What Does Body Positivity Actually Mean?
Every other week I meet with a dietitian who teaches intuitive eating. Because of my long and fraught history with an eating disorder, this type of approach is good for me. I've learned how to listen to my hunger cues, disassociate the words "good" and "bad" from foods, and really be more in tune with my body. Our intuitions are extremely strong and invariably wise. Intuitive eating has taught me to lean into my intuition and trust myself and my body. This is an empowering practice, and one most people would benefit from.
Sometimes, my dietitian and I talk about other things that influence body image and food choices. We talk about the comments people make about food and bodies, the crazy weird diets some people subscribe to (carnivore diet anyone?), and the complex, nuanced factors that contribute to eating disorders. We talk about the cultural desire toward thinness, the repulsion of fatness, and where the desirability line should be drawn (if such a line should exist), and more importantly, who gets to draw the line. The term "body positivity" comes up often, and in her small, safe office, the term simply means loving one's body and being kind to it. Outside her small, safe office, the term "body positivity" has become stretched and tangled and overused to the point that nobody really knows what the fuck it even means.
I floated the question, "What does body positivity mean to you?" to my tiny Instagram following, and the answers were varied, just as individuals are varied and bodies are varied. None of the answers were wrong, by the way, just as no body is inherently wrong. Some of my favorite responses included:
- "Feeling positive about your body."
- "Not commenting on anyone's shape or size or appearance at all."
- "Accepting your relationship with your body. Respecting that everyone is different."
- "Embracing the idea that your body is a holy vessel that holds your unique soul."
A survey done by Whisper found that 35.1 percent of people define body positivity as "being okay with flaws;" 29.3 percent define it as "loving yourself;" 21.1 percent define it as "being confident;" and 14.5 percent of users define it as "appreciating your body." All of this sounds great, right?
"And so we have the marketing landscape as we know it now, courtesy of Dove: gentle, millennial pink, and passive-aggressively reproachful of women who have allowed themselves to feel bad about their bodies. On top of all the old, existing insecurities, Dove posited that women might adopt a lucrative new one: shame over feeling bad in the first place."
This made me want to laugh and bang my head my head into a door frame at the same time. We've really come to an all-or-nothing place, where some name-brands refuse to make plus-sized clothes, where doctors overlook severe health conditions because a patient is fat, and where a celebrity's weight loss inspires angry backlash. The question, "Am I too fat or too thin?" will garner egregiously different results based on who you ask (I'm not suggesting you ask). The problem has never been anyone's actual weight, but rather, our cultural obsession with it. No matter how hard we try, we just can't stop talking about weight.
Body positivity, in it's original, pure form was great. It was akin to body neutrality, teaching people not to feel worthy or unworthy, beautiful or not beautiful, based on body size. Somewhere along the way, body positivity was reformed into fat acceptance, and that's fine too. If we really want to accept all bodies, fat bodies are absolutely included. But body positivity gets weird when we start to demonize smaller bodies, or healthy eating, or exercise. Rebel Wilson announced at the beginning of this year that she was on a quest to get healthier. The press couldn't stop talking about it, and some of the backlash was insane-people were mad that she wants to lose weight because that supposedly usurps body positivity. Obviously, we can't demonize health, and health is Wilson's goal, she said so herself.
Maybe the best takeaway here is to keep any comments on body shape and size to yourself. Keep the fake diet advice to yourself too, or do what I do and seek the guidance of a licensed professional. My dietitian is adamant that if I eat the foods my body craves, when my body craves them, my weight will stay the same. And in the past 8 months, my weight has barely budged.
Living in a culture that emphasizes and constantly talks about body shape or size has been directly correlated to eating disorders. And if you were ever shamed for eating, or for your body, the end result isn't a motivation to lose weight but rather resentment, unhappiness, and more often than not, weight gain. A 2017 study out of Cornell's Food & Brand Lab surveyed 501 women between ages 20 and 35 about their weight satisfaction (how much weight they felt they needed to lose to be happy, etc), and how frequently they recalled their parents making weight- and eating-related comments to them when they were younger. Researchers found that women with a healthy BMI were less likely to report that their parents commented on their weight or eating habits compared to women whose BMIs were considered overweight or obese.
In short, shaming people into losing weight doesn't work. And if you know anything about the psychology of shame, you know why. While numerous health organizations cite verifiable negative side effects to obesity, there are similarly loud voices on the opposite end of the spectrum that celebrate fat acceptance. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) has been around since 1969, with a mission to, "eliminate discrimination based on body size and provide fat people with the tools for self-empowerment through advocacy, education, and support. "
Not to state the obvious, but there is no middle ground here. It seems simple enough to agree that large bodies are just as beautiful as small bodies, that health is more important than anything, and that a desire to become healthier isn't a bad thing.
The internet is a wild and weird place, and there seems to be little space for logic or common sense. Take this widely disliked Bustle video that advocates fat positivity: there are literally 3 times more dislikes than likes because people know bullshit when they see it. Accepting your body isn't synonymous with unhealthy behaviors, and the conflation of these two very different ideas is doing more harm than good.
Love your body. Be kind to your body. It's really as simple as that.
P.S. Watch YouTuber Cassey Ho break down body positivity myths HERE.