Many people are having conflicting feelings about the body positivity movement. Here’s why.
These days, virtually everyone is aware of the concept of body positivity. And the movement, which preaches acceptance and health at any/every size, has done a lot of good.
“I think the biggest change that body positivity has created is this widespread cultural awareness of things that very few people were talking about 5 or 10 years ago,” says Megan Jayne Crabbe, aka @bodyposipanda and author of Body Positive Power.
Crabbe points to awareness of diet culture and its harms, fatphobia and how it affects people’s lives, and diversity representation in ads, as areas where the needle has started to move. The anti-diet movement is growing, and people are beginning to understand that a “healthy” weight is not a universal number.
“Accomplishments like brands banishing Photoshop, TV shows casting a wider range of body types, and magazines vowing to stop splashing weight-loss promises on their front covers are small changes in the grand scheme of things, but hopefully are also signs of bigger changes to come,” she says.
And bigger changes are needed because as any body-positive activist will tell you, there’s more work to be done, especially since many who aren’t super familiar with the movement mistakenly believe that it promotes being overweight and living an “unhealthy lifestyle.” But let’s set that record straight: At its core, body positivity has never been about that. And yet, if you check out the social media comments on body-positive posts, you’re likely to find some reference to the idea that it’s promoting something negative. There have also been complaints from thinner women about not feeling included in the movement.
In other words, body positivity has gotten complicated. And that’s okay-because progress isn’t always linear. But we think it’s important to know where it stands now, so we can steer the movement forward in the right direction.
What body pos really means is misunderstood
Despite what many think, body positivity and self-love aren’t the same thing. “Body positivity and self-love are very different, and they get lumped in the same idea by the majority of people out there,” says Sarah Sapora, a self-love mentor and wellness advocate.
Body positivity was created to help people with marginalised bodies (read: fat, queer, trans, bodies of color, and more) feel entitled to self-love, something that had previously been reserved for people in privileged (read: thin, white, fit) bodies. “As the concept of body positivity becomes more widespread and more commercialized, its intention has been watered down at the same time as it has adapted meaning in other ways.”
Think about it: How often have you seen thin, white women talking about body positivity? Probably a lot, but that’s still encouraging. People in privileged bodies should be allies and should be aware of the fact that everyone deserves self-love, but it’s not quite fair to equate the two terms, says Sapora. Bottom line: Body positivity is about finding a community of like-minded people and feeling safe within that community to love your body and who you are.
It feels like it’s only okay for some people to be body positive
Relatedly, people have become selective about who body positivity can apply to-and not in the originally intended way. “We’ve gotten to a point where body positivity is okay for some people-mostly people who are pretty close to the traditional beauty ideal-to embrace their ‘imperfections’ but still not okay for people who are further from this ideal,” says Alexis Conason, Psy.D., psychologist and founder of the Anti-Diet Plan.
“For example, we often see body positivity represented in celebrities or models like Ashley Graham,” points out Conason. “They are doing wonderful important work, but we need to recognize all of the people in more marginalised bodies whose voices are not being heard. And sometimes, in the rare case that a more marginalised voice is heard, there is a lot of backlash.” For example, images of model Tess Holliday have been criticized for “promoting obesity.”
Other experts in this area agree: “Body positivity can’t just be about thin, straight, cisgendered, white women who became comfortable with an additional 10 pounds on their frames,” says Stacey Rosenfeld, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and fitness professional. She has a point.
People still have a problem with fatness
Despite all the good work body positivity has done, the bottom line is that many people still have a problem with fatness in general. It’s not uncommon to see comments on social media posts of fat women that cite “concern” for their health or worry about promoting women who embody anything other than a thin or fit ideal.
“The idea that showing images of unapologetic fat women is somehow going to create an epidemic of fatness is one of the most absurd things I have ever heard,” says Conason. “It’s almost as absurd as the idea that teaching fat people to hate themselves will make them thin. That’s what our culture has been doing for the past decade and I certainly don’t think that has led to anything except for increased rates of eating disorders, more health problems, and epidemic levels of body hatred in people of all sizes.” In fact, research has proven time and again that fat-shaming does not help people lose weight. In other words, take your “concerned comments” elsewhere.
