We rarely acknowledge that our freedom, courage, and self-love start from a very intimate place — the privacy of our bedrooms, in front of our mirrors — and from our relationship with our own bodies. The body is a deeply personal matter, but also a viscerally political one; “Your body is a battleground”, as Barbara Kruger once proclaimed. Society is slowly coming to an understanding of the battles fought by people with marginalised bodies: fat, queer, trans, differently-abled, people of colour, to name just a few. Body positivity is a movement which not only pushes against restrictive mainstream beauty norms, but asserts that all bodies are equally entitled to love, admiration, and representation.
In today’s Russia, the movement is more urgent than ever. It is a response to the country’s current conservatism, with its retrograde stance on questions of race, LGBTQ+ rights, and disability; it also stems from the nation’s complex historical relationship to the female body.
“Beauty requires sacrifice,” as a popular Russian proverb has it. This is something almost every Russian girl hears from her mother or older female relatives. It is OK to suffer uncomfortable high heels and restrictive diets as long as it delivers a socially-admirable appearance. This is a message which a lot of Russian women never question. Being skinny is at the heart of the Russian beauty ideal, and fat-phobia exists on all levels of society: from schools to family to the healthcare system to the endlessly objectifying images in advertising and the media. But the new generation of body positivity activists is not ready to put up with this anymore.
Body positivity in Russia is a feminist issue: it’s a question of reclaiming the female body from the hegemony of the male gaze. While feminism remains a dirty word and body hair and belly rolls are considered an offence to the society, self-love has become a radical weapon. At the same time, the movement is also part of a much bigger cultural shift: one which sees younger generations standing up for equal rights for women, the LGBTQ+ community, differently-abled people, and people of colour; people choosing to state proudly, “we exist”.
In a special project for The Calvert Journal, photographer and body positivity advocate Miliyollie captured fellow activists fighting for inclusivity and a progressive view on beauty.
Most of my life I lived with the feeling that I constantly needed to change something about my body, even when I was happy with it. That changed when, at the age of 16, I started seeing people with more diverse body types on social media — that showed me how different we all are. Body positivity means that we all deserve the right to a comfortable existence regardless of what our body looks like or its abilities. We don’t live in a body positive world: it’s very rare that people who don’t conform to the “standard” are visible, and even more rare when they’re made visible without judgement. This is the reason a lot of people think of their bodies as flawed or not valuable enough, and that’s why body positivity activism is important. It promotes the fact that we’re all different and it’s great.
It’s great to see the rise of body positivity in recent years — maybe not in the mainstream media, but definitely across social networks! It makes me very happy seeing young girls come to body positivity, try to build a healthy relationship with their own bodies, inform themselves on other people’s bodies. I really missed that as a teen!
Before, in order to love myself I had to achieve goals in terms of losing weight. But thatchanged dramatically thanks to the work of body positivity activist and bloggers. I love being part of the movement fighting the body-negative culture, even though it’s everywhere. It’s great to see that body positivity helps other people, and shows that approaching your own and other people’s body without judgement or hate is possible, pleasant and the right thing to do!
My first encounter with body positivity happened online: I saw a fat woman talking about her experience and the movement. She lived just like she wanted, and I was amazed that someone could be fat and not hate themselves for it. It completely turned my life around. At that point, I was incredibly tired from self-hatred and eating disorders, and body positivity helped me to finally start living.
Russian body positivity mainly revolves around self-love and self-acceptance rather than fighting discrimination. I understand: it’s hard to think globally when you can’t even look at yourself in the mirror. At the moment, my main goal is informing people about discrimination against fat people, non-white people, non-cis people, and people with health issues; it’s aboutthe dynamics of power in this system and their consequences. When you realise that all bodies deserve equal rights, it’s easier to come to an acceptance of your own.
I discovered body positivity alongside feminism when I was about 14. I didn’t like myself and my body, although back then I was thinner and more conventionally beautiful. I can’t stand when people say that body positivity is only for people who are missing a limb or have spots on their skin — it’s a movement promoting the idea that everyone should be treated equally. It tries to break, or at least expand narrow beauty standards.
For me, one of the key goals is to fight for the representation of fat bodies in the media. In Russia, not everyone is ready for this, but we shouldn’t wait: we have to bring on radical change. Clothing brands need to extend their size charts, give voice to body positivity activists, and show people of diverse body types, as Rihanna did recently with her Savage x Fenty lingerie. Fitness clubs and magazines should stop using fat-phobic slogans and ignoring the existence of fat people. Advertising, magazines, and the internet influence us a lot, and if they start transmitting a progressive view on beauty, it would make life easier for everyone.
Body positivity means that nothing truly determines our personality apart from our qualities and attitude to the world. But because of sexism, this statement never used to include women, who instead had to be beautiful and groomed to be respected — even when thosethings were achieved through pain.
I discovered the movement when I started therapy five years ago. My appearance is socially acceptable but I’ve always secretly hated myself for not being enough of a beauty. Body positivity can’t be summed up as just “we don’t owe anything to society”. It’s also things like:“I can take care of myself and my health is not anyone’s concern”; “I know better than other people how I would like to look”; “the world doesn’t revolve around my opinion about other people’s appearance and health, and I don’t have to voice it”. It’s a means of fighting against discrimination, but also for respect, towards both yourself and other people. And in our weird world, respect can be a revolution!
As a fat person with a disability, I think body positivity is first and foremost for the differently-abled, people of colour, trans, and fat people. Of course, it is important for everyone but it’s not really about “love yourself and people will love you in return” — it’s a political movement for the equality of all bodies, and the fact that all bodies have a right to respect and representation in society.
As a photographer, I think of representation in my work. I don’t retouch skin or figure, I shoot lookbooks with ordinary people not models, and I hope there’s going to be more creatives who do the same. We’re the ones who are currently moving the world forward. It’s happening slowly for now, but the bigger the movement, the easier it’s going to become.
Body positivity for me is the answer to all the questions I’ve had since childhood which no one could answer for me. I’ve been fat for as long as I can remember, and people have always had problems with that; the very few who supported me did it in a wrong way. As a teenager, I could feel that society’s attitude to my body was unfair — I didn’t hate my fat body but feeling the pressure made me try to lose weight. I thought that fat interfered with making friends or romantic relationships.
I found out about body positivity at about 2,0 and realised that it was something I had beenlooking for my whole life. In the Russian-speaking body positivity community there was lots of creativity and useful information, but not so many photos of real people. I started posting pictures of myself there, and later in blogs about street style for a wider audience. My photos always got a lot of comments like: “Fat people can’t dress like this”, or “You have to hide your flaws”. At some point, I was kind of a figurehead for the movement. Today, I can see that the movement is growing and developing and I’m sure it has a bright future ahead.
Text: Anastasiia Fedorova