Body positivity is everywhere, but is it for everyone?

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Body positivity is everywhere, but is it for everyone?

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Virgie Tovar: "When people say to me they want to lose weight, they often mean something else. They're afraid of being pushed out of society, which is a completely logical fear, and the problem is that the solution our culture has set is well, just comply, and you don't have to experience that. The real solution is get rid of bigotry and no one has to worry about it."

In 2017, self-love is decidedly en vogue.

Lena Dunham is fighting fat-shamers one audacious Instagram post at a time. More and more brands, including Sports Illustrated with its new body inclusive swim collection, are trumpeting diverse shapes. The Internet is full of #bodypositive stories gone viral.

Body positivity, which exploded in recent years with the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, is about radically re-imagining how American culture views bodies, moving from a society where differences are ranked to one where they’re celebrated.

"Body positivity means I am free," said Connie Sobczak, who co-founded the non-profit The Body Positive in 1996, long before #BoPo, short for body positive, bloomed on the Internet. Her organization is dedicated to providing resources and training to help people overcome negative body image and achieve self-acceptance. 

"I don't have to have corporate America telling me how I'm supposed to feel about myself," she said.

With all the attention, it seems now should be a golden moment for the movement. But many body positive activists worry that despite its recent ubiquity, the core message — acceptance of all bodies — is getting lost. They're concerned it's being co-opted by big brands and diluted by reductive mantras like “just love yourself."

Body positivity encompasses much more than the curvy, white, straight, feminine bodies that may occasionally tout cellulite or stretch marks in an advertisement. 

USA TODAY spoke with five people who advocate for body positivity to hear what they think the movement is getting right, what it could do better and how they are each working to create a world that values difference. 

Sonya Renee Taylor, poet, body positive activist, creator of #BadPictureMonday

Poet, humanitarian and social justice activist Sonya Renee Taylor will appear Friday at the Loft Theatre in “The Signature: A Poetic Medley Show.”

Sonya Renee Taylor, who began her career as a performance poet, considers herself an accidental activist. In 2010 she told a distraught friend, "Your body is not an apology." It inspired a poem and became a Facebook page which now boasts nearly 90,000 followers. It eventually burgeoned into a digital magazine and education company of the same name. 

Taylor said her work at The Body Is Not An Apology is about viewing body positivity through the most inclusive lens possible.

"If I just love myself that’s lovely, but that doesn’t transform the world, because it doesn’t extend outside of myself," Taylor said. "What does it really mean to transform the way that we see, view, and value all bodies? It includes race, it includes gender, it includes sexual orientation, it includes disabilities, it includes size, it includes age, it includes all the ways that our bodies show up."

Taylor said the body positive movement is largely fragmented — individuals and groups enter it and advocate for its goals in different ways — but the part of the movement that seems to garner the most mainstream attention focuses on a very specific demographic. Taylor said she finds that troublesome.

"As long as there is a movement that is only positive for some bodies, it’s not body positive ... By and large the body positive movement in this current point in history is white, cis, able-bodied women and it’s specifically more often than not centered around size," she said.

A piece of advice on being body positive: "The first step is recognizing that we have all been indoctrinated into a system of body shame that profits off of our self-hatred. When I start to ask myself, 'Whose agenda is my self-hatred?' I actually can make a distinction between what the world is telling me about myself and what I really believe."

Caleb Luna, writer, activist, dancer

A self-described "fat, brown, queer," Caleb Luna, who uses the pronouns "they" and "them," writes for Everyday Feminism and Taylor's organization, The Body Is Not An Apology, on issues of gender and fat liberation. Fat liberation is a movement that seeks to end oppression of fat people, which many activists would say led to the body positive movement.

Luna said body positivity ought to be everybody's concern.

An investment in a beauty standard, Luna said, doesn't benefit everyday people, it benefits capitalism, which enjoys billion dollar profits off the rituals people perform to attain that standard. According to a 2016 report from market research company Euromonitor International, the U.S. beauty market is expected to grow to $90 billion in 2020. 

"We’re all kind of suffering underneath these ideas that our bodies — no matter what they look like — are not good enough," Luna said. "It’s mind-blowing to me to think people who have very different bodies from me, very small bodies, bodies that I’m like 'oh my god you must have it made,' that they still have their own insecurities. They still are not happy."

The body positive movement, Luna says, is becoming more inclusive, but has a long way to go.

