CW: Body hatred, eating disorders, fatphobia, mental illness and ableism
By Eleanor McKelvey, Head of Online Engagement (Blog)
Interest in body positivity is growing rapidly - Google searches for the term doubled between January 2018 and 2019, and on social media, body positivity is bigger than ever. The movement is also gaining more and more attention from the mainstream media, with body positive influencers becoming an ever more regular feature on morning talk shows and in newspaper op-eds.
Undoubtedly, mounting dissatisfaction with diet culture is probably largely responsible for this growth (See Part 1). It is obvious that a movement called body positivity is designed to help stop us feeling negative about our bodies.
But how exactly is body positivity opposed to diet-culture?
The term body positivity was coined in 1996, following the establishment of “The Body Positive Organisation” by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott. According to Sobczak, body positivity is the practice of “assuming responsibility for figuring out what your body needs” and “reconnect[ing] to your innate body wisdom”.
Since dieting is the practice of applying rules to the way in which we eat, we cannot be body positive whilst dieting. When dieting, you are not figuring out what your body needs; your diet (food rules) have decided that instead. The same principle applies to forced/rigid exercise regimes.
Some people maintain that dieting and body positivity are not conflicting – for example asserting that they “need” to lose weight for better health and/or body image. But it is important to question how living in a diet culture might have influenced person’s opinions on why thinness is necessary for a better mind-body relationship. Can a person really argue that they are listening to their “innate body wisdom” if they are ignoring basic physiological cues (tiredness and hunger) in pursuit of a “better” body?
How can the body positivity movement incite lasting change?
Becoming body positive is about far more than adopting a simple attitude change along the lines of “Who cares if you feel x? You can still love your body!”. For most of us, irrevocable and unwavering body confidence is little more than a pipe dream.
Even as we begin to practice breaking free from self-hate; internal and external forces will continually challenge our ability to maintain basic respect for our bodies, let alone positive body image.
This doesn’t mean that the pursuit of body positivity is pointless; just that under diet culture body positivity is unstable. So body positivity needs to be about more than helping individuals to change their outlook. The movement must also aim to actively dismantle diet culture. This means being critical of the diet and fitness industries, and of body ideals. It also means working to challenge the fatphobia that is used to coerce people into dieting/fitness.
How can body positivity prioritise inclusivity?
To make sure body positivity is inclusive, it is key that we acknowledge how a person’s body affects their experience of diet culture. This includes understanding the differences between personal and institutionalised problems – whilst anyone can struggle with bad body image, people in marginalised bodies suffer from structural oppression that makes them especially vulnerable to diet-culture. For example, although thin person may feel under pressure to diet, this is not because they are thin. For a person who is “obese”, the way society treats people of their weight will contribute to the pressure they feel to diet.
People in privileged bodies tend to have easier access to mainstream media, and on social media may find it easier to accumulate a following - humans have a tendency to gravitate towards the messages and bodies that they are most comfortable with hearing/seeing. As a result, some body positive activists are getting frustrated by how much space people with privilege are taking up within the body positive communities.
Danielle Galvin is a body positive and fat activist influencer who runs the Instagram account @iamdaniadriana. When asked about the current state of the body positivity community, she described a growing sense of “distaste” in the community towards “performative work in which those who profit already have privilege in every day life”.
She emphasises that making body positivity inclusive is not just about giving marginalised people a voice, but also about the way we respond to what these people have to say…
“We need to make space in the community to listen without further harming, questioning or being defensive to marginalised people. Often when marginalised experiences are being told people with privilege start the ‘but me’ parade, stop that!”.
Danielle Galvin, fat-activist and body-positive influencer
What is the role of business in body positivity?
You may have noticed a trend towards the portrayal of slightly more diverse bodies in advertising recently. For example, the decision by Victoria’s Secret to employ a model with stretchmarks received a lot of praise online, and in 2016, Ashley Graham became the first plus-size woman to grace the front cover of “Sports Illustrated”. Whilst these changes are slightly encouraging, they are far too rare and too minor to provoke anything like the change we need to break down the concept of “body ideals”. From adverts to Hollywood actors, the media continues to represent a very limited range of human bodies in a positive light. This threatens to warp our perception of the “normal” or even “acceptable” when it comes to bodies.
But sometimes businesses get body positivity downright wrong. The term has been appropriated by the “wellness” industries and used to sell diets and exercise plans. The toiletries manufacturer Dove claims to be on a “mission” to “promote positive body confidence” by using “real women in our ad campaigns”. In doing so, they are effectively using the promise of validation (you’re good enough for our advert) to sell products - yet the core ethos of body positivity is learning to ignore external pressures (including to buy stuff), and turn inward in search of self-respect.
Is body positivity for me?
Body positive activists, especially plus-size women, disabled women and women of colour, have done exceptional work in analysing and critiquing diet-culture. I believe that we can all learn from what they have to say about body positivity. The principles of body positivity can help us all to cultivate better relationships with our bodies, and to be more critical of the external voices that tell us how we should feel about them. Online, body positive communities can be supportive spaces and provide some much-needed respite from diet-culture.
But as it stands, body positivity needs to work harder at inclusivity, and the co-option of the term by industry should not go unchallenged. Body positivity should not have boundaries, but it does need priorities. Communities online need to better acknowledge the experiences of fat people, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people and people of colour. Whereas learning about body positivity can help us with our personal growth, being body positive means fighting for all bodies.
Some awesome body positive/anti-diet accounts on Instagram for you to follow…