Be brave, embrace your own beauty without fear

Mapholoso Faith Nketsi, a South African influencer, model and media personality, strikes a pose. Fitness companies, commodities, influencers and even our loved ones often preach the gospel of the summer body as the sunny season unfolds. Picture: Sourced from Instagram

Mapholoso Faith Nketsi, a South African influencer, model and media personality, strikes a pose. Fitness companies, commodities, influencers and even our loved ones often preach the gospel of the summer body as the sunny season unfolds. Picture: Sourced from Instagram

Published Dec 31, 2023


By Tswelopele Makoe

THE Christmas season in South Africa not only brings about a time of festivities and familial gatherings, but also the summer season. Summer is markedly popularised by the social media hashtag #SummerBody.

A summer body, also known as a beach body or bikini body, is generally characterised by a flat belly, a toned body, and a particularly slimmer frame.

The concept of the summer body promotes the idea that bodies need to look a certain way in order to be attractive or socially acceptable, particularly during summer.

It further infers that bodies that are defined outside this stereotype should not be seen or accepted. Summer food is generally lighter and modest, and summer fashion is generally skimpier and revealing.

Stereotypes about summer bodies and beauty standards are an age-old occurrence. However, the inception of mass media has certainly ingrained the stereotypes into our society, locally and internationally.

The mass media, as well as social media, has a proclivity to fuel toxic beauty standards that rigidly promote thinness and non-acceptance. Fitness companies, commodities, influencers and even our loved ones often preach the gospel of the summer body as the sunny season ensues.

This suggestion also ingrains the idea that one’s enjoyment and comfort during the season is dependent on the body type of a person. It is not only the extension of diet culture, but also a deeply destructive and divisive ideology.

The promotion of a summer body carries with it some extremely harmful connotations, particularly for those who do not conform to the archetype. The disdain of the term has, thankfully, resulted in many body positivity movements across global societies.

Body positivity as a social movement promotes a positive view of all bodies, regardless of shape, size, gender, skin tone and physical ability. The key ideals of body positivity aim to disregard the physiological appearance and focus on the appreciation of the health and functionality of one’s body.

Ultimately, body positivity aims to challenge individual and societal perceptions of size, weight and appearance to be more accepting of diverse bodies and characteristics.

The results of the movement have helped people across the globe build confidence, address unrealistic body standards and accept their own e bodies.

Body positivity does not only focus on challenging societal views about stereotypical body types but also aims to challenge the way individuals treats people of other shapes and sizes. It unpacks the stark judgements that are imposed on people because of their gender, sexuality, race, and disability.

As a movement, body positivity aims to shed light on the ways in which popular media shapes the relationship that people have with their bodies, especially with regard to their relationship with food, health, exercise, clothing, identity and self-care.

Understanding the relationships ultimately helps people develop a healthier and more realistic relationship with their bodies.

Although there are varying factors that affect body image, it is a complex and personal process. A person’s body image is constructed from their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, behaviours and perceptions.

One’s perception of oneself and one’s bodies directly impacts one’s mental health, physical health and relationships. Body dissatisfaction often drives people to engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviours.

This is particularly important, considering that eating disorders affect about 729 million people across the globe.

Body dissatisfaction often leads to various mental health issues and eating disorders such as depression, anorexia, anxiety, bulimia, body dysmorphic disorder, binge eating disorder, muscle dysmorphia and self-harm tendencies.

Body positivity is not only stifled by popular media but also by societal figures and influencers who promote stereotypical forms of beauty.

An example of this is from popular culture icons such as the Kardashians who are acclaimed for popularising the Brazilian butt lift (BBL) surgery. The surgery, which seeks to accentuate the buttocks and create an hourglass shape became one of the most popular body plastic surgeries over the past decade. The procedure gets more than 20 000 searches a day. The trend, however, is seemingly dissipating as we see more people reverting back to the slimmer, more natural BBL look.

As such, people need to be aware of the fleeting trends that emerge in our society, and not fall victim to temporary trends that could result in permanent damage.

In fact, the health minister of the UK, Maria Caulfield, said “the risk of death for BBL surgery was at least 10 times higher than many other cosmetic procedures, and it has the highest death rate of all cosmetic procedures”.

Furthermore, we need to understand that toxic beauty standards derive from capitalism, and the need to drive consumership with certain social ideologies of imperfection and inadequacy.

Weight loss products and supplements, the fashion industry and social media trends compound this issue. Social figures often fuel negative perceptions about diverse bodies.

They further fuel stereotypes about the standards of beauty in society – not only amongst adults but also children. The onus is on public to confront the stereotypes, and demand inclusivity, empowerment and representation of all people in these industries.

Other social figures, with beautiful bodies that do not conform to the global standards of beauty, have proliferated, and been praised for their body positivity and representation in their industries.

For example, musicians and social icons such as Lizzo, Lamiez Holworthy-Morule, Boity Thulo, Ashley Graham and Tems have shown that diverse bodies can be successful, accepted and the standard of beauty, regardless of the stereotypical societal ideals of beauty.

It is vital that we are introspective as a society, that we are honest and open about unrealistic beauty standards. Everyone in society is unique.

We need to embrace diversity and dispose of the ideal that bodies need to look a certain way. We need to shame businesses and public figures that disregard flexibility and acceptance at any size.

Body positivity is a vital and personal journey, and we need to be aware of the factors that intentionally worsen it. Whether it is summer or spring, everyone in society has the right to feel free, attractive and accepted, no matter what they physiologically look like.

It is important that we encourage and support those in society who dare to look unique, and openly embrace their beauty, as they will most definitely encourage the generations to come, to embrace their own beauty, regardless of the ideals of society.

As the popular saying goes, “build a powerful body image one positive thought at a time”.

* Tswelopele Makoe is a gender activist. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.