August 6, 2021

The last time I wrote about the body positivity movement, it was 2018. The plus-size model Tess Holliday had just appeared, sensationally, on the cover of Cosmopolitan. It triggered a debate on Good Morning Britain: Piers Morgan accused the then editor Farrah Storr of “celebrating morbid obesity”; she accused him of conspiring in the mental health crisis and perpetuating the culture of thin-privilege. Of course, the video went viral. That spat marked the two poles of the body image conversation: “you can’t show this,” versus “you can’t say that”.

Was a more humane approach possible? It was horrific to treat fatness as something shameful, I wrote, but also wrong to pretend that being fat doesn’t lead to serious health complications: “As an archetype of beauty, Holliday is no more and no less dangerous than a size-0 waif.” Somehow, a line had to be tracked between compassion and truth.

Two years later, I got an email in response to this article. My correspondent was young, female, fat (by her own account) and very angry. “I am wondering if your feelings about fat people have changed since writing it?” she demanded. “Do you perhaps have any fat people in your life? Though I am sure if you do, not by choice since you are so openly disgusted by the sight of us.”

She signed off with the words: “And to boot, honey… you’re no spring chicken. Take a look in the mirror before you spout off how gross fat women are.”

And so, I revisited the column (after spending a few minutes scowling at my own face and wondering, again, if it was time for Botox). Had I written that I was “openly disgusted” by fat people? No: I had written that I personally struggled with self-disgust when I was overweight, and had sometimes pursued thinness in ways I called “dangerous”. I was being honest. But, whatever women say or do, our physical appearance is used to dismiss us — by women as well as men, as my correspondent so graciously demonstrated at the end of her message.

Returning to the email, I noticed that she started it by talking about “fat people” and ended it talking about “fat women”. More proof, not that it’s needed, that when discussing fatness, it’s always women who are really at stake — picked over, found inadequate, found excessive. Fat, as Susie Orbach wrote 40 years before that Cosmo cover, is a feminist issue. Men are attacked over their appearance, but they always get to be more than their bodies. A man who looks shabby or out of shape is an object of comedy, or even affection. “Dad bods” are lovably, huggably imperfect.

A fat woman, on the other hand, isn’t just unattractive. She’s a moral disgrace. Orbach wrote that, “the explanations offered for fatness point a finger at the failure of women themselves to control their weight, control their appetites and control their impulses.” The female equivalent of the “dad bod” is the “wine mom body”, and “wine moms” aren’t just overweight: they’re a symbol of dissipation and the neglect of proper feminine duty.

But, unlike the current generation of body positive feminists, Orbach still sees fatness itself as an undesirable state. It’s not a personal failing, but it is — in her view — a result of emotionally starved women seeking comfort through food, to the jeopardy of their wellbeing. Today, any attempt to pathologise weight is beyond the pale.

Novelist and activist Sarai Walker defines the movement in two statements, one to be embraced and one to be emphatically rejected. The first is “fat is beautiful”: fat bodies should be loved, appreciated, celebrated, just like all bodies. The unsayable second one is “fat is unhealthy”: fat people simply don’t need to hear this, says Walker. “The fat body is always on public display, open to critique and comment. Therefore, a fat body is routinely subjected to lectures, judgments, and insults — from family, friends, or complete strangers.”

Whatever you think you need to say about fatness, fat people have already heard it. In many cases, they’ve heard it repeatedly from medical professionals. Stories abound of clinicians ignoring serious symptoms and dispatching fat patients with some condescending advice to lose weight, and the bias seems particularly acute when it comes to women. In a world that treats fat women with routine contempt, body positivity is an appealing proposition, and has only grown more so since the Holliday Cosmo cover.

Some activists go further than saying health shouldn’t be talked about. They even deny that fat is a health issue at all, and so fall in line with a general progressive trend to treat politically inconvenient truths as grotesque lies. Before she appeared on their cover, Cosmo ran a story with the tagline, “Don’t question Tess Holliday’s health.” For this year’s January issue, the magazine ran a series of covers featuring various women, some of them fat, under the slogan “This is healthy!” In an article at Scientific American titled “Fat is Not the Problem — Fat Stigma Is,” authors Linda Bacon and Amy Severson concede that many diseases are more common in heavier people. “However, that doesn’t mean that weight itself causes disease,” they protest. “Blaming fatness for heart disease is similar to blaming yellow teeth for lung cancer, rather than considering that smoking might play a role in both.”

