I’ve been thinking about porn lately. Well, one picture in particular. A naked African woman in high heels stares out a large window towards a manicured English garden, seemingly oblivious to the camera’s gaze and ours. Her stomach is not flat, her thighs are dimpled, her arms are not toned. I can’t erase her self-assurance from my mind. I fantasise about having a photo of myself taken like that, only for the experience of being that comfortable with my dimpled bottom and pouch-like stomach.
I keep comparing my reaction to this image with the reaction I have to orchestrated “body positive” campaigns like the one currently being run by Mamamia. I know I should be supportive of the idea in principle (“ladies, love your flaws!”), but I find it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Mamamia, in a move sponsored by a gym, has set its readers the task of accepting a number of “body positive” challenges – or bopo challenge as I call it – kicking off with the directive to take a selfie without make-up and upload it to social media.
Here’s just a few of the make-up free photos posted for the #mmbodypositive challenge: http://t.co/gKxJeIz8FI pic.twitter.com/QU3eAaOsQf
I agree with the concept politically. Mamamia and its cohorts are encouraging women to reject the photoshopped ideal of perfection that has fed anxiety about our bodies – an unattainable image dictated by fashion hags who try to sell us the means to that same perfection.
Cultural body dysmorphia is wrong. It’s pervasive. It’s a problem with real consequences for many women around self-esteem and self-worth – an anxiety which has been shown to emerge among girls as young as five. Society has in essence programmed us to hate our bodies. Even models hate their bodies.
But here’s the thing: these “love your body” campaigns are not doing what they set out to do; they only reinforce women’s attempts to gain self worth through acceptance of their physical appearance. Or as writer Helen Razer pointed out on Twitter, “you cannot SUPPORT and ENDORSE a structure (assessing women in terms of appearance) and CHANGE it simultaneously.”
Indeed, it’s not too strong to suggest that reinforcing body positive messages is in fact just about adding different shapes and forms to those already commodified (Razer made a similar point). What lesson is this sending to anyone other than what we already know – that a woman’s value is defined by her appearance, a value we derive at from an accepted set of norms? Is taking a photo without make-up and posting it on Twitter really an act of bravery for women, as many have suggested it is? Try telling that to Malala Yousafzai.
Selfies are essentially about public self-affirmation, sans make-up or not. Sure, it can be a personal stand against one’s own daily make-up ritual. What else it is I’m not sure – perhaps liberating at an individual level for some, but it’s not changing any norms. It’s just shifting them. We’re still obsessing about our bodies. Dimpled or buffed. Made-up or down.
These campaigns are so reductive about complex and ingrained behaviour they can be summarised as little more than: “Ladies, fear not your muffin tops, bopo is the new black.” As such, bopo is not the opposite of thinspo (variations of which include fat-love and fit-spo, all with their own set of body-issue issues).
Do we really have to love our fat? Be ok with it sure, but photographing it and making it part of our identity is still letting our fat (or lack of it) define us. For the moment, I’ll stick with the porn image mentioned above. To my mind at least, the woman pictured seems not to be seeking our approval. Nor are there delusions about what it is (soft porn!). This woman, naked in her heels, does a much finer job in cutting through bopo than my au naturel selfies, or yours, ever could.
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