The “natural” body movement is unfairly exclusive.

By Ms. Bowen is an entertainment writer.
March 4, 2020
Note: (This is a repost of an article by Sesali Bowen from the New York Times, Click Here to view the original post)

Young black people have, in theory, embraced the concept of “body positivity,” which encourages self-love and acceptance of “natural” features. I wish this movement was a capacious one that not only critiqued unrealistic beauty standards but also embraced all kinds of bodies. Instead, it has been co-opted by women who uphold the status quo by celebrating only conventionally attractive bodies and policing how women can achieve them.

It may be surprising, but the conversation that dominates the body positivity movement is not about hair but about plastic surgery, which has become popular among black millennials, some of whom even go abroad for their procedures or seek underground alternatives to save money.

There are two factions in this conversation. On one side are women like Cardi B, who are candid about undergoing procedures to obtain exaggerated hourglass proportions. The beauty elites of black Instagram, Amber Rose, Blac Chyna and Summer Walker, have all acknowledged having surgical procedures, in some way or another. Plastic surgery, once the province of wealthy white women who sought to keep their procedures secret, is now a trend among black millennials.

On the other side, the much louder one, are those who are adamant that women should have only “natural” bodies. This camp has co-opted the language of body positivity to shame women, including Cardi B, who use plastic surgery to get hourglass figures. Those on #TeamNatural claim that the reality TV star Angela Simmons and the rappers Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion, who both described themselves as “natural,” have ideal bodies.

But these women are all conventionally attractive with flat stomachs and round derrières. The truth is, the adherents of #TeamNatural are upholding the beauty hierarchy that has always existed. They are content to keep the narrow body standard just wide enough to accommodate women like them, but not to radically challenge the standard itself.

The singer Lizzo, for example, is often praised for bringing much-needed plus-size representation to pop culture as a fat black woman. She is heralded for being confident and visible, despite her size. But I’ve never seen anyone bother to comment on whether her body is “natural.” And when she’s smeared with fatphobic comments, #TeamNatural doesn’t rush to her defense. Marginalized bodies — those that are fat, differently abled or trans — are notably absent from the natural camp’s rhetoric. It seems that the so-called honor of being natural seems to be reserved for bodies that uphold existing norms and ideals.

Like many of the things that millennials dive into, plastic surgery has been oversimplified as unnecessary, self-obsessed and harmful. But conventional plastic surgery is remarkably safe. Still, horror stories about women left disfigured or dead after undergoing black market surgeries occasionally go viral; people latch onto them as cautionary tales or exploit them in an effort to publicly shame others. Rather than encourage women to choose only safe options for surgery, those who oppose these procedures condemn women for wanting to pursue them in the first place.

I don’t think that the women who are staunchly against plastic surgery are worried about women’s health or self-esteem; I think they are motivated by fear that their pretty privilege — the benefits they get to enjoy for meeting those standards without the help of a doctor — is at risk. If beauty becomes democratized by more people simply paying surgeons for it, the proverbial finish line gets pushed further away. But upholding a limited body ideal and rewarding the cluster of folks closest to it isn’t the solution. Embracing autonomy and a variety of body aesthetics is.

The notion of beauty is fueled, in part, by exclusivity. Those relatively few who have it are revered. Whether we like it or not, we are all subject to privileges and disadvantages based on our appearance. We enhance ourselves with makeup, hair extensions and fake nails because we are all under pressure to achieve the unattainable standards of Beyoncé and the Kardashians. We adjust our bodies with shapewear and strategic clothing choices. Singling out plastic surgery as both unnecessary and unnatural is missing the bigger picture.

People with marginalized bodies are acutely aware of the consequences of not meeting the standards of physical beauty. Black women’s bodies are constantly policed, targeted for violence, marked as deviant or excessive and mined for cultural appropriation. Fatphobia, transphobia and ableism are part of our daily realities, especially for women of color.

While some of us choose a path of radical self-acceptance and reject the beauty ideals that we’ve been told we haven’t reached, many of us have instead found ways to leverage those standards for our own survival and success. We adopt certain beauty practices, from fake lashes to cheek fillers, in order to pass, to survive and to thrive.

There is no shame in any of these choices when the systems of oppression will always render black femme bodies less valuable than others. A ‘natural body’ movement that doesn’t include all of us is the real danger. We need to make room for weave, highlight and contour alongside wheelchairs, fatness and full 360 liposuction with Brazilian butt lifts.


Sesali Bowen (@BadFatBlackGirl) is the author of the forthcoming “Notes From a Trap Feminist.”
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