It’s summer, and for most of us that means our news feeds, emails, and everyday consciousness will be swarmed with messages about beach bodies and short shorts and showing more skin. So it seemed the perfect time for Speak About It to remind you to love your body with our first summer episode of #hotgoss. This week on the episode, we talked about bodies, the language we use to talk about bodies, and why loving the skin you’re in is all part of building healthy relationships.
What is Body Positivity?
Body positivity is the idea that everyone's body, regardless of shape, size, color, ability, gender and more, deserves to be respected, represented, and celebrated in their personal lives and in the media and broader culture.
Body positivity is on the rise, with more and more people questioning ingrained cultural standards of beauty that applaud only a singular type of body. More and more clothing brands are starting to show diverse body types in their marketing. (Though, as this series from Racked says, there’s a long road ahead of us to build a truly body positive world, and not one that's just doing it for good PR.)
Body positivity is about centering your individual health, and figuring out how you can treat your body well in ways that work for you. Body positivity is for everyone, with all types of bodies. It just may look different for different people.
Sound kinda familiar? Body positivity and sex positivity are pretty close bed-fellows.
Like sex positivity, body positivity isn’t always an anything-goes endorsement for all lifestyles. More so, it’s the idea that an individual should have access to the tools to determine how they want to take care of their own body in a healthy, productive way. Both movements are about empowering individuals to make the choices they want to make, free of judgement. These tools include having access to accurate and comprehensive health education, and to medical providers, friends, family, and partners who respect an individual's choices no matter what their body looks like.
Our Body Image Affects Our Sexuality
When we learn about sex and consent in school, it is often in way that is more conceptual and removed from bodily experience. But it’s important to remember that hooking up usually involves your body, and usually involves someone else’s. We must talk about bodies when we talk about consent.
How we feel about our bodies affects our own sexuality and sex lives. If you don’t feel comfortable in your body, for whatever reason, it can be more difficult to experience sexual pleasure. Discomfort in your body can be linked to how others treat you, or to the pressures you put on yourself. But loving your body, it’s been proven, makes you a better lover of both yourself and others.
Part of loving your body involves using language, and having partners use language that affirms both your identity and your own body. As we said in the episode, it’s important to talk to your partner about what kind of language makes them feel good, and then share your own preferences. Do they need you to be medically accurate when talking about body parts? Specific? Vague? Do you call your butt something special? When talking about your curves or your hair, do certain words help you feel more confident? We talked a little bit about this in our Sex Ed panel last week, and our experts had some great advice about language that applies to bodies of all identities. Check it out.
Likewise, partners should appreciate and support each other in ways that don’t feel objectifying or fetishizing. This can look different for different people. Some people feel objectified if a partner talks about how they looks in a pair of pants, other people love that. Being sensitive to fetishizing or objectifying language is especially important when talking about people of different identities, with specific regard to race. We want to celebrate each other for the bodies we bring to every situation, but not in a way to reinforces stereotypes, relies on historical forms of oppression, triggers past trauma, or otherwise makes our partners uncomfortable.
Language that infantilizes, or as Kirsten said, 'sanitizes,' bodies can also make folks feel more ashamed of their bodies. Maybe a friend likes to be called ‘thicc’ because it helps them feel sexy in their body. That said, another friend might not like that term because they feel like it sets up a comparison between themselves and an idea or norm, or because the word is specifically racilialized. Follow a person’s lead when it comes to how they positively affirm their body and use what language they want to use.
Many bodies also exist in relationship to others people's. It’s important to take time and reflect on how that affects your own body image. You must be careful in how you talk about a partner's body, especially when it comes to changes in their body. Whether that’s weight-loss or a gender transition or any other change, it is valid to feel differently about your body in relation to a partner’s changing one. But it's important to respect their journey and experience. Learn to talk about your own feelings without making the conversation about you or without making your partner feel guilty or bad about their changing body. Kirsten recommended that folks talk to a therapist or a trusted friend about their feelings in regards to their partners’ body so they can help distill and reframe these feelings in a way that doesn’t negatively impact their partners’ own body image.
