Body positivity is great – but not when it blinds us to unethical fashion

OPINION | | | | | | |

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The fashion industry is finally getting its act together in terms of body-positivity – but let’s not approve that halo application just yet, says Vikki Knowles

Have you noticed a little something in the air, lately? Something that smells a little less like self-loathing and sounds a bit like body-acceptance. Huh.

It wasn’t so long ago that we were drooling over pictures of body/career/life-perfect slebs (just me?) and cooing over just how flawless they are. Over the last few years, this has changed. The cracks are where the light gets in, as it were. Bloggers are broadcasting their truly personal lives, publicising their battle with panic attacks or depression, while others have ‘come out’ in the intimate company of their millions-strong YouTube following. Actors are chatting openly about how, by the way, success and fame don’t make you happy, and introversion is now a socially acceptable way to be, as well as how we’re reclaiming the word ‘fat’ to be a descriptive term, as benign as saying someone is short or tall.

“Self-acceptance is enjoying its time in the limelight, but ethical supply chains aren’t nearly as sexy a concept. Maybe that’s because it’s less about me, and more about them

In essence, self-acceptance and transparency is pretty à la mode. And this is wonderful. And what greater industry for this to infiltrate than fashion? Because, as Yves Saint Laurent put it: “Fashions fade, style is eternal.”

One project that champions such an adage is the YouTube series from StyleLikeU and its What’s Underneath vids. Mother and daughter duo Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum basically ask a bunch of regular people (plus a handful of, erm, irregular bloggers and celebs) a series of questions, and the guest peels a layer of clothing with each one. As the layers come off, so the questions get more intimate. I know how it sounds, but it’s nothing like strip poker – honestly! The questions start by asking guests how others perceive their style, and work their way to things like: “When do you feel the most vulnerable?”



Warning: it’s extremely addictive. After watching my first video, I binge-watched loads more for about two hours. This was amazing! Real people saying real things! With the tag line ‘True style is self acceptance’, it’s difficult not to fall in love with all of the guests, in all their vulnerable and half-naked glory.

Many of them have been through a tough experience (self-harm, abuse, self-loathing), and have emerged from the other side to talk about the journey they’ve taken to arrive at the body-lovin’ place they’re at today. It’s pretty inspiring.

But – from what I’ve seen, there’s more emphasis from StyleLikeU on getting your individuality/acceptance/beauty shit together, rather than where the actual clothes came from. From a self-expression standpoint, perhaps it’s not necessarily about what brands you’re wearing. But that is an important question from a how-much-are-your-makers-paid stance.


Cablammetch, a clothing factory in Bangladesh (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Self-acceptance is enjoying its time in the limelight, and ethical supply chains aren’t nearly as sexy a concept. Maybe that’s because it’s less about me, and more about them.

So, is this body-positivity trend blindsiding us to what’s going on behind the scenes? To a certain extent, I think it does. When we talk about body-positivity and diversity, we’re switching our focus to fashion models and media representation, rather than fashion-makers. And worrying whether the term plus-size should be used or not can feel a little bit like a… #firstworldproblem, when, in some cases, the women who made that dress (in a size whatever) have much bigger concerns on their shoulders. Like feeding their children.


“Perhaps body-positivity is the right direction to head in – but it’s also just stage one of this revolution”


Luckily, I don’t think we have to abandon this new era of confidence. Phew… In fact, could the two concepts live in harmony and actually lift each other up?

Surely it would be difficult to be truly self-accepting in the knowledge that your clothes came from a questionable source. Confidence comes from living in alignment with your values, and many of us value consuming ethically. Plus, all this lovely confidence decouples us from the status quo culture of fast fashion. That might mean that following trends becomes a bit, well, boring.

The sort of values StyleLikeU are promoting – expressing your inner spirit, being unapologetically yourself, creating your own standards of beauty – could well be hacking the ‘symptoms’ of fast fashion at its roots. If we all felt damn good about ourselves, would we be so dependent on changing our outer appearance all the time by buying new stuff?


There’s always room for more stuff in your wardrobe (Photo: © Flickr/John B Henderson)


And maybe, just maybe, championing all our lumpy-bumpy bits could be a one-way ticket to Thinking-About-Other-People-ville.

Can you imagine a world where we’ve got the whole self-esteem thing ticked-off and have more energy to channel towards other people’s lives? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t it be even more amazing if everyone in the supply chain were paid a living wage? Perhaps body-positivity is the right direction to head in – but it’s also just stage one of this revolution.

I don’t want to bash this trend for self-lovin’, because it’s been a long time coming. But if you’re being blinded by brands hijacking this as a marketing campaign just because its trendy, make sure you also ask questions about their supply chains, to ensure their message is coherent. By all means feel comfortable in your own skin – it’s just unfair that only we can feel warm and fuzzy while the people making the clothes we choose to buy are being exploited.

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