During recent years, the body positivity movement has made tremendous strides in raising awareness and acceptance of the range of bodies that would otherwise fall outside accepted beauty standards.
At an individual level, the movement has had a positive impact, inspiring women to accept themselves even if they do not fit the mainstream.
But the corporatization of body positivity and the marketing of so-called inclusive brands and products for profit has rendered the movement lifeless and even consumerist. Brands including stigmatized bodies in their marketing doesn’t justify the exploitation and objectification of bodies., typically women’s bodies, and the skewed societal interpretation of perfection.
Forbes estimated in May 2017 that beauty, including makeup, fake eyelashes and other cosmetics, is a $445 billion dollar industry. The primary consumers are women, so most beauty product marketing is targeted at female-identifying people. For the industry to continue to make money, the social pressures on women to alter their appearance, to seek out smoother skin or longer eyelashes must remain in place.
It is also contingent on their responsiveness to cultural attitudes surrounding beauty and appearance. The rise of body positivity and body acceptance has forced these companies to diversify their advertising so that it includes women who are overweight, non-white and disabled.
Many mainstream feminist publications have praised these companies as progressive for using models who are not skinny or white. Bust, a women’s lifestyle magazine, commended Dove, Aerie and other brands for “embracing what real bodies look like” in their advertising.
When the same for-profit industry that perpetuates beauty standards acts as a beacon of forward-thinking ideology, the message is largely superficial. Amanda Czerniawski, a sociology professor at Temple University, said even plus-sized “realistic” models are often still exploited.
“They’re always naked,” Czerniawski said. “[This] reaffirms the concentration on the surface. It reduces the woman to just their body.”
Regardless of the models they hire, regardless of the “inspirational” advertising, the beauty industry is still wholly reliant on negative self image and physical insecurity that pressure people — usually women — to buy their products in hopes of becoming more desirable.
Actress Jameela Jamil’s “I Weigh” campaign is a good example of the positive steps taken within the movement, Czerniawski said. It makes a point of ignoring physical attributes all together. It instead focuses on encouraging women to “look beyond the flesh on our bones,” according to its Instagram.
The expression of sexuality can be positive in certain contexts. But keeping the focus on physical attributes does little to fix the larger problem; even if models are more diverse, they are still subjected to the physical standards that the beauty industry depends on for profit.
“Even if we have more diversity within the system, that diversity is still going to function as a form of domination,” said, Jason Del Gandio, a communication and social influence professor. “Although we have a wider range of body types, it’s still about obsessing over and policing our bodies.”
And despite the small improvements resulting from the body positivity movement, it is clear that this social enforcement is still in place. In 2017, Forbes reported that Estee Lauder CEO Fabrizio Freda said in 2010 women were spending 13 percent more money on foundation, 18 percent more on concealer. About 35 percent of women use more than five makeup products each day.
While makeup is a form of self-expression, products like foundation and concealer are not designed to promote individuality. They are designed to hide blemishes, marks and other features deemed unacceptable by societal standards.
Del Gandio said body positive companies are over-praised for their role in the movement.
“[They’re] still compelling us as a society to assess our bodies, which contributes to body image issues,” Del Gandio said.
Jamil’s approach — and others like it — show that the body positivity movement still has the potential to make progress, and hopefully there will be similar sentiments from the movement in the future.