Op-Ed: Here’s Why The Terms “Summer Body” And “Unbig Your Back” Are Problematic

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It’s now officially summer, which means an influx of outdoor activities, visits to the beach, and showing some skin. Unfortunately, the warm summer months can also bring up unnecessary pressure to achieve a perfect “Summer Body” or “Unbig Your Back.” These two terms are harmful because they perpetuate toxic body standards rooted in fatphobia that erode body positivity and confidence. While these harmful terms are now trending on social media, the mindset has been present in the Black community for decades. According to a recent study, Black women’s body image and beauty standards can be understood within a framework of racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism. According to popular Black feminist thought and theory, the devaluation of the Black American woman is rooted in slavery, as our bodies were routinely violated, critiqued, and consumed for pleasure, and elevated for profit. During slavery, negative images and archetypes of Black women emerged, as most of us were viewed as objects and our bodies judged. 

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the present day. Our bodies, including our hips, lips, and butts, are still devalued and rejected by mainstream culture but, in turn, fetishized and co-opted by other cultures. Mainstream culture still overvalues beauty standards that we might not be able to fully identify with, like slender features or a small back. With terms like “Summer Body” and “Unbig Your Back,” Black women, in particular, are being told that their bodies, just the way they are, aren’t good enough and are undesirable, which leads them to contort themselves into something that isn’t who they are. “Black women’s bodies are constantly being scrutinized for various reasons like being too big, too small, too voluptuous, too muscular. The “Summer Body” or getting right from summer is not new,” says body positivity enthusiast and trainer Lauren Leavell to ESSENCE.

She continues, “Sentiments like “Unbig Your Back” can add to the stress and discomfort people feel around showing up in their bodies and fuel some unhealthy behaviors around diet and exercise. There is often a rise in extreme dieting (crash diets) around particular seasonal events or holidays. Additionally, suddenly “going hard” in the gym and with workouts can result in injury, making enjoying summer much harder.” 

However, Leavell realizes that people participating in this trend aren’t necessarily to blame. “It is hard to blame folks for wanting to alleviate some of the societal pressures that arise from not fitting within the narrow standards of beauty upheld by intersecting systems of oppression. A multibillion-dollar diet industry backs trends like these, and it’s tough not to get wrapped up in feeling like you need to participate. It’s important to remember that bodies are not trends, and you deserve a joyful summer in the body you are in,” she says.

Chrissy King, body positivity enthusiast and author of The Body Liberation Project, believes that “Unbig Your Back” isn’t a funny term but deeply problematic, as she thinks it’s rooted in white supremacy and fatphobia. “I do understand that the term “Unbig Your Back” did start as something people were joking about, but I don’t think it’s a joke. I think it is really harmful because whether it’s said jokingly, the reality is that people are saying that we have to make our car smaller to enjoy our bodies or wear the clothes we want to wear,” King states. 

She adds, “I think that it’s so important for us to understand the tie between fatphobia and diet culture, to white supremacy and understanding that whether we recognize it or not, when you’re falling into these traps of “Unbig Your Back” and “Summer Body,” we are participating in white supremacy. And I do understand it’s tough. We live in a culture that hyper-focuses on women’s bodies, particularly Black ones. It’s hard to fight back against that narrative. But the longer we play into that, the more we keep ourselves trapped.”

King continues, “And I also think it’s interesting that people say, “It’s just a joke.” But I know I’m in rooms with Black women all the time, and the conversation around dieting or needing to get ready for the summer is present. The reality is that those conversations are happening every day, all the time. Black women are pressured to show up in the world a certain way. The reality is that many people dealing with body image issues are doing fad diets, especially in the age of Ozempic, and taking prescription pills to lose weight.” 

Becoming hyper-focused on our bodies takes away from being present and enjoying the world around us. Each of us has our own unique body, and there should be no particular way we must show up for warm temperatures or be forced to change our personhood for one season. We should focus on cultivating joy instead, as it’s our birthright. “We look at people like Lizzo, whose body is constantly scrutinized and routinely being ostracized and talked about. And the reality is that she’s just a black woman that enjoys her body. And joy is our birthright. And I think white supremacy has stolen so much from us,” King shares. 

For the people who claim the terms “Summer Body” and “Unbig Your Back” promote health and wellness, King has this to say, “It’s such a common narrative that if you’re in a thin body, that means you’re automatically healthy, and vice versa. If you’re in a larger body, that means you’re automatically these are unhealthy. What I would say to people about that is that we physically look at them and determine what their health is.” 

During this summer and beyond, please know that changing your body for any season or event is unnecessary. And if that’s something you feel compelled to do, your changes should be more gradual and sustainable to reduce your risk of injury, disordered eating, and burnout.

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