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20 October 2023

Toxic positivity movements are gaslighting women

Celebrating pain does not make it go away.

By Pravina Rudra

In an Instagram video liked by 175,000 people, an influencer posted footage of her and a man dancing around a room. The text overlaying the reel said: “My husband started a ritual: on the first day of my period we celebrate. We find joy in this phase of life together & acknowledge my body.”

Ethicallykate, who has 44,400 followers, gushed over this “forced celebration” around something that can otherwise make her “grumpy & sad”. Most women I know who are haemorrhaging blood would hit a man who force-pranced them around a room. Or, who in the case of another Instagrammer’s boyfriend, tried to stroke their (empty) womb and say to said womb “I love you”. But we live in a world where periods and many other things can no longer be accepted or viewed neutrally. Instead, they must be celebrated.

The past decade saw the rise of “positivity movements”. Bodies, mental health, singledom, sex and death were no longer to be feared. But now mere positivity is turning into something else. You cannot simply mourn or feel bad about a relationship ending. TikTok will offer you “break-up party ideas” and “break-up glow-up” makeovers. Being told you’re sensitive is no longer indicative of a (sometimes unhelpful) character trait, rather it points to possession of a “superpower”, according to various influencers. In one post liked by 59,000 people, a “Self Worth Coach” mused for 13 paragraphs about how people at a party had made fun of her displaying “passion for the fresh nectarine” (me neither), declaring she needed people who “CELEBRATE my expression” for pitted fruit. It could not be, of course, that the partygoers in question were simply teasing her – she suggested “this behaviour often comes from a place of insecurity”, and that “people that behave in this way are hurting”.

Maybe the most telling aspect of constant self-celebration is that it comes at the cost of celebrating or respecting others. Male friends tell me that one of the most common cliches they see on dating app profiles is, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.” It has become the norm to lead by demanding not only that a total stranger embraces your worst qualities, but to suggest that they’re unworthy if they don’t. I increasingly speak to women who proudly who tell me they’re single because men cannot “handle” them in all their glory. Rejections in dating, friendships and everyday interactions can’t be shrugged off as down to incompatibility – they’re about people being worse than you.

[See also: Where do we belong now?]

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The problem with exaggerated celebration is that it doesn’t work. When Pinterest bombards you with twee quotes about how ageing is a “PRIVILEGE”, you feel guilty for experiencing a normal human reaction to, say, having to confront death. It feels hollow when a friend suggests you were dumped because you were too wonderful for him. So-called toxic positivity is often described as gaslighting yourself – and underlying it is the sense that someone, somewhere is trying to sell you something. Why wouldn’t you buy from someone who tells you that everything about you should be glorified on high? In the case of periods, it’s the brand Always talking about being our “most unstoppable self”, rather than just “fine”. In the case of the fresh nectarine influencer, it’s a set of retreats for “visionaries” called “Leaders of Love”.

The celebration epidemic is best exemplified by the celebrations British people have imported from across the Atlantic. We now have £1,000 hen weekends, baby showers and gender reveal parties to celebrate an unborn child being either a boy or a girl (it was always going to be one of the two!). Americans are making up for their holiday allowance with this sort of thing, but it begs the question of what we’re trying to compensate for.

In establishing whether any of this works, look at the world’s largest “positivity movement”. It celebrates our bodies. Studies find that body positivity often backfires by pushing people into feeling good about something and depriving them of agency; that watching a body positivity TV programme can increase anxiety as much as watching a show about fashion models. Hence the recent shift towards “body neutrality”: viewing bodies as something women needn’t base their worth on. Men are said to naturally possess this; it’s not that chaps “celebrate curves”, it’s more that they occasionally glance down at their stomach rolls and don’t think much more about it. It’s good that periods are no longer considered gross, that being dumped isn’t taboo. But they don’t require celebration, just an acknowledgement that they can be uncomfortable parts of our existence.

The elephant in the room is that it is women who feel obliged to celebrate so many things. It’s likely a reflexive push against the way quirks of the female experience were previously stifled; a backlash against the pressure on women to look, behave and age in certain ways. But we’ve overshot past what would be a real triumph for women. The antidote to negativity isn’t blind exaltation – just factual acceptance.

[See also: Bridget St John and the power of folk memory]

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