It seems like every single day, some awesome human is getting scrutinized for no damn good reason. This week’s troll patrol honed in on Ashley Graham, a pioneer in the body positive community, the first plus size model to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated and one of the icons making space for curvy women on the runway.
Graham has never been shy about her love for a good sweat. She posts tons of videos of her exercise routines, both to her Instagram and Snapchat, but for some reason this is the one that broke everyone’s brains. The 29-year-old smoke show received disturbing messages criticizing her for exercising, losing weight, toning up and “giving up” what made her famous—a.k.a., her curves. Yeah, let that sink in.
Graham classily responded with a list of reasons why she exercises. “Just for the record, I work out to: stay healthy, feel good, get rid of jet lag, clear my head, show big girls we can move like the rest of em, stay flexible & strong, have more energy. I don’t work out to loose [sic] weight or my curves, bc I love the skin I’m in.”
Hopefully, you noticed the little gold nugget of inspiration in that list. But if you didn’t, allow me to repeat it: Graham wants to “show big girls we can move like the rest of em.” I understand the instinct to call her out, because I also noticed her weight loss and—just for a moment—criticized her for succumbing to the status quo. But is that really what she’s doing? And is that really something we should even blame on Graham, rather than an industry that still demands an hourglass figure (even if it claims otherwise)?
In the body positivity movement, the topics of exercise and weight loss is off-limits, because it really isn’t a space for diet culture or BMI-talk. Period. Instead, it’s supposed to be a safe space for women to be whomever they want to be and look however they want to look, without feeling pressured to be smaller or look a certain way.
The movement, of course, isn’t perfect. Though a space has clearly been made for women with cellulite and back rolls, it often leaves out non-white, trans and differently abled bodies. Without a doubt, it’s a movement visibly dominated by white, cis-gendered women who defy the standards of beauty from a safe distance. The monetization of the movement can’t be ignored either, with many companies co-opting BoPo to make bank. But at its heart, it’s a movement built by curvy women, for curvy women who have never fallen into the realms of standard Hollywood Bella Hadid beauty.
Still, we don’t live in an utopia. We live in a world that still believes beauty is restricted to certain proportions, even within the plus realm. Let’s not beat around the bush: the Jordyn Woodses and the Grahams of the industry—read: the most successful plus-size women we see on the runway—typically have flat stomachs and small waists, and that’s the message we receive about what is acceptable for curvy women. But it does bear mentioning that this standard is slowly, yet surely, changing; just look at women like Nicolette Mason and Tess Holliday, who are pushing the boundaries of what’s considered “beautiful”—and looking fine while doing so, I might add.
So let’s not tear down the models; instead, let’s continue to be critical of the fashion world, ’cause that’s what’s putting unrealistic pressures on women. Graham has never once advocated for weight loss. The message she’s sending with her workout videos—followed by photos of her feasting in luxe hotel rooms—is positive: Big women can exercise, be athletic, and still be body positive.
Because let’s be clear: health is not synonymous with weight and people don’t exercise just to lose it. By calling out Graham for exercising, we perpetuate the idea that curvy girls can’t be athletic and don’t belong in a gym. And that’s a real idea, btw. I know because I’ve felt it. Walking into the gym can be difficult for me—sometimes I feel alienated, or that, by entering this space, I’m confirming everyone’s thoughts: that I should be losing weight, I should be striving to be thinner and the only reason I’m there is to make everyone else happy.
What is wrong with a society that demonizes a woman for doing what makes her feel good, both mentally and physically? What does it say about our priorities, that we’ll strip Graham of all “plus size credibility” because she freaking MOVES?
While advocating for weight loss is definitely not body positive, exercising is not inherently anti-body positive. If anything, it’s empowering to see a woman revered for changing the fashion game being strong and sweaty, wearing tight work out clothing and effing killing it.