“One thing I have learned from being an obese child, overweight adult, and now a healthy weight adult, is: the problem isn’t weight, it is pain,” says Katie Willcox, a model, author, and founder of Healthy Is The New Skinny.
There are all kinds of reasons someone might be overweight, and despite what many people still think, it can’t just be chalked up to laziness. “We target plus-size people and label them as lazy while we praise the girl on the cover of a magazine who is underweight and equally unhealthy,” says Willcox.
There’s widespread misinterpretation of research on the topic
A study was recently published in the journal Obesity about how being “plus size” is becoming normalised and how that might be related to the dangers of promoting obesity. It could be easy to misinterpret this study to mean that the normalization of bigger bodies has made more people obese-but that’s not what the study is trying to say at all.
What it *actually* says is that people are more prone to underestimating how overweight they are than in years past, particularly those of less privileged socioeconomic status. There could be any number of reasons for that, and the study doesn’t prove (or even suggest how) visibility of bigger bodies would cause people to underestimate their weight. There are plenty of reasons people with less access to money and status would be more overweight than those who are more privileged, so this isn’t really that surprising a finding.
It’s unclear where fitness fits in
Naturally, body-positivity advocates are understandably wary of the fitness industry, which can sometimes result in backlash against icons in the movement who express the desire to be fitter. “The fitness industry is notoriously fatphobic, so of course we should be cautious when bringing fitness talk into the movement,” says Conason.
It’s not that fitness and body positivity are incompatible-that’s not it at all. It’s that the motivation for working out matters when it comes to talking about it in a body-positive context. “Using exercise as a way of punishing your body because you don’t think it’ll be good enough until it’s smaller clashes with body positivity,” says Conason. “But wanting to move more because it brings you joy or because of how it makes your body feel can go hand-in-hand with body positivity.”
Body-pos celeb and model Jordyn Woods recently got into the thick of the debate when she received negative commentary after sharing about workout habits and/or weight loss.
The bottom line? “What’s most important is remembering that fit bodies are no better or worse than unfit bodies, and that people of all shapes and sizes are worthy of respect regardless of their fitness levels or their health,” Conason notes.
Where the body-positivity movement can go from here
Yeah, things are a little complicated right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be hopeful about the future of the movement. “I hope that body positivity will keep growing so that one day, it’s talked about more than dieting!” says Crabbe.
So what can you do to make sure we get there? There are a few actions you can take:
Check your bias
Sapora wants you to ask yourself: “Do you have preconceived notions about the validity of other bodies? Of your body? If so, what are they and why? Dismantle and unpack your bias, see body privilege as it exists and work to combat it. If you are a slender person, or one who fits the ‘norm’ of society, make sure your voice and your body story don’t drown out the voices and stories of those who are under-represented.” You can participate in the conversation without owning it, she says.
Listen to the powerful voices in the movement
Pick up The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor and Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor to school yourself, says Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., a psychologist and eating disorder specialist.
Rosenfeld also suggests authors Virgie Tovar, Jes Baker, Lindy West, and Lindsey Averill. “There are a lot of powerful voices in the field who won’t settle for a watered-down version of body acceptance,” she says. “We’re fighting for acceptance of each and every body.”
Lead by example
The most important thing you can do? Love yourself. “When it comes to the relationship you have with your own body, learn to find acceptance as you are-not thinner or prettier, but as you are right now,” says Sapora.
Willcox agrees: “You can do your part not by preaching, judging, or portraying a perfect life on Instagram, but by being a living example of someone who loves themselves and lives in a way that reflects that outwardly.”
SHAPE and the SHAPE logo are registered trademarks of TI Gotham Inc., used under license. © 2019 TI Gotham Inc., a subsidiary of Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part without written permission is prohibited.