Usually, I start my essays with an interesting, controversial, or just fitting quote. Here I want to start with an experience that might or might not sound familiar to some of you: As a mixed child, part of my family is on the other side of the globe in China and we rarely get to see them. We try to visit once every one or two years and what I remember most vividly from these vacations - since I’ve been a little child - is the “welcome” I received. “How fat you’ve gotten again!”, was the usual welcome; not “we’ve missed you!”, not “how was the flight?”, not “how is school going?”, not “wow, you’ve grown a lot taller!” - the first thing would always be “how fat you’ve gotten again!”
Now, to be honest, I’ve never in my life been the skinniest anywhere, I don’t think I ever wanted to be that either, but I usually considered myself to be bigger than normal - because I was, compared to my classmates, compared to the people I see on the TV or in magazines; and that was directly perpetuated by my family. Admittedly, I usually had gotten fatter every time I visited (although I think some of the blame can be put on puberty...), but it wasn’t great to be called out for the thing I was - and still am - most insecure about.
In 10th grade, I did a year abroad and I must’ve gained about 15kg (yes, way too much, I’m aware), what followed was a lot of calling me out on my eating habits, on my lack of sports practices, and usually on my lack of doing anything at all. I lost 10kg in the last two years of high school just to gain back 5kg in my gap year and the remaining 10kg to get back to my year abroad-level I gained during my 1st-year undergrad. In the time span of five years, I had gained, lost and gained again 15kg and now - 2nd-year undergrad - I’ve had it. I am done with
my family constantly telling me to not eat this or that. I am done with my family constantly yelling me to do more sports. I am done with constantly going on random diets that do not work. Or so I thought.
Walking past the mirror, I see what I look like now; scrolling through my camera roll, I see what I used to look like - and I miss it. And I not only miss the body I had, but I also miss the confidence I had because of it. As a feminist, I’ve been involved in discussions on body positivity, I’ve followed mainstream media on what it means to be positive about one’s body and why one should be, but I’ve also lived a daily life in a system that does still have a beauty standard, which I do not fit. It doesn’t make it easier that I do not fit into either the Asian side nor the European side of my family. While my big eyes were a constant magnet for Chinese aunties, my muscular body was a no-go. In Germany, my mixed ethnicity gave me “exotic” plus points, but I was too chubby compared to the skinny, blonde girls that make up 50% of the German population. From this developed a personal conflict - that likely contributed massively to my weight pendulum in the past four years - about the meaning of body positivity; whether one should accept their body as it is or whether one should work for the body they want (and if the latter, how do we know what the body is that we want?).
Exposing yourself to (social) media is a dangerous and ambiguous game. What pops up on my Instagram and Facebook feed are on one hand the stars, models, and athletes that seemingly have an unattainable beauty, spearheaded by a body I may never have. To my own frustration, more often than not people from my personal life also have great bodies, posting about their latest vacation to the beach. I used to look forward to beach vacations, but now I don’t, because I know I won’t be able to post pictures like the ones that skinny people can. Pictures of me in a bikini don’t look sexy, fresh, intuitive; they bring to the fore my deepest insecurities: my big arms, the stretch marks on my thighs, my belly fat, my wide shoulders. Then, on the other hand, your feed shows you the activists, social justice warriors and any
other empowering figures that convinced you to follow them and they tell you: Love yourself the way you are.
Both of these two extremes have distorted the way we define body positivity. Body positivity stemmed from the fat acceptance movement, but if you search #bodypositivity now on Instagram, what you find are mostly white people showing off their gym routines and healthy diets; distorting, assimilating and appropriating the term simply in order to gain more followers. The part of the body positivity movement that initially resonated with me - “it’s okay to be fat” - has lost momentum. And it also no longer resonates with me.
