Body Positivity, Artistic Expression, and Mental Health

Introduction

            It is my aim to understand the ways in which artistic expression effects the mental health of those who follow and participate in the body positivity movement. Body positivity is a common topic of contemporary discussion, and a loosely formed movement has come into being in recent years. The majority of research done on the movement seems to be on social media participation, but others participate in different ways as well. As the movement expands, so too do the ways in which participants express themselves and reach a broader audience.  

Perception of the body plays a major role in our social role as human beings. The emergence of the body positivity movement, in recent years, has aimed to change our own perception of ourselves and of others. Many people actively contribute to the body positivity movement through artistic expression. I set out to discover more about how this contribution effects the mental health of those who are creating and sharing it. I began with several questions; does creative expression of the body have a positive effect on those who engage in it, is it necessary to share that with others or is there additional impact to the consumers of these creative works, and how does it all tie into overall body image and mental health? Through the use of semi-structured interviews, I will attempt to answer these questions as they pertain to two body positivity movement participants and determine how their experiences fit into the movement as a whole.

Self-reflection

My own experience with body image and the body positivity movement has influenced my choice to investigate this topic further. I have engaged with this movement through the consumption of creative works and social media myself, and I have struggled with my own self-image as it pertains to body positivity. I was interested to learn how the people I see as advocates for body-positivity see themselves and if their participation effects their individual mental health in the same way I believe it has helped myself and others. I consider myself a consumer of the messages of the movement and feel that these messages have had a positive impact on my own mental health.

Theory

The theoretical method I have chosen to inform the writing of the paper is the critical-interpretive medical anthropology theoretical approach, including the three levels of analysis: the individual body, the social body, and the body politic.  Additionalconcepts such as the medicalization of the body, race, ethnicity, gender, will also be considered as well as symbolism used to represent the body and body image specifically in creative works but also in everyday life as perceived by interviewees. The body as a social symbol of health, both physical and mental, will be explored as well.

There are many ways to view the body, and the viewpoints the interviewees have taken, as well as available literature on the subject have helped to inform which of these aspects are most explored in the paper. Focus is on the contradictory nature of the body positivity movement, self-improvement, and mental health and ways in which artistic expression changes engagement with the movement.

Data and Methodology

Primary qualitative data was collected through the use of semi-structured interviews with two individuals: Amy, a bestselling author of body positive romance novels and Peg, belly and ballet dancer, teacher and student in the master’s degree program at Sarah Lawrence in dance movement therapy. Both names are pseudonyms. Questions focused on their individual involvement in the body positivity movement, the ways in which they choose to express themselves, and the perceived impact the movement and self-expression have had on their own mental health.

Additionally, contemporary scholarship on body positivity and the movement has been consulted to add outside perspective to understanding of the topic as a whole and its evolution. The body positivity movement is relatively young, and research into it is scarce but mostly focuses on social media as a hub of body positive activity. The intersection of mental health, artistic expression and body positivity is something that, as far as I am aware, has not yet been researched.

Analysis

Concepts such as cultural constructions the body, medicalization, the body politic. Race, ethnicity, class, gender, will be considered as factors effecting the body positivity movement and how individuals choose to express themselves. Interviewees points of view will be incorporated in both quotes and paraphrases to help support arguments supporting the thesis as found in outside resources.

According to Schepler-Hughes and Lock, western thinking has dominated the way the body has been perceived in biomedicine and anthropological studies (1987). They go on to explain that though we can assume that individuals have a perception of their own body as separate from that of others, the ways in which they view that body in relation to psyche, soul and society can vary greatly from individual to individual. It is this difference in perception of the body of self and others that is foundational to the experience of body positivity.

