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Beyond body positivity: Change, nature and liberation
An essay on body liberation by Marin May of Econudist
Your body is made from stars. It's miraculous and wonderful and you're allowed to love it. And one day it will be soil. It won't always look, feel or work the way you need or want it to, and you're allowed to have complicated feelings about that. You're also allowed to accept and respect your body as simply a tool or vessel. It doesn't have to mean anything. Our physical bodies—both the way they look and function—are not the most important or interesting things about us and no part of their appearance or functionality is guaranteed tomorrow. We exist as temporary states between stardust and soil and we all deserve respect and freedom because we are human, and for no reason other than that.
As physical beings, our relationships to our bodies are complex. No two bodies look or function the same way and no two people have the exact same lived experience, even with similar bodies. There is no singular, universal experience of having a body. It's a complicated thing, involving lots of intricate feelings. In a society that places a lot of importance on the body's physical appearance, negative feelings inevitably arise. But loving your body and feeling positive about it don't always need to be the goal or standard. In fact, forcing yourself and others to be positive about bodies at every moment can actually create the opposite effect. Toxic positivity is a mindset that can cause guilt and shame while bypassing difficult—and valid—emotions that could, in fact, be opportunities for growth. "Positive vibes only" is an avoidance mechanism. "Look on the bright side" implies an unrealistic binary. Life is full of clouds, shadows and varying levels of brightness. Denying difficult emotions doesn't make them go away—it only pushes them down further, where they will eventually boil out in unhealthy and harmful ways. Instead of thinking we must always only feel love and positivity towards our bodies—and feeling guilt or shame when we don’t—we should remind ourselves that it's okay to not always feel great about our bodies. It's okay not to feel okay.
Body neutrality is a newer mindset that centers the body image experience around acceptance and respect. All bodies deserve acceptance and respect not solely because all bodies are beautiful, but because all bodies are human. You should accept and respect your body for the life it allows you to lead, not for the way it looks. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, I fear it doesn't quite go far enough. It's an important ingredient in cultivating better relationships with our bodies, as it takes the focus away from physical appearance and aesthetics and instead places it on what the body can do. But for many people, aesthetics were the least of their concerns in the first place. For those with disabilities and chronic illness, neutral gratitude towards their bodies because of what they are capable of can be just as unrealistic as loving the way they look. People are certainly allowed to have difficult feelings towards bodies that cause them pain and prevent them from living the lives they want to live. Those feelings shouldn't be discounted, and should have no impact on the acceptance and respect they deserve as humans. You are good because you are human, not because your body looks or works a certain way. And your experience as a body is no less valid because it isn't positive. We are stardust and soil—feeling love for the stars and disgust for the soil are equally authentic parts of being human.
As a trans person, my own experience with body positivity/neutrality is complicated. Having discovered naturism at a relatively young age, it allowed me to feel comfort and appreciation towards my body. I accepted it in all aspects of its appearance and function. When feelings of gender dysphoria arose, I quickly pushed them aside—I'm comfortable with my body, why should I change it? But comfort isn't the pinnacle of physical existence. Have you ever seen those photos of Scandinavian prison cells? Compared to North American prisons (and some apartments), they look like luxurious hotel suites but they're still prisons. I had to move past body positivity—and even body neutrality—into something more expansive. Accepting, respecting and loving my body as it looked and functioned wasn't enough. In fact, it was preventing me from living as my fullest, most authentic self.
Stardust and soil. I reminded myself that I was part of nature. My body is an extension of the landscape, made of the same ingredients as everything else. That helped me understand that change and transformation are integral parts of all life on this planet. All physical forms are malleable. Everything changes—even rock. All life exists in constant states of transition. Your body is going to look and work differently tomorrow, whether you have a say in that process or not. Ablebodiedness is a temporary state. Soil is our destiny. Change is the only constant, the only guarantee. You are going to grow. You are going to wither.
Even if you love your body as it currently exists, there is no limit to the amount of joy and authenticity you're allowed to feel towards it. You are always allowed to ask for more. You should always do what is best for your body—whether that is rest, exercise, love, acceptance or dissociation from it. It is all valid. If reminding yourself to love your body and feel positive towards it empowers you, keep doing that. If accepting and respecting your body for its function, not its appearance, empowers you, keep doing that. If you're motivated to work on and change your body, you can do that as well. And if the pain and frustration caused by your body are making it hard to feel anything at all towards it, that's okay too. We should not have to feel guilt or shame for anything about our bodies—its appearance, function or our feelings and goals. We all deserve the opportunity and freedom to do what is best for our bodies.
How do we do that? How do we create that world? Beyond body positivity and body neutrality is body liberation. Disabled and chronically ill people are allowed to not love their bodies. But they should not have to deal with a world that makes their bodily existence even more difficult on top of that. They deserve every opportunity to thrive, however that looks for each individual. Body liberation means freedom for all bodies from all systems and structures that oppress them. It is rights for all people—fat, disabled, Black, Indigenous, queer, trans—to exist as their fullest and freest selves. Body positivity isn’t the road towards liberation, it’s a byproduct of it. Body liberation is what allows trans people to exist safely and freely. It's what prevents fat people from facing medical discrimination. It's how we create a more healthy, accessible and equitable world for all. It's liberation from anything preventing us from living fully and freely—as bodies, as nature.
Your body is made from stars and one day it will be soil. Between all that, you are human. You are a human deserving not only of acceptance and respect no matter how your body looks, works or how you feel about it—but deserving of every opportunity to exist as your freest, fullest, most authentic self. You are nature. And nature has but one purpose: to exist and to flourish, for this one brief, beautiful moment. 🪐
Follow Marin’s personal newsletter, Calm Decay, and check out their blog econudist for more insights on naturism from the intersections of spirituality, environmentalism and social change.
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