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If Looks Could Kill

Body positivity advocates are trying to break up the toxic love affair between capitalism and beauty standards.

Too tall, too short. Too skinny, too fat. Too skinny-fat, too muscular. Too flat, too round. And if you somehow manage to avoid all of those, the sneaky backhand: too basic. Whether we realize it or not, beauty standards and diet culture shape our conversations about health. Nutrition, mental health, exercise, and dietary supplements are all closely intertwined with the narrative around beauty. To consider them separate is a mistake. 

More than 28.8 million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Of those, approximately 26 percent attempt suicide. This makes disordered eating one of the deadliest mental health issues in the country. Specific demographics are particularly susceptible to eating disorders, such as girls and women aged 6-25 and high school and college athletes. 

Eating disorders are primarily associated with women because they make up the majority of the diagnoses and are the most vocal about the problem. But on average, one-third of people with eating disorders are men, and 25 percent of people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are men. Many factors contribute to disordered eating, not least of which is our cultural rhetoric around body image. 

You have probably noticed the nationwide conversation about body positivity. Celebrities like Rihanna, Jameela Jamil, JAX, Demi Lovato, Lizzo, Mindy Kaling, and so many others are fighting against the relentlessly inconsistent narrative of how our bodies are “supposed” to look. Instead, they are promoting a message of self-love—which, in essence, translates to relinquishing self-judgment about your appearance and appreciating your body exactly how it is. 

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For centuries, standards of beauty have shaped culture and behavior. And more recently, in the past 100 years or so, the diet industry has reinforced and profited from these standards. In 2022, the diet and weight loss market was valued at $175.44 billion and was “expected to grow at a CAGR of 8.50 percent between 2023 and 2028, reaching a value of $282.53 billion by 2028,” according to Expert Market Research. 

Beauty standards are not a new concept, but the profitability model deployed across social media by the diet and weight loss industry is a relatively recent phenomenon—and it is having a profoundly negative impact on mental and physical health. Targeted advertising of diet products and influencer marketing, combined with practically inescapable exposure to photoshopped and perfectly angled social media posts, has resulted in The Grand Illusion: The idea that you, the consumer, are drastically over (or under) weight, and unless you find a way to fit these standards, you cannot be considered attractive.

Logic would dictate that some people must be regarded as the pinnacle of beauty, that someone must have reached the perfect fat-to-toned ratio to satiate the beast of the public eye. But this is not the case. Even those widely considered the most beautiful women in the world publicly state that their images are photoshopped, that they have teams to make them look “perfect” before a public appearance, and that they, too, have struggled with insecurity and significant mental health issues. In a recent interview, Florence Pugh told Vogue, “From the moment you start growing thighs and bums and boobs and all of it, everything starts changing, and your relationship with food starts changing.” So, the question becomes, what are we striving for, and at what cost? 

The answer is simple: money. The age-old business model of creating a problem in order to sell a solution lies at the heart of the diet and weight loss industry. By creating an unattainable beauty standard, and then shaming consumers who do not fit that mold, the diet and the weight loss industry generate a problem that can be solved with their, and only their, solution. The issue with this model is not that it makes money but that it does so by hurting consumers. The good news is that this system is beginning to experience some pushback from powerful women determined to change the narrative. 

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For example, let’s look at the lingerie industry. Savage x Fenty fought back against the unattainable beauty standard popularized by Victoria’s Secret with their 2018 launch of inclusive, body-positive lingerie. They sold out of their inventory in two months and, after just five years, are poised to become the leading lingerie brand by 2025, according to Culturebanx. Furthermore, Savage x Fenty experienced a 200 percent growth last year, compared to Victoria’s Secret’s consistently declining sales as they have fumbled to adjust to the cultural shift toward inclusivity. But Rihanna’s move didn’t just bury the legendary lingerie brand in terms of revenue. It contributed to a massive shift away from the impossibly thin beauty standards endorsed and sustained by Victoria’s Secret. And four years after the launch of Savage x Fenty, this first step toward body positivity in a traditionally toxic space still reverberates in the omnipresent world of social media. 