The body positivity movement is a rebellion against biopower. Foucault’s theory of biopower as a dominant system of control considers biopower as social control imposed upon the self by a standard of prevailing societal norms (Pylypa, 1998). Western society dictates a “thin ideal” as the norm which can make it difficult for women to accept their own bodies (Slaughter, 2019). For example, women are beginning to self-identify as “fat” as a way to take back the power and negative connotations that word has (Moana, 2019). By normalizing bodies that do not fit the social ideal, the movement aims to introduce a way for people to look at and accept themselves and others who might be outside of the social ideal.  

The individual body as defined by Schepler-Hughes, is the most obvious way in which the body positivity can effect change. She says that it is the “phenomenological sense of the lived experience of the body-self.” How we view ourselves is influenced by many factors, but what we see, read and hear are the primary influencing factors the body-positivity movement can attempt to change. The social body, she says are the ways in which we relate the body to society, nature and culture (Schepler-Hughes, 1987). Again, body positivity is aiming to change that as well. Culture is partially created through artistic means, and hence why I feel that it could have a great impact in body-positivity and should be studied in greater depth. These are lofty goals.

Finally, the body politic, as defined as the regulation and control of the body, is a motivator to body positivity activists. In the interview I conducted Amy said that the one thing she wished more people knew was “how much discrimination fat people face in medical settings.” Weight can be a major barrier to health care with biases of practitioners clouding medical judgement and decreasing compassion. This, she said has a big influence on mental health. She mentions other places body discrimination causes problems as well, for example daily micro-aggressions and job discrimination.   

Both interviewees discussed at length, the need for external validation that they find through their art and the influence it has on their mental health. Peg said, “I believe everyone has a desire to be seen,” for her dancing and teaching dance is that outlet, for Amy the same is achieved through her writing.  She said, “isolation is bad for mental health,” which can be hard for authors and uses social media and the internet as a way of reaching readers and colleagues to stay connected. Both women conveyed to me how their art is a way to express their innermost feelings making them feel somewhat vulnerable, but it is not enough just to express themselves, they need others to see and approve of that self-expression. While many who participate in the movement get pushback for doing so, even the negative feedback can be a way to feel seen.

Each interviewee had unique experiences as well. Peg had a lot of internal conflict as her own body changed. She felt that as she lost weight, she was no longer allowed to participate in the body positivity movement as when she was at a heavier weight even though the messages she received and promoted remained the same regardless of her size. She acknowledged that her body weight often fluctuates, but the importance of loving her own body at every size did not change.

As a dancer, she discussed the way the body is perceived as a symbol of health and expression. The industry has very specific standards they expect in the bodies that are making art, but, she says, dance should not be for only one specific type of body. The benefits of dance can be gained by any type of body.

As a teacher she became conscious of the language she uses with her dance students when talking about the body. She mentioned how, historically, the language used in dance could be seen as problematic, negatively influencing body image. She now opts for metaphors when describing body position, which often helps more than more standard methods of discussing posture and form. She uses metaphors from nature and invokes imagination when discussing the way the body ought to move in dance, especially for younger dancers who may not yet have fully formed ideas about their own bodies. She feels that she is in a unique position as a teacher and a future therapist to influence the body image perception of young dancers as they find ways to express themselves and become comfortable in their bodies.

Amy, on the other hand, as a romance writer, focused more on the idea that all people in all bodies are deserving of love. While the movement proclaims that “all bodies are beautiful” very few people actually promote this idea, she says. Each participant focuses on the issue most important to them. Amy writes characters of a larger body size, something she says she relates to. She believes that the “all bodies are beautiful” message is important but will only write protagonists who struggle with their body because it is bigger. She told me about feedback she has received from readers telling her how much it means to them to read about characters with bodies like their own finding love. People want to see themselves in books and be able to relate to the stories on a level that resonates with them. Writing diverse body types helps more people be able to engage with what they read on this deeper level. The symbolism used in literature, like romance novels, can be used to help others to be more comfortable in their own bodies.

