Is Instagram Body Positivity's Most Unlikely Ally?
Sophie Carter-Kahn, co-host of the She's All Fat podcast, and Gia Narvaez, a transgender body positive Instagram influencer, meet for the first time at the Livestrong photo shoot for this article — and there's an instant spark.
Both flashing warm smiles and radiating confidence in their self-styled looks, the Los Angeles-based women have more in common than outgoing personalities and killer outfits: They're fat, and they accept their bodies as they are.
In a media universe filled with headlines about weight loss, being thin and how these things will lead to ultimate health and happiness, fat bodies are seen as works in progress — you can inhabit a fat body as long as you're actively working on occupying less space. Even the word "fat" itself is viewed by many as an insult to be thrown as vitriol or an uncomfortable term to be avoided.
With so much stigma surrounding the word, everyone could benefit from starting a dialogue with larger people by asking questions, however tough, in a curious and respectful manner.
"Why do you use the word 'fat' in the title of your podcast?" the shoot's hairstylist asks. "Oh, I don't think it's a bad thing," Carter-Kahn responds. These days conversations about larger bodies are often hesitant, particularly because there's so much societal uncertainty as to what counts as offensive — that is if they even happen at all.
That's why small moments like these are pivotal. The hairstylist learns that "fat" isn't an offense — it's a fact. For Carter-Kahn and the many other people with fat bodies who are mistreated and misunderstood in day-to-day life, it's a small victory: reclaiming a word that is oftentimes given a negative narrative.
Moments like these — when individuals with marginalized bodies are given the opportunity to interact in a way that can educate someone on their experiences — are rare, particularly in media. Magazines, TV ads, billboards and social media channels predominantly feature thin, tall, Westernized standards of beauty as the ideal. As psychotherapist and Certified Eating Disorder (ED) Specialist Carolyn Karoll puts it, our perception of our bodies is "impacted by the value contemporary Western culture puts on women's bodies and appearance above other attributes."
But women like Carter-Kahn and Narvaez? Yeah, they aren't down for that.
The ammunition? Years' worth of experiences in their "otherly" bodies. The weapon? Instagram.
Fighting alongside a strong community of others with marginalized bodies, including fat bodies, bodies of color, queer bodies, bodies with disabilities and bodies that bear the battle scars of diseases, these women are leaving their digital footprint in the form of awareness and conversation, filed under a movement called "body positivity" (or the shorter bodyposi and bopo). The ammunition? Years' worth of experiences in their "otherly" bodies. The weapon? Instagram.
But What Exactly Is Body Positivity?
"Body positivity is a movement focused on shining the spotlight onto marginalized bodies — people of color, LGBT, disabled, fat, etc. — because they are not well represented in the media," says Instagrammer and eating disorder survivor Lexie Manion. Narvaez, who identifies as Latina and transgender, agrees. "(It) represents a radical movement of individuals who are loving themselves unconditionally, breaking free from oppressive structures that tell us we have to look, eat and be a certain type of way to live a happy and fulfilled life," she says.
Now widely covered by media outlets and heavily present on social media platforms, the body positivity movement gained its wings through the blossoming fat activism of the late '60s — a movement meant to change the attitudes surrounding larger bodies from discriminatory to celebratory. According to a paper published by the University of Limerick's Department of Sociology, the first documented act of "fat activism" comes in the form of a "Fat-In" organized by New York radio personality Steve Post in 1967 in order to "protest discrimination against the fat."
The sentiment extended beyond protests. Books like writer Llewellyn Louderback's "Fat Power: Whatever You Weigh Is Right" set the tone for literature challenging diet-industry beliefs, a scope that continues in the modern day with books like model Tess Holliday's "The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl: Loving the Skin You're In."
Today the movement continues to evolve. It stands for visibility and normalization. And as more platforms of expression become available, activists are naturally engaging in new ways. This is happening most visibly on Instagram, where more than 4 million posts are housed under the #bodypositive hashtag, with millions others coming together under additional body-loving hashtags, including #effyourbeautystandards and #beautybeyondsize. These people are coming together and creating the type of representation that traditional media doesn't offer — inclusive, un-retouched and unapologetic.
The body and brains behind @chooselifewarrior, Australia-based Danielle Galvin uses the platform to delve into the multiple nuances of body positivity, from fat activism to the eating disorders that have plagued many current activists' past. The combination of photography and caption is attractive to Galvin, who describes Instagram as "the platform I give the most heart to, the most love and the most response. I also just feel a strong connection to my community there versus other places."
