The True Hotness of Ashley Graham: How Body-Positivity Promotes Beauty Bias

In the nexus of celebrity, visual media, and fervent self-improvement, body-positivity promotes the strange ideal that being beautiful isn't better, but feeling beautiful is.

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Your grandmother lied. You weren't a pretty child. Now, you're partly brainwashed to care about how you look.

Your poor self-image is why psychologists like Deborah Best, Ph.D., actively recommend against telling little girls they're "pretty" or boys they're "handsome" because "adult comments on children's physical appearance indicate to children how important it is to 'look good.'" Best warns, "These subtle messages tell children that appearance is important and also suggest that those who are 'better looking' are also better people." For most of us, it's too late, and we've already been inculcated with the "What-Is-Beautiful-Is-Good-Effect" thanks to doting neighbor ladies and every Disney movie before 2013's Frozen. Thankfully, in adulthood, we're pretty quickly disillusioned with this notion. But here's the thing: we still want to look good.

What's changing is how seriously we take beauty. Take Instagram, for instance, where aesthetics are just another commodity. We don't need to believe that "better looking" is code for "better person" to enjoy the sight of an unreasonably attractive individual lying on the beach (or Jason Momoa's newly shaved beard). But one of Instagram' finest accomplishments (aside from recognizing that an egg is more likable than Kylie Jenner) has been fostering a body-positivity that aims to interrupt our overvaluation of beauty.

From Chrissy Teigen to Amy Schumer, a growing number of celebrities are speaking out as body-positive advocates. Some post untouched and less-than-flattering pictures of themselves, while others produce whole films satirizing their body-image. The shared goal is to reject society's unrealistic body standards and encourage men and women to love their bodies as they are— regardless of cellulite, stretch marks, scars, or not looking like a human Barbie (a.k.a. Margot Robbie).

Then there's Ashley Graham, the "plus-size" supermodel whose memoir, high fashion interviews, and size-inclusive swimsuit line have made her the most prominent icon of body-positivity. Graham uses Instagram to combat body-shaming, advocate for size-inclusivity in the media, and promote healthy practices to build body confidence. Graham told Vogue, "I definitely think that my body has changed many people's lives. I've used my body as a tool to talk about taboo subjects, such as cellulite or being insecure about lower belly fat—and also [how to] talk life into your body and have an affirmation- kind of conversation with yourself." During her TED talk about "bringing size acceptance into the mainstream," the Sports Illustrated model shared her personal self-affirmation as she stood before a mirror and told her reflection: "I am bold, I am brilliant, I am beautiful."

Whether it's challenging the fashion industry's idea of "plus-size" or posting a picture of herself in a string bikini on the beach while gleefully munching Cheetos, Graham promotes more than just self-acceptance. By regularly sharing candid photos of her body (cellulite and all), Graham urges that you, too, should divest yourself of body shame—you should love yourself and your body, exactly as it is.

Body-positivity equates self-love with self-care—which fails on a few counts. By pushing people to be happy with their natural shape, body-positivity binds an intense emotion to one's appearance, which can quickly become unhealthy. Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives, criticizes the body-positive movement's over-emphasis on loving one's shape: "My problem with body love, besides the fact that it's a high standard, is it's asking women to regulate their emotions, not just their bodies," she says. The constant emphasis to love oneself can feel prescriptive to the point of feeling guilty if one doesn't. In many ways, developing "bulletproof self-esteem" is as unrealistic as the expectations of being ultra-thin and ultra-tall.

Moreover, intense rhetoric about loving one's body can actually feed into negative thinking patterns. "If you're even a tiny bit of a critical person, there are always things that are wrong with everything," says Joan Chrisler, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Connecticut College in New London. "We have this notion of love that is connected to perfectionism—the image that we should be in bliss all the time is so strong in our culture." So, instead of our grandmothers gushing that we're beautiful until we're squirming in discomfort, now it's Ashley Graham.

To be fair, body-positive advocates acknowledge that no one feels content in their skin 100% of the time. Chrissy Teigen tweets about feeling "super insecure" about her post-baby stretch marks and weight gain. And before Ashley Graham speaks her positive affirmation, she tells herself, "Back fat, I see you popping over my bra today. But that's all right. I'm gonna choose to love you."

Regardless, many feel an undeniable disconnect when a gorgeous supermodel urges them to love their bodies since most people aren't photographed for Vogue or celebrated for their attractiveness. The same can be said of Chrissy Teigen, Kristin Bell, Rihanna, and other body-positive celebrities who spread messages of body-confidence from a platform that still puts a premium on beauty. And as childish and unevolved as it may be to doubt an attractive person's struggles with self-confidence—everybody does it. Even in 2019's woke culture, beauty bias (prettier = better) exists as a subconscious (and sometimes conscious) impulse. In the nexus of celebrity, visual media, and fervent self-improvement, body-positivity promotes the strange idea that being beautiful isn't better, but feeling beautiful is.

So if you don't, is there something wrong with you?

Body-positivity doesn't make sense to everyone, nor should it. Instead, the healthiest baseline for some people, according to Chrisler, is body-neutrality: the simple belief that "you have the body you have and accept what you have. It's an essential part of yourself." Psychotherapist Allison Stone also encourages this alternative to body-positivity because it "provides an opportunity for a middle ground. It provides an opportunity for acceptance. It's simply about being. It's about being without passing judgment or harboring strong emotions about how we look."

As adults, we want to disavow the notion that beautiful = good, but the unspoken logic that feeling beautiful = feeling good only validates the lie. As Stone notes, "Too often, we fall into the black-or-white trap of either loving or hating our bodies. When we spend less time thinking about our bodies, it affords us room to focus on other things. Obsessing, silently judging ourselves, and self-criticism takes up a lot of mental energy. More importantly, these types of thoughts prevent us from enjoying experiences and being fully present in our lives." Outside the rigid dichotomies of beauty vs. ugliness and worthy vs. worthless, a middle ground exists for self-contentment without self-obsession. But between the extremes of self-love and self-hate, there's a silent fear that we're too plain to be noticed. Maybe we prefer struggling to feeling mediocre.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

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