​how social media is making us body positive

From calling out Topshop for its painstakingly thin mannequins to campaigning for the return of #curvy, the rise of online activism has allowed us to engage with issues surrounding our bodies in a more proactive way. But are people in it for the likes...

by Tish Weinstock
14 August 2015, 3:01pm

Last week the internet was awash with stories about Topshop, and its really, really, ridiculously thin looking mannequins. Put off by the forms' emaciated legs and thigh gap so wide you could drive a truck through it, customer Laura Berry took to Facebook to call the retail giant out. "Young women aspire to the somewhat cult image your store offers..." she wrote, "Yet not one mannequin in your store showed anything bigger than a size 6." The whole of the internet was behind her, hashtags at the ready and hungry for blood. 

What started as a single online post soon snowballed into a Twitter revolution, as women the world over waded in on the debate. Even the broadsheet media got on board the brand-bashing bandwagon. Moved by the public's protest (or motivated for more online hits) numerous magazines picked up the story on their websites, spreading the body positive message even further. It almost counters the fact that magazines are one of the main culprits of promoting unrealistic ideals of beauty in the first place.

Now, most of us are intelligent enough to realize we'll never be as elongated or as alien-like as the mannequins we see before us -- proportionally it just wouldn't work -- but for impressionable young girls battling their way through the growing pains of girlhood, these plastic dummies are lusted after like #lifegoals. Which is why speaking out against them is so important.

The same outcry occurred against the highly sizeist, deeply sexist ads for a new collection of weight loss products, from a brand that nobody had ever heard of. Positioned in nearly every tube station in London's Underground, and now New York's Subway, was a bright yellow poster depicting a scantily clad model with the slogan "Are You Beach Body Ready?" Protein World's ad campaign was an affront to women everywhere. Reacting against the campaign's body shaming bullshit, hoards of women of all shapes and sizes posted pictures of themselves online, wearing bikinis and standing next to the posters in defiance, as the whole of the Central Line shook with the fury of many a woman scorned: "You're damn right we're beach body ready."

More than 50,000 women signed an online petition, while others staged a protest in Hyde Park, which they'd organized on Facebook. "The reaction to the Beach Body Ready campaign nearly brought me to tears," says the proudly "plus size" model, Barbara Ferreira, "I'm so happy and proud of women for taking a stand against such a disgusting ad that was put there to try and make girls feel insecure enough to pay money for their bullshit product."

But it's not just high street stores and big consumer brands that are sizeist: the very social media platforms which give us a voice in the first place are also guilty of trying to silence us. Notorious censor of nipples, Instagram, caused controversy last month when it blocked the body positive hashtag #curvy, while things like #thin and #vagina were still very much at large. Which is actually pretty shocking: because not only did the ban prevent women from searching for images of curvaceous role models, or, you know, even just your average sized woman who's - shock! horror! - comfortable in her own skin, the banning of such a hashtag acts as a literal metaphor for how society outcasts women who don't conform to a certain body type. Naturally the whole world took to social media to express their outrage, signing online petitions left right and center in order to bring the hashtag back. But, of course, not all size-related labels are as body positive as the term "curvy", which is why some women have taken to the internet in protest.

Established by Australian model Stefania Ferrario, #droptheplus is an online campaign that aims to redefine how we think of "plus sized" models, celebrating them for who they are, whatever shape or size. While the campaign had garnered quite it a bit of attention online, it wasn't until Stefania posted a picture of herself, topless with "I AM A MODEL" printed across her stomach that people really began to take notice. "Unfortunately in the modeling industry if you're above a US size 4 you are considered plus size…" She said, "I do NOT find this empowering... I'm NOT proud to be called 'plus', but I AM proud to be called a 'model', that is my profession!" From 4,000 posts on Instagram to hundreds of retweets on Twitter, more and more women were showing their solidarity by standing up and speaking out against the fashion world's derogatory categorization of models.

Tess Holliday, at size 26, is the largest model to sign to a major modeling agency. In 2013 Tess took to Instagram to launch #effyourbeautystandards a digital campaign that puts a middle finger up to mainstream standards of beauty. "I was tired of being bullied online by people and being told what I should be wearing and how I should present myself because of my size. #effyourbeautystandards has almost a million shares now, with women of all shapes, sizes and colors using the hashtag to highlight unretouched photos of themselves in all their beautiful glory.

More and more women are taking to social media in reaction to society's body shaming. But what effect do all these examples of online activism actually have IRL? Are they just clickbait candy for the criminally bored? Are people just in it for the #likes? Often denigrated as a symptom of a detached, lazy or apathetic youth, one could easily assume that clicktivism carries about as much weight as a Buzzfeed listicle about cats. But to think this, would be to grossly underestimate social media's power as a tool for change. Because, whether it's liking someone's status, signing a petition or retweeting a reactionary post, thanks to the widely cast net of social media, a single click can turn into a global revolution, as women the world over can unite against patriarchal bullshit. Indeed, all it takes is one person to challenge the dominant narrative surrounding the female body, before the whole of the digital world joins in. What's more, big consumer brands are finally starting to listen.

Last week, Topshop released a statement promising to get rid of its skinny minnie mannequins. "We have taken yours and other customers' opinions and feedback on board," they posted, for the whole world to see, "going forward we are not placing any further orders on this style of mannequin". Reinstating #curvy, Instagram also admitted defeat, so you can now search for the body positive hashtag till your heart's content. Meanwhile, online campaigns like #droptheplus and #effyourbeautystandards continue to challenge the way fashion engages with the female form, paving the way for a body positive future. So the next time you come across something that makes you feel like you need to change your body, tweet it, post it or start an online petition, either way it's time to unite with like-minded people by hashtagging yourself into the body image revolution.

Social Media
Stefania Ferrario
Tess Holliday
Body Positive