Why the body-positive movement still has a long way to go

More brands are jumping on the plus-size clothing bandwagon, but fit, accessibility and acceptance remain issues

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11:  Ashley Graham walks the runway during the Prabal Gurung fashion show during New York Fashion Week at Gallery I at Spring Studios on February 11, 2018 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Stewart/WireImage/Getty Images)
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Body positivity is a movement focused on the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size or shape. This global call for inclusivity has given rise to notable names including Ashley Graham, La’Shaunae Steward and vocal dynamo Lizzo, who carry the torch for curvy women the world over.

Larger bodies are celebrated widely across social media, challenging exclusionary beauty standards and brands, too, have joined the conversation. But does the campaign go far enough?

The use of divisive language, waning public sentiment and limited availability of extended sizes are all indicators that we can’t put this one in the win column just yet.

How the movement is inspirational

For some, such as Ameni Esseibi, a body-positive advocate and the Middle East’s first commercially successful curvy model, the movement has been positive.

“It changed my life,” she says. “As a person who got bullied in high school, my weight affected me a lot. Body positivity taught me self-confidence, self-love, how to overcome my insecurities and to know my worth. It made me who I am today.”

The term beautiful has been reinvented thanks to the body-positive movement
Soumiya Hussain, project manager

Soumiya Hussain, a project manager and aspiring screenwriter who lives in Dubai, agrees: “I definitely think the body-positivity movement is beneficial. Generations of women were led to believe they needed to look a certain way to be found pleasing or attractive, which led to bad body image and self-loathing. These days, you are beautiful regardless of your body type, shape or size.

“The term beautiful has been reinvented thanks to the body-positive movement and social media influencers. We can also identify and put an end to body-shaming, thereby [potentially] ending childhood trauma for young girls.”

Getting the language right

When it comes to language, that old adage about sticks and stones does not apply here, as words do hurt and it is crucial to get the verbiage right.

“I would like to discourage the use of ‘plus-sized'. It feels very discriminatory for curvy women as we do not want to be viewed as different from others. Perhaps it would be good to just put 'plus-sized' stock in the normal racks,” says Hussain. Esseibi underscores the point with simple logic: “You don’t label a standard-size model a ‘minus model’, do you?”

Inclusivity continues to remain a cause for concern. While brands such as H&M, Marks & Spencer, Fashion Nova and Namshi have stylish curvy collections, fit and accessibility remain challenging.

Every time a brand creates a new collection, they should just extend their sizes up to 5XL, simple
Ameni Esseibi, model

“I’m a size 14 and I feel most stores have this size out of stock, despite the fact that many in the UAE are this size,” says Hussain. “Sometimes I feel stores do not use a standard measurement; a size 14 in Max Fashion would be a size 12 in H&M. There is a disparity between clothing brand labels and it also differs from region to region, which can be confusing for customers.”

The effects are widespread, but sorting these fashion faux pas isn’t rocket science. It just needs dedication to the cause and a little more by way of investment.

“Every time a brand creates a new collection they should just extend their sizes up to 5XL, simple," says Esseibi. "It may cost them a little bit more, but [the sales] will be worth it.”

Case in point: in a bid to help every woman express her individual style, British shop PrettyLittleThing carries sizes ranging from UK 4 to UK 30. In 2018, the brand became one of the first to launch a campaign featuring a plus-size and a main range model in the same outfit. And in 2021, the brand’s e-commerce site raked in global net sales of $590.3 million, according to ecommerceDB.

“Everyone deserves to access fashionable choices with ease, regardless of size,” says Sufeena Hussain, head at PrettyLittleThing Mena.

Making the movement more inclusive

However, until other, if not all, brands follow suit, the struggle remains real — and it isn’t exclusive to women. Ihab Ahmed, a social media and customer experience professional who lives in Dubai, says there’s not enough attention paid to men with regard to body positivity. “It is mostly about women, but before I lost my weight, it was never easy for me to find extended-sized clothing for men, either.

“It was also obvious that nicer and bigger brands don’t stock those sizes often, if ever. That was the first blow: if you want to dress fancy, you must be slim and trim.

“The second blow was finding sizes in general. It took me ages to find brands that would have sizes, and then the chances of finding a decent cut, design or style was even harder. I would settle for any pair of pants that I could find and T-shirts from American Eagle. My whole wardrobe became that [one] brand,” he says.

While Ahmed sees the value in body-positivity, he grapples with its downside, whereby some people end up accepting and even celebrating an unhealthy body. “Being overweight is not a good thing, period. There are tonnes of health issues associated, from physical performance limitations to visual inferiority in the superficial world we live in.

“Worst of all, I highly doubt most people who are overweight are truly and surely 100 per cent happy with the way they look and feel about themselves. Some are, and good on them, but the majority of overweight people aren’t.

“By telling them you are now accepted, we have clothes for your 'special requirement’, I fear we may be normalising obesity,” he says.

Ahmed made sweeping lifestyle changes, which led to a physical transformation and ultimately a more positive body image.

“I was tired of not finding clothes, finding it hard to tie my shoelaces, finding it hard to move or walk for extended periods and was tired of looking the way I did in the mirror. I was in a place in life where I had a great job and good friends, but I was still never completely content. I believed, at that moment, it was because of how I felt about myself and I wanted to change that.

“I know this sounds harsh, but I still don’t see or feel much body-positivity [towards overweight people] in general society.”

Updated: April 05, 2022, 9:03 AM