Has “body positivity” lost its meaning?


Love Your Body is over. 

It’s been a good seven-year run that started with the best of intentions: to encourage people of all body types to love themselves, just as they are. During this time we went viral around the world and broke the internet for proudly showing nudity. 

We’ve been so fortunate to profile incredible people in the city, ranging from activists, musicians, artists and so much more. 

As time went on, however, we saw how terms like “Love Your Body,” “self love” and “body positivity” changed – and not necessarily for the better. We’re at a point where these terms have been exploited for clout, money and other personal gain. We’ve even had people pitching us to be part of the annual issue as a means to promote themselves. 

We didn’t want to be a part of that.

Instead, for this issue, we decided to dig a little deeper. We spoke to people that we’ve profiled in previous Love Your Body issues: Biko Beauttah, a designer and human rights activist; Leisse Wilcox, an author and relationship coach; Mina Gerges, a model and TV personality; and TiKA, a musician and composer. We also spoke to Sabrina Maddeaux, who spearheaded the first Love Your Body issue for NOW. 

During this roundtable we talk about the history of Love Your Body, what it was like to be profiled in the issue, and how the rhetoric on loving your body has evolved today, with the help of social media.

The origin story of Love Your Body

SABRINA MADDEAUX: The idea originally came about in late 2014. It was inspired chiefly by ESPN’s the body issue, which was fairly popular at the time in mainstream media. Every year it featured a selection of athletes posing nude, and it was heralded often as being brave and courageous. But it really still featured a particular type of person and a particular type of body. 

We wanted to promote the message of embracing yourself, your body, your body’s story. I thought, “What if we did a version of the body issue in Toronto, but with a much more diverse group, and we had people tell their personal body stories?” We somehow found 13 people for that very first issue of all different sizes, genders, orientations, abilities and backgrounds. It was a huge hit, except for Facebook who banned a few accounts of the first participants temporarily because of the nudity. From there, it just kept growing. 

In 2014, if you remember, that was also the big Free The Nipple movement. A lot of people were having their social accounts banned. So that was part of the conversation at the time.

Sabrina Maddeaux created the Love Your Body issue for NOW and is currently a columnist with the National Post. Maddeaux says she found it important to profile bodies of all types and listen to their stories. She hopes the Love Your Body issue continues to encourage others to celebrate who they are, body and soul.

RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI: That’s the one that was picked up by BuzzFeed.

MADDEAUX: BuzzFeed, magazines like US Weekly, Huffington Post. It went around the world and went viral. It was nominated for several National Magazine Awards, and I believe it won a couple. 

First time being involved with Love Your Body

TiKA: When I was a part of [Love Your Body], I was in a very different place in my life. I was experiencing a great deal of trauma. I had a showcase series for marginalized youth for seven years. I was at this crossroads where I was trying to figure out if I wanted to pour into the community or pour into myself. When it was presented to me to do it, it felt like a great opportunity for me to bare my skin and talk about some of the experiences and the interpersonal experiences that I have had, as a woman – which is seen as the nurturer, or the mother.

There was a lot of shock when it came out. My community was both shocked and encouraging. But also there is this underlying idea that we have to hide ourselves or not take up too much space. That was kind of the energy back then.


BIKO BEAUTTAH: There was nobody else doing something like this and talking about vulnerability. I wish the photographer [Tanja Tiziana] was here. I was not in any way planning on taking my clothes off. I’ll let you know right now, that was never going to happen. And when I went there, the photographer was adamant there was not going to be any Photoshop, no post-production, nothing. And before you know it, my clothes were off. There was a lot of vulnerability. And when it came out, I saw all the body types and all the different stories and the diversity and inclusion. Our intentions were really sincere. 

LEISSE WILCOX: When I did the shoot in 2020, I was on the cover at 36. I got breast cancer, and chose to go flat as a curative and preventative strategy. So I completely went flat. There’s a big scar across my chest. And in my decision to do that, to be a single woman, a single parent, completely flat, there was no imagery, or very little imagery of what that looks like. The assumption is “You’re going to remove your breasts, you’re obviously going to get implants.” Then it became a conversation about enoughness. 

TiKA: I think it’s amazing that you made that choice in that decision for yourself. Because you’re right, it’s so hard to see yourself outside of the pack.

WILCOX: And I think that’s the point, right? Part of that biology is like, of course, there are certain physical attributes that are appealing. That’s biology: it’s icky, it’s unpopular. It wasn’t that long ago that we were only motivated by that, right? Also, everybody here knows beauty is an energy. Like your light is your energy, you’re so much more than the vessel that you’re in. I think that’s the more important conversation, but I feel like Love Your Body started in that way, to blow the doors off and then get deep and introspective. The work is to see yourself as enough. And somehow it got picked and pulled and, like, listicled to death, about what self love and body positivity looks like now.


