The (In)Significance of Beauty– Rethinking Body Positivity

The body positivity movement has its roots in the fat acceptance movement which started in America in the 1960’s. Having a complex history riding all three waves of feminism, this movement has recently exploded into mainstream discourse and emerged as an important component of equality, acceptance and women’s rights. The principle idea behind it is that of having a positive body image of all body types, regardless of size, colour or ability, characterised by self love.

Women have been denied the right to exist as they are since time immemorial, hence their demand for such an acceptance, their demand to love themselves freely and feel confident about their appearance is a refreshing, much needed response to the completely baseless, unjustifiable beauty norms that society has held for women – a varying spectrum spread across eras and continents. We have had the waist decreasing corsets in England, foot binding in China, size zero in India, the list goes on.

However, for all its merits, this movement does raise some questions. Beauty still exists at the centre of this acceptance movement. The only difference is that we refuse to accept the norms that society gives us, but we still want to feel beautiful. Beauty still very much exists, and exists in the eye of the beholder – it’s just that the beholder is now you. We have done away with the rules of the game, but the objective, the aim is very much the same. The idea that you need to love your body and feel beautiful essentially makes beauty a goal to be achieved.

Why does external appearance need to take up space in our heads? As human beings we are composed of many parts – our interests, our intellects, our functions, our aspirations, etc. If we don’t feel a need to feel beautiful, if we feel at peace with our bodies, if thinking about how we look beyond a certain point is not something that occurs to us– that’s body neutrality. Body neutrality is a term which first started popping up in 2015, but gained more popularity when Anne Poirier of Colby-Sawyer College started leading programs on it at the Vermont wellness retreat Green Mountain at Fox Run in 2016. It is an emerging body image movement which aims to remove the focus from how you look to what you can do. It removes the valence associated with external appearance – it’s neither positive nor negative. Rather than saying external appearance does not matter, it more aptly says that other things matter more.

Mental health experts say that it might not be possible for you to love your body every single day, and a body neutral approach allows you the freedom to be as you are. It removes the pressure to feel constantly in love with how you look. Many people choose to align themselves with this movement as it is more inclusive; people with disabilities, members of the transgender community have often felt left out from the body positivity movement. Moreover, the body positivity movement unknowingly has created a limited space which is quite contradictory to its objective – only people who are curvy in accordance with a certain size or proportions are allowed to feel good about themselves. The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil is an advocate of body image rights, and has spoken of this most notably as part of her Instagram community i_weigh. Beyond Beautiful, a book by Anuschka Rees also attempts to delve deeper into the gaps in the body positivity movement.

There is an inherent importance that is given to feeling beautiful. That’s not so different as giving importance to being beautiful– again, being beautiful as you see yourself to be. What is important is that we are still relating worth with beauty, relating good mental health with beauty, associating confidence with beauty. External appearance, while on our own terms, is still being given the spotlight. This begs the question– why are we so obsessed with how we look? Or more importantly– is there really a need to be conscious about how we look?

The association of beauty with ‘goodness’ is an age old concept, seen in many traditions and societies. In the Greek epic The Iliad, Achilles as a warrior was not only defined by his valour and ability in combat, his handsomeness was always, as a rule, emphasized on. The figure of the ‘witch’ – a marginalised, severely misunderstood community subjected to various forms of brutality – has always been depicted as ugly. A huge part of children’s literature has made this association quite obvious with their descriptions of good and evil characters – the evil moneylender is always an ugly figure, the evil queen who’s a witch in disguise turns out to be ghastly to look at, etc. The colloquial phrase used in almost every Indian household to describe the bride, ‘sundar aur susheel‘ deliberately associates beauty with modesty, gentility and niceness, very relevantly testifying the thought association that still persists in modern society. Fairness cream advertisements in India, propagating a widely accepted standard of beauty, have consistently promoted the association of looking beautiful with achieving success in life.

How we look has defined how we are or how we must be for a very long time. As a consequence, looking good becomes a personal goal. In terms of body positivity, this can be modified to say that ‘feeling’ good becomes a personal goal. It’s no surprise therefore, that to survive and thrive in this world, women have had to play by its depraved rules. Many professions; air hostesses, TV show anchors, news broadcasters are known for discrimination against employees on the basis of their external appearance.

Hence, body neutrality attempts to reform our priorities. It denounces the concept of beauty when applied to human beings altogether. That is not to say that you’re not allowed to feel beautiful or make efforts when you want to. The emphasis is on ‘want’. Beauty shouldn’t be felt as a necessity, rather a desire to be.

Picture Courtesy- The Pitt News

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