Confronting my relationship with body positivity

I'm tired of being told I have to love every part of myself to be empowered

Aysha is critical of the direction of the body positivity movement. 

When I was in the third grade visiting family in Bangladesh, I wore a lot of short skirts and shorts to keep cool in a tropical climate. 

I remember watching TV one afternoon with the windows open. I was sprawled across the couch, sweat beading down my forehead, craving an iced cappuccino and wishing I was home. 

That’s when my cousin, who was at least 10 years older than me, walked into the room. Without so much as a ‘hello,’ she abruptly told me I shouldn’t be wearing skirts anymore because I was starting to grow hair on my legs.

I was eight. 

That was the first time I ever felt weird about my body, and it wouldn’t be the last. 

I’ll never know if I would have started shaving body hair if no one had ever made me feel like I had to, but I do know I could never disentangle the societal expectation to shave my legs from my choice to do so. 

Before leaving the room, my cousin also commented that my thighs were getting a little big and I should watch out for that, especially when I start to like a boy. 

Now I have a weird relationship with body positivity. 

While I know there are good intentions behind a movement that aims to make women feel more comfortable in their skin, I’ve never enjoyed how the movement has worked towards its goal. 

Take all of the products it’s inspired: makeup campaigns talking about harnessing your natural beauty or shapewear for plus-sized women, for instance. 

In a world where billions of dollars each year are dedicated to industries that prey on women hating themselves, it makes sense that these same industries are trying to create the illusion they can pivot toward women empowerment. After all, those industries would disappear if we all woke up one day and decided we didn’t care about conforming to beauty standards. 

For those with a stake in these industries, the best course of action is convincing women that using their products isn’t a way to appease beauty standards, but rather a conscious and valid choice that doubles as self-empowerment.

But why do we let them do this? 

I think all women have, to some extent, been exposed to unfair beauty standards in really odd forms. 

We’ve grown up thinking unshaved legs are something to be ashamed of, mostly so that Gillette could widen its market. We spend exorbitant amounts of time and money shaping our eyebrows, wearing makeup, getting our nails done, and making sure we never smell anything but rosy. And when we’re done dealing with body hair and ‘imperfect’ skin, those of us with vaginas might even feel we have to tighten them

I also think all of us women know these expectations are messed up and we’ve known it, at least a little bit, since the moment we first realized the world expects women to look a certain way. 

Yet, new-wave feminism—which is really only made for rich white women by rich white women—has convinced us so many of the things feminists have historically argued against are, actually, empowering. 

It’s convinced us that we’re not adhering to patriarchal expectations when we spend money on fashion and beauty, but rather that we’re making a choice to look how we want to.

That frame of mind is a lot more comforting than walking around all day knowing that we’re slaves to beauty standards created simply so men will find us attractive.

Now, we’re still spending the same amount we always did on beauty products, lining the pockets of male executives who don’t actually care about whether or not we love ourselves—we’re just not complaining about it anymore. 

Companies like Unilever and LVMH can sit tight having harnessed body positivity to their own marketing advantage. 

Profit-making entities are no longer transparently attempting to make women hate themselves to move more product. Rather than supressing the feminist movement, corporate giants have realized they can appropriate and weaponize it to appeal to women consumers. 

Maybelline, which has come under fire more than once for neglecting the needs of women of colour, can tell you it’s committed to breaking stereotypical barriers to beauty just to sell you lipstick.  

Dove, owned by a company that’s only rebranding its skin whitening creams in response to #BlackLivesMatter rather than discontinuing the products altogether, can tell you it cares about your self esteem to direct you to its e-commerce platform. 

Capitalism got to body positivity before feminism could really latch onto it, and now both causes are being commodified. What used to be a movement telling me I don’t need to appease any sort of standard of beauty has devolved. 

Mainstream feminism is now hell-bent on trying to convince me that shaving my legs and spending an hour on a full face of makeup is empowering—if I draw on my eyeliner sharp enough I can kill a man or if I wear a tight dress I can slay in the boardroom. 

Making us feel the need to attract men is how companies have long sold to women. Body positivity has turned into a movement that doesn’t make it so we don’t feel the need to be attractive to men—it just makes that market more accessible to more people than before. 

We’re not telling women they can exist without feeling the need to be f—kable, we’re telling them that each and every one of them could one day be f—kable. 

Body positivity now means telling me my stretch marks are sexy (like tiger stripes!). It means telling me people love my bushy eyebrows. It means telling me that, one day, a man will find me beautiful without makeup, and that this thought should be enough to make me feel comfortable in my own skin. 

Well, I’m tired of wanting to be pretty and being told I’m immature or weak if I don’t find every part of myself beautiful. 

I’m tired of being told that, to love myself, I have to love my stretch marks—which are really just annoying, at best—and that I have to somehow overcome a lifetime of shaming and pretend to love my body hair, too.

I shouldn’t need to be beautiful or f—kable to exist or be okay with my body existing. I shouldn’t need to be pretty and hairless to appeal to anyone, including myself. 

We need to stop telling women they must love their reflections to be secure. Companies need to stop telling women they hold the secret formula to make this false security a reality—especially not when they’ve created a world filled with expectations that make it virtually impossible. 

Body positivity shouldn’t be about screaming at women to love themselves and shaming those who admit how difficult this is. It should be about dismantling the systems that create unfair beauty standards in the first place.


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