Most people nowadays are familiar with the perfectly square image on the social media app Instagram. Who knew that such a simple concept would erupt into a worldwide phenomenon? On a personal level, I love it – mainly because I have easy access to numerous cat memes and shit. On top of keeping up with friends…but, first, cat memes.
One thing about Instagram is the celebrity accessibility. There was a time when celebrities were the untouchable gods and goddesses that graced the covers of urban bibles (magazines to us peasants.) They’d offer us their image, bestow their gracious wisdom on how to achieve their physique that even Venus would envy, and perhaps give a hint toward their latest high-profile relationship. “Why do [we] care so much what the magazines say and show? [We] care because, though the magazines are trivialised, they represent something very important: women’s mass culture.” (Wolf, 1990: 70) However, times have changed. Now Kylie Jenner snaps straight to our phones while we’re waiting in the pissing rain for the next bus to go to work and she’s flashing us her impossible figure. Suddenly, it’s as though she’s like us…human, or something. I mean, she’s a real human instead of an inaccessible goddess…
Essentially, she is the celebrity Jesus.
Due to this phenomenon, celebrity has become less mysterious. Quite literally anyone with a bangin’ face or rockin’ bod’ can gain followers and become a blue ticked celeb on Insta. Instafame. Or, for the sake of metaphor, the holy celebrity spirit has the potential to embody us all. In effect, instead of celebrity becoming the #bodygoals of our generation, the average girl on Instagram has. Which is bad fucking news for our guilt levels – more than ever – because if Sarah from Ediburgh can have killer abs and a body that would make even Hercules cry, why can’t we?
Flesh: A Brief History
The earliest I can remember of becoming aware of my body was when aged around three or four years old. These are happy memories; with my grandparents in their house. Like any other family, my Grandparents were very much on hand to support throughout my earliest, most fundamental, years of development. During these years, a child learns of their place in the world, a sense of identity, and how the life around them works. They learn whether they can trust adults, or need to be self-sufficient. They establish whether this world is a chaotic place full of fear and loathing, or a joyful place where mistakes are corrected and forgiven.
During these formative years were also my first impressions, gained from other people’s reactions, of how others perceived me at a surface level. I would gain comments from the close individuals in my life like “Lovely legs. Lovely long legs you’ve got there, Laura.” The way they said it – tone of voice, facial expression, and the overall warmth of affection by which they reinforced what they were saying, made me realise that this was good. I would smile; I did not fully comprehend what ‘lovely long legs’ meant and, frankly, my childish mind did not care whether my legs were long, medium, or short. I was still concerned that these legs were not able to run fast enough to get away from the other kids playing ‘tag’ on the school yard. (I am now a half-marathon runner and would like to say a big fuck you to all the children who laughed at me and saw me as an easy target.) Nevertheless, it made an impression.
Likewise, I am not certain how but I also knew that when I was four years old I weighed four stone. This, I learnt from the responses of the adults around me, was good. An object of shame and fear, as well as obsession, in the female adult world is the weighing scales. Even in my young, early formed mind, I understood that weighing scales were very much a feminine piece of equipment for the reactions that were gauged from using it were more or less women gushing or groaning whilst looking at that glowing red number between their feet.
My four stone frame was also adorned with comments like “So skinny! Look at her, Skinny Minny!” This, I learned, was good. They said it smiling. They said it with envy and pride. Being four stone at four years old, being a ‘skinny minny’ with ‘lovely long legs’ was all very good, indeed.
It’s not a new thing to say that women are constantly at war with their bodies due to the dissemination of media bullshit aimed toward females. We are made to feel guilty for our natural state – fat, cellulite, aging, wrinkles. It’s all a pile of crap but, nevertheless, it is a powerful pile of crap. Don’t deny it. No matter how hard you fight against it, it gets in your fucking veins. Literally.
