'We're still stuck': Why online 'body positivity' is holding us back

Influencer and designer Arielle Charnas faced backlash after sharing this photo of her post-partum body to Instagram. Image via Instagram.

Mommy-shaming, like body shaming, has undoubtedly become one of the ugly by-products of social media. Put the two together, and you have the kryptonite for any progress women have made towards body liberation.

As a lifestyle reporter, I frequently cover instances where celebrities and public figures have spoken out as advocates for size acceptance or, conversely made the target of body criticism online.

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Like any movement, the social media world of body positivity is constantly evolving. As the number of influencers that represent different sizes and intersections of race and sexual orientation continue to build their platforms, we move forward in the quest to undo years of damage by diet culture. By working through the layers of entrenched beliefs of what constitutes “beauty,” “femininity” and what’s been deemed “desirable” the movement exposes the ways in which diet culture is used to preoccupy, control and repress women.

Image via Catie Lynch, LCSW, MSW.

For all the good that the body positive movement brings, it is not without its faults. In the conversation of size acceptance, the focus shifts mainly towards bodies that have historically been branded “unhealthy.” While larger bodies or those with cellulite and stretch marks are celebrated for being “real” and dispelling myths about beauty and value (all good things by the way) there can sometimes be unfair criticism given to smaller or slim figures.

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Recently, Arielle Charnas, the woman behind the lifestyle blog and subsequent fashion brand Something Navy, became the latest example of the all-too frequent shaming of thin bodies.

The 32-year-old mother of two recently shared a photo of herself to her personal Instagram account, posing in a green bikini with the caption, “Proud of my body after two kids.”

While the blogger turned designer earned support from her more than 1.2 million followers, she was quickly branded “tone deaf” for not recognizing her thin “privilege” or being “genetically blessed.”

“Your followers are living in the real world, where most don’t have access to the foods you do, and certainly not the personal trainers that you do,” one of Charnas’s female followers wrote. “Genetics plays a huge role as well, so this pic should come with a Disclaimer. Pictures such as these (of a subnormal too thin small-framed small-boned woman, who is probably a slave to her body) are a danger to the real women other there who enjoy food, who aren’t as genetically ‘blessed’ and are at their healthy normal, meat on their bones, curvy best!”

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The criticism extended off of Charnas’s page and was picked up by actress Amanda Seyfreid. In a post to Instagram, Seyfreid applauded her unnamed friend for calling out a “semi-influencer” for a photo that perpetuated the idea of the “post-baby bounce back.”

Seyfried shared a screen-cap of the lengthy comment, which included: “Honeychild, you are glorifying an unhealthy body image (I don’t care if it’s ‘natural’ don’t even try that sh-t with me) in a society that already fetishizes the adolescent female form. Young girls don’t need any more images of emaciated women thank you very much.”

In my early 20s, I was undergoing treatment after a relapse in my eating disorder, when a doctor asked me “What would you do if you stopped criticizing your body?”

I sat perplexed, until sensing my confusion, he added, “If you took all the hours that you spent criticizing your body and dieting, what would you do with that time instead?”

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At the time, I had no idea. I had no clue what I would do if suddenly had the space in my mind and day to do something else. What did I want? What did I want to do? I think of this moment every time I come across body criticism in a news story, or whenever I catch myself picking myself apart: I’m stuck. I’m not growing, I’m not learning and I’m not moving forward. If I could take back all the years I’ve spent tearing myself apart and punishing myself for not being “skinny” who would I have become? What could I have achieved? By focusing on my body and it’s faults and trying to measure myself against other women, I’m stuck- and that is the entire point of diet culture, to keep us stuck.

While women’s bodies have long been policed by men and media, it becomes a counter-productive betrayal for women brandish one another as “unhealthy” and “emaciated.”

I can’t help but wonder what would have been said if a larger bodied woman posted the same photo, wearing the same bikini, with the same caption. She would have been celebrated, praised and applauded. Instead, the blogger’s body, which is naturally slimmer, was picked apart and ridiculed in the same way larger bodies have experienced for years.

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Just like that day with my doctor, this is another moment where I realize, despite the progress that we’ve made, we’re still stuck. When we criticize one another’s bodies, for either being too big or too thin, we’re keeping each other in a place of shame. I recognize that the targeting of slimmer frames, and the shutting out of naturally slim bodies from the body positivity movement is an over-correction to the decades of coveting thinness that has caused immeasurable pain, shame and self-loathing for women. In knowing this, I empathize with women who believe they are waving the flag for a cause towards body freedom by trying to name and tame any ounce of diet culture or fatphobia that threatens to seep into the collective online psyche. However, I don’t believe that any movement that celebrates health above all should alienate and blame a thin woman for seemingly embodying a construct that has caused others personal pain.

There are thin women. There are fat women. There are women whose body type exist along the spectrum of thin and fat but are never represented in the movement or traditional media. Are those bodies “normal” or “average?” Is a body included in celebration only when it shows signs of physical change? Are mothers only considered “part of the club” when they show physical scars, like stretch marks and sagging skin?

When we say all bodies are beautiful, and that all bodies deserve to be celebrated and accepted, there is no asterisk at the end of the statement noting a weight stipulation for a woman’s body to be recognized and validated.

The way we think and talk about our bodies holds us back. The way we think and talk about other people’s bodies, holds all of us back.

Do you want to remain stuck or are you ready to move forward? Those are your choices. Choose wisely.

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