All images via the artists' Instagram
What is “brave”? At least, what is “brave” in the Sara Bareilles sense? “Brave” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in pop music and in the media writing about pop musicians—especially women who have been criticized for their appearance, and then gone on to speak publicly about body positivity. It’s a stunted and deeply problematic notion of bravery, and one that betrays exactly how popular consumer culture has prioritized beauty as an achievement over, say, actual hard-won achievements.
These days it's commonplace for female entertainers to suffer daily, brutal commentary on their appearance. It’s unavoidable. In the past year in particular, musicians like Zendaya and Demi Lovato have all been bullied by internet trolls about their figures and have been outspoken and forthright in their responses. Last October, Zendaya was inexplicably photoshopped slimmer for the cover of Modeliste magazine. She instantly called the publication out on Instagram, posting the original, unretouched version of the photo and writing, “These are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have. Anyone who knows who I am knows I stand for honest and pure self love.” At her behest the issues were pulled from the stands. Allure magazine called this “so inspiring” and “outspoken bravery.” Demi Lovato, who has struggled with body image (and went to rehab for an eating disorder, which I’m not making light of), has also been subject to social media trolls calling her “fatty,” among other things. In response, she encouraged her fans to fight the hate with “love and positivity,” which was then followed by a nude and loudly proclaimed makeup free unphotoshopped shoot with Vanity Fair—a move touted as “brave” by various publications including Stuff Magazine. Meanwhile, she titled her latest record Confident, a tribute to her courageous persona. Other young stars, like Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, and Miley Cyrus, face the same scrutiny over their appearances, and all of them receive cacophonous support from their fans and the media for speaking out against their detractors.
Body shaming is disgusting and that’s not up for debate. It’s not acceptable to say nasty things about any woman’s body because every woman is different and there is no one standard of beauty, nor is there a person who is the single arbiter of what is attractive. The issue here is specifically the word “brave” to describe celebrities addressing body positivity. Indeed, the use of “brave” to talk about female celebrities who stand up to body shaming, or who “rock” “curves” is endemic of the vocabulary we use to reduce female celebrities—and women more generally—who might not fit into the Victoria’s Secret stereotype of beauty. It suggests that visual aesthetics are the primary concern in a woman’s wheelhouse of worries.
Meanwhile, using “brave” in this context does a terrible injustice to the body positivity movement. It makes body positivity look trite when “curvy” women are actually tiny size twos. That’s not to detract from any philanthropic work these women do towards body positivity (Zendaya has dedicated herself to various charitable causes while Lovato is big on the anti-bullying scene), because that’s still important and commendable, but the media attention given to slim, beautiful women challenging their detractors for calling them “fat” or “curvy” undermines what it really means to be scrutinized, diminished, and brutalized by society for actually being “fat” or “curvy.” Personal perspective is subjective, and I don’t discount that even a slender, rich, world-famous woman who is called fat or had her body photoshopped beyond recognition might take that personally. But she must also have enough perspective to consider that her public and widely applauded decision to celebrate her “curves” unrealistically skews a universal perception of what it means to be curvy for millions of regular, or average, or chubby, or fat women.
The notion that these women are “brave” for speaking out against body shaming continues to perpetuate the notion that women who are visible in the public eye have something to answer for. Celebrating the sassy responses to their haters, while on the one hand brings attention to the issues, also and more pressingly further serves to bolster the idea that a woman must justify her existence, and if she’s being even a little bit disruptive, she’s going to have to have a pretty good explanation for it. Furthermore, the tacit implication is that women are so infantile that they need to be rewarded for making the simple observation that being nasty towards a fellow human is the wrong thing to do. Lady smart, lady know big words, lady no like you call her fatty. Really, we should be working towards a world where women’s bodies aren’t up for grabs, aren’t up for discussion, and where women aren’t given a consolation cookie for pointing out utter common sense.
The Catch 22 here is that by addressing body-shamers, the tacit implication is that said behavior is indeed acceptable. On one hand, celebrities standing up for themselves sends a message that body shaming and flesh fixation will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, on the other hand, it also legitimizes those critiques, and serves to further saturate the tabloid news cycle with body-centric discussion, further perpetuating the notion that a woman is the sum of her fat deposits rather than her professional output. I believe it's important not to pander to the baiting of body-shamers, but that doing so can be cursorily acknowledged in order to divert the flow of discourse. Rather than defensive social media campaigns, what these young women could be doing instead is simply saying, "I will not dignify you with a response [let's be real, we all learned this one in high school], here's a fun or insightful anecdote about my work instead."
I get why we want to celebrate women speaking out against body shaming in the public eye. Sometimes, we feel like they’re speaking for us, and when we can see past the glaring differences between their skin and ours, we feel unified in their message. We all feel weird, we all feel ugly, we all feel judged. When they say “no” to feeling weird and ugly and judged, they’re saying it for us. Projecting onto celebrities is nothing new. But calling them “brave” is a feat of great imagination and misplaced consumer values. Maybe they are “rousing.” Maybe they are “comforting,” Maybe they are “outspoken” or “articulate” or “savvy” or “unapologetic.”
Attributing “brave” to women who stand up for themselves for not fitting cookie-cutter, white-washed, heteronormative beauty standards is the most reductive thing we can do for body positivity. Instead of celebrating celebrities for standing up to body shame, we should be encouraging women to ignore those who seek to reduce them by attacking the skin they’re in. A woman’s silhouette should not be up for debate. Criticize her character if she acts illegally or unethically, discuss her back catalogue of records, write thinkpieces about her latest release, but leave her body out of it. Women have a right to exist as they are, without having to make excuses about, or apologize for their anatomy. We do not add up to the circumference of our waists and our thighs. Once we, as a culture, can accept this, and once we’ve created a world in which women are celebrated for their work, rather than their beauty, maybe then we won’t have to call these celebrities “brave” anymore.
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