TikTok's Sienna Mae Gomez is Trapped in a Body Positivity Movement That Loves Almost No One

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Sienna Mae Gomez has amassed 15 million followers on TikTok with videos about food, dance and, most of all, self-love.
Sienna Mae Gomez has amassed 15 million followers on TikTok with videos about food, dance and, most of all, self-love. (TikTok/ @siennamae)

Sienna Mae Gomez is a confident, fun-loving 17-year-old girl who has, in the space of a single year, amassed 15 million followers on TikTok. Gomez's videos—which show her dancing, goofing around, and generally living her best life—inspired a profile earlier this year in Nylon, which described her as "a cool girl confidently show[ing] off her regular body," and praised for her "positive body image." That description was born from the fact that Gomez regularly preaches "self-love," enthusiastically eats food on camera, and dances in bikinis unselfconsciously.

@siennamaequarantine 2020 vibes♬ lady gaga saying that ppl can do hard things - umru

Last week, Gomez posted a clip titled "bloating." In it, she side-profiled her concave stomach expanding to a merely flat one after apparently eating five tacos.

@siennamaebloating😁😁♬ Exclamation mark - Soul

The criticism from fans about the clip prompted her to make another video almost immediately. In it, she captioned a message from a TikTok user who told Gomez that, despite her oft-repeated body positive stance, her slender physique just made bigger girls watching "feel worse."

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"I never claimed to be the face of body positivity," Gomez says in the clip. "I never claimed to be in a specific group or representing a specific group of people. My account has always been, and will always be, purely just me feeling confident and hoping that that can inspire others ... I've always put the message out there that any body type is beautiful. There is no right body."

Gomez's latest body positivity controversy emerges less than two months after she came under fire for launching a merch line sporting the phrase "Did you eat today?" Many critics saw it as an attempt to profit from other people's eating disorders; Gomez asserted that she was trying to express "compassion and care for people who are struggling."

Gomez certainly has a healthier attitude toward food and self-love than a great many other TikTok personalities. And her age is undoubtedly a factor in some of the issues she's experiencing with her personal brand. But Gomez has also been benefiting—through no fault of her own—from a mainstream culture that has, for years, co-opted the ideas of "body positivity" without actually celebrating fat bodies.

Examples, unrelated to either Gomez or TikTok, are not hard to come by.

In 2016, Glamour magazine added Amy Schumer to the cover of its plus size issue, despite the fact that she was a size 6-8 at the time. (It was left to Schumer herself to point out on Instagram that presenting her body as plus size was damaging to young women.)

In 2018, Everlane prominently used an extra-curvy model named Chloé Vero in the ad campaign for its underwear launch—only to cap the largest size at XL. (That particular underwear came with a 32-inch waist.)

In 2017, Vogue hyped up the fact that Ashley Graham would be the first plus size model to grace its cover, only to hide her body in a line of Vogue's regular models. ("NO NORM IS THE NEW NORM," the cover lied.)

In January, E!, Glamour, Yahoo, Seventeen, US Weekly and a variety of other outlets all carried stories about the fact that Khloe Kardashian had "proudly" shown off her stretch marks in an Instagram post. The headlines suggested this was a relatable moment, an occasion to celebrate women's imperfections. US Weekly began its article on the subject with the words: "The real her." Despite all that hype, Kardashian's image bore little resemblance to anything most women could relate to.

Coincidentally, just as Sienna Mae Gomez was reckoning with her place in the skewed world of mainstream body positivity, Lena Dunham was breaking down the movement for the New York Times. In an interview to promote her new plus size collaboration with 11 Honoré over the weekend, Dunham described the narrow parameters of the bodies deemed appropriate for mainstream celebration.

She told the newspaper:

The thing that’s complicated about the body positive movement, is it can be for the privileged few who have a body that looks the way people want to feel positive. We want curvy bodies that look like Kim Kardashian has been up-sized slightly. We want big beautiful butts and big beautiful breasts and no cellulite and faces that look like you could smack them on to thin women.

A quick glance at Cosmopolitan's 2021 list of "Best Plus Size Models and Accounts to Follow" perfectly illustrates Dunham's point. While, unlike Gomez, the women featured are size 12 or over, they almost exclusively fit the very specific type that Dunham describes.

The list includes Ashley Graham, Sonny Turner, and Jada Sezer. (Thankfully, it also includes Tess Holiday, a glaring exception to the rule.)

Of course, in more niche, fat positive circles on the internet, you will find rounder bellies, less symmetrical waistlines and a much broader idea of what it means to be big and beautiful. But the struggle to get America on board with actual, real-life, plus size bodies has been ongoing for years.

While filming Girls—a show in which she often appeared naked and unposed—Dunham was bombarded with criticism about her body, and told by countless internet trolls to cover up. As such, she has given a lot of thought as to why the world is more comfortable hearing about body positivity from women with smaller bodies than hers.

“I have a big stomach, I always have," she told the New York Times. "That’s where I gain my weight ... and that’s not where anybody wants to see flesh ... The amount of people who have written to me on my page: ‘You’re promoting obesity. Don’t you understand you’re killing yourself? Are you stupid? Why are you doing that?'" She continued: "If a thin girl wears sweatpants, it’s kind of cute—like, ‘I’m having a rough day!’ But for a chubby girl, it’s ‘You’ve made a lifestyle choice to give up.’"

Truthfully, Gomez and Dunham represent two sides of the same coin. Both became famous as very young women. Both arrived in the public consciousness with specific sets of privilege (Gomez's is physical; Dunham's financial) that leave them exposed to criticism.

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But the difference in how Dunham and Gomez have been received is rooted firmly in the thing they're both trying to stamp out. The fact that both are struggling to such a great degree to get their message across isn't an indictment of either of them, really. It's the reflection of a culture that ceaselessly continues to judge women based on the shapes and sizes of their bodies.