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An effort to get us past ‘heroin chic’

Social media can have a huge, mostly negative,

Social media can have a huge, mostly negative, impact on mental health and has exacerbated a cultural obsession with body comparisons. Credit: iStock

At the beginning of summer, it used to be popular to ask: “Are you beach body ready?” But this summer, the body positivity movement has underscored that all bodies are “ready,” and you should wear what you want to the beach.

But would you actually feel uninhibited?

I don’t remember the last time I met a woman who fearlessly loved her body. I’ve occasionally spoken with young women who feel pretty good — but never fully carefree — about their looks. Often, their body image spurs deep anxiety.

It’s no secret that social media can have a huge, mostly negative, impact on mental health and has exacerbated a cultural obsession with body comparisons. A study by the Royal Society for Public Health, a British nonprofit organization, ranked Instagram and Snapchat as the worst social platforms for body image. In the early days of Instagram, the hashtags #Thinspiration and #ThighGap were common, which seemed a throwback to the days of the waifish Kate Moss standard of beauty, or “heroin chic” in the 1990s.

Some years later, in stark contrast prompted by the online feminist community and the impossibility of being an adult woman and weighing 90 pounds, hashtags like #BodyPositive and #Fitspiration started the body positivity movement. The movement is not only about weight acceptance, but also encompasses all the things women are taught to hate about their bodies (body hair, stretch marks, etc.). It has created an Instagram community of people — 6 million tags on the #BodyPositive hashtag — not afraid to show off their imperfect bodies. It encourages women to care about overall wellness.

Why is it then — in our post-heroin chic, #BodyPositive society — that we are still so self-conscious? That emphasis on wellness, unfortunately, allows for the same kind of self-body-shaming we saw in the age of the supermodel. Only this time, it’s disguised with fresh concepts — more politically correct and, therefore, harder to criticize.

A movement that began with honorable and even radical intentions has been co-opted by the usual suspects — diet magazines, sexy underwear ads, etc. — that dictate norms of the female body. They have managed to replace critical language (Lose 10 lbs. in 1 week!) with positive lines (Love your curves!). In doing so, the body is more tightly linked with happiness, which creates a moral imperative to love oneself.

Professor Heather Widdows of the University of Birmingham, author of “Perfect me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal,” wrote in an email, “You can now escape the tyranny of thin if you are ‘shapely’: ‘Strong is the new sexy’ we are told. While the addition of curves to the thin silhouette potentially expands the beauty ideal, ‘firmness’ is also incredibly demanding: either by constant diet and exercise to build the right curves in the right places, or in the form of cosmetic surgery (for instance breast implants on an otherwise thin frame).”

This popular look is often referred to as “slim thick” — an exaggerated version of the hour-glass figure. It comes from a mix of the body positivity movement and an increasing mainstream acceptance of and appropriation of hip-hop culture. It requires a very tiny stomach — think Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj.

The movement is progressive in that it encourages women to confidently post pictures on Instagram of “larger” bodies — to make a statement about transgressing the norms that the website often exemplifies.

The problem is, the main focus is still on the female body. While hopeful, it’s unrealistic to expect that the majority of young girls who have received years of conditioning to be thin in the right places can drop all and love themselves with the use of a hashtag.

Isobel van Hagen is an intern with Newsday Opinion. Follow Isobel @IsobelvanHagen.