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What is Body Positivity?

July 19, 2018

What is Body Positivity?

Anyone else confused about body positivity?
What is body positivity?

There are a lot of bloggers and social media influencers who use the phrase ‘body positive’ and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the movement isn’t sitting right with me. So, I want us to take a look at the history, the original intent, where we are today, and my thoughts moving forward.

The history:

From what I can tell, since 1996, the Body Positive Institution has been striving for

re-connecting youth and adults to their innate body wisdom for more balanced, joyful self-care and a relationship with their whole selves that is guided by love, forgiveness, and humor”.

More recently defined on

Urban dictionary: “Body positivity isn't just loving yourself. It's respecting yourself.”

And Wikipedia says: “Body positivity is acceptance and appreciation of all human body types.[1][2] It is a social movement rooted in the belief that all human beings should have a positive body image, and be accepting of their own bodies as well as the bodies of others.[3] The movement sets forth the notion that beauty is a construct of society, and poses that this construct should not infringe upon one's ability to feel confidence or self-worth.[3]

Tell me if this sounds right to you- what I am hearing is that the original intent of the body positive movement was more about self-care and a deeper understanding of our whole selves - regardless of age, gender, race or weight?

However, where we are now, focuses on respect and acceptance and that all human beings ‘should have a positive body image’.

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It has evolved into another set of rules for how we SHOULD feel about our bodies and places personal acceptance entirely on the individual.Now, this is where I think the movement started to change and perhaps lost its roots. And, I think that’s why I don’t like it. I have mixed feelings when someone says, “love yourself”, and I’m like ya know someday’s I don’t - and if I don’t, you’re telling me that isn’t OK, that only makes me feel worse.

I came across a Dissertation about body positivity: titled: TOWARDS A RADICAL BODY POSITIVE: READING THE ONLINE BODY POSITIVE MOVEMENT By Alexandra Sastre - They looked at several blogs and found that body positivity is making a move towards a “healthier” body image through a visually and textually recorded personal journey.”

What I noticed was that since our individual definitions of health are very skewed, becoming healthier looks very different to people within the movement. She found that “The blog Psych Central offers a primer for creating a “body positive manifesto”: “don’t let others rule how you feel about your beauty or yourself,” and “whether you lose or gain weight, you’re still the same person…and you deserve love and respect either way” (Tartakovsky, 2011).

We’re seeing the use of body positivity among women who fit the ideal standards of beauty, who are thin, or are in the cycle of diet culture, and they are virtually documenting their personal journey of weight loss to their version of body positivity which has now been adopted by the masses. And I think they use the hashtag because they want to be validated for their beauty without having to ask for it - and posting a picture of themselves saying I am body positive - or I’m working on liking my body - essentially says that they are basing their sense of self-worth on their physical appearance, and how good they perceive themselves to look based on external validation or likes and encouraging comments. Psychologists refer to this as appearance-contingent self-worth, and is associated with higher appearance anxiety and lower self-esteem among women. This is very dangerous to an individual's mental health because they put a lot of efforts into looking their best, so that they feel their best. But, this ONLY “works” when an individual feels that they look good, and is extremely negative and anxiety-inducing when they do not.

There is a duality in the meaning of the word positive. Positive v. Negative. Meaning, if you are not “positive” you are “negative” and doing it (body positivity) wrong. Of course, not every body positive activist tells people they are doing it wrong (I know there are many who say it’s ok to feel bad about your body and that it’s natural)  but that’s what the opposite message communicates - even if that was not it’s original intent. I think body positivity has changed into many ideas that have different meaning to each person.

For example, I know several fat women who identify as body positive because it communicates to others that they have accepted their bodies. It is almost a form of protection, in that others who might assume fat people feel bad about their bodies, are challenged with that notion that they don’t always feel bad about their bodies. And in that way, fat people might be protected from others wanting to talk about dieting or weight loss. It can say, I am not interested in talking about changing who I am in order to make you feel more comfortable. And to me, that is very empowering.

I thought that there were a lot of similarities between the fat acceptance movement and the body positive movement but, as we’ve seen these movements evolve - I’m no longer seeing the similarities.

Fat acceptance was a movement focused on society and the systematic oppression of fat bodies. And body positivity, in my opinion, once available to all genders, sexes, races, bodies, seems to now place the responsibility exclusively on female individuals to love themselves, which can be really difficult if you’ve been the subject of ridicule, oppression, abuse and mistreatment for your entire life.

And this helped identify my point of contention. I do not think we act the same at different body weights. While we are the same human - we embody different behaviors because, we know through empirical research that people are treated differently based on body size and I don’t think -no matter how much willpower you have - you can override or overpower beliefs that may have been internalized because, that is what informs how we feel about ourselves. For example, we know that:

“A 2008 study conducted by researchers at Yale University found that 10% of women and 5% of men had experienced discrimination based on their weight, including being rejected for a job.

