Call us Ugly to Make a Profit

...currently writing from: New York, NY

Although painfully little is known about body dysmorphia and eating disorders, it is clear they are not simply "naturally occurring."

Instead, they are a complex mix of social forces and poorly understood mental health issues. However, there is little doubt that eating disorders and body dysmorphia have become epidemics.

This leads the body positivity movement to several important questions. How do we come to develop better social and scientific understandings of body issues and mental health? How do we identify who is responsible for the social forces that cause increasing rates of eating disorders and body dysmorphia? Finally, how do we organize to fight these forces?

To paraphrase New York University Professor Vivek Chibber: everywhere people struggle for their freedom, equality and liberation, someone tries to stop them. Oppression is created and enforced by distinct groups of people who benefit from the unequal balance of power they create.

We must identify who proliferates unhealthy concepts of the body, how they profit and how to fight them. The most obvious culprit is the advertising industry and its counterparts: the Music Industry & Hollywood. However, despite increasing coverage of the unhealthy body standards pushed by these industries, little has changed.

Advertisers will occasionally boast a few Photoshop free ads but these tend to show exactly the same array of “flawless” bodies we see in other ads. In fact, without an announcer loudly proclaiming the lack of Photoshopping, the ad would be barely discernible from any other.

Hollywood and the Music Industries’ lack of body diversity have also been well documented. Ultimately, “beautiful” people are big business for these industries, which sell fantasy by making people feel bad about themselves. Whether its beauty, glamour or sex, ads are designed to make people feel both that they are missing out and that they don’t have to be, so long as they buy X and Y product.

While progress is being made, it is critical that the body positive movement decide how to organize to combat these institutions. We have to debate seriously how to wrestle power from companies that dominate our culture and are loyal only to profit. Keeping Professor Chibber in mind, it is important to understand that these industries do not want to change and that by pressuring them, we are cutting into their bottom line. We should be prepared for industry backlash. We must foster a healthy community of debate to arm ourselves with stronger counter-arguments and strategy. We need to build networks of activists dedicated to erasing the social forces of body oppression and we need to build a political strategy for doing so.

The body positivity movement is more than one devoted to fostering a safe community in which to share our frustration with the sickness that is our dominant culture’s idea of beauty. By offering alternative standards of beauty, the body positive movement challenges the hegemony of those institutions that create and replicate these unhealthy standards.

Now it is time to take that challenge seriously and develop it into a pointed and effective force for social change. This means finding a way to curb the power profit has over our cultural institutions.

This movement, like any other, should understand itself within the wholly uneven fabric of American power and the network of movements dedicated to challenging it. Like the beauty industry, patriarchy and racism are the "enemy."

Patriarchy bred the commodification of women and all the poisonous notions of the body and beauty that go with it. Racism marginalized black women and men from mainstream representations of beauty. We are as much against the exploitation of cheap black and Latino labor as we are against the beauty industry profiteering off our own body insecurities. We are as much against mass surveillance and police brutality as we are against those institutions that force unhealthy body standards on our society.

To extend Chibber’s quote, everywhere there is oppression, (under Capitalism,) someone profits. Police brutality impedes black and Latino struggle, while bosses profit from cheap labor. In the beauty industry, women are commodified and Photoshopped before they are mobilized against inclusive and unprofitable notions of beauty.

We must remember: “profit” is the enemy, and corporations, (in their structure,) are only loyal to their bottom line. A CEO may have a conscience but she or he will be replaced as soon as they displease the company’s amorphous body of shareholders. The “conscience” or “socially minded” corporation only exists as long as it is profitable. We are only shown Photoshop free models, as long as they are still able to make money off of them.

Changing our consumer habits is not enough. It is passive, and only begs, “Give me other choices.” We need direct political action to strike at the heart of American inequality.

We must seize the instruments of power and shape our choices for ourselves.

What we decide is beautiful is our choice to make and money should not have anything to do with it.

 - Kevin Burns