Other places like Facebook's Operation Beautiful and Adios Barbie, which try to infuse followers' feeds with positive imagery and literature that promotes diversity in size, ethnicity and sexual orientation, among others. Or YouTube, with its own set of fat beauty and fashion influencers who prove their community is beautiful and proud. Oftentimes, influencers will cross-pollinate, as is the case with Narvaez and Galvin, who, in addition to Instagram, run successful YouTube channels. Others have taken the knowledge learned from Instagram and transformed it into new and innovative body positive resources.
"I really started to engage in the body positive movement on Instagram," TV writer and She's All Fat podcast co-host April Quioh said. "It was giving me these delicious morsels: 'Oh, what are other people's experiences? How are people combating living in publicized bodies? I wanna hear more.'" Along with Carter-Kahn, Quioh created that additional space through She's All Fat, where topics like "The Fat Friend" and "Bodyposi Politics" are the discussions du jour.
Of course, for those who are new to the body positivity movement, listening to one of these episodes may bring an avalanche of questions, confusions and controversies. And one of the most-talked-about topics is the link between body positivity and self-love.
The Blurred Line Between Body Positivity and Self-Love
The terms "body positivity" and "self-love" are sometimes used interchangeably — but that's a big no-no. Both terms promote confidence in one's self, but body positivity was built on the voices of the marginalized, and, in order to remain an effective movement, many would argue that it should stay that way. "If you search many popular body positive hashtags, there is a trend: thin, white women," says Instagrammer Lexie Manion. "Where are our black, queer, trans, disabled women?" asks Instagrammer Imogen Fox of @the_feeding_of_the_fox.
That's why many people in the body positive community try to differentiate between self-love and body positivity. And while they welcome all people into their movement, they are particularly sensitive about letting thin, white women hijack it. "It's not like they aren't allowed to partake in the movement," Manion explains. "It becomes a problem, however, when it's 50 photos in a row of more privileged bodies and then one or two photos of more marginalized bodies under a hashtag."
Privileged bodies can and should feel accepted within the movement while staying respectful and aware of its initial purpose of putting an end to the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding marginalized bodies. "I've seen some accounts respectfully back out by rebranding themselves as 'self-love' accounts, rather than 'body positive,' as they became more aware of the full context of the movement," Manion says. "Once they realize that body positivity is meant to be a space for marginalized bodies, they don't want to take up space in the hashtags or have their stories covered by news outlets. Their story has already been told."
Body positivity and self-love can overlap, however, as Carter-Kahn explains. "Body positivity to me is facing outward, and self-love is facing inward. Both of these things are intersectional and can mean the same thing." For example, hashtags inclusive of people of color, like #melaninpoppin and #darkgirlsarebeautiful, give marginalized bodies the power to create their own narrative of self-acceptance. "That is people saying, 'I love myself and I love my skin and look. I'm pushing this representation out there,'" Carter-Kahn says.
The Original BoPo Instagrammers
Today there are hundreds of individual body positive Instagrammers finding their voices and sharing vulnerabilities, struggles and moments of triumph on their personal pages. Many of them are growing into their own brands and have the opportunity to educate media outlets, author books and even create their own clothing lines. But as @bodiposipanda creator and author Megan Crabbe explains, the BoPo movement initially began with group pages like @pizzasisters4lyfe and @effyourbeautystandards, which featured inspirational quotes, colorful, diverse drawings and an array of bodies of different shapes, sizes and shades from contributors all over the world.
"Three years ago, the Instagram body positive community was just a couple hundred people learning together, healing together and cheering each other on through it all," Crabbe said. "Group pages were instrumental in building the community and allowing us to connect with each other."
Though not as highly covered or followed as individual Instagrammers today, these group accounts were integral in inspiring the new generation of influencers spearheading the conversation — influencers like Crabbe, whose personal account now has more than 900,000 followers and is credited as a major inspiration by most other interviewees for this piece.
So why has the BoPo movement resonated so strongly with so many people? Well, for one thing, it's been instrumental in helping people feel confident in their own skin. For example, in late 2014, Narvaez was going through her male-to-female transition when one of her best friends introduced her to the community. "It was so vital to my growing, because as I fully started understanding my gender identity, I also started a healing process of loving my body," she said.
