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Body positivity is a phrase that has cropped up and gained a lot of traction since its inception in the ‘90s. The body positivity movement is a political movement that was born from the fat acceptance movement.
The fat acceptance movement was created by the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in 1969 to fight medical and government statutes that worked against overweight people. The need to see more inclusivity of people with various body types in the media, especially fashion and advertisements, came about in the last few decades as an offshoot of the fat acceptance movement that went mainstream.
The body positivity movement argues that one should embrace their body as it is, instead of striving for a “flawless” body (unmarred skin, thin, soft, average height, etc.).
This view pushes back against the media-crafted idea that the body, particularly the female body, should be perfect. While there are many facets of this movement, the most common focus is on overweight bodies versus thin bodies, as well as how society has reacted to each side’s arguments.
The biggest point of controversy within the body positivity movement is the health aspect of it. Specifically, what does being “healthy” mean, and who gets to define it? How does physical health (being fit, overweight, or underweight) compare to mental health (being happy and content with your body)? Which should come first? Who gets to decide?
The response to the body positivity movement is polarizing, that is, both positive and negative. People on the positive side believe that it’s possible to be heavy and healthy, and what matters is self-acceptance and love for one’s body, as it is. People on the negative side believe that the movement promotes obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle, that it gives people an excuse to not improve themselves for health or esteem issues.
More often than not, negative receptions to the body positivity movement are rooted in the health aspect. A peek at the comments section of any article relating to body positivity will show at least one person criticizing the author for promoting unhealthy lifestyles, all the while using body-shaming language cloaked as “concerned” advice. For example, the numerous comments on a Beauty Hacks video featuring hacks or ideas for curvy girls to feel comfortable in their clothing are a perfect example of body shaming masked as advice.
The most common criticism of the movement is that praising overweight or obese people causes them to accept their bodies in that condition as well as all of the associated health problems. Madeleine Dale’s article, “Let’s Put A Caution Label on the Body Positivity Movement,” is a perfect example. She wrote: “I do not agree with people who exploit body positivity as an excuse for an unhealthy lifestyle. I cannot get on board with those who celebrate obese or underweight bodies, even though I do believe they are just as beautiful and cherished as the next.”
This quote echoes many naysayers’ problems with the body positivity movement—that obesity shouldn’t be encouraged. And this is, logically and scientifically, sound advice. Obesity leads to cardiovascular disease and failure, strokes, Type II Diabetes, and cancers. Youtuber RoamingMillenial created a video commenting on how the fat acceptance and body positivity movements need to end because redefining health standards to be more inclusive is dangerous.
For RoamingMillenial, health standards and societal standards shouldn’t be changed to make some people feel better about themselves. However, this doesn’t excuse deliberately insulting people because of their body types or “body-shaming.” Body-shaming is the act of making critical and cruel remarks about one’s own body or someone else’s (usually someone else’s) verbally, online, etc. This, as well as the pervasiveness of being “sexy and thin” in the media, were the true reasons that body positivity movement was started in the first place.
But, does the promotion of body positivity include promoting unhealthy living? Yes and no—it depends on the individual.
Some people feel that while getting fit and staying active are excellent things that provide immediate health benefits and improved well-being, it can also lead to constant dissatisfaction with one’s own body.
By always thinking about one’s body and health, some people may constantly weigh or measure themselves, obsessively count calories, or even punish themselves for eating the wrong type of food—all behaviors that can lead to harmful eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. In response, some people fall out of eating healthy and exercising in order to avoid the stress this lifestyle incurs and just love their bodies’ current appearances.
Some people prioritize self-love and acceptance over “fitness culture”—the focus on physical exercises, healthy living, and physical fitness. One such person is Tessa Holiday, a well-known plus-size model, who began the #effyourbeautystandards movement to promote confidence in plus-sized women all over the world.
Her page includes various images of overweight women partially nude, in revealing clothing, and in fashionable clothing—just generally celebrating their bodies. Holiday has also tweeted “If you want someone to preach health over self-love, I’m not your girl,” meaning that she would rather see people wear, eat, and be the way they want, regardless of how much they weigh, instead of engaging in fitness culture. Statements such as these are why people like Dale are so concerned with the direction that the body positivity movement has gone.
If you want someone that preaches health over self love, I’m not your girl.
— Tess Holliday 🥀 (@Tess_Holliday) November 10, 2015
Others believe that weight loss goals are not a good thing for certain individuals. Kaila Prins, a writer for the online feminist magazine, Everyday Feminism, claimed “Let’s make something clear: Having a goal for intentional fat loss is not body positive.” Prins makes this claim based on the very definition of body positivity, which, according to her research, arose from the needs of patients with eating disorders to develop healthier relationships with food and their body image.
For Prins, weight loss through increased fitness is not, by definition, body positivity, because it focuses on one’s weight and size rather than one’s overall health. This goes directly against Madeleine Dale, Vianka Cotton, and other fitness advocates who question “How are you loving your body if you are not managing it correctly? If your car needs an oil change, would you ignore your mechanic’s advice and keep driving it?” For body positive advocates like Prins, weight loss isn’t inclusive because it focuses on appearances over health, and Cotton and Dale say the opposite—body positivity and fitness can be one.
Is there a middle ground? Yes, there is. The silver lining lies in the realization that everybody is different and weight loss does not guarantee a clean bill of health.
People who appear overweight or have a high body-mass index aren’t always riddled with chronic diseases. As Amber Petty—author of Is the Body Positive-Movement Going Too Far?—pointed out, when she weighed 275 lbs, she was healthy: healthy heart, cholesterol, and low blood pressure. Yet, her doctors still told her to eat less in order to lose weight, which is appalling advice for a doctor to give to a patient.
Petty had good vitals but she was told to engage in unsafe eating behaviors that could lead to an eating disorder, a mineral or vitamin deficiency, stress, and dizziness. The doctor was focusing on how much Petty weighed rather than the fact that there was nothing physically wrong with her. Petty also brought up the other end of the spectrum of body acceptance: thinness. To a certain point, thinness is acceptable, but becoming too thin has people “concerned” for another person’s health, and then the “you’re too skinny” comments begin to roll in.
So, shunning a healthy diet and lifestyle, as well as shunning overweight people and calling them reckless and lazy, isn’t the answer to this complex issue. Assuming there is one answer is erroneous because everyone has the own hurdles to face when it comes to body acceptance and their health. Instead, health and body positivity don’t have to be opposed to one another. Body positivity should shift away from “be thin” and “screw your health, love yourself” and more towards a balanced medium between accepting one’s body as it is and still living a healthy lifestyle. Only then can the argument over health and acceptance be put to rest.
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