Foucault stated that power is not held by one particular person but is the result of an interconnected system based on visibility; power ‘coerces by means of observation.’ (Foucault, 1984: 189) We are observed and we observe. Feminism back in the day would’ve recognised this as the ‘Male Gaze’; and women are just as susceptible to gaze at other women. ‘The modern arsenal of the [beauty] myth is a dissemination of millions of images of the current ideal…’ (Wolf, 1990: 16) The norm is created and a ’micropeniality of time…of activity…of behaviour…of speech…of the body…[and] of sexuality…’ (Foucault, 1984: 194) is simultaneously created to reinforce this norm. Basically, if we deviate from this norm subtle procedures are used to ensure that we understand our crime, mainly humiliation and an exclusion from the female luxuries of society (ibid.)
In layman’s terms; we see the fit bodies, the abs, the glutes, the thighs, the hair, the skin colour, etc, and these are presented as the female norm. The moment we see a hint of fat rolls, cellulite, or age, we are humiliated and punished by exclusion; goodbye body con dresses, crop tops, skinny jeans…you get the gist. As such, this essence of visibility has an effect on every woman – we are aware that we are being analysed from every angle and, thus, we aim to adopt the ‘normal’ body types expected of us…
With me so far?
The Average Women Aint So Average
‘The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behaviour that that period considers desirable. […] Competition between women has been made part of the myth so that women will be divided from one another.’ (Wolf, 1990:13 – 14) No more obvious than the norm being perpetrated over social media. Nowadays, my feed is blowing up with images of half naked women in gym attire, flexing their abs, and talking about fucking gains; all the while the hash tag #strongnotskinny pervades as a means of rebellion. This bullshit hash tag just further covers up the fact that we have become an Instagram nation of desperates who spend hours in the gym to – yes – match up to the norm we’ve all come to loathe and love. We want to be #strongandskinny…Let’s just be honest about it, yeah?
We have been told time and time again that women’s currency is the body; that we are first female, second flesh, and third a human. The more we are able to prove our worth through the body, the more culturally rich we are, and the more cultural influence we have. People will listen to us. People take notice of us. People praise us. Don’t believe me? Look at the amount of followers on a woman who frequently shows her body; if it’s under 10k I will eat salmon. (I fucking hate sea food and I follow a vegan diet so I am so serious right now.) People notice.
In the back of our minds, back in the days of magazines having the monopoly of media, we understood that celebrities paid good money to have these bodies, that they had personal trainers, countless surgeries, and all because their body was their job. Before we blamed Kate Moss for bringing a brand of heroin chic to our society and, with it, an assumed influence over young girls and a rise in Anorexia Nervosa. Now, through the perpetuation of gym-honed bodies over Instagram, it seems that anyone is capable of influencing women to have some kind of eating disorder; so much so there is a newly christened one recently popularized by raw diets and ‘clean eating’ – Orthorexia. Relating to eating disorders, ‘[t]he Health and Care Information Centre published figures in February 2014 showed an 8% rise in the number of inpatient hospital admissions in the 12 months previous to October 2013. The Costs of Eating Disorders report found that this is indicative of the trend in increasing prevalence over time: a 34% increase in admissions since 2005-06 – approximately 7% each year.’1 I would hazard a guess and state that this is more or less the pressure social media has created amongst our generation; pressure from the girl, literally, next door as opposed to the next new celeb…But, even then, with the familiarity Instagram gives us, even Kylie Jenner seems to be our friend.
“It is very little to me,” said the suffragist Lucy Stone, “to have the right to vote, to own property, etcetera, if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right.” (Wolf, 1990: 11)
The words that have been praised by Lucy Stone are a double edged sword. We show our liberty hard won by our historical sisters in a number of ways in modern society – I shan’t list them all – but revealing our bodies is definitely one of them. We have thrown off our cloaks of oppression and revel in our right to undress our flesh freely. Ariel Levy explores this notion further in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs and states that the development of this way of life for women marks an achievement for feminism – elsewhere she declares ‘we skipped over the part where we just accept and respect that some women like to seem exhibitionistic and lickerish, and decided instead that everyone who is sexually liberated ought to be imitating strippers and porn stars.’ (Levy, 2005: 27)
Fortunately, there is a movement of women who are aiming to transform this way of thinking and respecting all women regardless of culture, religion and, most significantly, body size. Where there was once competition, these women are appealing for acceptance. This movement is growing in momentum and falls under the title Body Positivity (BoPo).
