My favourite David Fincher film is Gone Girl. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember one of its truly standout moments: the “cool girl monologue”. Delivered by the film’s sociopathic anti-heroine Amy Dunne, the “cool girl monologue” narrates how Amy has spent the duration of her marriage playing a character – the cool girl – for her husband Nick.
“I waxed stripped my pussy raw,” Amy coolly informs the audience. “I drank canned beer watching Adam Sandler movies. I ate cold pizza and remained a size two.”
This scene has always captivated me – not only because of how creatively it was visually rendered from Gillian Flynn’s source novel, but also because of the resonance the monologue found amongst its female viewers who expressed solidarity with its underlying sentiments regarding certain gendered expectations experienced by women. In a cultural context that assigns enormous moral weight to a woman’s adherence to an expectation to be above all desirable, it makes sense that Gone Girl’s disdain for such risible norms struck a chord amongst audiences – especially given that the normative standard of desirable womanhood (white, cisgender, able-bodied, and thin) is not dissimilar to the psychotically impeccable Amy Dunne as portrayed brilliantly by Rosamund Pike.
Not that this model of the slender, hairless, sleek “cool girl” as the ideal of feminine expression hasn’t been challenged in mainstream culture before, of course. Throughout the last decade there has been a remarkable shift in the ways women are represented in visual media. The popular acknowledgment in recent years of cellulite, body fat, and under-arm hair ushered in a phenomenon broadly known as body positivity, characterised by brands utilizing a more “authentic” portrayal of womanhood to sell their products.
Body positivity was initially conceived as a principle of a fat positive movement that was profoundly subversive in its political advocacy against discriminatory practices experienced by bigger bodied people in schools, workplaces, and in healthcare. Today’s version of body positivity, however, looks less like radical political action and more like Aerie’s very public commitment to stop photoshopping stretch-marks off their lingerie models’ legs or Nike’s decision to advertise their products on “plus size” mannequins in select stores. Initiated by Dove’s Real Beauty marketing campaign in the mid-noughties, the trend was further popularised by a multiplicity of imitator brands – a shift that has indelibly altered the ways in which products, and indeed lifestyles, are marketed to women.
Nonetheless, it has done great good in presenting as beautiful traits which are typically deemed “imperfections”. As a teenager, I remember how body positive imagery teased out of me a tenderness towards my thighs that touched when I stood with my feet together or the role it played in gently drawing attention to and challenging how the facial features I was most insecure about were those that were most typically Asian.
Despite the enormous privilege afforded to me as a cisgendered, able-bodied person, it felt liberating to know that having a rectangular, rather than “hourglass” shaped torso was okay. My puberty acne and my broad shoulders were okay. Having a wide set nose and eyes that disappeared when I smiled big was okay.
Over time however, as I began to recognize some of the underlying assumptions and demands of body positivity, this sense of comfort gradually gave way to a slow, dawning recognition of a much subtler but insidious consequence of my engagement with its rhetoric; namely, how it convinced me that I could find everything I needed to feel loved and accepted in the mirror – and most insidiously of all that this was a good thing.
What I was beginning to realize then and can better articulate now is that body positivity has something profoundly to do with desire. Indeed, its very core occupation is to challenge culturally dominant assumptions of what kinds of bodies are considered worthy of desire, and correspondingly, who is allowed to feel desirable; significant; valued.
Thus, when we stop to enquire what sort of understanding of desire body positivity relies upon, it becomes clear that this is not only a problem of corporate greed and marketing ploys. It is also a deeply theological problem – and more specifically one characterized by the lack of a theologically robust account of desire; its precarity, its work, and its ends.
To unpack what I mean, I’ll enlist the help of two remarkable thinkers; Rowan Williams and Stanley Hauerwas. By exploring some of their insights, I hope to delineate more clearly this connection between “body positivity” and desire as such.
In his 1989 essay “The Body’s Grace”1, Rowan Williams attempts to flesh out what a Christian theological vision of human desire and sexuality looks like— befittingly referring to it as “the body’s grace”. Building a careful engagement with both literary and philosophical sources, Williams suggests that this body’s grace is indicative of the extraordinarily vulnerable, and often messy, experiences of bodily delight in another and a growing awareness of one’s own person as an occasion of delight herself.
Drawing on philosopher Thomas Nagel, Williams discusses the reciprocal and reflexive nature of desire. According to Nagel, in order to be sustained and developed, desire must be perceived as desirable by its object and grow in awareness of its own desirability. One begins as a subject with another as her object of desire but ends up in a much more vulnerable and complicated position in which her original desire becomes itself the cause of further desire by her desire’s object, thus nurturing a mutual, contingent, and rather Augustinian interplay of desire and delight.
Thus, Williams posits, the individualistic satisfaction of one’s desires outside of this interplay cannot be realized without distorting the experience of desire itself. It constitutes an attempt to strip it of its riskiness, of the vulnerability that accompanies the forfeiting to another our sense of control over how we are perceived. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a perversion of desire. This is because, for Williams, the experience of bodily desire and joy is indelibly bound up with its potential to point beyond itself to the greater reality of what is sometimes called the economic trinity, or how God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit makes Godself known to us. And it is this experience of being known and wanted by the divine, Williams argues, that largely constitutes the experience of what Christians call grace.
He explains, “The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity.” 1 In Williams’ framework then, the task of the Christian believer has to do with the pursuit of interpersonal relationships and communities in which this grace may be rendered sensible to its members.
