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Exploring the Body Positivity Movement

Learn what research says about body positivity.

Key points

  • The body positivity movement advocates a positive appreciation of bodies in different shapes and sizes.
  • The body positivity movement is present across Instagram with a large number of followers.
  • Research demonstrates that many body positivity posts that include physical activity may still promote an unrealistic body ideal.

It is well established that unrealistic images of the fit feminine body can lead to body dissatisfaction, body image distortion, various types of eating-disordered behaviors, and mental health issues. These problems have become so common that many women now question this beauty ideal and look for ways to feel positive about their bodies. For example, the #bodypositivity movement actively rejects the thin and toned ideal to create a more positive appreciation of bodies of different shapes and sizes; it has been widely shared through Instagram. When Meridith Griffin, K. Alysse Bailey, and Kimberly Lopez (2022) searched the Instagram hashtag #BodyPositive for their research, they found 17.8 million posts, as well as 9.8 million with the hashtag #BodyPositivity. With this growing popularity, more researchers have started to look at what types of bodies now appear on social media sites dedicated to body positivity.

#BodyPositivity and Positive Body Image

In their analysis, Rachel Cohen and her colleagues (2019) looked at 640 Instagram posts from “top body positive Instagram accounts." To more closely classify the postings, they defined a positive body image as “an overarching love and respect for the body." A positive body image, they specified, has six core components:

  • Appreciating the function, health, and unique features of the body.
  • Accepting aspects of the body that differ from idealized media images.
  • Perceiving beauty broadly based on a variety of appearances and internal characteristics.
  • Tending to the body’s needs (e.g., exercise, sleep, hydration).
  • Feeling beautiful on the inside (kindness, mindfulness), which may radiate to external appearance and behaviour.
  • Rejecting negative body-related information.
Angela Roma/Pexels
Source: Angela Roma/Pexels

The researchers concluded that at least one of the core features of a positive body image was included in the majority of posts in the popular body-positive accounts on Instagram. For example, two-thirds of the posts defined beauty beyond the thin and toned body ideal. As one caption stated: “...all those parts you see as flaws whenever you look in the mirror...they are natural, beautiful parts of the human body..."

Accepting bodies deviating from the idealized image was the second-most-common body positivity theme. For example, one woman posted: “Self-love is a sense of self liberation that you feel for yourself for every ‘flaw’ that you have. You’re unique and beautifully special!”

Appreciating inner positivity was the third-most-frequently mentioned body positivity component. Statements like, “Be strong by being kind to yourself and by sharing your light with the world," or “We get so worried about being pretty. Let’s be pretty kind. Pretty funny. Pretty smart. Pretty strong,” were examples of inner positivity.

Rodnae Productions/Pexels
Source: Rodnae Productions/Pexels

When the researchers looked at what was pictured in the posts, they found that most posts presented a user modeling in non-active poses. They added that about a third of the posing women were “in very or extremely revealing clothing … predominantly posing in a suggestive manner." Such a focus on appearance, the researchers presumed, was intentional as the purpose was to feature bodies typically excluded from social media spaces.

Many posts also promoted commercial products or an "influencer" who intended to earn income through their social media accounts. Although 40% of the posts advertised various products, the majority of the posts still promoted positive body image. For example, weight loss, dieting, and exercise were seldom mentioned.

#BodyPositivity and Exercise

Cohen and her colleagues (2019) concluded that building a positive body image did not include exercise, which appeared only in 4% of the posts in their study. In their study, Meridith Griffin, K. Alysse Bailey, and Kimberly Lopez (2022) further analyzed how physical activity featured in #bodypositivity posts. They gathered a total of 141 physical activity-related posts from Instagram during five weeks in 2021 using the hashtags #BodyPositivity and #BodyPositive.

Griffin and colleagues found that nearly half of analyzed physical activity-related posts talked about body transformation. The users disclosed intimate stories of how they started their journeys to change their body shapes, how hard they worked to transform their bodies, and how they now continue to maintain their current appearance. They posted before-and-after images of muscle gain or weight loss and shared videos of exercise programs that effectively helped in weight loss and gaining visible, lean muscle mass. At the same time, the posters emphasized the importance of learning to be kinder to their bodies.