Victoria’s Secret, a single released by JAX in 2022, took social media by storm as the singer-songwriter called out the infamous brand for perpetuating unattainable beauty standards that drive young girls to various forms of self-harm. If you haven’t already listened to the song, you should because it’s more than likely that your child has. The massive viewership of the original video, which featured JAX sitting in her car playing it for the young girl she babysits, prompted the company to respond with a statement apologizing for the harm caused by their brand in the past and promising to be more inclusive moving forward.

Similarly, actress Jameela Jamil is attacking corporations that are touting toxic messages and targeting them at young people. The self-proclaimed “annoying neighborhood watch,” Jamil has made it her business to loudly and publicly call out companies and celebrities pushing harmful products. One example is her retaliation against an Avon campaign that read, “dimples are cute on your face (not on your thighs).” Jamil clapped back on Twitter, saying, “And yet everyone has dimples on their thighs, I do, you do, and the clowns at @Avon_UK certainly do. Stop shaming women about age, gravity, and cellulite. They’re inevitable, completely normal things. To make us fear them and try to ‘fix’ them, is to literally set us up for failure.” Her retaliation was met with actual results. Avon responded with a public apology and a promise to “remove this messaging from [their] marketing materials moving forward.” 

With hospitalization and even death on the line, the cost of encouraging young people to strive for an impossible standard of thinness is too great. Specific demographics are at a much higher risk of being negatively affected by social media campaigns conducted by the diet and weight loss industry. Because social media is such a central part of most adolescents’ lives, their level of exposure is exceedingly high. And it starts as early as elementary school. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), “By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their weight or shape. 40-60 percent of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.” 

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Athletes are also particularly susceptible. According to NEDA, “35 percent of female and 10 percent of male college athletes were at risk for anorexia nervosa.” And “58 percent of female and 38 percent of male college athletes were at risk for bulimia nervosa.” 

According to the National Library of Medicine, “A number of studies have examined the correlation between the use of mass media and body satisfaction, eating disorder symptomatology, and negative affect. The majority of the studies have demonstrated a direct relationship between media exposure and eating pathology, body dissatisfaction, and negative affect.” Furthermore, a meta-analysis of 25 controlled experiments evaluating the immediate effects of the “thin ideal” revealed that the “effect was stronger for…participants less than 19 years of age”(Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002). 

Marketing campaigns that shame people by playing off manufactured insecurities in order to sell a solution are not new. 100 years ago, cigarettes (which suppress appetite due to the nicotine content) were advertised as a weight loss tool. Today, we see the exact same thing—only this time, it is the Kardashians promoting an appetite-suppressing lollipop or a Flat Tummy Co. health shake, designed to reduce bloating (aka a laxative), on Instagram. We now know that cigarettes are one of the worst things for you, so tobacco companies can no longer get away with marketing their products as weight loss tools. But today, thousands of supposedly quick-fix weight loss solutions with unknown health consequences are being targeted at the demographics most susceptible to eating disorders. And it’s working. 

Even though the body-positivity movement has made great strides, the marketing campaigns for these weight loss solutions are shifting along with the cultural rhetoric. For example, Flat Tummy Co.’s most recent motto is “New year, new tummy. Look and feel your best.” With the simple addition of the word “feel,” this diet company can blend in with the self-care movement—the Trojan Horse concealing their outdated message. They aren’t telling you to lose weight to impress others; they are telling you to lose weight to feel better in your own body. 

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Some might be tempted to look at the body positivity movement and respond with concerns about maintaining a healthy weight. But those who do are missing the point of the body positivity movement altogether. Rampant obesity and the risk of diabetes are valid health concerns, but they are separate from this argument. For too long, people, and women in particular, have been systematically told that the way they look is incorrect. The body positivity movement isn’t about exchanging one judgment for another; it is about respecting the person regardless of what their body looks like. Because how they choose to treat and maintain their body is their business. A simple concept yes, but one that we, as a society, have struggled with for far too long and at too great a cost. 

Although we have come a long way, the wily and wildly profitable diet and weight loss industries cannot be deterred so easily. They see and understand how powerful women like Rihanna, JAX, and Jameela Jamil are changing the dialogue around body image and beauty standards, and they are pivoting with that change. The motivation to adjust the conversation around body image comes from a concern for public mental health—because the cost of allowing eating disorders to be fueled by these industries seeking only to make a profit is too great. Supporting the body positivity movement is about so much more than the representation of curvy and plus-sized models. It’s about ending a century of exploiting peoples’ insecurities in order to make a buck. 

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