarus.
Because of a whole number of examples of negative attitude towards feminism, it is indeed a very brave move to speak of a feminist project in the Belarusian context. One may expect to face mockery and not be taken seriously. I am glad that in this case the feminist orientation is clearly stated and the word “patriarchy” is used.
Body positivity projects declare consciousness and critical thinking as ways to fight normative representations, since cultural representation is extremely uniform. It is much easier to exist within the normative standard and take pretty pictures of kitties and slender girls. Although the photoshoots I have seen could also hardly be called diverse in terms of age and physical ability. The photoshoot participants often are beautiful healthy people, with a rather obvious tendency as to their age.
It should be noted that Body Positive — I Am Not Afraid has a distinctive aesthetics: all the pictures are taken in the woods. But taking the body into nature is the same binary framework: male/female, nature/culture, emotion/reason. It comes out as if where the body involved, it is “closer to nature”, because it is nature’s component. In the visual sense you can feel that the project needs working on. This can be done, given the will and readiness to develop the project in a critical vein.
In the post-Soviet space positive attitude to one’s own body and insubordination to the standards of beauty are often attributed to laziness, inflated or insufficient self-esteem, and connivance. It is not only women that become the target: men too fall victims to the omnipresent “beauty-obsessed terrorism” on the part of the public opinion. One of the photoshoot participants speaks of his contribution to the project and the pressure of the masculinity standard:
To me, the body positivity movement is a tool to fight oppression, to fight lookism and patriarchal culture. This idea is closely related to the feminist movement, it finds supporters among its followers. I’ve come to accept myself the way I am and the way I can be long before I learnt about body positivity. But as to accepting others and realising that beauty was bigger than my own ideas of it, it was indeed the body positivity movement that helped me get there.
The flowers plaited into my beard in the photo are in no way related to femininity, they refer to mythology. The connection between nature and femininity, just as the idea that femininity exists at all, is a social contract, a convention. It is a social construct that needs to be dismantled. I’m not afraid of such associations, I like women and the female part within me, but on the whole there is nothing genuinely feminine in culture, just as there is nothing genuinely masculine.
Body positive projects are very different from commercial photoshoots: they have their own spirit, their own methods. In arts, the diversity of opinions and criteria for assessing reality matters a lot. Beauty is life, it is diversity. That is why we don’t have to retouch wrinkles, stretch marks and skin imperfections. We don’t hyperbolise the peculiarities of the characters’ bodies, we don’t make their stories more dramatic than they are. These are real people, the true stories of those who feel pain because they can’t accept themselves.
Any trait may become a reason for self-harm, provoke self-hate, and cause negative emotions towards one’s own body. For example, a photoshoot on height-related social abuse wasn’t received in the same way by everyone, because this topic is rarely covered. After the release of these photos someone asked me if there were people at all who were pain-free about their looks. I said there weren’t.
In the world where there is discrimination, no one is safe.
In her legendary book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf says that the beauty myth is an economy that divides women and drives a wedge between them. When we let ourselves feel each other’s physical attractiveness, the market will no longer be able to benefit from the way it represents male desire. Twenty years later we can’t say that the situation has changed much. Elena Minchenia is convinced that today, the body positivity movement is capable of influencing the perception of beauty as a form of capital:
It is hard to turn something into capital if every single body is good enough. Now there is a clear understanding of what kind of body can be converted into capital. Today such a body would have to be strong, thin, healthy, and young. It can be sold at a profit in the advertising industry, or have its way in the modelling business.
It is harder for capitalism if different bodies and different models are involved because then it becomes unclear who should be paid or whether everyone should be paid equally.
Capitalism needs imperfect bodies, that’s the logic it operates in. First, a problem gets created, for example cellulitis, uneven skin tone, blemishes, wrinkles, stretch marks etc. Advertising and media actively suggest that we should pay attention to them. Then we are offered a wide array of solutions to these problems as we chase after a perfect body. We are offered to choose a product, but no one speaks of choosing the way we want to be, what bodies to have. There is only one ideal. If every body is good enough, it gets harder to play this capitalist game.
Photos by Sasha Vishnevskaya
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