Is Body Positivity for All Bodies?

Has the current body positive movement lost its radical roots?

Posted Aug 01, 2019

The body positivity movement has been steadily gaining steam and breaking into the mainstream. In recent years, major brands like Nike, Dove, and JC Penny have hopped on the #bopo bandwagon, along with celebrities like Lena Dunham, Demi Lovato, and Serena Williams (to name just a few). What was once a niche area of interest scoffed at by mainstream culture has now become an influential and robust social movement.

But as body positivity surges front and center into the cultural zeitgeist, many argue that it has left it’s radical roots by the wayside.  

As a social movement, body positivity is the product of the fat liberation movement of the 1960s. Created by fat queer black women, the fat liberation movement was conceptualized as a movement by and for marginalized bodies; it was a space for those who had been cast aside by society based on the way their bodies presented in the world. The movement was a true refuge from the oppressive standards of the day.

But in the current body positivity movement, marginalized bodies are rarely centered. If you search the body positive hashtags on social media, you will be met with swaths of thin white women who, though they may not be Twiggy-era thin and may be struggling with their own personal body image issues, are still occupying perfectly socially acceptable bodies.

Capitalism has sunk its hooks into body positivity, with entire campaigns and product launches focusing on “empowerment” and embracing our curves while continuing to promote a narrow framework of beauty.

Which raises the question: who is body positivity for? 

Many would say that body positivity is for everyone. And in some ways, I agree. When done right, body positivity challenges our normative views of beauty and worthiness; it makes space for all of us, and we all benefit. A body-positive movement rooted in disrupting the status quo and smashing body ideals helps us all.

Everyone feels better when they can accept themselves and stop spending so much energy hating their bodies. As a psychologist and certified eating disorders specialist, I see first hand how torturous it is to struggle with body image, whatever your size is. 

But not all of us need body positivity in the same way; not all of us would be relegated to the sidelines of social acceptability without it. Not all bodies are subject to the daily harassment, discrimination, stigma, and bias that results from the fatphobia that continues to pervade our culture. 

The problem is that, when we make body positivity about centering all bodies, the ones that are most marginalized continue to be marginalized and the bodies that are already privileged continue to take center stage. While it is essential that we work towards creating a culture with space for all bodies to exist peacefully, some bodies already have that space and don’t need a social movement to create it for them. While body positivity benefits all bodies, it is truly for marginalized bodies, the bodies that need the safety and acceptance that true body-positive spaces provide. 

The more we allow mainstream culture to co-opt the body-positive movement and make it about bodies that are already socially acceptable, the less helpful the movement will actually be to those who need it the most. And if that’s the case, then allowing this diluted echo of body-positivity to overtake the original intent is likely not the path forward to liberation.

Without the radical roots of fat acceptance, without centering the most marginalized, we will lose the wonder and beauty that is the true uncommercialized body-positivity movement, and with it any goals that the body-positive movement set out to achieve.