Or perhaps it's simply because the BoPo Instagrammers know and acknowledge that they're part of something much larger than themselves. "When I started blogging and showing my different outfits and how I styled myself, it wasn't so much a body thing for me, because I thought I was just like everybody else," said curvy fashion blogger, model and designer Nadia Aboulhosn. "I understood within a few months of it, and the more popularity I got, that it was bigger than who I am, because there wasn't such a strong influence of girls who looked like me: with darker hair, fuller eyebrows, that had hips and a butt and more weight."
Similarly, Crabbe's @bodiposipanda account, originally intended for her personal healing, became primarily a form of healing for others — a shift that came as more people became exposed to the movement.
The Healing Powers of Reclaiming Your Body
Instagram and other social media platforms are often criticized for having a negative effect on how people perceive their bodies (see research below). Yet many of these influencers are motivated by what they refer to as the "healing process" of being on Instagram. So what gives?
Perhaps the most uneasy aspect of the body positivity community is how many of these ladies have recovered from disordered eating patterns and documented their journeys along the way. Influencers like Galvin, Manion, May and Crabbe represent this new wave of women on a mission. They have been previously hurt and pressured by societal standards into developing unhealthy relationships with food, but they're hopeful that their voices will inspire the next generation of younglings to understand and appreciate their bodies for what they are.
For many of these women (and a growing number of gents), reclaiming the body in a public forum such as Instagram is a form of therapy. "One of the reasons that body positivity can be such a powerful tool in ED recovery is that it tackles the thing that lies at the root of so many eating disorders: fatphobia," Crabbe says. "(It) teaches people to embrace their size and to accept whatever body type might come from recovery." On paper, Crabbe had been recovered for years when she came across the movement, but fully felt recovered once she took an active role in the community — which is why she believes that body positivity saved her life.
Psychotherapist and Certified ED Specialist Karoll's explanation comes full circle with Crabbe's "Posting pictures that challenge the conventional unrealistic standard of beauty is a way to use the system to change the system," she said. In addition, according to National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) CEO Claire Mysko, making a statement about accepting one's body and finding support on a platform like Instagram can be empowering and validating.
Karoll believes that social media's highly retouched, curated images are only part of the problem — hate-filled comments "contribute to a host of problems that may include a cycle of restricting food intake, yo-yo dieting, depression, eating disorders and addictions."
Having a platform that allows for both passing judgment and anonymity can lead to negativity surrounding these marginalized and sometimes vulnerable bodies. "I still don't have a foolproof method to protect my thoughts, feelings and social media accounts from the truly despicable threats and hate I receive," says @chooselifewarrior creator Galvin. "This is something I still work on internally and online every single day."
So What Does the Research Say?
"Everybody can get on Instagram right now and find somebody that they can feel like they know or feel like resembles them in some way — and that can make them feel even more confident in who they are as a person," says Kelvin Davis, the body positive dude and author behind @notoriouslydapper. This sentiment, or some version of it, is echoed across the board when it comes to the influencers interviewed for this piece. Yet it comes with a caveat that its most vulnerable users — teenagers and women — have still been found to be negatively affected by the platform.
In the Royal Society for Public Health's 2017 #StatusOfMind report, the organization surveyed nearly 1,500 adults ages 14 to 24 on how various social media platforms are affecting their mental health and well-being, and it named and shamed Instagram for being the most detrimental platform for body image — particularly among young women. According to report author Matt Keracher, this is due to the highly unrealistic and curated nature of the platform, which creates a "compare-and-despair attitude."
Other research, coming from University of New South Wales and Macquarie University, surveyed 350 women between the ages of 18 and 25 and found that women looking at idealized fitness images, or 'fitspo,' were more likely to be unhappy with their own bodies. Researchers called this "self-objectification" and said it could predict additional icky problems down the line, such as eating disorders and depression.
While this research establishes a connection between the visual aspect of Instagram and young adults' body image, the cold, hard truth is that one can't be established, according to Dr. Ivanka Prichard, senior lecturer in health and exercise sciences at Flinders University. As for creating a healthy relationship with the platforms? "There is some evidence to suggest that media literacy, where we learn to be critical consumers of the media that we see, is a good approach. Self-compassion is also emerging as an effective approach," she said.
