Chin: Muse-en-scene: How to Have a Body

Body positivity is about surviving trauma, not just self-image.

by Clara Chin | 4/16/19 2:00am

The body is where things happen, and the body makes things happen. But in light of Sexual Awareness Month, I am thinking about how a body is also a burden. Your body is your heaviest baggage, bearing the scars of physical strain or perhaps even trauma — and in spite of that trauma, the body is daring to feel longing and lust. Everyone has a theory of their body whether or not this theorization is conscious. It comes from watching cinema, scrolling through social media feeds and simply existing. All of these activities happen in spite of and in relation to the emotional history of one’s body. Survivors of sexual assault often struggle with body image and the feeling of being objectified. But the sexualization of the female body, along with the reality that women are disproportionally affected by sexual assault, means that simply existing in a female or femme body is difficult even for those who have not faced sexual assault. So how does one live in a marginalized body with agency and without fear?

“Body positivity” is a buzzword that emerged with the good intention of answering this question, but now it often gets co-opted by those who possess conventionally accepted beauty. Originally a term meant for larger women and women of color to embrace their appearances, it has since become an overused description for women posing in bikinis on Instagram and other social media platforms. While wearing what you want is a liberating quality, expressions of body positivity must be critical and not simplistic in order to be effective. Body positivity should focus not only on finding one’s physical form beautiful no matter its shape but also on recognizing its capability to express and relieve emotion. 

Some body positive activists have effected small changes in the aesthetic lives of marginalized bodies. Ashleigh Nicole Tribble, an activist for larger-bodied women of color on Instagram, spoke out against Rhianna’s Savage X Fenty Valentine’s Day collection. She argued that the small to extra-large sizes had a more aesthetically appealing design than the full-coverage design of the collection’s 1X-3X sizes, and that larger women should also be able to bare more skin. Calling out fatphobia within the fashion industry has encouraged women to sit comfortably in their sexuality online, helping to remove the stigma from fat, stretch marks and scars. Magazines like Salty often feature non-normative bodies posing in traditional fashion shoot poses with bright lighting and fun pops of color. 

Body positivity calls for a more abstract way of thinking about the body. Abstractions of the body in cinema are good examples of a more critical take on body positivity. In Claire Denis’s most recent film, “High Life,” the body is centered in its abject form. The camera shows a woman’s horrified face as she lactates and realizes she is pregnant and, more abstractly, a woman’s head bursting as she approaches a black hole. These abstract images allow us to face the reality of trauma and fraught relationships with the body rather than gloss over the emotion of our bodies with brightly colored magazine pictures. 

In order to truly engage in body positivity, the term must not focus on literal aesthetics. Body positivity should not be reserved for the cover of fashion magazines. In the same way that body positivity has afforded women of color, transgendered people and other marginalized bodies a feeling of pride, body positivity can help people cope with more figurative feelings of “ugliness.” Body positivity should be more than an Instagram hashtag. It should be a way to critique the world around you and situate it within your own life.