Image Credits: Fashion Collection designed by ALOK & Adrianne Keishing. Photographed by Abhinav Anguria. New Delhi 2017
Histories of movements are usually tough to trace because written histories often fail to document experiences of people from the margins. So, while the body positivity movement is said to have begun in the US in 1960s with the formation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, accounts of the movement in Black history indicate that conversation around representation of fat and Black women and Black consumerism had begun during the early twentieth century.
As in the US, in India too, the idea of beauty is driven by socio-cultural and political attitudes and expectations. Colourism is rampant in our society and darker skin tones are often associated with lower castes. While there is no documented history of the body positive movement in India, there have been a few feminist critiques of the commodification of women’s beauty and their body that globalisation has brought about.
Amidst these resistances, the body positivity movement started as a protest against the capitalist diet and beauty industry which present an idealised image of physical beauty. It promoted the idea that it is subversive to have a body that is despised and discriminated in society and love it anyway. As the movement grew in popularity, its messaging shifted to “all bodies are beautiful” and everyone should love and accept their bodies, irrespective of how they look. This was just before the body positivity movement was appropriated by the market economy. Several fashion brands began to use models across different body sizes to appear more inclusive. In India, for instance, much of the body positivity discourse as seen in mainstream media is limited to Hindi film actresses like Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, or Huma Qureshi who become the icons for curvy bodies and actresses like Nandita Das or Sushmita Sen become the “dusky beauties.” However, the aesthetic does not extend far beyond the savarna cis woman and the linkage between beauty and consumerism remains unquestioned.
The body positivity movement has, over time, come to encompass several schools of thought. Some body positivists look at make-up and cosmetic surgery as means of self-expression and bodily autonomy. Others within the body positive movement feel that these means are products of capitalist patriarchy and don’t hold themselves back from shaming people who use make up or undergo cosmetic surgery.
Irrespective of where one lies within the conversation around body image, beauty standards, and body positivity, the narrative has been largely centred around cis women, though cis women of colour and women from marginalised castes are often missing. However, the conversation gets further complicated when we try expand it to include trans narratives.
As body positivity in its purest form calls for self-acceptance, it often denies trans persons’ desire to change their body to align with their gender identity. Several (not all) transgender persons often experience gender dysphoria which is a feeling of discomfort or dissatisfaction between the gender assigned to them at birth and the gender that they are. While dysphoria is not limited to one’s physical appearance and is often connected to how one is perceived in society, several times this dysphoria is also manifested in the form of discomfort with the physical body. At the same time, transgender persons also face the constant pressure to “pass” and conform to the beauty standards of the gender they associate with, in order for their gender to be affirmed by society. The unrealistic standards of beauty that are set upon cis-gender persons are also set upon transgender persons.
In a cis-normative world, dysphoria is often perceived as body negativity. The idea that gender is a social construct is often used to argue that the desire to physically transition is to aspire to conform to the way in which gender is constructed in a patriarchal world. This is often incorrectly understood as transgender persons becoming victims of the patriarchal stereotypes of gender and the body.
However, it is often forgotten that even while gender maybe be a social construct, there are real-life ramifications of how gender gets conceptualised in society. When bodies get assigned a gender at birth, people’s right to self-determination is often completely negated. This can not only damage one’s self image and lead to mental health concerns, it can also lead to physical and sexual violence while accessing public spaces. It is not rare to come across instances of trans persons being violated for not “passing.” Hence, the cost of not fitting into the normative standards of the body can be much higher for transgender persons than most cis people can imagine. To interpret transgender persons’ desire to conform to their gender as their desire to conform to the patriarchal gender binary is highly reductive.
Furthermore, as it is understood that beauty standards are being set through binary gender norms, the subversion or conversations around body positivity are also interpreted through a very gendered perspective. As a result, the non-binary person is almost completely erased from this conversation. However, the market which has been quick to capture and appropriate queer identities has not refrained from creating beauty standards for non-binary persons. It’s the tall, athletic, white, and perfectly androgynous models that are fast gaining popularity within the fashion industry. While fashion gurus have predicted that the future of fashion is gender free and gender bending clothes have graced many runways, trans persons themselves are rarely seen donning them. The icons for gender fluid fashion are often cis men known for their avant-garde style like Black American actor and singer Billy Porter or, closer home, actor Ranveer Singh. However, we do get to occasionally see genderqueer icons like actor Ruby Rose, singer Miley Cyrus, or rapper Jaden Smith. While visibility is good, in the absence of a consistent and conscious challenging of structural inequalities, it may often leave trans persons pushed into a double bind—they are made to feel guilty for not accepting and loving their bodies and unless their bodies align with the societal conceptualisation of gender, they are constantly negated.
As long as body positivity is only about “loving one’s body irrespective of how it looks” rather than “loving one’s appearance that does not conform to gender binaries,” transgender persons will not feel at home within the body positivity movement.
If we are to understand body positivity from a trans perspective, it is important to decentre existing notions of body positivity to recognise that transgender persons have been doing body positivity for long. For gender non-conforming performer Alok Vaid Menon, body positivity is related to their fight for the creation of a world in which everyone can safely self-determine their gender and all gender expressions are considered valid and appreciated. Sayantan Datta, a queer-trans feminist neuroscientist, science writer, and communicator says that “decision making about our own bodies is something that cis hetero Brahminical patriarchy has taken away from us for centuries now and we need to get into the process of reclamation.” Hence, trans persons have been doing body positivity simply by resisting and celebrating life in a society which despises bodies that do not fall in line with the gendered notions of beauty. Under such circumstance, to self-determine one’s gender and one’s body, to manifest one’s identity through the body, to organise against discriminatory policies and institutions, and to cultivate self-care becomes revolutionary. "Let’s stop saying someone is 'struggling with their gender identity'," says Jeffrey Marsh, healer and non-binary activist, reminding us that “(u)sually, we trans folks struggle with the binary-obsessed/phobic society that won’t let us be." Shifting the onus from the individual on to society within the body positivity movement is key. And it means that the standards of beauty being propagated must be severed from gendered notions thereby queering the idea of body positivity.