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We’re (Not) Body-Inclusive

Hopes and Hypocrisies

By Vanessa B. Hu, Crimson Opinion Writer
Vanessa B. Hu ‘23-24 is a junior in Currier House studying Computer Science. Her column, “Hopes and Hypocrisies,” runs on alternate Mondays.

A few years ago, just as many were getting fit during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was doing my best not to.

After spending — *checks watch* — a third of my life with body dysmorphia and disordered eating, which led to mental and physical health repercussions, I decided that I’d nip the issue in the bud, hunkered at home during my gap year. But even though terms like diet culture and fatphobia have finally entered more mainstream vernacular, our increasing awareness of these issues feels like paltry gratification.

Don’t get me wrong: I fist-pumped at the trend of people imitating “almond moms,” satirizing comments from parents contributing to unhealthy body image. I cheered when Taylor Swift removed a music video scene perpetuating the stigma of being fat (an adjective that some are reclaiming as a neutral or empowering descriptor). And I did the splits when magazines like Ellie announced that fitness trends were shifting away from the “be as thin as possible!” paradigm, instead emphasizing non-weight-loss goals.

Still, our shifts toward so-called body empowerment may simply veil the notion of a “default” body.

Take weightlifting. The look and messaging of many mainstream female fitness influencers promotes a toned aesthetic with minimal body fat; any excess must be in the ostensibly right places (e.g. the buttocks).

So isn’t that just another physical ideal in disguise, like the displacement of ultra-thinness with “slim thick”? (Although recent fashion trends, and the weight loss of previously-curvy cultural influencers like Kim and Khloe Kardashian, may signal a resurgence of the super-thin and notably controversial “heroin chic” look of the 1990s).

Moreover, gyms and workout classes like SoulCycle often pride themselves on their inclusive, passionate cult (ahem, sorry, community) vibe. Yet, they may perpetuate microaggressions against larger-bodied people in fitness spaces, and often feature little diversity in terms of their instructors’ body sizes or racial backgrounds beyond the stereotypical thin, white instructor (or receive backlash when they do).

Even bouldering, one of the latest exercise trends, isn’t immune: While it’s oriented towards strength-building rather than achieving body goals, one climbing community survey indicated that over 50 percent of respondents feel like they’re pressured to have a certain body type because of their hobby.

So, while perhaps a step in the right direction, the undertone of these subcultures promote templatized ideals, inevitably excluding those not within their purview.


“Vanessa, what’s wrong with climbing,” you might huff, “or wanting to lose weight or fat for ‘health’ benefits? Don’t you care about health?”

I’m not saying you can’t climb, and I’m not here to argue about health (though, you can read about the racist roots of the BMI, how lower weight doesn’t necessarily equate to greater health, or on how weight stigma itself leads to poorer physical and mental health outcomes, regardless of BMI).

To put it simply, I support body autonomy. I try to eat intuitively, engage in gentle nutrition, and move my body in ways that I enjoy. But each of us should have the prerogative to lead life how we want to — whether you want to pursue fat loss or never hit 3k steps on your Apple Watch.

I just want us to probe how much we actually support overall well-being, and not just certain body ideals. Like when we praise Mindy Kaling and Rebel Wilson for their noticeable weight loss and their reported consequent happiness about it — but body-shame singer Sam Smith for gaining weight, even when they finally feel “comfortable in their skin” after doing so.


Now, you might add: “But Vanessa, haven’t I seen you post barbell squats on your BeReal?”

My answer? I enjoy how badass it makes me feel, especially as part of a community of young women online that focuses on becoming stronger and shares their realistic, beautiful, day-to-day bodies. I’ve come to appreciate the nuances of tending to both my physical and mental health, giving myself grace when I prefer rest over movement.

And indeed, studies have shown that strength training correlates with positive body image and a sense of empowerment. But that only seems true if we exercise without focusing on some appearance to achieve — a conditional I still struggle with sometimes.

I have written about body image, time and again: a high-school classmate cried after reading one such essay in 2017, and a hundred-plus people liked a post about my resolution to recover in 2020 — on Facebook, of all places. But even though I received private messages of empathy, it didn’t feel like anyone I knew was actively rejecting diet culture. I felt, and still feel, lonely.

To be fair, our generation rallies around public figures defying beauty standards: from iconic singer-songwriter Lizzo to Yumi Nu, the first Asian plus-size cover model for Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. We increasingly voice the dangers of body trends, from buccal fat removal to the shortage of diabetes medication in the U.S. after influencers (and Elon Musk) promoted it as a quick weight-loss solution.

But still, we aren’t immune to the online barrage of body standards (Google any sort of stat on social media and correlations with poor body image).

TLDR: Mental health in the face of mainstream trends is Hard™. Here are three confessions, as an example.

1. I sometimes wish I looked like the other east Asian girls strolling around campus.

2. I tried to become an ECHO counselor during the pandemic but emotionally couldn’t handle the interview.

3. It was very mentally taxing to write this piece.

It’s hard to feel like I don’t always embody the values I claim to hold. But I find solace in the courage of others: like the inclusive BodCon community, or those like Stephanie Buttermore (who has one million-plus YouTube subscribers) that are candid about diet culture and fitness.

Research has shown that we are less hypocritical when amongst those of an in-group that we belong to. So come join this in-group, if you so choose! It’s quite liberating here.

Vanessa B. Hu ‘23-24 is a junior in Currier House studying Computer Science. Her column, “Hopes and Hypocrisies,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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