Here are a few more resources for learning about how to talk about your body, love your body, love other people's bodies, and love your sex-life.
- Sex At Every Size, The Body is Not an Apology
- Yes Trans People Can Love Thier Bodies Too, Slate.
- The One Thing You Need for Body Positive Sex, Bustle
- The Sex Positive Black Woman, Ebony
- 13 Small Ways My Partner & I Show Positivity, Bustle
- 8 Tips on Respectfully Talking Pleasure, Sex and Bodies with your Trans Lover, Everyday Feminism
Ask More of your Mind when it Comes to Bodies
Body positivity is both as simple as loving and respecting your own body and others', and much more complicated. Because different bodies have been treated and mistreated throughout time, we have to be critical of what our own version of body-positivity looks like. We have to think of who is left out of the dialogue, and then strive to be more inclusive. Loving your body (and all bodies) requires critical thinking.
We have to think about the ‘writers of the rules,’ even when it comes to body positivity. If your idea of body positivity only includes white folks, or only includes cis-folks, or only includes able-bodied folks, or folks with perfect skin or folks with a specific shade of skin, or what have you, that’s not truly inclusive or body positive.
Likewise, we have to take a look at how, even in this moment of body positivity, a 'politics of acceptability' is starting to emerge. Often we see messages in media and advertising, or even on Instagram, that seem to say, sure, you can be fat if your fat is sexy, or you can have scars, if your scars are sexy, or you can be plus-sized but only within this range of sizes and only if you're this shape. You can be old, only if you look like Helen Miren. (No shame, Helen!) Or even: You can be queer--but only if your queerness looks a certain, marketable way. Question those messages. Challenge them.
As we talked about on the episode, an important part of body positivity is having a conversation about attraction. Especially when it comes to sex and relationships, it’s okay to be attracted to who we’re attracted to. But like we talked about in our last episode on intersectionality, we must be critical of how we form ideals of attraction. We must think about what influences who we’re attracted to and why. Shane had a great anecdote from his past about looking at attraction critically in his own dating life.
When I first moved to the city, I had dated people who mostly fit the mold of ‘conventionally attractive.’ People who were pretty thin, usually athletes. But the first woman I dated here had a larger build. We dated for a while, and when we broke up someone asked if it was because I wasn’t attracted to her body. I had to think about this a lot, I felt called out, especially because I totally understood what it feels like for someone with a female body to feel shame about how they look. For me, I realized, we weren’t a good match not because of how she looked but because of our difference in lifestyles. I’m interested in dating people who want to go to the gym with me or hike or cook together, and that just wasn’t her thing. I understand that a person could look exactly like her and be into all of those things (and more!) and I’d probably be attracted to them because we share that kind of relationship with our health and body. I don’t think the woman I dated was any less of a good or valuable person, we just made different choices with our time and energy.
There’s lots of ways to think critically about bodies and how we talk about them. Have conversations with your friends, like this one. Think about who’s represented, not only in media and in fashion, but in other spaces where bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities have needs too. Ask if brands are profiting from the body positive movement without doing the work of supporting and celebrating all bodies. Have open and honest conversations with your partners about your own body and the language you want to use around it. Listen actively to what they need or want too.
All of this is part of a healthy, consensual relationship.
Bodies, A Post-Script
Here are some more awesome resources for your reading and viewing pleasure. Thanks to our guest, Kirsten, for some of these recommended reads!
- Sitting Pretty with LoLo: We love LoLo, a vlogger who shares her story as a physically disabled person with fans all over the ‘net. She has great episodes talking about dating across abilities, beauty and hair tips, especially for people of color, and more. We learned a lot from her Disability, Dating, and Relationships episode.
- Unruly Bodies: A digital magazine curated by one of our faves (and Speak About It changemaker) Roxane Gay.
- Big, Big Love by Hanne Blank
- Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby
- Meg Allen - The Butch Project (Photo series about the diversity of butch identities and bodies.)
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