Terms like “Body positivity” and “self love” are a double-edged sword

SIMONPILLAI: Sabrina, we started with you talking about the origins of Love Your Body. How has it changed over the years?

MADDEAUX: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword where on one hand, it’s wonderful to see more people being comfortable sharing their bodies and their stories. But then on the other hand, even when we began the body issue, people were co-opting these terms and using them for profit, for ulterior motives, for superficial reasons. 

Social media has now taken that to an entirely new level where we see some of that with influencers, using the language of body positivity or self love to really sell things or sell themselves. You should have never looked at a Love Your Body Issue and wanted to be something you’re not, or wanted to be someone you’re not. You should be inspired to love yourself and continue your body journey. That’s why it also was never just a photo package. The photos and the words very much went hand in hand.

MINA GERGES: We live in a type of society that loves the message behind body positivity. But they still have so many biases against the type of people who started it and the type of people that are actually about this movement. With my line of work, my weight has fluctuated a lot throughout the years. I was also a lot thinner when I did the Love Your Body shoot. Now I’m a lot bigger. It’s so interesting to see how people listen to me when I talk about body positivity, or when I do my work. They listen to me more when I’m thinner, versus now when I’m fat. I think that’s a really hard pill to swallow. As a fat person, you’re actually shut out from the conversation. 

TiKA: I wanted to just speak to what Mina was saying, because I think that fatphobia is obviously a huge thing. It is one of the systems that we’re trying to combat actively, every single day. I was having this conversation with a friend on hyper-visibility. Hyper-visibility is equatable to fame, which is equatable to “you’ve made it,” you know what I’m saying? So if I’m having a quiet conversation with my family at the dining room table, they won’t listen to me. But they will if I’m on eTalk. I was able to use that, leverage that as a positionality, of being, like, “I should be listened to, not just because I’m hyper-visible, but not just because I’m fat. But because what I’m saying is viable.” 

A lot of the problems are not us. There’s going to be people that judge you for something as menial as being large, and it’s up to you to know where that person is, in terms of emotional immaturity. That’s how I’ve been able to navigate my life. 

WILCOX: I am somebody who works in the field of emotional health and wellness. It’s really philosophical, because the one person that will be guaranteed to be with you from first breath all the way until your last breath is yourself. That relationship is legit. It’s a foundational relationship that’s rooted in love. So for me, self love is this enormous concept and this foundational concept.

When people capitalize on that and just kind of tack it on because, you know, “All you have to do is love yourself,” it’s like no, it’s so much bigger than that. It’s so much more sacred than that. 

I start to get really worried when I hear people just kind of add it on there.

TiKA: One of the people I follow on social media is Kenzie Brenna. She is very vulnerable about her posts. I’ve found that social media has become less performative and more honest, and folks operate on a system of integrity, depending on who you are. 

But something that I’ve noticed is that the body positivity movement has kind of shifted into this space, where it’s less about the body and more about the person. The nudity is like the surface level of it. But then there’s a plethora of layers underneath that people are starting to kind of explore. Body positvity in social media today has become a lot more comfortable with being honest about who people are in a non-performative way. 

RAMONA LEITAO: Personally, I’ve noticed that the people who often take up that space and embrace that term are able-bodied, white, thin, cis women. And they often have these very curated social media posts where they’re like, “I may look thin but look at my cellulite! I’m relatable!” What kind of impact do you think that has for the rest of us who don’t necessarily fit into that group?

BEAUTTAH: For me we shouldn’t really be bothered about these folks anyway, because a lot of them are doing it for all the wrong reasons, and they’re giving the people who went to school for it – nutritionists or people who are in sports science, who are actually doing it for the right reason – a bad name.

It seems that everybody with a body, a phone and a cute outfit is now some type of expert. It’s not just the skinny people who do it. It’s also full-figured men and women, they have their own version of doing it. And even in the full-figured community, there are still people who are doing it for the right reasons. I see them really preaching body positivity, health and fitness, nutrition and diet. And I feel like we need to amplify these voices more in order to drown out all this noise that’s out there.


Body positivity still has a long way to go for men

GERGES: When it comes to men specifically, the conversations around loving your body haven’t really changed. If anything, they’ve gotten more toxic. I think it’s just been co-opted to mean self love and that’s it. They forget about the other things that go into body positivity. It’s not just about self love. It’s about advocating for people that exist in larger bodies and differently-abled bodies, and making sure they don’t experience the world differently. 

