When Rihanna had her Savage X Fenty show this past October, people were enraptured by the unprecedented display of body diversity. There were your typical supermodels like Gigi Hadid and Joan Smalls, but there were also plus-size models like Margie Plus and Tabria Majors, and models with disabilities. Even Lizzo was in the show. Anyone with an Amazon Prime account was welcome to celebrate this momentous progress.
In 2019, Savage X Fenty raked in $150 million in sales; Rihanna’s net worth was $600 million. Meanwhile, by 2019, Amazon Prime had amassed 100 million members, meaning everyone’s favorite multi-billionaire, Jeff Bezos, continued to grow his incomprehensible fortune. Obviously, people subscribe to Amazon Prime for more than the Savage X Fenty fashion show, but I don’t think partnering with someone as beloved as Rihanna hurt their membership count—just as it definitely didn’t hurt when Savage X Fenty used the body-positivity movement to its advantage.
In fact, if it weren’t for the diversity of Savage X Fenty’s campaigns, not even Rihanna’s starpower could have elevated the company to the success it’s found as an all-inclusive lingerie brand. Celebrities like Heidi Klum and Candace Swanepoel have also released their own lingerie and swimwear brands and haven’t had a fraction of the success Savage X Fenty has; though neither of these models are as famous or beloved as Rihanna, the main reason they haven’t enjoyed as much praise is that their lines don’t show the kind of diversity modern audiences are craving. It’s inclusivity (plus Rihanna) that has made Savage X Fenty such a monumental success, though it’s interesting to wonder how many fat people of color had to labor to create a bra or build a set for her fashion show. But at least Rihanna is in her bag and has a model with prosthetics, honey!
Savage X Fenty isn’t the only company profiting off people’s desires to see more fat, Black, brown, gay, and/or disabled people in the media we consume. Other brands like Aerie, Christian Siriano, and even Victoria’s Secret have featured models that don’t conform to the stereotypical stick-thin girl who has defined what it means to be beautiful since Twiggy became popular in the ‘60s. Back then, thinness was the image advertisements put out, implicitly shaming anyone who didn’t abide by these strict standards.
Beauty standards have evolved throughout all of civilization. Look at any statue from Greco-Roman times and you’ll find a woman with rolls and an hourglass figure; in fact, fatness used to be desirable as a sign of wealth and power. But thinness has been more permanently cemented as an aspirational beauty standard because of the ubiquity of advertisements. For the last sixty years, nearly everywhere one looked––billboards, magazines, advertisements, movies––there was a beautiful, thin girl in lingerie, applying perfume, wearing the latest trends, donning the newest lipstick. Marketing campaigns are almost always in our faces, and they’ve indubitably shaped our desires and our perception of the world. Because of this, the natural evolution of beauty standards has been usurped by the images of beauty manufactured by the media. It’s advertisements that have projected the stringent, inflexible idea of thinness being beautiful.
Knowing this, why are people so insistent on advertisements and the media reversing this beauty standard? How can the ones responsible for perpetuating the beauty ideal also be responsible for eradicating it? If anything, this has only given the media more power to control the narrative of who is beautiful and who isn’t. Despite there having been more and more calls to defy Eurocentric beauty standards, top plus-size models like Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence, Paloma Elsesser, and Barbie Ferreira all still abide by these standards. They all have pronounced jawlines, small noses, and an enviable bone structure; the only thing separating them from the supermodels of the ‘90s is that they’re fat. At least, they’re considered fat because they have fat rolls adorning their noticeable curves. This isn’t subverting beauty standards, though—it’s simply expanding them. Adding newer, more inclusive criteria to beauty standards won’t eliminate the pressure people everywhere feel to live up to a certain aesthetic; it will only compound it by increasing the number of traits to which people aspire.
Social media is no different. Influencers of every shape and size have decried thin-centric beauty standards, often sharing pictures of them proudly displaying their body in lingerie with a long caption about the importance of “loving ourselves in spite of our flaws.” Another common occurrence is an influencer posting two pictures side by side: one of her sitting, courageously allowing her rolls to spill over her leggings; the other of her sitting up straight, flexing her abs for the camera. The influencer’s caption then goes on to emphasize the myriad ways social media has tricked us into believing beautiful women always look beautiful––sometimes they sit and have rolls, too. I’d link to any one of these examples, but I’m sure if you’ve ever looked at your Explore page or visited any popular influencer’s page, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Moreover, many of these same influencers and celebrities (like the Kardashians) will denounce body-shaming and then later subject their followers to a post sponsored by FitTea. Others, like Jameela Jamil, will go in the opposite direction, ardently dedicating their social media to fighting “fatphobia” and developing companies like Jamil’s I Weigh. While this seems admirable in theory, the most material success Jamil’s company has had is influencing Facebook and Instagram to change their policies around advertising detox products to minors. Really, the most potent effect of body-positive activism has been expanding the activists’ personal brand and granting marketing executives more power to determine our ideas of beauty.
Despite the emergence of this body positivity, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia continue to plague men and women of every body type. If people truly want “body positivity,” then they should donate to organizations aimed at helping those with these conditions, or at least pressure these corporations who are profiting off body diversity to instead use those profits to fund treatment for eating disorders––rather than simply celebrating these companies’ calculated, ostensible support of the body-positivity movement.
Instead, as mentioned earlier with Savage X Fenty, companies are eagerly heeding the calls for diversity and are supplying products in XL, XXL, and even XXXL. The other day I was in a Nike store and there were “fat” mannequins. These mannequins had no faces, were made of eggshell white plastic, and were curvy. I’m not sure how plus-sized mannequins are expected to cure someone of their body dysmorphia, but they did provide a great way for Nike to display their $70 XL leggings. These corporations don’t care about the horrible body-shaming they perpetuated for years—they just care about selling their products to a new market. They also know if they have noticeable diversity in their marketing campaigns, people will purchase from them. They only have their profit margin in mind, and could care less about the impact they’ve had on people’s lives.
I’m not against “body positivity,” whatever that means; I am against the way it’s manifesting as yet another way for corporations to profit off problems they’ve given the public. If the media hadn’t spent decades perpetuating such a strict beauty standard, there would be no need for a body-positive movement. But now we’re in the midst of one, and celebrities are growing richer from supplying plus-size clothing, while body-positive activists’ only concern is ensuring advertisements preach self-love.
Meanwhile, healthy, nutritious food is still inaccessible to a large part of the world’s population, meaning those without access must resort to cheap, harmful junk food to survive, thus contributing to our obesity epidemic—but at least they can fit into a pair of Old Navy jeans, which now come in bigger sizes. If people truly wanted to be “body-positive,” they’d focus less on people’s outward appearances, and ensure people can eat an abundance of nutritious food, feel their best, and make their appearance a byproduct of their health. They’d fund people’s eating disorder treatments. They would do anything besides helping media companies and corporations profit off an insincere concern for body diversity. Until people reject the media’s ability to construct our beauty ideal, there will be nothing but more standards.
Illustration by Lily Lambie-Kiernan for Vice