The Approval of Others
Stories in the news about body positivity have bothered me for a long time now. For much of that time, I’ve struggled to understand why, which has also bothered me. Generally speaking, I'm all for individuals questioning and challenging societal norms, doing their own thing, and finding self-worth in a mind that seems designed for self-loathing. Some would argue that that’s all body positivity is. So what about it bothers me?
I think I’ve finally figured it out: As a movement, body positivity is a request for outside permission to accept oneself. It places an individual's self-opinion squarely in society’s eyes and hands, and gives great (and undue) value to the same shallow, external standards that it rejects.
I’m not arguing against body positivity at the individual level. I’m arguing against what I see as a misguided aspect at the movement's core, this idea that alliances must be formed and permissions must be granted to be who or how you are or want to be.
The desire for outside approval is real. I get it and feel it, too, which is no doubt part of why it irks me. Evolution designed us to want to be liked and accepted so we can keep breathing and reproducing. So of course we look to others for signs of approval or disapproval. And because we are wired to give more attention to negative information than positive, we naturally give more weight to people’s disapproval.
This tendency is rotten, but it can be countered. The way to do it, though, is not to try to convince others to accept us. The way to do it is to go inside ourselves, to stay aware of the tendencies that do not serve us and work on ways to fight and overcome them, to acknowledge how misguided they are, and then to just try to remember it.
And as long as I'm already peeling back the layers on this, I might as well go one more deep: buried beneath everything noted above is my underlying annoyance with the fact that, here we go again, telling people that they are victims of some vague, abstract, external oppressor, and that their character arc in life is dependent on changes occurring outside of them rather than within.
That is bullshit. With some things in life, you are not enough. With this thing, you are. You don’t need anything more than what you already have inside.
Okay, one more layer; this one on the oppressor–oppressed relationship: Like all movements, body positivity has its well-meaning actors and pioneers. But it also has its share of bad actors and provocateurs. Those who merely want you to comply—in this case, with the idea that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder after all, but rather in the draconian hands of society, and so it is therefore on you to accept that physical beauty is something that everyone just inherently has now, lest you be vilified.
The tactic (with body positivity and in general) goes something like this: present an unreasonable proposition as though it's a reasonable one, then pretend that those who object to it are oppressors and those who presented it are noble crusaders acting on behalf of the oppressed, and then collect status points.
And that, too, is bullshit.
Body Positivity & Beauty Standards
According to its Wikipedia entry as I type this, body positivity is:
a social movement focused on the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities, while challenging present-day beauty standards as an undesirable social construct. Proponents focus on the appreciation of the functionality and health of the human body, instead of its physiological appearance.
I have some gripes with that description. I don't, for example, think it's true that proponents are inherently focused on an appreciation of health (see, if nothing else, the Adele fans who felt “very betrayed” by her weight loss). Nor do I think it’s intellectually honest to disregard the fact that beauty is primarily a biological adaptation—as opposed to only a social construct—that has led “men and women from all cultures” to “agree on who is and who is not attractive.” But I'm going to leave those gripes alone (for now, at least) to stay focused on the more guiding gripes that I mentioned up top.
As part of my job, I look for signs of progress in the news. The stories that I’m about to comment on are ones that I looked at first through that lens. The lens from which I ask questions like: Is this progress? Is it likely to be a net positive or negative? What are the consequences? Is it the right thing to do? And so on.
Someone sent me an article a while back that helped me clarify my position on body positivity and understand why it rubs me the wrong way. It’s about both face and body positivity and framed as follows: “amid a growing emphasis on authenticity, people of all ages are reconsidering the urge to alter their appearance.”
On the face of it, that sounds like a good thing. It sounds like more people are placing less importance on their physical appearance, and what others think of it, and moving away from cosmetic surgeries that they don’t need. And there are a few anecdotal points in the article to that effect. But also in the article is the inconvenient fact that “millennial and Gen Z-age women are still driving an overall increase in procedures, according to a report [in 2022] from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.”