Shifting our attention across the pond, in his cheekily entitled 1978 essay “Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians Are Doing It”, Stanley Hauerwas addresses what he perceives to be a lamentable void in Christian ethics addressing the shifting sexual mores of the day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hauerwas’s main source of dissatisfaction has to do with an uncritical acceptance of the individualistic accounts of the self as purported by political liberalism. Noting the failure of Christian ethicists’ attempts to speak meaningfully about sex without veering into the twin dangers of romanticism or moral realism, Hauerwas suggests that both are grounded in a culturally ordained understanding of sex (and the experience of desire bound up in it) as predominantly individualistic. He writes:
It is often assumed that you can do pretty much what you want as long as you do not ‘‘hurt’’ one another. What we have failed to note is that the claim that sex is a matter of private morality is a political claim dependent upon a liberal political ethos. Any attempt to reclaim an authentic Christian ethic of sex must begin by challenging the assumption that sex is a ‘‘private’’ matter.”2
To Hauerwas then, the Church can only speak meaningfully about sexuality if it speaks from a remembrance of its own self-understood task of providing a radical alternative to the world’s assumptions and social norms. This involves asking questions of what kind of person our sexual practices are encouraging us to become as well as how we can model this in a way that renders such an ethic intelligible both to the world as well as to the young people within our own communities. “For only then,” Hauerwas opines, “can they be offered a vision and an enterprise that might make the disciplining of sex as interesting as its gratification.”3
Now of course, Hauerwas here is referring explicitly to the sexual practices between lovers. However his reflections are also deeply relevant for thinking about the experiences of desire and delight that comprise them. His insights teach us that desire, desirability, and delight must be negotiated on a plethora of levels – interpersonal, theological and political.
What may we make of the insights of these two thinkers together? It is clear that for both of them, how we order and experience human desire is of supreme importance if the church seeks to bear witness to a gospel of divine grace and redemption. As Williams demonstrates, a legitimate experience of desire can guide an individual into a perilous but ultimately graced reality in which she can grow in awareness of her own significance through paradoxically forfeiting any and all attempts to construe it by herself. And as Hauerwas affirms, our understanding of what we are doing with our bodies must extend beyond the jurisdiction of our interpersonal relationships within the “private” sphere. Instead, we must recognize that our desire is bound up with the public and political life of the Church in the world.
From these reflections then, we may arrive at a position that suggests something like this: a thoroughly Christian theological account of desire will proclaim the goodness of desire as an experience that can draw humans together in a wonderful interplay of reciprocal joy and delight. It will also affirm that how we understand desire matters deeply for the Church’s commitment to upholding its own teachings on the precarious, given, and embodied nature of our existence.
Which brings us back, finally, to body positivity.
As noted previously, body positivity was initially conceived as a foundational principle of a political movement that sought to challenge discrimination against fat and obese people. It was disruptive and powerful. As an article recently published in Vox states: “To have a body that’s widely reviled and discriminated against and to love it anyway, in the face of constant cultural messaging about your flaws, is subversive.”4
However, today’s rendition of body positive imagery and rhetoric as enjoined with marketing schemes has taken this radical, public advocacy for marginalized bodies, and, through a process of re-privatization and monetization, distorted it beyond recognition.
Despite body positivity’s loud visual presence within the public sphere, my teenage self discovered that the work to meet the demands of body positivity was an intensely private affair in the way it encouraged me to turn first to the internet to confirm my desirability and to turn correspondingly deep into my individual psyche to conjure up the willpower to perform it (or deep shame when I failed to do so). Such body positive exhortations to “accept” and “love” oneself reduces what ought to be a public, risky, and transformational experience of love to a handmaid of privatized pursuit of self-validation accompanied by more material consumption.
Thus, despite its merits, the body positive movement as it is, is severely limited by its failure to the very people it seeks to uplift by demanding them to solitarily reconfigure their self-perception in light of shifting marketing trends without doing anything practical to alleviate the very real burdens they face in a society that does not privilege their embodied existence.
The logic of body positivity, like all advertisements of its nature, locates the experience of desirability in the autonomous liberal subject, and more accurately in the autonomous liberal consumer. But the logic of grace affirms that it is only within the context of love and reciprocity that individuals can grow in awareness of their divinely bestowed value.
The logic of body positivity demands of people with conventionally undesirable bodies to embrace their “imperfections” and perform a self-confidence that forgoes any real political or social work that would challenge the dominant culture that makes them feel unvalued. But an ongoing experience of grace enables us to do that very work it takes to communicate the dignity and value of people whose embodied lives are deeply informed by experiences of disability, color, illness, or queerness – to cultivate a communal context in which people can know we are truly valued and wanted here.
It is grace that compels us into a transformative journey of contemplation of its giver; a process that consists of, in Sarah Coakely’s words, “the stuff of learned bodily enactment, sweated out painfully over months and years, in duress, in discomfort, in bewilderment, as well as in joy and dawning recognition.”5 In the course of such a process, it can be realized that a legitimate embrace of our embodied existence involves so much more than merely asserting that “everyone else” is a cool girl too. Rather, it involves the work, the prayer, and the repeated acceptance of an invitation to participate in the very deification of our embodied life as initiated and sustained by Christ; individually, inter-personally, and globally. Only then can we begin to discover our body’s grace and experience the delight and the depth of the love shown to us through it.
- Williams, Rowan. “The Body’s Grace” in Rogers, E.F., 2002. Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers. 312.
- Hauerwas, Stanley. “Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians Are Doing It” in Hauerwas, S., Cartwright, M.G. & Berkman, J., 2001. The Hauerwas Reader, Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 484.
- Ibid., 491.
- Mull, Amanda. “Body Positivity is a Scam.” Vox. Last modified June 5, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/6/5/17236212/body-positivity-scam-dove-campaign-ads.
- Coakley, Sarah. God, Sexuality and the Self : An Essay ‘on the Trinity’. Cambridge ; New York]: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 45-46.