The Body Positivity movement: does it work?

There is no question that a movement has been growing over the past few years. A movement where women are waking up to the unhealthy and negative portrayal of body image that the diet and media culture has spun for decades. Now people are beginning to find peace and acceptance with their bodies, creating an uprising of women coming together to share their stories. The movement in and of itself, is a force for good but the messages about women’s bodies can be confusing, misleading and a bit intimidating sometimes.

What does it all mean?

Body Positivity:

Refers to the assertion that all people deserve to have a positive body image, regardless of how society and popular culture view ideal shape, size and appearance. It is the social movement that believes ALL bodies are good bodies. It pushes for representation of a diverse range of body types throughout society and believes that beauty is a social construct that should not determine one’s worthiness of self-love or respect.

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Body confidence:

Refers to an individual’s ability to feel confident in his or her body. A body confident person has a positive body image. However, just because someone is body confident doesn’t mean they are also body positive. Someone can be confident in their body but not hold the belief that ALL bodies are good bodies. All of these nuances can be confusing, such as you could be a self-conscious body positive activist.

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Body Image:

Refers to how an individual sees their own body, by looking in the mirror and making judgments on their appearance – one study defined it as “the multifaceted psychological experience of embodiment.”

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The confusion

Now all of that sounds great in theory, but does it actually work in practice? There comes a confusion which stems from misrepresentation. Some argue that the body positivity movement is not for everyone – often slim people post pictures of their bodies with ‘fat rolls’ and attribute it the body positivity movement. But instead they should arguably be advocating body confidence and self-love.

The message’s about women’s bodies can be confusing, since there is no one ‘ideal’ body or ‘perfect’ woman, despite what the media would have you believe – the conflicting messages of “get healthier, but love yourself for what you have”, “lose weight, but enjoy eating what you want.” The danger is that the body positivity movement has given the women the message that life will only start once we entirely approve our appearances, and no matter of your weight and potential health problems, that’s okay. Body positive activists are forced to contend with a culture that views good health and larger bodies as incompatible.

Body positivity and health

While health should not be measured by one number on a scale, or a narrow criterion of specific characteristics, health experts also point out that you can’t escape the stress that extra weight has on the body, as it can lead to medical complications down the road. Dr. John J. Tomcho, medical director of the Carolinas Weight Management centre, is familiar with a variety of body types that don’t fit a single definition of health. But he does have an overarching concern. “I see a lot of people with a BMI of 40+, and they can come in and get blood work and be absolutely fine, but that pressure of the extra weight…eventually will take its toll”.

The BBC 2 documentary entitled: “Who are you calling fat?”, looks at what it’s like living with obesity. Nine people spend a week living together and while they face the same stigmas about their weight, the way it’s shaped their attitudes differs hugely. From body positivity activists to others shameful and frustrated at their current weight and lifestyle. It is an interesting insight to how people view they body and other’s perceptions of it.

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However, I believe there is a strong misconception that anyone who talks about body positivity or fat acceptance or Health at (every) size is saying, “Oh, I give permission to sit on the sofa and eat crisps all day.”  The idea that body positivity allows people to take part in poor health behaviours is an incorrect interpretation of the movement’s mission.

Social justice movement and encouraging inclusivity

Body positivity is more of a social justice movement, but it is not positive body image. Whether you are underweight, overweight or somewhere in between, problems with body image harm us all and keep perpetuating the idea that being skinny will bring you health and happiness.

Whilst body positivity is a necessary way to tackle to stigma and the harmful messages we’ve been sent for years, embracing a positive body image for me is more important than joining the body positive movement. I am not saying that it’s isn’t a force for good, but in my personal journey – I am focusing on self-love and body confidence rather than positivity.

Activist and actor Jameela Jamil is an outspoken critic of beauty norms and diets, yet she has received much criticism for daring to have such an opinion because she’s deemed slim, beautiful and extremely privileged. We need to call out body positive activists who aren’t inclusive, it can feel like you are damned either way. Say something and you’re too slim/beautiful to be allowed an opinion. Say nothing and you’re complicit/empowering the patriarchy. There needs to be a refined balance and reminder of the movement’s message: it is there to accept all. Yet all social movements risk commodification and body positivity is no different – it focuses on fat versus thinness but there are many other bodies that don’t fit the ‘norm’, ones with disabilities, of different ethnicities, have scars etc. They are all part of the movement just as much as the rise against the media’s typical ‘thin and beautiful’.

Strip away all of the confusion and it’s about accepting the body you have and still striving to have the healthiest body you could potentially have. Rather than categorising bodies, lets try to understand that everyone is different and unique, and we’ve got to work with what we’ve got.

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