09 Dec The problem with body positivity
Written by Nicole Caines, R Psych
Virtually all of the people that come to me for support with body image challenges tell me a similar story; they have been trying to focus on “body positivity” but they think they are failing because they don’t feel 100% confident in their body’s appearance and still have negative thoughts about their body. My response to this pressure that so many people place on themselves is twofold: Is this a realistic expectation? And, have we missed the point?
Let’s start with the first question: is it a realistic expectation to have consistently positive body image?
I would argue that, for most people, it is not. We live in the midst of a fat phobic society and multi-billion dollar industries whose bottom lines are dependent on us believing our bodies are not attractive enough and need to be altered. Women, femmes, and those from marginalized communities in particular are bombarded with messages that tell them that they must change their appearance in order to be attractive and, accordingly, to be accepted and loved. We are born with a primal drive to be accepted, so we are vulnerable to these types of messages. Within this context, it is almost impossible to feel positive about your appearance all the time.
Additionally, many of the messages that support these industries have gotten quite sneaky. As the word ‘diet’ has been criticized over the past few decades, marketers have had to rebrand and the word got a makeover. What was previously called dieting is now called a ‘healthy lifestyle’, ‘wellness’, or ‘biohacking’. And while some of these concepts may have value, at its core, this ‘wellness culture’ is ultimately diet culture that got a makeover. We are still being implicitly told that health has a specific look and, if we do not meet that look, we are unhealthy and morally deficient. Diet culture masquerading as a focus on health has made it even more difficult to see just how insidious and damaging these messages are. It makes us question ourselves, our bodies, and our innate hunger and desire for food, under the assumption that anything branded with ‘health’ must be a good thing.
So, I ask again: as we navigate all of these messages, is it possible to have a consistently positive body image? My perspective is that we’re moving in a positive direction, but it’s still extremely difficult.
Now, let’s look at the second question: have we missed the point when it comes to body positivity?
To answer this question, we need to dig into what body positivity actually means. Let’s start with a bit of history. While the history of the body positivity movement is not fully understood, consensus is that its roots lie in the fat liberation/fat acceptance movement. This movement began in 1969 when Bill Fabrey, a young, white, thin man, founded The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAFAA), now known as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, in response to witnessing the injustices that his fat wife faced. The movement focused on ending fat shaming and discrimination against those that did not fit cultural ideals of acceptable bodies. At the same time, a group of feminists in California formed the Fat Underground and later released their “Fat Manifesto”, demanding equal rights for fat people in all areas of life. The term “body positivity” became a byproduct of this movement. In the early 2000s, the movement moved online and the term body positivity became more popular. Women of color and queer folks often led the way.
If you look closely, you will notice that body positivity is not about individual positive body image. It’s a social justice movement designed to liberate fat bodies on a sociocultural level, not to make individuals feel good about their appearance all the time (though an improvement in body image may be a helpful effect for some). The goal was never for everyone to have a positive body image. The goal was to combat stigma, prejudice, and discrimination toward fat people. At its core, body positivity focuses on rejecting beauty ideals and the very idea that our worth lies in our appearance, and on reminding us that all bodies and all people are worthy of love, acceptance, and fair and equitable treatment.
Trying to find the solution to feeling confident about your body still centres your body in your concept of self worth. Body positivity never meant for this to be the solution.
So, where did we get off track? Along the way, the body positivity movement lost its way and forgot its roots. The body positivity influencers that have gained the most traction are those who already live in socially acceptable bodies, have thin privilege, and whose “imperfections” are only seen when they are pointed out (namely, thin, white, able bodied, cis women). Visibly fat and intersectional influencers deal with more harassment and more pushback for allegedly promoting “obesity” culture. The space for these people has shrunk and they have become marginalized by the very movement that was designed to support and protect them. There has also been a shift toward a focus on individual experiences rather than social change. This is not to say influencers in the body positivity space have bad intentions or that their work isn’t helpful for some, just that the messaging has gotten off track from its original intent.
If you look closely, body positivity has also become commercialized. Attempts to profit off our body insecurities have recently shifted to the body positivity movement. The pressure has shifted from looking a certain way to also feeling a certain way. Body positivity offers us an appealing promise: to love our appearance and to stop spending our precious time, energy, and money on trying to change our bodies, while also avoiding the pain of body oppression. It’s offering us the promise of self love. But, is it overselling what it can deliver? The problem is that the focus is still on appearance and we still live in a world where we’re bombarded with unrealistic beauty standards. Now, if you don’t feel a certain way about your body, you’re implicitly told that it’s your personal failing and you must buy into a product or service that will help you love your appearance. If a product campaign tells you to feel beautiful, it may also be implicitly telling you that you shouldn’t feel anything less than beautiful and shouldn’t feel badly about yourself. Telling people to love themselves when they don’t is futile and does nothing to abolish toxic beauty standards.
So, what is the solution?
Body image is a complex and nuanced topic, and each person will navigate their journey in their own unique way. However, here are a few ideas to help you move forward in your relationship with your body:
- Remember that it’s okay if you wish your body was different. Within Western culture, it’s completely understandable. It’s not your fault.
- Your goal does not have to be loving your appearance. It can be to distance yourself from the idea that your worth lies in your appearance.
- Reflect on what type of messaging is helpful and unhelpful for you. There’s no right answer – there’s only what works for you. Take what works and release the rest.
- Reflect on the expectations you are placing on yourself and whether they are realistic.
- Remember the true goal of the body positivity movement. The concept itself is helpful but we need to be clear about what we’re talking about. The intent is to liberate bodies, not for everyone to feel confident about their appearance 100% of the time.
- You may wish to look into body neutrality as a guiding principle if body positivity feels too difficult.
- Remember that you can love, respect, and take care of your body without always liking what it looks like.
- Above all, be gentle with yourself as you navigate your relationship with your body. Like any relationship, your relationship with your body will have ups and downs and this is okay.
Click here for information on body image counselling at Monarch Psychology.