The Shape of Things To Come – Body positivity and Confidence

A growing group of self-loving body-positivity warriors will stop at nothing to defend, celebrate and promote the acceptance of women of all shapes, sizes and colours. Trolls, be warned.

Everyone is allowed to exist and have a part in this life, no matter how much space they take up on this Earth.” This statement, from the popular blogger and plus-size model Karyn Johnson, could easily pass as the motto for the body-positivity movement, which, thanks to a growing team of activists, continues to pick up steam.

Still, no one can argue the movement doesn’t have its work cut out for it: according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, 50 per cent of Grade 6 girls in Canada are on a diet, and only a shocking 36 per cent of girls in that grade would call themselves self-confident.

Johnson is one of many activists who’s doing her part to correct that. Her journey in the body-positive movement began after her blog, Killer Kurves, evolved from a straightforward fashion-and-beauty advice resource for plus-size women to a platform that promotes self-love and acceptance. “I started getting messages from women, thanking me for helping them dress their bodies, and love their bodies, again,” says Johnson. “It changed the game, and I knew I had a whole new responsibility to them.”

She started posting articles about body positivity on her blog, sharing more selfies and promoting other plus-sized beauties on her Instagram page. A scroll through Johnson’s feed reveals considerable confidence. Her comment section is a sea of praise, with only one or two bad fish in it. She often ignores them or smiles as she watches a few of her more than 70 thousand followers put the haters in their place.

Those steadfast reactions from Johnson’s followers are a window into how broadly the body-positivity movement is being supported, and how entrenched its position is becoming.
Take, for another example, Playboy Playmate Dani Mathers, who late last year was charged with a misdemeanour after she body-shamed an unclothed woman in the dressing room at LA Fitness by posting a picture of her, along with a cruel caption, on Snapchat. Within hours Mathers was banned from the gym franchise and suspended indefinitely from her job at a local radio station.

Yoga teacher, public speaker and activist Dianne Bondy says she was pleased to see how quickly other women came to the victim’s defence. “I loved seeing women speak up to defend other women and say, ‘No way, that’s not what we’re about,’ and empower one another,” she says, recalling how catty and competitive women were when she was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, during the diet-industry boom.

The Burlington, Ont., native has been practising yoga since the age of three, but she claims she is an “accidental activist.” It wasn’t until she started attending local yoga classes that she realized no one in the industry reflected her body type or colour — plus-size and black. This prompted Bondy to publish the article “Yoga Isn’t Just for Skinny White Girls” in the Elephant Journal, and she was quickly dubbed an activist in the early days of the movement, when social media wasn’t quite at its peak. Since then, Bondy has owned a successful, and inclusive, yoga studio in Windsor and now regularly speaks at seminars about self-love, body positivity and female empowerment.

In 2016, Bondy joined Penningtons’ ongoing #iwontcompromise movement. She showed off her best yoga poses in a TV ad focused on shattering common misconceptions about plus-sized women and their ability to do, well, anything. The video went viral and garnered more than one million views.

“When you think critically about the messages we’re receiving, you start to see who is benefiting from you hating yourself, and who is benefiting from body-shaming,” says Bondy. “People are just starting to wake up to the idea that it’s OK to be OK with the body you’re in and that it’s OK to take your power back from an industry that is only interested in keeping you buying things that don’t work.”

Still, those industry messages are insidious. According to statistics posted to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) website, nearly 30 per cent of high-school girls engage in weight-loss behaviours.

Marbella Carlos, an outreach and education coordinator for NEDIC, who herself has experienced an eating disorder, intimately understands what those girls are up against. Her journey to recovery was her inspiration for wanting to give back to the community and work with an organization like NEDIC. In her role, Carlos educates those struggling with eating disorders about the media and how to process the unrealistic standards imposed upon them.

She is beginning to see some positive change.

“There’s a whole trend now that’s happening, where personal trainers are showing the world the unedited versions of themselves and what they look like before and after editing and Photoshop,” says Carlos. “I think it’s great that we’re able to see the ‘behind the scenes,’ not just the overly processed and edited versions of people.”

Carlos stresses the importance of thinking critically about what we consume on social media, and of remembering that often what we’re seeing is just a highlight reel and not the full feature. “When you’re looking at someone’s selfie, understand that they probably took more than one shot before posting,” says Carlos, who believes it’s especially important to encourage media literacy among young men and women during their formative years.

Sam Sisakhti, founder of the popular e-tailer UsTrendy that allows up-and-coming designers from around the world to post and sell their looks, agrees.

“Our customers started posting photos of their purchases on social media and I couldn’t believe the amount of body-shaming and cyberbullying that was going on,” says Sisakhti. “I thought, ‘Our demographic is young women, and if at this age they’re getting this kind of [negative] response from their peers and complete strangers, I need to do something about it.’”

Through his organization Believe in Yourself, the body-positivity movement translates into real-life campaigns for change. The American non-profit offers girls new designer dresses to wear at school functions, recitals and other special occasions. Believe in Yourself visits community centres and low-income housing neighbourhoods to deliver the garments and spread the message of body positivity through mentoring and celebrity guest speakers.

Discouraging body-shaming and encouraging women to love and accept the skin they’re in is everyone’s duty. It requires activism from everyone. This starts with being mindful of what we post on social media — are we manipulating our images to conform to arbitrary beauty standards? If so, we need to focus on loving ourselves first and foremost. Change will follow.

Photos by Erika Reid Photography, Jeff Broeders, Alice Xue Photography, Jason Poulin

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Rebecca Alberico

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