The report shows that “more than three-quarters of cosmetic-focused plastic surgery practices are seeing more business than before the pandemic, with nearly 30 percent reporting their business has at least doubled.”
On top of that increase, what much of the article is actually about is how more people are choosing to reverse the surgeries they’ve already had “in an attempt to revert to a more natural look.” In other words, the whole “people of all ages are reconsidering the urge to alter their appearance” framing is simply not true, at least not in any way that I see supported in the article. Unless I’m missing something, the piece—from a fashion and beauty magazine, mind you—is largely about how people are getting more surgery, not less, to alter their appearance to meet modern beauty standards, including the actually socially constructed ones spurred by the movement that purports to be against society's obsession with outward appearances.
On top of all of that, let’s not forget that purely cosmetic surgery is and always has been a choice. I’m not judging anyone who chooses to get it or not get it. Your choice matters not at all to me. Do what thou wilt. But there’s no tyrant at the helm. It’s just you.
Then there’s this photo essay I saw about L’Imperfetta (The Imperfect), an Italian modeling agency that aims to “redefine beauty” by highlighting “ordinary women and their imperfections.” Again, on the face of it, I’m mostly on board with that. (I say “mostly” because I’m all for clearing a space for “ordinary women and their imperfections;” I just don’t think it changes anything about the meaning of beauty.)
What gets me with this one is the unworkable nature of (a) the call for the rejection of external judgments on beauty and (b) the call for the external acceptance of this particular kind of beauty. To illustrate this as concisely as I can, I’m just going to list a few of the notable points and paradoxes that I see.
The agency began as an Instagram account and asks applicants for a link to their Instagram account.
One of the models in the piece, a university student with albinism, talks about how she “felt beautiful for the first time” after “she let her natural hair color grow out and began posting photos on Instagram.” She goes on: “I felt it was my essence, as though it is me, as I really am.” That’s genuinely very sweet and touching to me, and I happen to think that she is beautiful, but I’d be even more moved had she said something like, “I let my natural hair color grow out and felt so good about myself that I said fuck the dumb hot noise of Instagram and deleted my account.”
“The agency counts more than 140 models,” which I’m guessing—but not sure—means it has some sort of standards for determining who is or is not an acceptable combination of ordinary, imperfect, and exceptional. What about those who don’t qualify? What then? A new agency? One with no bar for acceptance or exclusion or any reason for existing at all?
And yes. I said exceptional. Because modeling agencies are kind of like sports teams in that they’re both all about pulling the exceptional from the more ordinary among us. So a modeling agency for the truly ordinary seems hard to pull off. A modeling agency for the imperfect but still exceptional, on the other hand, seems workable. And if you look through the photo essay, I think you’ll see multiple examples of models who fit that description. The lead model in the piece, for example, Sonia Spartá, who has dark spots on her face and body from a form of hyperpigmentation, is about as drop-dead gorgeous they come (I suspect that’s biological adaptation signaling, by the way, not social constructs). And while I’m sympathetic to the cruelty she talks about being met with as a child, I don’t think it’s any accident that the essay opens with a close-up of her. With all due respect to Spartá and all of the agency’s models, some might even cite this as an example of “pretty privilege.”
Okay. That’s enough from the news. What do you think about all this? Where do you land? Is it progress? Is it a road to greater self-worth? Or is it still just people looking for acceptance and trying to meet shifting beauty standards, still just people posting pictures to Instagram and saying "Is this okay?" and hoping that someone else says "Yeah"?
The writer Susan Orlean began her January 1995 New Yorker article, "Orchid Fever," with this sentence: "John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth."
I know this because Orlean’s article about Laroche formed the basis for her 1998 book, The Orchid Thief, which was later adapted (more or less) into the 2002 movie Adaptation, a film that I enjoy very much.
A (contextual) summary of Laroche: a guy who did not wait to be told whether or not things like having no front teeth were okay was sought ought and placed in a magazine, book, and movie, not in spite of his not giving a fuck about societal standards, but because of it.
