Over the past few years, digital activism has propelled the body positivity movement forward. This in turn translated into platforms like Diet Prada compelling brands to assume accountability for accusations on issues such as lack of diversity and size inclusivity. Consequently, it becomes important to question whether this newfound perspective by the fashion industry is a genuine act of affirmation or yet another way for fashion labels to capitalise on marginalised bodies.
Body positivity is not a trend, it is not just a fad and it is certainly a lot more than a simple hashtag.
The intention behind the body positivity movement, in its initial days – the post-Victorian era – primarily sought to empower women with larger figures. And like most feminist movements, it pursued to take on a more holistic meaning that felt more inclusive for people of all body types. The term since then has been monopolised and appropriated by the social media elite who redefined it for their own benefit. One’s personal journey with their body is now being exploited as a marketing ploy by major brands and influencers. Negative connotations surrounding the term have pushed some netizens to move away from it along with terms like ‘plus-size’.
A brand has no obligation to cater to everyone. A luxury brand by nature targets the upper class because presumably they are the only ones who can afford it. On the other hand, when all brands choose to consciously exclude people of a larger size, it can be thought of as an act of discrimination or worse dehumanisation. The othering of “plus-size” people has led fashion houses to ignore a billion dollar market.
Conversely, in the wake of this untapped market, most brands still fail to understand that body neutrality is about more than just size. Many were quick to applaud Versace for their historic inclusion of ‘plus-size models’ in their show but was this yet another example of performative inclusivity? The fashion industry has a serious fatphobia problem and its inherent exclusivity is more discernible than ever. People who do not meet idealised body types are still waiting for the invitation to be a part of that space. Brands eliminate consumer autonomy the moment they decide to produce a limited range of sizes, by doing so they are dictating which bodies are deemed acceptable.
The fall of Victoria Secret serves as a prime example of how women grew tired of supporting a brand that did not represent all women. By catering to the size zero, Caucasian and “exotic” female archetype, they count out a large population of female buyers. When Victoria Secret was criticised for its lack of diversity, it reverted to tokenism. This misrepresentation is what catalysed the rise of Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, which is now owned by the fashion giant LVMH. The general dissatisfaction of VS also encouraged the birth of more labels that accommodated all shapes and sizes.
Brands like Savage X Fenty have reshaped the fashion industry by showing the world that clothes can and should be made for all figures. By creating an inclusive show, disregarding age, gender, or race the brand redefined what real beauty looked like and forced brands to own up to their own prejudices. This is not just limited to lingerie or loungewear, sports apparels have also caught on. As much as the world loves to hate Kim Kardashian, even her brand Skims has been applauded. The rest of the fashion industry has to catch up, so much so that even the renowned Phoebe Philo who sat as creative director for Céline, once celebrated for creating an aesthetic for the everyday working woman, is not exempt from catering to the fashion industry’s European beauty standards. For a successful reintroduction into the fashion world, she has to consider building a more inclusive environment.
The media plays an important role in changing this narrative. Today, we have seen stars like Lizzo, undoubtedly accepted with all her curves, walking for Fenty, posing for Vogue and being dressed by some of the most renowned designers in the world. “Large women are taught that they were born in ‘wrong body’,” she confides to activist Jameela Jamil in a sit down interview. In her conversation with Jamil, she highlights the dangers of diet culture and being more sensitive towards eating disorders. Where on the one side lies stars like Lizzo on the flip side we have examples such as the Kardashians who have played a critical role in propagating unrealistic images of beauty. The family continues to do more damage by promoting diet culture and revenge bodies.
The rise in body-positive visibility has instigated an uproar amongst anti-body positive trolls. Many have made claims that activists are enabling obesity and promoting unhealthy eating habits. Discussions between influencers have revealed the recurring myopic perspective of what the movement truly represents and the work being done by its frontliners. This just reinforces the need for ownership. Before brands decide to sell clothing for disenfranchised bodies, they must first reflect on their oppressive history towards them.
As the fashion industry continues to benefit from hot trends, it should be emphasised that body positivity is not seasonal. Brands should continue to embrace more body types, but it should be done in a way that caters to consumers and creates an environment where brands can be held accountable for perpetuating exclusionary standards of beauty.
Nicolas Nhalungo is a student pursuing a B.Tech degree. He has traversed all the way from Mozambique in pursuit of better opportunities. He is an aspiring writer and researcher whose interests include mental health, intersectional feminism, pop culture, travel, fashion and sustainability. As someone who grew up privileged, he pushes himself to constantly learn and unlearn by engaging with people of all walks of life.
Featured image credit: Unsplash; Editing: LiveWire/Tanya Jha