Friday, 9 June 2017

Body Positivity And The Male Gaze


Whatcha Looking At?

When I started riding the boat of third wave feminism back in the riot grrl days my activism revolved around the simple notion of equality for women. 
In the various zines I wrote for (yes pre-live journal and blogs we antiquated types wrote and illustrated punky zines, which we sold at gigs and CND rallies) I raged against pay gaps, lack of reproductive rights and being told girls couldn't play guitar.
Patriarchy created in me a white hot fury (and boy was it was white, KimberlĂ© Williams Crenshaw might have coined the phrase intersectionality in 89 but it took a little while for that penny to drop) but then (as now) I continually challenged notions of a woman's "place" or "role in the world.


Having fallen in love with Naomi Wolfs The Beauty Myth (for a list of some of my favourite fat positive books see here) my feminism took on a new dimension.
 I  realised that a woman of size, embracing fashion and beauty, documenting it with pride, was in many ways revolutionary. Fashion as activism is an ancient pursuit and one that I have been proud to be part of.
Plus size fashion blogging gave a voice to a small but vocal group of women who refused to be silenced by fat shaming. Parading our finery on blogger and Wordpress, every fierce outfit that accentuated our visual belly outlines or flaunted our upper arms, smashed accepted ideas about which types of body should be visible in the media.

Fuck Flattering

For a short time, the clothes I chose to share on my blog felt like a radical act. When scores of people left hateful comments under a picture of me wearing metallic leggings showing off my cellulite, I knew plus size blogging was hitting a nerve. And its felt important.
Important because for every person hating on my thigh jiggle, so many more were hi-fiving me, telling me that they too were going to stop taking on board sexist controlling messages about what it is to be beautiful.
And thats where it gets complicated. That word "beautiful" 


Having been told for so many years that to be fat was to be ugly, redefining ideas of beauty felt both healing and culturally important. But why do we need to be told we are beautiful?
Increasingly as the term Body positivity is co-opted by brands to sell products, I worry that the body positive message is only about definitions of beauty. Its like a donut missing the custard. It looks good but it has no substance.
By allowing the focus of body positivity to be the insistence that "all bodies are beautiful" are we are not allowing the ideals we rejected, dictate how we feel about ourselves? Doesn't it smack of the male gaze?
The term Male Gaze” is from a ground breaking essay by Laura Mulvey called Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema  Written in 1975  I haven't looked at it since my own university days but somehow it still chimes. 
Written in relation to film, Mulvey claimed that the male gaze occurs when the audience is put into the perspective of a heterosexual man. Mulvey proposes that the male gaze denies women human identity, relegating them to the status of objects to be admired for physical appearance. Sound familiar?
Now I understand that plus size representation is a multi faceted issue. Access to fashion continues to play an important  role in empowering fat women. 
To dismiss it as only functioning on a kind of vanity platform is to ignore the marginalisation still suffered today by women, who simply can't find clothes to fit. 
I understand how enriching seeing images of fat women is. When you still struggle to find any photos of plus women in the media, its still so important that we as plus size bloggers continue to flood our own small corners of the internet with an alternative view. I also absolutely love fashion, its creative, expressive and makes me incredibly happy.  
What I'm keen to move away from though, is the idea that our outer appearance is the beginning  middle and end to the issue of body acceptance. 
This is where I see a small but healthy shift from some of my favourite bloggers. Discarding the term "Body positive"  and replacing it with "fat positive" Creating a distance from a term that has been subverted by companies to make money from woman insecurities.


Fat activism (unlike body positivity)  tells us that to be fat is acceptable, normal, requiring no caveats. The lily requires no guilding. Acceptable fat does not mean smaller fats, white fats, able bodied fats. That to me should be the underlying vision. 
Rejecting the word Body positive and changing it to Fat positive is not to throw shade on slimmer women, its to protect those who have worked hard to feel ok with being fat and don't want that work to be diluted to sell diet drinks.
The rush to insist that fat is beautiful is to my mind, still women chasing approval for their appearance. Im excited to see ideas  of feminism attempting to create even more resistance to patriarchal ideas of beauty. 
I'm starting to see bloggers moving into a new space where they no longer compliment each other on looking beautiful but instead compliment the fierceness of an outfit. They call each other queens and are using powerful language to give feedback which is less about the optics and more about the attitude of an outfit. Its all about style, vision, not  being the pettiest girl in class.
In the book Manifesta, authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards suggest that feminism can change with every generation and individual "We're not doing feminism the same way that the seventies feminists did it; being liberated doesn't mean copying what came before but finding one's own way – a way that is genuine to one's own generation"
Its definitely time for those of us who have always treated plus size fashion blogging as a type of activism to start questioning what movements we allow ourselves to be absorbed into. Blogging is the most punk rock form of idea sharing. No editors, no advertisers to offend, we can create the world we want with no compromises. We don't have to allow our movement to be turned into white bread to be sold back to us with the promise of nourishment. Every day is a "fat day" (I see you Ashley) and thats acceptable. 





   

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1 comment:

  1. This is a really interesting article and I hadn't realised how much "all bodies are beautiful" is, as you say, a perpetuation of the male gaze. It is a tag that I have used a lot, taking it to mean (for me at least) that bodies are more than looks. For me, the beauty in bodies come from their strength to achieve and overcome, to continue on. However, your point also rings very true. The term just reduces us back to objects of desire and "beauty" ideals. I need to think this through some more, but thank you for writing this.

    C x
    CurvyGirlThin.com

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