This week, women sizes 14 and up will compete in the Miss Plus America pageant in Atlanta. There will be interviews, pant wear and evening gown shows, and a “photogenic photo” contest. Some will view this event, like many celebrations of big women’s bodies, as a victory for inclusiveness. “I knew there had to be other women out there like me who didn’t want to be held back from an experience just because of their size,” the pageant’s founder, Melissa Stamper, has said. But as a 24-year-old single woman and eating disorder survivor, I view such efforts differently.
When I was in the throes of anorexia as a teen, “men like curves” and “women can be sexy at all sizes” were the last things I wanted to hear. Like many eating disorder victims, I was afraid of being “sexy” and viewed “curves” as prerequisites for catcalling, sexual assault and the kind of ogling that made me feeling like a walking set of body parts, a potential conquest. It’s no surprise that the average age for the onset for anorexia is between 9 and 12, when breasts and other sexualized body parts develop. Victims I met in treatment programs, many with histories of sexual abuse, used starvation and overeating alike to dodge sexualization. But no matter what their motives or symptoms, their recoveries required realizing that they were more than objects — not that they could be objects at any size.
Overweight people face plenty of discrimination, particularly in the workplace, and battling that is worthwhile. But objectifying women of all sizes is the effect of many efforts currently made in the name of body positivity. The beauty pageant is an extreme example, but we see the same attitude conveyed every day in ads such as those in Lane Bryant’s #Imnoangel campaign, which features curvy women in lingerie describing what makes them sexy, and photography collections like Carey Fruth’s “American Beauty” series, in which women of different body types imitate the iconic nude “American Beauty” cover, and Victoria Janashvili’s book “CURVES,” which showcases plus-size models in seductive poses. And the Internet has been singing the praises of Ashley Graham, a size-16 model who posed for an ad in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition. The people — often women — behind these projects usually undertake them to show that it’s okay not to be size zero. But while they may succeed on that front, they also replicate images that feminists deemed disempowering when they featured size-zero models — the same images that made me afraid of my own body. Inserting bigger women into the photos doesn’t change that. It just conveys that a diverse array of women can be sexually appealing — and I’m tired of talking about women’s sex appeal. If this is what celebrating women’s bodies means, I could stand to see my body go unsung.
Of course fat people can be attractive. But why does that matter so much to us, and why does it matter disproportionately for women? The media needs to stop obsessing over women’s beauty, and the parts of the body-positivity movement that receive the most attention right now are not working toward that goal.
What about women who are not sexy even by plus-size standards? What about seniors or those with facial hair? Declaring all women stunning implies it would be tragic if they weren’t. Body-positivity advocates’ desperate attempt to label all women beautiful reflects what they know deep down: that they can’t afford not to be.
There is room for fat acceptance that does not rely on unconditional objectification. This movement would encourage ridicule-free inclusion of larger people in society, work, politics and popular culture depictions that are not always sexualized. In fact, it would resemble previous stands taken against fat-shaming — for men. The recent Internet-wide joke about the appeal of “dad bods” illustrates how only women are told to embrace their curves, partially because it’s already okay for men to have average-looking “dad bods” but also because the media pays less attention to men’s bodies. Reddit and Tumblr communities have lamented this paucity of men’s body-positive resources, but perhaps they are simply harder to identify because they don’t fixate on appearance. Many men’s and gender-neutral body-positive Tumblrs include not just NSFW selfies but also inspirational quotes and personal stories. And earlier this year, when a 4chan user posted a photo of “dancing man” Sean O’Brien at a concert and commenters mocked him for dancing at his weight, supporters on Twitter flew him to Hollywood for a dance party where he could enjoy himself safely. But they didn’t reassure him that he was beautiful. He didn’t need to be.
That is the sentiment that helped me recover from my eating disorder: I don’t need to be sexy. I don’t need to please men. I am valuable no matter what I look like — not because I’ll be attractive at any size but because I deserve to exist even if I’m not. This realization helped me assuage both the fear that I wasn’t pretty and the fear that I was — because validating women for their beauty and invalidating them for their ugliness stem from the same root. By photographing curvy women in provocative poses, body-acceptance advocates are contributing to the same attitude that led to their erasure.
Instead of reassuring women that they can be beautiful at any size, let’s reassure them that they don’t have to be. The media and pageant circuit are now willing to make women of all sizes into objects. Let’s not let them.