So how can we define body positivity nowadays? I think this is a personal definition for each of us and yours is welcome to be different from mine, but what I would like to propose is the following: Body Positivity is a theoretical concept that encourages people of any gender, race, size, etc. to feel empowered by their own body. How we choose to practically execute this empowerment is left for ourselves to decide. The predominant ways of doing so are, in my opinion: a) self-acceptance, leading to self-love, or b) self-criticism, followed by
I have spent switching between self-acceptance and self-criticism like I switched between my 15kg on or off for the past four years. Complimentary to discovering feminism for me was the belief that not only no matter what sex, but also no matter what size I am, I should have the same opportunities to reach the goals I have set for myself. People in my life have not always been very supportive of at least the latter presumption, stating that for a successful career you must look a certain way, suggesting that my looks were not fitting for leadership
roles. And by looks, they did not mean ethnicity, but the size. With this kind of perpetuation of beauty standards (and the glass ceiling), I no longer believed that I should be accepting my body the way it is. I still do not believe I should simply accept my body the way it is, but not because I think changing my body will provide me with better opportunities (though that might be true, this is a different conversation), but because I believe there always exists a better version of me and that I can always work on myself to become it. Of course, I realize that not everybody - may they feel too fat or too thin - has the privilege to decide that they no longer accept themselves the way they are and change. For now, I’ve only been able to do the former, not the latter - and it’s been a frustrating ride. The phase where you don’t accept your body, but also have not achieved memorable milestones toward change is one that I have been stuck in. It’s the dominant state I have found myself in the past four years.
On “good” days, I pivot away from this perspective and show myself some love, some acceptance. I see the flaws I have, but I accept them as an inherent part of myself. My hands for example: they are extremely “manly”, bigger than most guys’ hands. But I love them, they have been extremely useful at water polo, and honestly also because I make men uncomfortable when they realize I have bigger hands than them.
I also try to focus on the strengths I have: sometimes I have two abs, my smile can be cute and my boobs. It took me 30 minutes to come up with these qualities - and they are exactly what society told me is good about me. This militant determination to self-love and self-accept is not based on solid ground and personally, I believe it can cause long-term mental harm, because you cannot force yourself to love something - or someone - that you don’t. Pedantically trying to force self-love unto yourself is a mentally straining and harming exercise. I believe a healthy mixture of the self-love and self-criticism is one that can empower feasible change without destroying one’s identity. Having a goal, an ambition, a destination creates a red thread in your life. The beginning is you right now and the end is you in x years. If you decide to force yourself to self-love, there is no red thread to follow, there is no destination. There is a vacuum that you try to fill with false emotions and hope. In contrast, setting an ambitious but realistic goal, with smaller goals to achieve on the way, gives your life a direction and a purpose. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think everyone should change their body - I am just arguing that for me personally, and perhaps for you, changing your body might be much easier than forcing yourself to love something that you don’t. Perhaps you would say now, that I am a bad feminist, that I am subjecting myself to the standards thrust upon me by the patriarchy, but accepting and loving your body the way it is is actually a task that I don’t think anyone I know has mastered.
In a way, the way body positivity is spread on social media and in society generally today has distorted the history of the term and enhanced the likelihood of false hopes put on it simply because of a perplexing relationship with oneself. Body positivity as we experience it nowadays has to be questioned because otherwise, it spreads negativity; Body positivity as we experience it nowadays has to become more inclusive in its definition and more individual in its execution. Body positivity started as a movement to spread hope and what I know is: All I want is the smile I used to have on pictures at the beach. This smile doesn’t come when it’s forced, it comes because I feel comfortable with who I am. This smile is a direct result of self-love, self-acceptance and self-confidence. But just like I won’t be able to force this smile, I won't be able to force self-love and that is why I follow my own red thread. And hopefully, at some point in time, I reach the end of this red thread to finally go to the beach and become one of those people posting about their beach vacation. With my perhaps more than two abs, my cute smile, my boobs, but also with my big hands, my stretch marks, and my wide shoulders; with a body that I feel comfortable in.