By searching Instagram for #BoPo you will find thousands of images of women who are waging war against popular ideals and expectations for female body image by revealing what a woman’s body looks like without the photoshop. Cellulite, fat rolls, acne, dry skin, lumps, bumps, hair, and all things that we have been taught to feel ashamed of through clever advertising. The BoPo movement aims to call bullshit on ‘the $33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetics industry, the $300-million cosmetic surgery industry, and the $7-billion pornography industry’ and reveal them as ‘the capital made out of unconscious anxieities [and] their influence on mass culture to use, stimulate, and reinforce the hallucination’ (Wolf, 1990: 17) that women need to reduce, enhance, and realise their “imperfections” ought to be “fixed” to match the norm. BoPo warriors, as is their rightful title, aim to project the ideal that all bodies are hot bodies; all bodies deserve to be loved and honoured. Girls, regardless of your abs or lack thereof, you are fucking goddesses.
However, whilst I can appreciate the efforts of the BoPo movement in terms of raising visibility of the natural female body in all forms, there is something about it that has always sat uncomfortably with me. Likewise, by searching #BoPo, numerous images of women in their underwear inundate my screen. Some are more natural shots but I would hardly call them candid. This is where my discomfort with the BoPo movement comes in as ‘for women, and only women, hotness requires a projecting a kind of eagerness, offering a promise that any attention you receive for your physicality is welcome. […] Proving you are hot, worthy of lust, is still exclusively women’s work.’ (Levy, 2005: 33)
The message is trying to be different but the framework remains the same: get naked to get noticed. How does this differ from what we have seen already in the media of naked women with the highly celebrated bodies? Yes, obviously, the image is different and more ‘natural’ in terms of the lack of photoshop but, overall, you’re still in your underwear at the end of the day trying to say something. Because the framework remains the same, we can’t expect different results and we run the risk of becoming another expression of the same thing; female body commodification. ‘Why can’t we be sexy and frisky and in control without being commodified?’ (Levy, 2005: 43) Whilst the BoPo warriors who do reveal their bodies on Instagram do post liberating messages alongside their pictures, when the caption is taken away, what are you left with?
Moreover, this movement has gained momentum on Instagram and other social media outlets but there is another risk associated with this; the fact that it is simply that…social media. It is not the houses of parliament, it is not a female speaker in the house of commons, it is not a localised event over the weekend like Mardi Gras, and it is not a march through the streets of London declaring that all bodies are good bodies. ‘Revolutionary movements tend to be co-opted – swallowed up by the mainstream and turned into pop culture. It’s a way of neutralising it, when you think about it…it makes it all safe and palatable, it shuts up the radicals. Once that happens, the real power is pretty much dissipated.’ (Levy, 2005: 196)
Despite this, the movement is a refreshing change and a showcase of reality against the picture perfect world of Instagram and the threat of photoshopped images becoming the unrealistic ‘real’ woman. Flaws and all, the BoPo reminds us all that, indeed, all bodies are beautiful bodies simply because YOU inhabit them. Fuck the number on the scale. Fuck the measuring tape. Fuck it all – be effortlessly, wonderfully, and loudly you. The movement preaches, simply, love; love for oneself and love for one’s sisters. And, quite frankly, I cannot argue with that.
Levy, A. (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs, Reading, Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.
Orbach, S. (1978) Fat is a Feminist Issue…, Aylesbury, Bucks: Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd.
Rabinow, P. (1984) The Foucault Reader, England: Clays Ltd, St Ives plc.
Wolf, N. (1990) The Beauty Myth, Reading, Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.
1 B-Eat (2017) ‘Eating Disorder Statistics’ Available at: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/about-beat/media-centre/information-and-statistics-about-eating-disorders [Accessed 3 January 2017]