Luanne Dsouza Image Credit: Supplied

The global body positive movement has come a long way in promoting self-love and greater visibility for larger women and men — whether in terms of media representation or advocating for better quality plus-sized clothing.

However, in its wake, some people have broken off to establish a ‘body neutrality’ movement that prioritises feeling just OK, as opposed to being in love with oneself and all its perceived flaws.

Speaking to three Dubai-based plus-size bloggers, Gulf News tabloid! found that body positivity is still alive and kicking.

Nikita Phulwani
Nikita Phulwani.

“You either believe in self-acceptance and self-love or not. Do we really need another label?” asks LuAnne Dsouza, a plus-size blogger who is considered to be one of the first in Dubai. “You can be body positive and maintain that belief even when you have off days or moments of insecurities… Also, I feel like the term ‘neutrality’ allows a person to stay complacent instead of combating those off moments or feelings and putting in the work.”

Blogger Nikita Phulwani understands that for some people, changing how they see themselves is an uphill struggle, so neutrality might be a starting point.

“Body neutrality could be a first step towards body positivity. I get asked by my followers a lot how I wear some clothes (like shorts) in spite of being big. I tell them I feel comfortable in my skin and love dressing up for my body and they should be confident about their bodies, too,” Phulwani says. “However, it’s not really easy for people to go from being conscious about their thighs one day, to falling in love with them the week after. This process takes time and I know not everyone can be brought into that mind set easily.”

Hanane Fathallah, the founder of the Middle East Plus Size Fashion Bloggers social media group, says the term ‘body neutrality’ is redundant since acceptance is the first step towards self-love.

“I think the fact that [if] you accept your body, you are already loving it, even if not fully. I assume it was suggested as a new term, for the sole purpose [of stepping] away from the social pressure body positivity has inflicted with time,” Fathallah says. “Like everything in life, balance is key, and even if it takes time, everyone should feel good in their bodies and if necessary, work towards feeling better about your body and loving it.”

Part of being body positive is indeed working hard to buck conventions that have for years dictated how women look, dress, behave and ultimately feel about themselves.

Hanane Fathallah
Hanane Fathallah.

The movement has toiled for decades on the ground in the form of organisations such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, founded in the US in 1969 and feminist groups in the 70s and 80s. Fat acceptance found fertile ground with the rise of the internet and has now morphed into the generalised body positivity movement we see today.

Working together

Fathallah thinks that this blending of parallel ideologies is a good thing.

“These two concepts have merged in the last decade, which has helped generate positive interaction towards our bodies, our curves and our confidence. But what is important to highlight is that both movements can work as much together as separately,” says Fathallah. “The plus-size movement is running its course and it still has a long way to go, especially in this part of the world... So technically, the body positive movement is for everyone, no matter what shape or size you are. Body positivity and plus size movement started hand in hand, and that accelerated the process towards positive change and breaking taboos.”

Some of those changes can be seen on paper, literally. American plus size model and founder of the #effyourbeautystandards movement on Instagram Tess Holliday made a splash on the October cover of Cosmopolitan UK in an emerald swimsuit, blowing a kiss to readers.

“Phew, I’m literally a Cosmo Girl! Can’t believe I’m saying that... If I saw a body like mine on this magazine when I was a young girl, it would have changed my life,” Holliday tweeted at the time.

She’s not an anomaly either. A number of plus size models have made it onto runways, magazine covers and in advertisements, acting as a mirror to the size diversity of society.

Closer to home, American plus size models Ashley Graham and Paloma Elesser graced the cover of Vogue Arabia to much applause.

New ideal

Dsouza views the celebration of conventionally beautiful, albeit larger, models with a critical eye, frustrated that it often perpetuates stringent beauty standards.

“[Plus size women] still have the same struggles, it’s just a new body ideal that has been pushed on us. I feel like a majority of ‘acceptable fat’ women have jumped on board the body positive bandwagon — most average sized white women, or plus-size women with smaller tummies who are voluptuous in all the ‘right’ areas,” she says. “The new plus-size ideal is Ashley Graham, but fat people come in a variety of shapes and proportions. I mean, everyone is welcome and but I feel like it’s sort of shocking that average size women feel they share the same struggles as someone who is a size 22.”

It’s fair to say that average sized women have an easier time finding clothes that both look good and fit them. For plus-sized women, it’s a logistical and often emotional struggle to go shopping.

“We saw Ashley Graham on the cover of Vogue recently. In the UK and US, I know so many stores are purely focused on plus-size fashion. Some brands even carry plus-size specific lines. In the UAE though, it’s getting there but a bit slowly,” Phulwani says.

The number of clothing stores in the UAE that carry extended sizes or a separate plus range — such as Forever 21, Debenhams, Matalan and Marks & Spencers — can be counted on two hands. Standalone plus size stores in the UAE such as Evans and Yours London are even scarcer. In addition to that, the way plus-sized clothes are designed can leave a lot to be desired, especially if you’re not shy about flaunting your curves.

“I really think I am done with all plus-size brands thinking that big girls need long tops and ill-fitted garments. Just because we are big does not mean we need to wear extremely loose and baggy clothing,” Phulwani exclaims.

Asked what she thought was lacking in the plus fashion industry, Dsouza says: “I feel like I have been answering this question for my entire blogging career and the answer hasn’t changed yet — more trends, more inclusivity of all sizes and stop charging plus size customers so much more than their smaller counterparts.”

Her message to the fashion industry is simple: “Use realistic models, take a cue from Asos and stop editing out ‘flaws’ and just believe in the purchasing power of women of all sizes.”