From an influencer's point of view, disabled activist Imogen Fox of @the_feeding_of_the_fox does not turn a blind eye to the increase in eating disorders, anxiety and depression that comes with the rise of social media. "Ask anyone who's had an eating disorder and they'll tell you about the hours they spent on Instagram looking at 'perfect' bodies, eating 'perfect' meals, performing 'perfect' workouts. We've created a perfect storm for people to cultivate self-hatred, unrealistic expectations and, in turn, mental health issues," she says.
However, she does recognize Instagram's value as a visual platform and feels warmly welcomed within the community. "I think the fact that people can see me is a huge reason why people follow me on Instagram," she says. "For me, seeing other bodies that look like mine helps me see the beauty in my own."
All data considered, most influencers are staying away from blaming Instagram for these issues. "I believe it's silly to blame Instagram for the self-esteem and body-confidence issues that present itself in today's society," Manion said. "Social media isn't the problem. The problem is how we view people who are different. We scapegoat, shame and hate anyone who appears different." The issue, Manion believes, extends beyond social media platforms: If it's not social media, it's magazines. If it's not magazines, it's TV. And so continues the vicious circle, until the images put forth by media, in all of its forms, become a more realistic representation of the world.
But media can't do it on its own. It's up to two industries that have traditionally benefitted from making people not feel so hot about themselves in order to sell products to change the game. Let's give it up for fitness and fashion.
A Tale of Two Power Players — Fitness and Fashion
Discussing a brighter future for marginalized bodies is impossible without recognizing these industries' influence — and giving those game-changing fitness and fashion influencers a round of applause. Plagued by controversies of anorexic models and a culture that excludes the 70.2 percent of Americans with overweight or obesity from using fashion as self-expression, the fashion industry is starting to check itself — and it's largely due to influencers like Kelvin Davis, the male body positive advocate behind @notoriouslydapper.
After an unsavory shopping experience during which he was made to feel uncomfortable by a sales clerk who suggested he was too big to fit into the brand's largest blazer size, Davis created the Notoriously Dapper blog and Instagram account to voice his emotions about feeling insecure and ashamed of his body in a movement largely untapped by men. "I wanted to make an outlet where it was safe for guys to talk about the emotional issues that we face with our body types," Davis says. "There's obviously a lot of stereotypes when it comes to masculinity, when it comes to even being black in America."
Davis, an African-American art teacher, father, model and advocate for hashtags like Tess Holliday's #effyourbeautystandards, is hoping to use the fashion and body positivity conversations to show that the topics have common ground and that men can benefit from the discussion. "Unfortunately, a lot of guys don't direct message me themselves, but a lot of girls will DM me on their behalf and say how much their husbands admire me," Davis says. "I think we need to get at a place where guys feel comfortable DMing me."
Although this year's New York Fashion Week has featured its most inclusive and diverse runway yet (complete with featuring useful, body lovin' items like anti-chafing thigh bands), the industry still has a long way to go. Model and designer Aboulhosn agrees, but she contends that a little headway is better than none at all. "People think these big strides should be taking place, and I feel like I'm more realistic in thinking that one small step in the right direction is still a step, and progress is progress. When someone else in the plus-size community wins, I'm winning too," she adds.
And then there's the #fitspo community, where chiseled abs posing against beach backdrops and beautifully arranged vegan bowls become more about ego stroking than healthy lifestyle. In this landscape, disruptors like Chinae Alexander are leveling the playing field by establishing that healthy bodies are a direct result of healthy minds. "What if fitness and health isn't just connected to how we look? What if fitness and health has more to do with our mental state than our physical?" asked Alexander.
With experience living in a marginalized body and speaking on how achieving her fittest appearance did not necessarily lead to her healthiest mind, Alexander brands herself in terms of self-love rather than body positivity. She's a fitness and lifestyle advocate who can start a conversation that bridges body positivity and the fitness world. "We need fit advocates. We need people that are in shape [and people who are] out of shape, because it is an issue that has nothing to do with shape," she says. "Body positivity is not connected to our bodies. It is deeply connected to our souls."
A Platform and Its Safety Features
Home to more than 800 million active users as of September 2017, Instagram is aware of its role in the current cultural landscape as well as its responsibilities. "People like to call Instagram a photo-sharing app, but we've always called it a community," said Instagram public policy manager Carolyn Merrell.
According to her, the past nine months have been big in terms of reprioritizing the platform's goals: to be as kind and safe as possible. "Thus far, we've rolled out a number of tools to make our community safer — like keyword filtering, sensitivity screens and safety measures like suicide prevention and self-injury flows," Merrell said.
