When Ashley Graham posted a photo of her body on Instagram last summer, it should not have been particularly radical. Seeing Graham, a supermodel, in this capacity is what his followers can expect. But this picture was different. An intimate close-up of Graham, who had recently shared her pregnancy, showed stretch marks, cellulite dimples, and, perhaps most significantly, meat rolls on the bra line and stomach. The photo has accumulated over 1.4 million likes and over 23,000 comments, many of which include heart emoji, thanks and the word Beautiful repeatedly. The reverence and appreciation of his followers was as overwhelming as the obvious desire for more photos like this.
Body diversity is not Graham’s mission alone. In recent years, the body’s positivity movement has infiltrated the world’s social media feeds, stories, and pop culture awareness, and with that a fascinating trend has emerged: a focus on one body part that many (even me, like the oversize – or, my favorite descriptor, “fat” – body image advocate) struggles to hug – the soft, soft stomach.
More curvaceous women with this feature are often referred to as the “Rubenesque,” after the voluptuous female nudes captured in fleshy detail by painter Peter Paul Rubens five centuries ago – women whose body type was the ideal of the time. Rubens’s affairs, usually themes of Greek mythology, used to include women relaxing or writhing, their bodies irresistibly smooth-looking. The Flemish artist is quoted as saying, “My passion comes from heaven, not from earthly reflections.” Whether it is specifically about painting women or not, it certainly speaks to “heavenly bodies.” They are from another world. And suddenly Rubenesque is starting to feel increasingly modern (and desirable) today.
On the modern Instagram screen, curvaceous models such as Paloma Elsesser, Tara Lynn, Ali Tate Cutler, Tess Holliday, and Charli Howard have built up dedicated social followers, often gaining more likes and engagements when they post clear images of their rollers. Some influencers, such as Megan Jayne Crabbe, who has over a million followers, built entire communities to normalize their shape.
On the catwalk, the rollers were hidden in Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty show, where models like Margie Plus, Raisa Flowers and Alva Claire walked in lingerie beloved by the singer (praised for her size range of XS-3X and 32A-46DDD). Once it was almost always hidden, now it moves proudly forward and center. Witnessing this celebration of a body type we used to hate uniquely brings me an indescribable amount of joy; It is evident that a cultural change is happening.
But the change was not simple and linear. It’s a complex evolution that has occurred over the years, and now seemingly minute by minute in our social feeds, with bold, no-excuse activists, hashtags, and photos. Despite the trolls in the comments, it is still this visual exposure – and a new celebration, not just voyeurism – that promotes acceptance. Not unlike the way our eyes need to adjust to the new silhouettes that appear on the catwalk each season, repeated exposure to larger body images can help break our fixation on the singular slim ideal. A UK study found that showing participants a “visual diet” with more images of larger figures made them view these bodies more favorably.
Repeated exposure to larger body images can help break our fixation on the singular slim ideal.
Obviously, because our conditioning is incredibly deep, in that same study there was a persistent weight bias among the participants. However, the results showed that neuroplasticity seems to work, and the more visual evidence we see of the diversity of sizes that exists in our world, the greater our ability to appreciate all bodies, including ours.
Historically, a woman’s body shape has undergone significant changes in what was considered ideal. Fit underwear includes bras, corsets and bras; Desirable silhouettes ranged from hourglass pinups from the 1950s to Twiggy to Kim Kardashian.
Redefining what we consider beautiful or even acceptable isn’t as easy as marching a new hemline down the runway.
Over time, a thin mandate merged with a long cultural tradition of policing women’s bodies and a specific concern for women’s bellies. Millions of women know this concern as the emotional ordeal of trying on a two-piece swimsuit. Recently, only the large size of influencers like Gabi Gregg has shed light on the fatkini – a bikini made for larger bodies. So while you may find some cut tops in the plus section of mass retailers like ASOS and designers advocates like Christian Siriano and Prabal Gurung, the large sizes still represent only 7% of the retail market, leaving the average woman a size. 16, with a lot less shopping options.
Given this story, redefining what we consider beautiful or even acceptable is not as easy as marching a new line on the catwalk. It is a difficult battle. Consistent images of plus size models help change the tide, but some of the most popular plus models are still below average size and usually have relatively flat stomachs.
To me, as a fat woman with a still socially taboo stomach, these images make me look even more like an outcast: too big to be included, even within the world of body acceptance. The lack of stomach images that roll without bending leaves many women still out of the revolution. Many activists have to ask, “Where are the arms? Where are the thigh movements? The answer seems pretty obvious: arm and thigh movements often require a level of fat that is still a hallmark of ill health, regardless of the fact that size and health are not equivalent. The body’s positivity movement still has a weight limit for now.
In the early days of the current social media-driven change, the movement had an uncomfortable start, like most movements. Gina Susanna, the body acceptance advocate behind Instagram’s positive account of popular body @nourishandeat, has shared her struggle with a serious eating disorder for years, including her recovery. “I started posting what seemed radically liberating: photos of me, no longer hiding my soft, soft parts, but detaching them and hugging them,” says Susanna. “And I created a hashtag that resonated with this personally important step: #embracethesquish. Before I knew it, #embracethesquish took off. “
But along with hundreds of messages of gratitude came a flood of comments calling on Susanna for highlighting her “little privilege,” leaving her confused and hurt.
“Body positivity is for everyone, I thought,” she shared with me years later, after having time to reevaluate her mission. “Just because my body doesn’t represent everyone, it doesn’t make my message harmful … right? Wrong. My healing exists within a larger framework of privilege and oppression. Nothing exists in a vacuum.
For many women, however, “embracing squish” is a great first step – a crack in a strong base that has long concealed fat or attached a layer of shame to a body that did not seem the “norm” when naked. There are now about 44,000 hashtags #embracethesquish on Instagram.
The word squish has so much potential for positivity that model and author Charli Howard even launched a beauty line called Squish earlier this year, backed by a social media community rooted in Howard’s body positivity agenda. Each step away from the glorification of thinness, whether it is a beauty product, an accompaniment, a selfie, or a conversation, is a victory for the person taking that step.
When we see images of bodies that disgust or disgust us, these reactions are not related to health or real beauty at all. Not really. These are compulsive reactions linked to old stories about our own bodies. In fact, our eyes adjust to new body shapes similar to new silhouettes – but it takes time. And much more exposure than some parades. This is because body size is still an integral part of our identity and our culture that is deeper than fashion. We cannot see different body types just a little. Our visual diet should be generously generous.
When we see images of bodies that disgust or disgust us, these reactions are not related to health or beauty. These are compulsive reactions linked to old stories about our own bodies.
But what I love about liberating the body is that our freedom from body shame is inherently interconnected. We’re in this together. And while we can applaud the normalization of Rubenesque’s rollers in specific media corners, the next step is to expand the physical diversity we celebrate even more. The most beautiful thing of all? When all sizes are normalized, when there is no perfect standard, all are released. You and I include.