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Body Positivity

The Problem with Body Positivity

You can’t force yourself to be positive all the time, and you shouldn’t have to.

Key points

  • Body positivity teaches acceptance of all types of bodies, your own and others.
  • Sometimes body-positive messages can feel more controlling than helpful, research finds, especially if they challenge your autonomy.
  • You can choose to listen only to body positive messages you believe in and that suit your needs.
Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay, used with permission
Trying too hard to be happy can actually make you feel sad.
Source: Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay, used with permission

The body positivity movement, which grew out of the late 1960s fat acceptance movement, strives for acceptance of all types of bodies regardless of skin color, size, shape, or physical ability and encourages all people to love, accept, and embrace their appearance. But what began as a seemingly important and altruistic social movement to help people, women in particular, “love the skin they’re in” and accept themselves, regardless of what they look like and regardless of any stigma surrounding their appearance, has been showing its downside.

Researchers at Clarkson University have found that messages sent to women encouraging them to be body positive aren’t always supportive, often fall flat, and can often leave people feeling more depressed and unsure of themselves. That’s because these messages can sometimes seem controlling, diminish autonomy, and ultimately do more harm than good when you’re seeking support and acceptance.

The body-positive messages you hear or give yourself can only improve your self-esteem and diminish shame if they also support your basic need not only to gain acceptance from others, but also to feel you are able to make your own decisions and stand behind them, without feeling like you are simply doing what others are doing or tell you to do. When that’s not the case, positivity messages can feel controlling.

Of course, body positivity messages that challenge narrow-minded and old-fashioned ideals of beauty and promote the acceptance of diverse physical traits and appearances can boost your mental health and well-being by helping to improve your body image and self-satisfaction. But continuously forcing yourself to try to feel good about yourself when the world at large has groomed you to believe something is wrong with your size, your weight, your natural shape, or your physical traits can sometimes be as stressful as living with the stereotypes that made you feel different and uncomfortable to begin with.

It’s actually up to you whether or not you want to accept or feel positive about your body at any given time or under any circumstances. Sure, if you feel motivated and elevated by messages of body positivity, then those words are probably doing good things for you. But you don’t always have to “fake it ’til you make it” and if you do, keep in mind that it just might backfire and ultimately make you feel worse.

If thinking positively about your body when you’re really not feeling so great about it isn’t helpful or healthy, then what is? A good first step may be recognizing that your identity is better defined by your emotional and mental attributes than your physical appearance. In other words, try not to focus on what you think you need to “fix” or change about your physical self. Believe those who tell you they love you for who you are, because they do. If it stresses you out, disregard any message you get that pressures you to love everything about the body you live in when you’re not feeling it.

Words are, of course, a social construct. Over time, people have created and distorted the meaning of many words but, except when it comes to generational trends in language, most words are here to stay. Often, the words that hurt or insult us were developed as nouns or adjectives simply for the purpose of identification, but their meaning and implications have since been twisted. Why should that stop you from using them when, in fact, saying words like “fat,” could help neutralize them and remove the stigma that so many have to live with?

If you’re overweight and you want to say “fat,” say “fat.” In fact, as a registered dietitian in private practice, it was my overweight and obese clients themselves who sometimes encouraged me to do just that.


Legault L and Sago A. When body positivity falls flat: Divergent effects of body acceptance message that support vs. undermine basic psychological needs. Body Image. June 2022; (41); 225-238.…!

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