Body positivity: Championing lasting change or passing fad?

Support flaws, not filters, say plus-size influencers

Culture

November 13, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Body positivity: Championing lasting change or passing fad?

Instagram body-positive influencers and models have inspired their followers to embrace their "flaws" and love themselves(Left: Neelakshi Singh; Right: Aashna Bhagwani)

Fashion, style and celebrity worship have come a long way over the last few decades. The days of young girls aspiring to be stick-thin, 2000s versions of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie seem to be waning, leaving space for a more inclusive and accepting “body positivity” movement, encouraged by social media influencers who are championing the cause for change.

The advent of the social media generation has resulted in an almost blind dependence on filters. Whereas earlier, magazine editors would massively photoshop women’s bodies to look perfect, now every regular person can just swipe through endless options for a slimmer waist, a smaller nose and fuller lips. Instagram in particular has become a space for users to show off perfectly curated images, but on the other end of the spectrum, it has also fostered communities of influencers who specifically post raw, unfiltered images of belly rolls, stretch marks and acne to show audiences a way to celebrate their own body, unapologetically.

The body positivity movement was revived a few years ago when in 2016, Ashley Graham became the first ever size 16 model to be featured on the cover of the swimsuit special issue of Sports Illustrated, a magazine known for displaying only perfect abs. The movement has spread to India as well, where social media stars have begun using the platform to create a discourse about the importance of self-love and celebrating one’s “flaws.”

Flaunting flaws

Neelakshi Singh, a full-time professor and part-time body positive content creator and model, is one such inspiring Internet personality. Going by the handle @plumptopretty, and with more than 22,000 followers, Singh began her social media journey in 2012, without any intention of monetising her brand or realising how big her page would become. Having struggled with weight issues in her adolescence, bullying had led to her becoming bulimic for a few years, a fight she was able to overcome eventually with professional help.

“I think [judgement by others] is something that everybody faces, there will always be some issue with your existence, something that will be picked on and you can never be perfect. You’ll always be too short or thin, too fat, too hairy, so obviously I was not spared that. Even my parents, though they didn’t exactly bully me, but at the same time they didn’t understand exactly where I was coming from and what was happening with me. I don’t think eating disorders are something that is spoken about very openly in our country and even if they are, they are seen as something people have hide behind or not treated the same as any other physical ailment,” Singh tells Media India Group.

Neha Parulkar, another body positive influencer and plus size model, has spoken out about the importance of how society views someone who is overweight. In a picture captioned “My weight is the least interesting thing about me. When did weight become our identity?” she questions the need to be imprisoned by societal expectations and toxicity of “diet culture”. Aashna Bhagwani, who boasts more than 200,000 followers, was named Cosmopolitan’s Body Positivity Influencer of the year in 2021, and one of her most memorable posts is a reel pointing out the “fatphobia” and discrimination experienced in everyday moments, for example finding a thin person eating a burger “cute,” while a fat person eating a burger is seen as “promoting obesity.”

In fact, the idea that body positivity is simply an excuse to promote obesity is hardly an uncommon misconception about plus size people, and online hate is often disguised under supposed concerns about health. Singh says many automatically assume that being fat equates to just bingeing on junk food and never working out, without taking into consideration health issues like Polycystic Ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and thyroid.

“If you are putting yourself out there, there is always going be some sort of backlash, and recently with the growth of reels and discovery rate being much higher, people who don’t even follow your content are able to just say the nastiest bit,” explains Singh, adding “The definition of body positivity has been restricted to just [being fat] and not been associated with fitness, so that’s a conversation that needs to happen. Honestly, no one is propagating the idea of ‘I want to eat anything I want and call myself body positive,’ that’s just the perception.”

Body positivity online, however, is not simply restricted to weight any longer. Harnaam Kaur, an influencer with over 163,000 followers, also holds the Guinness World Record for being the youngest woman to grow a full beard. Diagnosed with PCOS at 12, which leads to extra testosterone production and thus facial hair in some girls, Kaur overcame years of bullying and even self-harm suicidal thoughts, at times refusing to leave the house. Now, she inspires thousands of young girls dealing with similar insecurities through her unapologetic “ownership of her appearance” of her taboo appearance. In 2014, Kaur also became the first woman with a beard to walk the ramp in London Fashion Week and has named her beard “Sundri” (beauty).

Harnaam Kaur (left) and Alok (right) have spoken out about the importance of self-love and acceptance

Indian-American writer Alok (@alokvmenon), who has almost a million followers on Instagram and has they/them pronouns and is a champion for gender non-conformity, has also spoken out about the societal adversity to excess body hair, captioning a picture showing off their chest hair in a dress and writing, “Imagine thinking that body hair invalidated femininity? Can’t relate! So grateful for this bountiful garden, this human calligraphy, this luxurious accessory that goes with every look! I spent years trying to disappear myself to make other people more comfortable. Now I say: “thank goddess I am hairy!”

Social media farce or true change?

Despite several body positive influencers, brands and models championing the need for inclusion, however, many plus-size people and those in the fashion industry believe not much has changed in the real world.

“I do see a lot of people coming onto this and treating it like some kind of trend, which is honestly a little disheartening. Four years ago, when it became more mainstream, I saw that I was getting more jobs as a model in magazines and part of more editorials, but I don’t see the real change when I walk into a store and am unable to get my size. Where is all of that talk going, where is it transpiring?” says Singh.

The most recent controversy was in August, when designer Tarun Tahiliani’s store made headlines when a customer, Dr Tanaya Narendra, popularly known as Dr Cuterus on Instagram, where she has 450,000 followers, spoke out against feeling “unwelcome, body shamed, and unfairly treated” while trying to find plus-size bridal wear for her wedding. The staff and designer, Dr Tanaya said, reiterated how much pressure there was on women to lose weight before a wedding.

“There are some brands that are trying to be inclusive with their plus size range and all-inclusive sizes from petite to plus. However, there is still a long way to go. For instance, when you walk into a majority of the High Street stores, its hard to find sizes bigger than 16. With some brands they’ll have sizes online but not in store. In India, it’s an even bigger problem as some designers are known to charge a fat tax. An additional cost is charged if you are bigger than the brand’s generic size chart, which is just above a Large or Extra Large. Customising for bigger sizes does not make you inclusive if you then exclude them by imposing an additional cost. There are many attempts made by brands to be inclusive that are mediocre at best. They want to be rewarded for doing the bare minimum. But there’s still a huge gap in terms of accessibility,” Ananya Jain, a fashion student at the University of Arts London, tells Media India Group.

“I think the way forward needs to be a collective process, right from how women are portrayed in media and how that is consumed by the market. That is where the real change will come from. There is obviously a huge host of designers and creators who call themselves the change-makers, but nothing is going to change unless they really make the effort and push the envelope a little bit and make it more than a campaign,” says Singh.

Regardless of such drawbacks, Singh says she sees her efforts bear fruit when she receives positive feedback, not only from her own followers who have insecurities about their weight or looks, but also from their loved ones. The ability to reach larger audience has helped connect people from all parts of the country and the world, in realising they are not dealing with certain issues alone. Thus, even if many brands are simply promoting the body positivity movement as a trend, awareness is undoubtedly increasing.

“A lot of women, but also many men who have been very supportive of their partners have reached out to me, saying they have been able to understand their girlfriend or wife so much better. That is truly amazing because you could have all the self-confidence in the world but to have a partner or parents who understand, makes a real difference. Having people reach out, talk to you, it really means a lot, especially on days when you’re not feeling a hundred percent yourself. So, this is the real change I have seen, and it is not something we just do for hearsay,” she says.

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