While both men and women featured in these posts, the researchers noticed that most users were white muscular men and thin, lean, and toned white women, many of whom weight-trained, power-lifted, or did bodybuilding to shape their bodies. In these stories, positive body acceptance was reached by disciplining the body with strict exercise routines in line with the thin and toned ideal.

Similar to #BodyPositivity posts showing inactive users, many physical activity-related posts included links to various products or services. The most commonly promoted products were workout clothing (primarily sports bras, leggings, and swimwear). Other marketed services and products were to help shape “a body worthy of being positive about." For example, personal trainers offered to help readers start exercising to gain “self-love” through bodily practice. This type of advertising can align with body positivity. The researchers cautioned, however, if it is connected to the promise of shaping one’s body to the thin and toned ideal, it no longer affirms positive body image.

They provided an example of a post that featured the text, “Healthy is an outfit that looks good on everybody,” with the caption: “There is no one healthy shape, clothing size, weight, or age—everyone’s version of a healthy body is different and equally valid.” This indicated that a wide range of body types should be appreciated, but the accompanying image depicted a toned, slim, white, and blonde woman wearing a sports bra and weight-lifting gloves.

Very few posts (one-sixth) featured diverse body sizes. Some users (five posts) emphasized their enjoyment of physical activity instead of changing their body and thus offered a different route for body positivity. These, however, were exceptions among the many posts sharing journeys for improved body shape.

The researchers concluded that those sharing their bodily transformations were most visible in the physical activity posts and that many physical activity posts linked with #BodyPositivity continued to idealize a narrow, thin, and toned beauty ideal. They found that feeling positive about one’s body was co-opted to entice readers to work toward specific, unrealistic beauty standards.

This type of body positivity departs from the body positivity that the feminist fat-acceptance movement promoted in the 1960s. These feminists wanted to challenge the strong anti-fat sentiments in Canada and the United States at the time (Cohen et al., 2019). The body positivity movement further evolved through Black fat activism in North America against the discrimination of Black bodies (Griffin at al., 2022). This movement, therefore, is grounded in the idea that the current narrow beauty standard is socially constructed and thus, it is possible to create different beauty standards based on an acceptance of diverse body types and sizes.

Body positivity can also be turned to promote the current thin and toned beauty ideal, particularly when exercise is included. Wanting to feel more positive about one’s body now means feeling more positive only once one has worked hard to obtain the ideal, young, lean, toned body. The struggle and hard work can then be shared on social media spaces that also sell products and services for the users to continue shaping their bodies. In the exercise contexts, the ones who "fail" to achieve the ideal body do not feel positive about their bodies or are entirely excluded unless they commit to changing their bodies.

Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels
Source: Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels

It is curious that we continue to think of exercise mainly as a tool for body shaping. Are there no other reasons to exercise? Some Instagram users, but only very few, mentioned enjoyment as their purpose to exercise.

What about some other purposes? Like, learning a new movement skill? Moving better in everyday life? Having less pain? Having a break from sitting? Discovering a new physical activity? Could these ways—unrelated to appearance—help us to feel more positive about our bodies?

It is rewarding to feel good about being fit, but this does not mean that we all have to have the same body shape. Feeling positive about one’s body can hold different meanings for different people. Inviting diverse bodies—regardless of their appearance—to be physically active without having to change their body shapes may reduce, not increase, the negative body image so common in society today. And isn’t this the goal of body positivity?

References

Cohen, R., Irwin, L., Newton-John, T., & Slater, A. (2019)., #bodypositivity: A content analysis of body positive accounts on Instagram. Body Image, 29, 47-57.

Griffin, M., Bailey, K. A., & Lopez, KJ. (2022). #BodyPositive? A critical exploration of the body positive movement within physical cultures taking an intersectionality approach. Frontiers of Sports and Active Living, 4:908580. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2022.908580

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