Why we need to reconceptualise ‘Body Positivity’

The Body Positivity movement has become synonymous with the promotion of an overweight body shape, in the name of creating a ‘positive’ body image. There seem to be several reasons behind this movement, including the suggestion that those who are overweight are judged, ‘shamed’ and discriminated against. The aim is to encourage people (usually women) to feel positive about their bodies, regardless of what size they are, therefore challenging society’s ‘thin’ body standards.

However, as many have said before me, the problem with the Body Positivity movement is that it is actually encouraging (and promoting) an unhealthy body type. While I am a firm believer that we shouldn’t attempt to fit into society’s (or anyone else’s) expectations of what we should look like, I also believe that this should only be within healthy parameters.

This is one of the many places where the Body Positivity movement falls short, and ironically, becomes just as damaging as the size 0 movement. Both movements, at either end of the spectrum, are focused on looks, and promote an unhealthy body image and lifestyle. To this extent, the Body Positive movement is about looks just as much as the size 0 movement is. Equally, it is just as damaging to our health (although in different ways) to the size 0 movement. For example, excess weight is linked to a variety of long term, chronic conditions including diabetes, heart disease and cancer; hardly goals we should strive towards. Sure, promoting obesity sticks two fingers up at the diet and fashion industry, saying ‘look, we’re fat and fabulous’, but at the end of the day, who are you fooling when you’re setting yourself up for a long-term, potentially terminal, illness?

While many of the Body Positive ambassadors try to counter the above criticisms by claiming that they are ‘fit’ as well as ‘fat’, recent research has suggested that it isn’t possible to be overweight without damaging your health (Iliodromiti et al., 2018). It is also a little naive to assume that just because someone isn’t promoting a size 0 lifestyle, that what they are promoting is necessarily good! Extremes are rarely positive, and in the rush to distance themselves from the excessively skinny ideal, people now seem happy to support the opposite extreme, rather than a happy (and healthy) medium.

Now, this is where I come to my main problem with the Body Positive movement: if proponents just admitted that they wanted to be fat, and didn’t care about the consequences for their health, I would be more willing to accept it. Ultimately, it is an individual’s right to do what they want with their health, and therefore their prerogative to chose weight over health (if we put aside the cost to the nation of caring for people who willingly choose to put their health at risk).

However, the problem is that Body Positive ambassadors don’t admit this – they promote their ‘cause’ as some sort of social good, making them dangerous at best, and disingenuous at worst. These people need to admit (or realise) that they have made the choice to prioritise their looks over their health; and not masquerade their decision as some sort of positive one – there is no good in endorsing and promoting bad health. Indeed, those who promote this lifestyle are just as bad as those who promote an anorexic lifestyle, perhaps even more so, due to their disingenuity being wrapped up in ‘positive’ jargon.

This is where I am so disappointed (although not entirely surprised) in the advertising, media and marketing agencies who have jumped on this bandwagon. While we perhaps don’t expect them to act ethically, they have an obligation to do so. However, we see fashion chains, advertisers, and social media campaigns all heralding these ill-health activists, presumably because they are at the opposite extreme to the size 0 models (which these companies have obviously been told they have to distance themselves from). However, they clearly haven’t given a great deal of thought to their principles, as they have just swapped promoting the size 0 illness-creating lifestyle for a chronic-disease-promoting ‘Body Positive’ campaign. A cynic might suggest that this is because the whole Body Positive campaign is just a PR exercise for such companies, with the added benefit that they might get more business if they attempt to appeal to the larger demographic (in both senses of the word). Ultimately if they were interested in their consumers’ wellbeing, or in doing the right thing, they wouldn’t support or endorse these campaigners at all, and instead would promote all body images and types within healthy parameters.

And this is ultimately what I think Body Positivity should be, it should be about saying ‘I am positive about my body because my body is healthy’, and just as importantly, ‘to hell with what I look like, I’m healthy’. The problems come as soon as we start to equate our looks with our health. As with the size 0 campaign, the Body Positive campaign is also about looking ‘good’ (albeit fat and good rather than skinny and good), and neither of these motivations are conducive to health. The motivation should be health, and then whether you’re on the larger side or the smaller side of average shouldn’t matter.

The problem is that often the Body Positive campaigners try to claim that what they are doing is in the name of health. However, as soon as you focus on looks (at either end of the spectrum), then you are motivated by the wrong thing, and your health will generally suffer. Ultimately this is why I argue that Body Positivity should be about having a healthy body. If this is your goal then it doesn’t matter what you look like, and you will feel good – both physically and mentally.

Ultimately, the Body Positive campaigners, and those who support them, need to take a long hard look at themselves. They need to admit (perhaps to themselves, as well as others) that they are not promoting Body Positivity – Body Positivity is about looking after yourself and paying attention to your body’s needs – not its looks. The existing campaigns are promoting an unhealthy look and lifestyle masquerading as a social movement, which has no apparent concern for the health of those who blindly follow it. Companies who support these campaigns are complicit in damaging the health of many, but yet are celebrated for it, by people who don’t know any better or those who have vested interests in promoting the ‘large lifestyle’. It is important that we learn to differentiate between fashionable social movements which contain the right buzzwords and campaigns that make sense: we need to really think about the campaigns that are being heralded before we blindly jump on the bandwagon. If we really want to improve our lives and our health, we need to care less about looks and more about our character and the values we are promoting…

 

 

Refs: Stamatina Iliodromiti, Carlos A Celis-Morales, Donald M Lyall, Jana Anderson, Stuart R Gray, Daniel F Mackay, Scott M Nelson, Paul Welsh, Jill P Pell, Jason M R Gill, Naveed Sattar; The impact of confounding on the associations of different adiposity measures with the incidence of cardiovascular disease: a cohort study of 296 535 adults of white European descent, European Heart Journal, , ehy057, https://doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/ehy057

*Opinion piece: This blog reflects Kirsty’s opinion and not those of  any institutions she is associated with.

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