MADDEAUX: I do think we’ve seen a reversal or worsening for men. I mean, even with all the conversations around Marvel movies these days in the superhero body, there have been so many reports about rampant steroid use in Hollywood, and how that’s affecting men’s images of themselves. There’s clearly still work to be done. 

SIMONPILLAI: I don’t know if any of you read the interview with Kumail Nanjiani. There was a profile of him and he explained why he decided to take it upon himself to get absolutely ripped when he got a Marvel role. The directors were like “Why do you need to be buffed for this?” And so when he’s discussing it in the profile, he’s like, “Yeah, I’m all for body positivity. And yet, I still felt the need to get absolutely as ripped as possible.” 

GERGES: He has a very average, regular body. I remember the conversations were like, “Wow, he’s so brave for doing this.” The conversation surrounding men’s bodies is so far back that we’re looking at a very regular body and we’re saying this is brave. And I think that’s the thing that is really, really sad. It shows how different things are for men versus how they are for women.

Samuel Engelking

Going ahead, we have to continue the conversations and take up space

LEITAO: I know we’ve all touched upon how social media isn’t necessarily the space to show what we encompassed in these previous Love Your Body issues. But I wanted to know: if not there, then where? Especially since a lot of younger people consume a lot more social media than other platforms.

MADDEAUX: I think finding spaces where you can have real conversations like these are incredibly helpful, especially now that everyone’s more comfortable with virtual spaces and video conferencing. And there’s so many platforms available. Having people actually speak in their own words – where you can see their facial expressions, their energy – and really be vulnerable in a different way than when you’re just typing behind a keyboard. 

SIMONPILLAI: Sabrina, you started this. If you want to put this to bed, do you have any last words for the Love Your Body Issue?

MADDEAUX: I mostly just want to thank everyone here for being involved and for your sharing your bodies and your stories, which I know how nerve wracking that was. The responses that we got over the years, not just in Toronto or Canada, but from around the world, were so powerful. 

The number of people who felt seen and inspired and able to carry on – whether it’s feeling more comfortable with themselves, or whether they felt more comfortable advocating for body positivity, even though yes, now those words are complicated – was outstanding. Really, the issue touched so many people. And that was really all of you who touched so many people. So thank you for sharing and for your courage and your honesty and vulnerability. 

BEAUTTAH: Maybe I really feel positive about this. I don’t know, maybe in five to 10 years, when we reconvene and have another meeting, the discussion will be “Isn’t it interesting how from where we started, we’ve now gotten to a point where everyone literally loves their body? There’s enough room in this world for everyone to just be themselves just as they are.” I see that’s where we’re going.

WILCOX: I think that one of the gifts that will come out of the pandemic – one of the “good” things that’s going to come out of it – is that I think it’s going to re-calibrate people’s BS meters. We’ve had this shared experience, no matter what it was like for you – how easy, how difficult, whatever. It has been such a shared experience in terms of all of that dark stuff bubbling up to the surface. And all of a sudden, [people who see posts like] “It’s my cellulite that makes me relatable” [will realize] they don’t have a lot to contribute to the conversation. En masse, we are looking for more depth. 

I’m also really gunning for this, but I think in the future we’re maybe going to slowly shift into more traditional media. And maybe traditional media looks like human connection by actually having conversations with people that we know in this micro-connectivity versus those macro, massive scale connections that we’ve been forced to do. 

TiKA: In the next three years when we revisit the Love Your Body Issue, there will be humans against AI. And normalize the fact that we’re against robots now. You know, we’re all the same.

GERGES: I think that society on a more systemic level has been very slow to change. But I think the incredible thing about the Love Your Body Issue and all of us who’ve been a part of it or who are involved in this work is that we’ve taken it on on a personal level to do something about it. I think that speaks volumes to so many people who feel inspired by the movement that they too have decided to do something about it, since they’ve noticed that the system itself won’t change. 

I’ve realized that you can’t really focus on the things that people say. I remember when my Love Your Body Issue came out, the pictures got taken out, they got deleted from Instagram. I remember actually losing something like 7,000 followers when I posted it. Which is crazy now in retrospect. And I remember now, posting a picture of myself in a bathing suit this summer and feeling so insecure at the time. I forced myself to post it because I wanted to say “Why was I not this scared when I was thinner to post a picture like this, versus now when I’m obviously bigger? Why am I scared now?” 

Again, it’s about making sure that people who are creating change are not discouraged by the way that society rewards certain body types and doesn’t reward the other, more marginalized bodies. It’s continuing to take up space, even though you feel like people don’t want you to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



Listen to the entire conversation in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.



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