By Emma Holmes
The term “body positive” is cropping up more and more in academic discussion, media and everyday life. However, the body positive movement is constantly shifting and redefining its values to become more inclusive and empower all bodies. Here’s a brief summary of the body positive movement, and the ways it is evolving today.
At its core, the body positive movement as about unlearning and un-internalizing destructive and unrealistic societal standards. Ideally, this means that there are no “good” bodies or “bad” bodies. Instead, there are bodies that exist solely to serve the person inhabiting them. Beyond that, everyone deserves to love and care for the body they’re in, to move when they want to move, eat when they want to eat and rest when they want to rest. To care for something, you must listen to it, rather than to arbitrary standards set by those with various agendas.
There are countless industries built on denying bodily intuition. The body’s natural signals are undermined with fat-shaming messages, muscular culture and media imagery. Now people believe that it’s normal to change their bodies, molding them to a socially acceptable weight, shape, color or size. We spend excessive amounts of money, time, and energy to achieve attractiveness, respect and worthiness. The weight loss industry was estimated at around $148 billion in 2014 and is set to pass $200 billion by 2019, according to global market research firm Markets and Markets.
Even popular “health” sources advise a low-fat, low-sugar diet with the ultimate assumption that these nutrients directly cause more fat on the body, and this is inherently bad or unhealthy. In reality health is much more complicated than weight.
While the body does process nutrients differently, resulting in differing energy output, those nutrients, including natural sugars, work together to give you sustained energy. Every body will look different because we’re all genetically unique. Metabolism, bone structure and nutritional history all contribute to your set point, a term used by body positivity activists to describe the body’s shape and size when it is functioning optimally (which is shown through measures such as healthy hair and nails, minimal physical discomfort and reliable energy levels).
Weight as a measure of health is known to be fallacious within the body positive movement, and this idea is spreading as more people acknowledge the flaws of the BMI scale and the concept of Health at Every Size (HEAS), a movement that started in the 1960s but that has recently gained momentum again.
The body positive movement works to push this message, and expand body acceptance to marginalized bodies, including fat bodies, bodies of color, disabled bodies and queer bodies. Our mainstream media is sorely lacking in body diversity, where a “good” body is generally slender, toned and white. Showing a range of healthy, happy bodies helps normalize human differences and include under-represented communities in popular culture.
Deconstructing beauty standards goes hand in hand with deconstructing normative binary gender norms. Pressures to look masculine or feminine are not only suppressive and harmful to cis, gender-conforming men and women, but further marginalize gender non-conforming and transgender individuals. Idolizing a single perfect body type for men and women denies many people’s right to a genuine expression of themselves, and places an unnecessary pressure to “pass” as a man or woman. Gendered body expectations also endanger queer individuals by discomforting cisnormative people into violence.
The body positive movement has rightfully received criticism for racist, (cis)sexist, sizeist and ableist celebration of only white cis female bodies. While white women do deserve to love their bodies, they already have a large amount of privilege when it comes to how they’re allowed to look in society. Passively or actively excluding members from the body positive movement undermines its basic principles. There has been additional criticism for the fat positivity that only highlights “small fat” folks without rolls or hair or other “imperfections.”
Everyone, no matter their gender, shape, size, race or ability, deserves to inhabit their body with joy and comfort, to wear what they want to wear and do so without judgement from themselves or others.
“The way we view our bodies determines the way we participate in the world,” body positive activist Jes Baker said in her 2014 TEDx talk. Loving your body is not only good for your emotional wellbeing, but it allows you to navigate the world differently and divert your energy to making a positive impact. It can be a radical statement to love yourself when so much tells you not to.