"People like to call Instagram a photo-sharing app, but we've always called it a community." —Carolyn Merrell, Instagram public policy manager
Knowledgeable of the fact that it houses many teens amongst which body topics are the talk of the town, Instagram has previously dabbled in body positivity through the introduction of the #PerfectlyMe campaign that highlights men and women who are using the platform to redefine body standards.
In October 2016, Instagram's main channel featured Rebekah Taussig of @sitting_pretty, a disabled writer and teacher who spoke on the coping mechanisms she developed growing up in order to deal with her disability. The platform has also worked with Seventeen magazine, moderating a discussion between the girl band Fifth Harmony and teen members of the Instagram body positivity community, and building a #PerfectlyMe toolkit for the October 2017 National Body Confidence Day.
Another way in which the company takes the pulse of the conversation is working with the National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA, by partnering up for the yearly National Eating Disorder Awareness Day. "They have relied on NEDA's guidance to help them combat communities that promote eating-disordered behaviors and to maintain communities that help support individuals who are struggling," said the organization's CEO, Claire Mysko.
Still, users like Carter-Kahn and Quioh of She's All Fat are not fully convinced. Carter-Kahn questions how Instagram's new tools came about, and whether they were truly put into place after listening to the platform's most marginalized users. Quioh thinks Instagram, along with all other social media platforms, could have done better from the beginning. "If you don't have marginalized voices in the room when these things are being invented and created, then you won't be able to realize how quickly it can turn into a space for hatred," she says.
The body positivity movement is becoming more widely recognized. Instagram is showing no signs of growth stagnation. The media's efforts to redefine beauty standards still have a long way to go. And, in the famous words of Taylor Swift, "haters gonna hate."
Social media as a whole and Instagram as a platform have a long road ahead in providing their community with the safety nets that it actually needs. #StatusOfMind report author Keracher, who spoke to 1,500 young adults regarding their experiences with social media, believes that requiring digitally enhanced images to come with a watermark is a solid first step — and gives kudos to France for effectively and successfully implementing a similar law.
Senior lecturer in health and exercise sciences Dr. Prichard of Flinders University, whose research explores the connection between body image and health behavior, suggests something that would help vary the types of images that pop up on a feed to include body positive, healthy and wellness-oriented imagery. Add to that Karoll's wish for platforms showing support for hashtags like "curvy" and warning users of the dangers of taking fitness and diet recommendations from nonprofessionals on social media, and you've got yourself a solid set of #goals for social media platforms to start tackling ASAP.
"We would like to see social media companies take far more radical steps to help mitigate the negative impacts of social media and also help fund cutting-edge research into the long-term effects of their platforms," Keracher added.
As for the common folk, learning to be media literate is always a good step to take as an active social media user. "(Be) intolerant of images and content that serves to maintain fat bias and stigma and that reduces men and women's bodies to ornaments," Karoll advised.
Meanwhile, the body positivity movement could experience some rebranding. With a lot of talk about the term becoming too commodified on Instagram, marginalized bodies that truly identify with the movement are toying with the idea of creating something new. "My #2018 mood is that I'm not ready to give up on it yet," said She's All Fat co-host Quioh. "It can still grow, and we can shift it back to focus on marginalized bodies, but it will just take work in making sure we amplify those voices that are not being amplified."
Hear that, Instagrammers and media outlets? It's time to get to work on the way you post, cover and support.
Want More BoPo?
Interested in learning more about the influencers mentioned in the story and taking a deeper dive into body positivity? Check out the following.
Sophie Carter-Kahn and April Quioh's She's All Fat Podcast and main Instagram channel.
Gia Narvaez' YouTube channel, which tackles body positivity and trans visibility.
Lexie Manion's website.
Danielle Galvin's Chooselifewarrior website.
Megan Crabbe's Bodiposipanda website and her book.
Imogen May's The Feeding of the Fox website.
Chinae Alexander's website.
Kelvin Davis's male body positive fashion blog and new book.
Nadia Aboulhosn's fashion blog and size-inclusive clothing line website.
NEDA's body positive pro-recovery Instagram community.
If you are seeking treatment for an eating disorder, visit www.MyNEDA.org or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 800-931-2237 Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (EST) and Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EST).
If you are in a crisis, text NEDA at 741741 — open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.