Another year, another series of Love Island, another round of calls for more body diversity on the show. Yes, all of the contestants continue to be cardboard cut-outs of conventional beauty – tall, tanned, toned, tattooed, with abs you could grate cheese with – but I’m not sure that greater inclusivity and representation is the answer. All that would happen is that audiences would call the ones that weren’t buffed and bronzed and stereotypically beautiful “brave”, “confident”, “role models for body positivity” who should be “celebrated” for flaunting their flaws and embracing their imperfections.
And herein lies the ultimate contradiction behind the body positive movement: for all its seemingly innocent and innocuous intentions, all it does is reaffirm the idea that our value and self-esteem should be dependent on our looks. Telling women to call their stretch-marks “tiger stripes” or to take photos of their belly rolls simply adds to the already overwhelming pressure to be hyper-fixated on our appearance.
On the one hand, seeing celebrities post about their cellulite may indeed help to break up the endless carousel of filtered “Instagram faces” and unrealistic body shapes that are responsible for so much body dysmorphia. But then, I can’t help but be aware that there is an insidious shame behind these self-love mantras, because body positivity implies that you should feel guilty if you don’t worship and parade every aspect of yourself.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood writes that there are two kinds of freedoms: freedom to and freedom from. Body positivity has given us the freedom to love our bodies, but it can never give us freedom from thinking about them altogether. As a teacher, I want to tell teenagers that their looks don’t always have to be noteworthy – that the goal isn’t necessarily to look in the mirror and think “wow”. Body neutrality, instead, is about observing yourself without judgement, and seeing our bodies as vessels that carry us through life, that allow us to dance, run, swim, laugh and connect with the world around us.
The problem is that body neutrality is becoming increasingly unattainable because it relies on a degree of ignorance when we live in a world of constant exposure. A few years ago a friend of mine was asked by a student how to get rid of her “hip dips”, the indentation some of us have just below our hip bone. The teacher told her that they were just the result of her bone structure, and that she should embrace them. As someone who has worked at two boys schools, I can confidently say that I have never had to tell my classes to “embrace their hip dips” because I can guarantee most of the boys don’t even know what hip dips are (though one can’t help but wonder for how much longer). Men don’t have to be told that they are “brave” for showing their imperfections because they don’t see them as imperfections in the first place.
Body neutrality is impossible on a show like Love Island, where the name of the game is voyeurism and physical attractiveness. Yet we should still strive for it in the real world, not through acceptance, which implies awareness that we have supposed “flaws”, but through reminding ourselves and others that there are always much, much more important things to think about.
[See also: The philosophical case for not wearing make-up]