Photo by Jana Sabeth on Unsplash

How white fitness influencers on social media hijack the Body Positivity movement

The Body Positivity (or BOPO) movement is a social movement that was created by Black women to celebrate and center marginalized bodies not typically accepted by conventional beauty standards. It was intended to be an accepting and welcoming space for fat, disabled and marginalized bodies first and foremost, and as a way to provide representation for a group that is typically erased from society through more collective visibility. The movement also promotes liberation from the tight constraints of social expectations on how bodies should look to appear both desirable and worthy. Its original inception dates back to the sixties, but in modern days the movement relies heavily on social media platforms and online exposure to maintain its community.

Yet the original message became diluted and misunderstood as fit white women on social media warped the concept of body positivity to suit their own interpretations of the movement. A quick search of various versions of the BOPO hashtags on Instagram will offer hundreds of similar looking posts of white women with socially acceptable bodies posing in mirrors, contorting their bodies to force “flaws” with a usually rather cringeworthy caption to follow on how important it is to love oneself regardless of these outward “flaws.” They might show one photo posed in flattering light and looking perfect with a flat stomach and curvy hips, next to another where they are hunched over to produce the look of stomach rolls, or show their legs in an unflattering light to expose cellulite. They also typically write something along the lines of, “wasn’t going to share this but I’m feeling brave. I, too, have cellulite and rolls and we should all love ourselves despite these things!” This type of sentiment coupled with an image highlighting their forced flaws is all in an effort to appear both relatable and likable, and gain praise from their followers for being “real.”

Photo via @madalingiorgetta on social media from July 6th, 2019. This photo demonstrates how this typical kind of post widely shared by fit white women looks, but her caption explains that Body Positivity was not intended for women who look like her, and calls out the damaging effects this can have on the Body Positivity movement.

The problem is, there is nothing “brave” about a white woman in a socially acceptable body posing in ways that exaggerate her “flaws.” These kinds of posts are actually extremely beneficial to their profiles because they garner sympathy, relatability, and likely result in a boost of followers, which helps them reach more faces to promote their products to and thus grow their incomes. The women sharing these kinds of posts are not opening themselves up to any real criticism by sharing these images and messages (because their bodies and their whiteness are already socially acceptable to begin with), merely praise for appearing to be relatable to their audiences — and all while never having to experience life in a body that is actually marginalized or oppressed.

The even more important issue with these kinds of posts flooding social media is that they’re distorting the original message and its intended audience, hindering the movement’s ability to reach those who need the message most. The Body Positivity movement which was intended specifically for marginalized bodies of color becomes centered around whiteness when white women perpetuate an incorrect understanding of the intentions behind the movement. The BOPO movement is not a place for everyone in all bodies to find self love — it is specifically for racially oppressed, fat and marginalized bodies to find a home of acceptance, positivity, liberation and representation. Visibility is an incredibly powerful tool for delivering pertinent information and messages to a large population of people, and the message becomes dangerously diluted by an incredibly powerful social media platform when white women don’t do their research and respect the intentions of the phrase Body Positivity and the movement behind it.

Everyone in all bodies is most certainly encouraged to love themselves and practice unconditional body acceptance. These are important concepts for us all to adopt and actively practice as much as possible. Just the same, everyone’s own personal insecurities with their bodies, regardless of their size, are valid and important. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spreading the idea of self love and body acceptance, nor should there be any dismissal around insecurities any woman has of herself and her body. However, it is crucial to understand the distinction between the universal concept of self love and the Body Positivity movement. Those who share these kinds of posts under the guise of Body Positivity are hijacking a movement for their own personal social media gains and are completely missing the message, all while making it difficult for others who need it most to reach the right community.

Perhaps there is no ill intention with perpetuating the Body Positivity concept through these types of posts. More than likely it shows a fundamental lack of research before adopting an ideology. Body Positivity as a name is fairly ambiguous, so if somebody does not take the time to do a simple search, it can quickly lose its meaning to the unassuming eye. Yet it also demonstrates that any narrative can become centered around whiteness if it’s not properly understood or respected, and this in itself is highly problematic when we already live a racially divided world where people of color are oppressed through every facet of society — especially in America — and are actively erased from the center of every social norm. Thanks to white supremacy, white folks are very accustomed to everything being available to them and for them, so much so that it is not common practice to take the time to research concepts before adopting them, let alone respecting boundaries created by others. When people of color create a space for themselves to empower and liberate their communities, this must be respected by those who are not folks of color. There can be no acceptance of centering whiteness in spaces not intended for white folks when the entire constructs of society already actively focus their narratives on whiteness daily.

There is room for white influencers to speak about the Body Positivity movement in a constructive, meaningful way that does not take attention away from its originally intended audience. Their platforms are incredibly useful tools for reaching a wide range of people and with that comes an inherent moral responsibility to share important information, not just self-serving posts. Instead of using the concept to promote themselves and garner praise for their already socially desired bodies, they can speak on the importance of the Body Positivity movement to their audiences, who likely encompass a diverse array of races and body types, and share relevant facts, resources and information to their viewers. Instead of focusing their entire feeds on their own self advancement, they can use an occasional post to recognize and honor the power that social media has in sharing collective thought. Posting information with accuracy and separating personal thoughts from collective movements is key, and there is ample space for both to thrive in the world of social media.

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