If you've not seen the film, you can read about it here, or go watch it somewhere. As it relates to the rest of what I'm about to write, you can just keep reading. Because I'm going to tell you everything you need to know to follow along right now. Also, spoiler.
There's a pivotal scene near the end of the film where twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman are lying on their backs while hiding in a swamp. They're being chased by the Orlean and Laroche characters, who are trying to kill them.
Charlie, the film’s protagonist, is a self-absorbed, self-loathing, anxiety-laden writer. His character—who also happens to have a negative body image, by the way—is based on the film's real-life screenwriter. In the swamp scene, Charlie is deathly afraid and losing his shit. Meanwhile, Donald, who is essentially Charlie's confident and competent (albeit dopey and annoying) opposite, is composed and thinking more clearly. Then this happens:
Charlie: I don't want to die, Donald. I've wasted my life. God, I've wasted it.
Donald: You did not. And you're not gonna die.
Charlie: I wasted it. I admire you, Donald, y'know? I spent my whole life paralyzed worrying what people think of me. And you—you're just oblivious.
Donald: I'm not oblivious.
Charlie: No, you don't understand. I mean that as a compliment.
There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.
Donald: Oh, God. I was so in love with her.
Charlie: I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was being really sweet to you.
Donald: I remember that.
Charlie: And then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. And it was like they were laughing at me. You didn't know at all. You seemed so happy.
Donald: I knew. I heard them.
Charlie: Well, how come you were so happy?
Donald: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn't have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.
Charlie: But she thought you were pathetic.
Donald: [Laughs] Well, that was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That's what I decided a long time ago.
[Charlie and Donald sit there for a long while in silence. Charlie starts to cry softly.]
Donald: What's up?
Charlie: Thank you.
Donald: For what?
That's always been my favorite part. We get to see Donald's underlying nature in full definition for the first time, and then we get to see Charlie see it, also for the first time, and then we get to see it change Charlie.
Interestingly, upon revisiting the scene and movie for the first time in years the other day, I was let down by the line "You are what you love." It doesn't work. At all. Not in the film, and not in life. It is meaningless. Donald was not Sarah Marsh, after all. And even if we stretch the words to mean that, say, a person who loves movies is a movie lover, or that a person who loves writing is a writer (which they're not necessarily, by the way; a person who loves writing is a person who loves writing; a writer is a person who writes), I mean, okay, but big fucking deal, right? It means nothing, sounds like a dumb Instagram post, and diminishes the dialogue some.
"I can love whoever I want," and no one else has the right to take that love away, or to take anything away, for that matter, from whatever I choose to let live inside me. That's the real message. The one that cuts deep and is worth holding onto. We can all love whoever we want, even if they don't love us back, even if they think we’re pathetic, and even if they are us. That's where the coal hits the fire, that moment when Donald's wholeness and Charlie's brokenness finally collide and make meaning.
"Your characters must change," the screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee says earlier in the film to Charlie, who’s struggling desperately to overcome his anxiety and writer’s block. “And the change must come from them,” McKee adds. “Do that and you'll be fine.”
You Don’t Need Permission
Letting what others think about us determine what we think about ourselves is, at least in some ways, an evolutionary defect, an idiotic human flaw that can and should be opted out of.
Adaptation—and I’m not talking about the movie anymore—is not about asking your environment to change so you can accept and stay true to yourself. It is about staying true to yourself and growing so you can thrive in any environment.
The former is a spiritless request to be coddled. The latter—which is hard and takes courage and requires challenging and improving yourself—is a rewarding road to self-empowerment, resilience, and self-worth.
Society doesn't need to adapt to you. It doesn’t need to accept you. Not when it comes to your self-worth. That’s on you. You’re not what you love. You’re what you do, and who you choose to be. If who you want to be is not who you already are, then it’s you who must change. And that change must come from within. You don't need permission. You just need to do the work.
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