Both women could see some level of gatekeeping and irony within the movement. While the idea seems entirely positive, upon closer inspection, participants are only pushing the idea that one type of body is worthy of attention and a lot of negative language is often used towards “normal bodies”. Often, it is fat bodies that are the focus. Amy said that this is “the first time in history” discrimination against fat bodies is being addressed, though it has always been a problem. The movement is also almost entirely geared toward women though we are beginning to see more male participants.

The movement is in its infancy, and Peg believes that it will never reach the same kind of status as feminism or other major cultural movements, but that it is effecting change, though slowly. Both interviewees felt a level of responsibility in expressing themselves in authentic ways as a way of keeping expectations realistic.

They both said they struggle with body-image and mental health regularly, and by openly admitting that, they set realistic expectations for others. Peg says, as a dancer, “there is truly no way to be in your body and hate your body,” emphasizing her belief that expression though dance is among the best way to self-acceptance. Amy says she continually works on her own self-acceptance so that she can “walk the walk”. Others look to her as a role model for self-love and she needs to try her best to act in a way that in in alignment with her message.

As briefly mentioned above, problems with the movement certainly exist. Influencers within the movement send mixed messages by conforming to societal beauty norms by engaging posed photos, accompanied by high fashion and cosmetic usage while saying that this is what they are combatting (Moana, 2019).

Peg had conflicted feelings about the way many influencers are driven by commercial means, gaining monetary sponsorships from companies that promote “healthy living” products. Amy took issue with the ways women who are a part of the movement shamed conventionally accepted bodied women with commonly heard phrases like “real women have curves” or “men prefer women who are soft and full.” Men, transgender, minority and disabled bodies are often left out of the conversation.

Conclusion

The potential future impact of the body positivity movement is broad but may not come soon.  Notice of the movement is slow to catch on outside of those it directly affects, and research is minimal. The movement needs outside advocates. The types of artistic works that are being created that support bodily differences is increasing and moving beyond Instagram and the internet. In my research I found evidence of not just authors and dancers participating, but painters, photographers, cosplayers and journalists creating works about body image, self-love and fat acceptance.

Individual experiences vary, just as individual bodies and individual psyches do. Intersectionality should be more completely addressed in body positivity conversations. However, it is as a collective of individuals speaking out with the same message that I believe can influence real change. People’s lives are affected on a daily basis by not only their own perception of their bodies, but by the expectation’s others have of their bodies. All three levels of the body as defined by Schepler-Hughes are important to consider in the body positivity movement, and more anthropological scholarship is needed to consider each of them in depth. I believe that additional scholarship is the missing piece needed to move body positivity forward and make real change.

Bibliography

Moana, Aroha. “#Bodypositive :|bperformances of Body Positivity by Influencers on Instagram.” Massey University, 2019. https://mro.massey.ac.nz/handle/10179/15302.

Slaughter, Natalie. “How Can Storytelling Facilitate Body Positivity in Young Women Struggling with Their Bodies?: Literature Review.” Expressive Therapies Capstone Theses, May 18, 2019. https://digitalcommons.lesley.edu/expressive_theses/119.

Crawshaw, Trisha L. “Rock and Rolls: Exploring Body Positivity at Girls Rock Camp.” Fat Studies 9, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 17–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/21604851.2019.1603502.

Lome, Jordan Kass. “The Creative Empowerment of Body Positivity in the Cosplay Community.” Transformative Works and Cultures 22 (September 15, 2016). https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2016.0712.

Pylypa, J. (1998). Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the Work of Foucault to an Anthropology of the Body. Arizona Anthropologist, 13(0). Retrieved from https://journals.librarypublishing.arizona.edu/arizanthro/article/id/452/

Scheper-Hughes, N., & Lock, M. M. (1987). The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1(1), 6–41. https://doi.org/10.1525/maq.1987.1.1.02a00020

Thomas, Martina and Jason A. DeCaro. 2017. “Body Image Models among Low-income African American Mothers and Daughters in the Southeast United States.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 32(2): 293-310.

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