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Nike's Plus-Size Mannequin Shows What's Wrong with Body Positivity

Both fat-shaming internet trolls and those who shame them for their intolerance are falling for the same unhealthy message that body types are objects to be evaluated. If our culture embraced body neutrality, both behaviors would become irrelevant.

In London, a strikingly pale and hairless woman wearing sleek, black Nike gear has caused the internet to re-think its body standards.

If she had eyes or a mouth, we'd know more about her. Sadly, she's just a mannequin, yet she somehow disgusts people for the way she "heaves with fat." When Nike London introduced plus-size mannequins in its flagship store, they stated their intentions: "To celebrate the diversity and inclusivity of sport, the space will not just celebrate local elite and grassroot athletes through visual content but also show Nike plus-size and para-sport mannequins for the first time on a retail space." While many celebrated the body positive message and inclusive representation, outspoken detractors argued that Nike was "normalizing obesity" and promoting unhealthy lifestyles. Truly, the most outrageous aspect of Nike's first plus-size mannequin is the overblown reaction on social media.

The body positive movement, with its intense push to love one's body and accept all body types as "normal," feels strangely personal to all, no matter their personal fitness levels. In truth, associating any kind of intense emotion with one's body is borderline unhealthy. As a result of our cultural push towards body positivity, people display highly emotional reactions to subjects of obesity and "plus size" clothing, instead of a healthier, "body neutral" stance. In reality, both fat-shaming internet trolls and those who shame them for their intolerance are falling for the same unhealthy message that body types are objects to be evaluated. If our culture embraced body neutrality, both behaviors would become irrelevant.

nike plus size mannequin Telegraph

"Where is the body shape between the tiny and the immense, which is where true health lives?" Tanya Gold wrote in an op-ed in The Telegraph. "Where is the ordinary, medium, contented woman? Where, oh where, is the middle ground?" It's a reasonable plea that concludes an otherwise inflammatory piece that's filled with false equivalencies, from taking weight as a direct indicator of health to assuming all obesity is the result of "addiction to sugars." What Gold finds to be an "immense" size is approximately a UK size 16 (US size 14), which is statistically an average women's size.

Gold writes, "The new Nike mannequin is not size 12, which is healthy, or even 16 – a hefty weight, yes, but not one to kill a woman. She is immense, gargantuan, vast...She is, in every measure, obese, and she is not readying herself for a run in her shiny Nike gear. She cannot run. She is, more likely, pre-diabetic and on her way to a hip replacement."

Fat-phobic, fat-shaming, poorly argued, and mean-spirited, Gold's article prompted a lively defense of plus-size mannequins on social media, from correcting false assumptions to personal testimonies. One user wrote, "Wow @Telegraph - nice job with the Tanya Gold click bait. I look like that @nike mannequin, and I've done a 10k, a half, & a marathon this year. And there's another 10k & a half coming up. If you think obese women can't run you've clearly been living under a rock."

How could a simple mannequin elicit such strong responses? In truth, it is abnormal—not as a body type, but as a feature in retail shops. Most female mannequins displayed in stores meet slim criteria: The US sizes 6-8, 5 feet 11 inches tall, 34B bra, 24/25 inch waist, and 36-inch hips (with 32 inch inside leg with a 3/3.5 inch heel), according to Tanya Reynolds, creative director at a mannequin manufacturer called Proportion London. In contrast, a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Obesity concluded that body mass index (BMI) is not a reliable indicator of an individual's health. Specifically, the study found that nearly half of all Americans who are classified as "overweight" by their BMI (34.4 million people) are healthy; so were 19.8 million others who were considered "obese."

Still, Tanya Gold names her harangue, "Obese Mannequins Are Selling Women a Dangerous Lie," and she begins, "I fear that the war on obesity is lost, or has even, as is fashionable, ceased to exist, for fear of upsetting people into an early grave." Later on, she adds, "The word 'fat' should not be a slur. But it should be a warning. So, it worries me to see Nike, who promote athleticism, treating the obese model as potentially healthy in the cause of profit. It is as cruel as telling women that the child ballet dancer and the porn body are ideal."

Additionally, according to The Telegraph's own Snapchat poll, 55% of its readers agree that a plus-size mannequin is "not a healthy example to be setting for women." Online, some commenters agreed that a plus-size mannequin was taking the "body positivity" movement too far. One user colorfully posted, "Class from Nike showing fat customers how awful yous would look if ye purchased these items."

The reaction over a mere mannequin in the center of a store selling workout gear is a reflection of how personal and sensitive the body positivity movement has become. Despite its good intentions to validate every body type and combat media's history of promoting unhealthy thinness, "body positivity" is flawed. The movement's emphasis to "love your body" in whatever state it's in does have drawbacks (but not what Gold wastes time arguing as "fat-acceptance" that endorses unhealthy lifestyles). Namely, the self-love of body positivity encourages people to associate an intense emotion with their appearance, which can quickly become unhealthy.

Even positive fervor to embrace and celebrate different body types attaches a dangerous amount of feeling to one's body—so why not promote body neutrality, instead? Rather than loving one's body, body neutrality is a simple belief that "you have the body you have and accept what you have. It's an essential part of yourself," in the words of Joan Chrisler, Ph.D. and psychology professor in New London. Psychotherapist Allison Stone adds that body neutrality "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." It's the "middle ground" that Tanya Gold calls for without her fat-shaming and implications that obesity is a moral failure.

Above all, body neutrality is even more conducive to inclusive representation than body positivity, since it promotes acceptance without judgment. Megan Jayne Crabbe, author, and activist, responded to the controversy on Instagram with a good-natured post that dismisses fat-shaming but acknowledges the small role that plus-size mannequins play in how far society progresses towards inclusive representation. She writes, "I thought I'd go and visit the babe responsible for thousands of fatphobes on the internet losing their shit this week...And do you know what I noticed during my death defying encounter with a plus size piece of plastic? People of all shapes and sizes were in the store. Some bigger than the mannequin, some smaller, and every single one deserves to see themselves represented and be catered for….This is a very small step in the right direction, and the reaction to it has shown exactly how necessary it is."

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