This is sophistry. When it comes to certain conditions, it’s undeniable that size makes a difference. Type 2 diabetes, for example, is associated with the amount of internal fat around the pancreas: even sufferers who fall within what’s considered a healthy body mass index can reverse their diabetes by losing weight. Yes, it’s possible to be fat and healthy, but the more you weigh, the worse your odds are. Pretending facts aren’t facts harms the very people it’s supposed to help.

But in modern progressivism, feeling good can mean more than doing good. Material improvement languishes a long way after psychological reassurance in the list of political priorities. The woman who emailed me in distress and outrage could not allow that I have my own complicated relationship with my body: by failing to always “feel beautiful,” I’d failed her. She belongs to a cohort that holds no distinction between the personal and political. What I’d written as analysis read to her as an attack.

Body positivity sells itself as a feminist response to the overbearing demands that beauty standards make on women — a rebellion against the male gaze. But it can become just another set of demands to be carried. This atmosphere of judgement is even more acute for those at the heart of the body positivity movement. What’s pitched as a sisterhood of self-love can be as spiteful as any other community based on looks: when body positivity advocates lose weight (often for health reasons), they may be shunned and rejected by the people who once celebrated them. After the singer Adele went from plus-size to slim, Buzzfeed called it “Bad news for anyone who feels comforted by the sight of a celebrity larger than a size 8”.

Is there an ethical difference, really, between pressuring women to get thin and pressuring women to stay fat? In both, the female body is treated as a public object and not a person. So, I’m sceptical about the more expansive claims of body positivity, such as those made by Sofie Hagen, author of Happy Fat: Taking Up Space in a World That Wants to Shrink You. For Hagen, fatness is a challenge to both patriarchy and capitalism, which creams off profits from diet culture. But fat sells too. There’s money in insecurity at any size. That’s why clothing brands like Snag match their plus-size tights range with self-love branding. It’s why Cosmopolitan puts fat models on the cover. It’s why Victoria’s Secret has hired Paloma Elsesser as an ambassador. And it’s why Hagen’s book found a publisher.

After all, “you are beautiful” is still the key tenet — and a movement that makes beauty into a guiding principle was never going to be that hard for patriarchy to reconcile with. When Sports Illustrated chose rapper Megan Thee Stallion as one of its swimsuit issue stars, she celebrated in the language of body positivity. “Shooting the cover made me feel really empowered and happy,” she told CNN. “It made me feel good to know that women who have bodies like me can be celebrated. Not just the standard types that we have seen before.” True, she is not “the standard type” if that means skinny (the technical term for her I believe is “thicc”), but she absolutely is hot, and a hot woman in Sports Illustrated is hardly a radical proposition.

Tess Holliday, too, is unmistakably gorgeous — on social media, you’ll find pictures of her tagged #effyourbeautystandards, where she wears flirty lingerie and perfect makeup. Who, exactly, is she defying here? Because men do not seem to mind, and are happy to applaud the leagues of body positivity influencers, like Jonathan Ross’s daughter Honey, who show their self-love by showing their skin. Looking at tits while being praised as a good male ally? Bring it on.

Body positivity — the kind practised by cover girls and Instagrammers — isn’t anti-feminist, exactly. At least, it’s no worse than the kind of objectification that’s always gone on in the media. But it’s what I think of as feminism neutral: after the sloganeering, women as a class are no nearer to liberation than they were before. We are all still pitted against each other in the great hotness contest, measured by others and ourselves against the fuckability standard. Body positivity’s achievement is to expand the definition of attractiveness, not to remove attractiveness as the marker of value. Take away the hopeful obfuscation about health, take away the verbiage of resistance, and what’s left? Women like my emailer, desperate to be the one who counts as beautiful.