A 2014 study from Vanderbilt University found that overweight women are paid less than their male colleagues across a variety of industries.

A 2015 study found that and weight bias and stigma can reduce the quality of care for larger patients despite the best intentions of healthcare providers to provide high-quality care.

Here are several more references for good measure:

  • Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2010). Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 100(6), 1019–1028.
  • Bias, discrimination, and obesity: Puhl R, Brownell KD, Obes Res. 2001 Dec; 9(12):788-805.
  • Puhl RM, Heuer CA. Weight bias: a review and update. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2009;17(5):941–964
  • Brownell KD, Puhl RM, Schwartz MB, Rudd L, editors. , Weight Bias: Nature, Consequences, and Remedies New York, NY: The Guilford Press; 2005
  • Weight Bias in Schools and How Physical Educators Can Assist in Its Demise; Ehlert, Chris; Marston, Rip; Fontana, Fabio; Waldron, Jennifer-  Physical Educator, v72 n3 (2015).
  • Weight Bias Education for Medical School Faculty: Workshop and Assessment, Berman, Margit I. et al. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior , Volume 49 , Issue 7 , 605 - 606.e1

  • Nowrouzi B, McDougall A, Gohar B, Nowrouz-Kia B, Casole J, et al. (2015) Weight Bias in the Workplace: A Literature Review. Occup Med Health Aff 3:206. doi: 10.4172/2329-6879.1000206
  • The consequences of being fat are empirically detrimental and go beyond the individual's ability to control.

    The fact is that people treat you better when you’re thin.

    [Body Positivity] was a place where all bodies were OK but now it feels more like a place that insists you must feel good about yourself. Which is another impossible standard. It also been merged with weight loss journeys and women documenting their journey to body positivity through weight loss. At first I felt really annoyed - like respecting the body isn’t about weight loss or sculpting our bodies to be another shape. But then, as a feminist scholar, I believe that everyone’s experience is valid and whatever words they want to use to describe their lived experience is 100% their right.

    However, if the intention of the movement was to help people (of all body shape, size, color and identifications) but is now but used by women who conform to the traditional ideals of beauty or are in the process of attaining that - then the movement has lost its way.

    And our bodies are not the problem.

    I follow Your Fat Friend and they wrote about this topic on Medium.com. (They write about the social realities of living as a very fat person. www.yourfatfriend.com Jul 9 on Medium. Com)

    They summarized that the majority of Americans believe that, “You can’t change the world, you can only change yourself.” Which is why so many people are desperately try to lose weight or maintain a low BMI. Because you are treated better in our culture when you are thin. And body positivity started as “let’s change the world” and provide a new perspective about bodies.  But the message has been morphed into diet culture where the new message is you can feel positive about your body if you lose weight.

    Your fat friend says, “I do not need positivity or acceptance any more than I need tolerance: these are passive expressions, not nearly powerful enough to end the unceasing assault on fat bodies. Over time, I have come to realize that I do not need body positivity. What I need is justice.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Telling fat women to love themselves when they are subject to systemic discrimination - isn’t realistic.

    It’s not an individual problem - where we each need to be at peace with our own bodies. I do think working on self-acceptance is helpful if we’ve experienced trauma that didn’t allow us to fully develop a strong sense of self. But if accepting our physical bodies was that easy we’d all do it and we’d already be there. But it’s not a realistic goal when the systems in place and treatment of fat people is designed to make them feel like they don’t belong or fit into our culture.

    Where do we go from here?

    I think that language is important and that considering words without dual meanings, such as justice - is a great step forward. And perhaps we all, as people, are in varying stages of grief when it comes to understanding our bodies and what health really means. We know that medical doctors have been wrong before, and I think some people are so angry about fat acceptance because the idea that a fat person likes themselves or that a fat body is perfectly healthy is too much to grasp. But, perhaps body positivity is a stepping stone that makes sense to some people and is a safe place. This I understand and respect.

    I say, for those who are ready, we move forward to body justice. But perhaps this is too conceptual as well?

    I think it’s ok to use the term body positivity but I dont think it’s addressing the real issue anymore.

    To me,  we need legal action towards equality for fat bodies. Being fat is the last acceptable form of discrimination and in our country, Michigan is the only state with laws protecting fat bodies. We must legally protect fat people to ensure equality. I don’t think it is about self-love and acceptance. We can change the world. We’ve done it before. And, I don’t know but I just might see if I can meet with my state representative Patty Murray to talk about how we can help protect fat people. What do you think? Send Dr. DC to DC?

    I hope I was able to share a new perspective, let me know if you have any questions about body acceptance, positivity or justice.

    What do you all think? How does body justice feel to you? How would you define it?

    Much love to you all and I’ll catch you on the flippity flip!

    My Best, 

    Dr. Deb

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