"I find it’s been co-opted by the mainstream to be like 'love your body as long as it’s underneath a size 12, and you don’t have any visible scars, you don’t have any acne and you wax all your body hair off,'" Luna said. "And if you want to do those things that’s totally fine, but lots of bodies aren’t those things and those are bodies that need attention."

A piece of advice on being body positive:  "I think that loving your body is really hard. And I’m kind of uncomfortable having that goal, because it feels so impossible ... For me what was really helpful was understanding that there’s a very direct link to me hating myself and people getting richer. I’m not down with that." 

Virgie Tovar, fat liberationist, body positive activist, creator of #LoseHateNotWeight

Enormous mason jars filled with cafe con coconut cream, tight dresses, canary nails ☀💅

A post shared by Virgie Tovar (@virgietovar) on

Virgie Tovar said she didn't always feel ashamed of her body. She learned it in kindergarten. It would be decades before she would unlearn that shame.

In 2011, Tovar attended a fat conference — which are organized to help combat stigma and discrimination around weight — where she saw fat people living in their bodies unabashedly. It altered her perspective on her own life, she said, and clarified for her that her weight wasn't the problem.

It was hate.

“I mean, every day that I walk out of my house I am deeply aware that it is possible someone is going to say something extraordinarily cruel to me out of nowhere," she said. "Like just crossing the street. Maybe I’m taking too long. Maybe I’m eating something in public, or maybe I’m just existing. ... And I think what people don't realize is that discrimination is not just those moments when someone hurls an epithet at you, it's all the moments when you're expecting that to happen.”

Tovar said she wishes the body positive movement were less obscure, with more clearly defined goals. 

"For a lot of people body positivity is where they might start, and my real hope is that they'll end up as fat liberationists no matter what size they are," she said.

A piece of advice on being body positive: "We live in a culture that tells us that the way we live life is normal and natural and inevitable and there's no other way that life can be. ... I think it's taking a moment to ask, is this working for me? Is this not working for me? What are the things in my life that are actually making me happy? I want to do more of those things. What are the things in my life that are actually making my life less qualitatively wonderful? I'm going to do less of those things."

Bruce Sturgell, founder of plus-size men's fashion site Chubstr

Bruce Sturgell wears a 44-46 waist — the CDC says the average male waist is 40 inches — and says he was lost in terms of finding stylish clothes that fit. He launched style-focused website Chubstr in 2010 to "selfishly" help himself, and men in his same situation. His site, which features interviews, guides and a curated shopping section, is a space for men in a movement largely dominated by women.

Sturgell sees Chubstr, which has an active online community, as an "on-ramp to body positivity and activism."

"Men in general are told not to talk about their feelings and definitely not to talk about their concerns with their bodies or how they feel about their bodies," he said.

Sturgell said he's increasingly encouraged by the greater visibility of bigger men in the body positive movement. A frequent topic of discussion on Chubstr is Zach Miko, who in 2016 British GQ dubbed the world's first plus-size male model. 

"It's a real step forward. ... Now we just need to see a lot more of it, with a lot of different types of people," Sturgell said.

Sturgell, who was a "chubby kid" and has always been a bigger guy, said realizing bigger people can be aspirational changed his life.

"I've got a 4-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, and I think the fact that they will get to grow up in a world where you can see that and see that that's OK ... it means so much," he said.

A piece of advice on being body positive: "The biggest thing that has worked for me is realizing that you're not alone."

Connie Sobczak, co-founder of The Body Positive

Connie Sobczak spent years suffering from an eating disorder, and lost her sister to one. Sobczak co-founded The Body Positive so people could "focus on changing the world, not their bodies," and wrote the book Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and Quiet that Critical Voice!) so people could help themselves practice self-love each day.

“My daughter was a year old when my sister died, and I looked at this little baby who was just starting to walk and was so in love with her body, lifting her shirt up, loving her belly ... and I said no way in hell will this little child suffer in that way," she said. "She will have problems in her life but she will not grow up thinking anything is wrong with her body." 

Sobczak said she's thrilled body positivity has gone mainstream, but worries some of its messages can feel prescriptive.

"I would highly recommend people be very aware of the double binding mixed messages like 'love yourself' and 'follow my way of doing it' and 'I did it this way and that'll work for you,'" she said. "[Body positivity is] all about the individual and their own story."

A piece of advice on being body positive: "For me it was making the commitment that I'm going to live. And if I'm going to live, how do I want to live my life? I have choice. ... My sister died at 36. I don't want to waste a moment of my life hating this amazing vehicle that I have to be here on the planet.”

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