I’m thrilled at how the body positive movement has really taken off and gone mainstream in the past year. I remember when it was little more than what seemed like a fringe movement only a few short years ago. I’m not even sure I remember anyone using the words “body positive.”
After suppressing my weight on diets for so long, my body naturally gained weight when I stopped dieting and started to eat normally (yep, it can happen). I was dismayed at the change but I knew I couldn’t go back to dieting, so I decided to immerse myself in this body positivity stuff I’d been seeing a bit of on the internet. After poking around the web for a while I found some wonderful body-acceptance bloggers and advocates to light the way for me. Because literally no one else I knew in real life knew about this stuff, I felt like I had discovered a true body-acceptance treasure trove to which I and a handful of others had the secret key. Which sounds kind of awesome on the level of “Goonies” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but in reality, when learning how to finally accept and like your body after many years of culturally installed body dissatisfaction, it’s not really a place you want to be alone.
That was in 2010. Flash-forward six years and it now seems like the words “body positive” are on everyone’s lips. While the spread of a body positive movement has, in my opinion, been a good thing, its lack of a codified definition has left it open to misinterpretation and hijacking by less benevolent forces (like what happened to “lifestyle changes”).
“Body positivity” is a pretty general, undefined term, and therefore it’s open to anyone’s interpretation. It can mean something different to everyone. For me, body positivity is about accepting the bodies we have right now, no matter how well they approximate the cultural beauty standards and ideals. It’s about having respect for our bodies and what they do for us, not just about how they look to others or in the mirror. For me, it is also about rejecting a diet-and-weight-loss culture that tells us we need to change our appearance in order to feel good about ourselves and become socially acceptable.
I’ve noticed recently that my definition isn’t necessarily everyone else’s. I’ve read a few “body positive” blogs in which the bloggers talk about their efforts toward weight loss for health purposes. That disappoints me; if it’s truly about health, we know that a person does not actually have to lose weight in order to make positive changes toward good health. Eating well, exercising, managing stress, getting social and emotional support are all things a person can do without requiring the number on the scale to change. And knowing what I know about just how unhealthful and futile dieting is both physically and mentally, I simply cannot equate the pursuit of weight loss with body positivity.
I’ve also seen people draw a line in the sand with body positivity and weight. Like, “It’s okay to feel good about your body up to a certain point. But some people are too big and need to lose weight.” No, this is absolutely not body-positive. This imaginary line in the sand is why I believe in fat positivity. It should go without saying that fat positivity is included in body positivity, but considering that the word “fat” is still largely wielded as an insult, and fat bodies are almost never accepted and celebrated as other body shapes and sizes are – well, it’s going to take a lot of extra effort on behalf of fat activists and advocates to normalize fat bodies. Part of that effort includes saying, unapologetically, that we are fat positive.
This movement needs to be inclusive and accepting of all weights even if it is not necessarily the best or “healthiest” weight for that person at that moment (example: people with illness that cause unintentional weight loss or gain). This is why the banning of very-thin models in France or ads of very-thin women in England is not the answer; this still puts a value on certain body sizes (and if they can ban thin bodies, they won’t hesitate to ban fat bodies at some point either). It doesn’t solve the problem of inclusivity; it only makes the problem of exclusivity worse. The real problem is that women have long suffered from being valued for what our bodies look like; body positivity needs to be about putting that particular valuation aside and embracing the other great things about our bodies and what they do for us, how they enable us to take part in the world.
All of these problems are merely problems of definition, or lack of. The thing that really gets my blood boiling is when industries that profit off of our body insecurities start using the language of body positivity to sell products that aren’t very body positive at all. Dove, I’m looking at you and your cellulite reducing cream. Weight Watchers, I see you trying to get “beyond the scale” with some #bopo language, but I bet you didn’t remove any of the scales from your meetings, did you? Products that propose to change your body are simply not body positive, because they insist that the body at its starting point is flawed and requires changing.
Body Positive Australia recently illustrated this point perfectly when they took Weight Watchers to task after WW put some naked larger women in its magazine and declared they would end fat-shaming:
“Don’t try and manipulate body positivity, mindful eating and other ideas that HAVE NOTHING to do with weight, or weight loss. At the very least – please get real because the veiled attempts at pretending you give a shit are really tiresome. Your advertising directly preys on people’s insecurities and promotes the idea that you’ll be happier and more confident by losing weight. You use fear of fat, and shame, to perpetuate the idea that we’re not enough as we are, we must change & that if we’re smaller, we’re better, more valuable, more worthy. Yours is a shame-based business that is built on the idea that smaller is preferred, and that controlling your food makes for a better person. It keeps the narrative alive that self-worth is contingent on weight, shape and compliant eating behaviour. Whilst we’re keeping the focus on weight, we’re not really addressing the REAL reasons we’re not living the life we want, and deserve.”
Becoming truly body positive is going to require vigilance as the diet industry continues to defend its turf against the potential self-satisfaction of millions of people and therefore the loss of profit for its shitty products that don’t work. Likewise, many people who are personally invested in and benefit from the status quo of cultural beauty ideals will want to continue to enforce these ideals, only letting a chosen few into the club under the guise of “body positivity” in order to continue to keep it exclusive and their power intact. Don’t be fooled, none of this is really body positivity. Being truly inclusive, compassionate, celebratory and accepting of all body shapes, sizes, colors and abilities is what body positivity really needs to be about.
Aaron and I talk with Andrew Whalen of The Body Image Therapy Center about eating disorders in men. Give us a listen!
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