What Does Body Positivity Actually Mean?
How (and why) the concept continues to be misunderstood.
Posted Aug 11, 2016
The body positivity movement has gained some serious steam over the past decade. According to a recent report by the American Psychological Association, American women's (and men's) dissatisfaction with the skin they're in began to decline in the early 2000s, following an unfortunate peak in the 1990s.
Popular media outlets and many marketing campaigns have adapted to this trend — though not necessarily, as many have pointed out, for the better. In 2012, Seventeen Magazine agreed to stop airbrushing models. In 2015, Women's Health vowed to ban "drop two sizes" and "bikini body" from its cover titles. Sports Illustrated featured plus-sized model Ashley Graham in one of three separate cover images for their annual Swimsuit edition in 2016. And last month Miss Teen USA ditched their swimsuit competition "as part of a commitment to 'evolve in ways that celebrate women’s strength, confidence and beauty for years to come.'” All the while, Dove, Aerie, and Victoria's Secret (among other well-known product and clothing companies) have attempted to incorporate what appears to be body positivity into their advertising efforts.
But what, exactly, does it mean to be body positive? And does trying to market the concept miss — if not distort — the point? I spoke with Mallorie Dunn, founder of the body positive fashion line SmartGlamour; Kaila Prins, body positive wellness coach and burlesque teacher; and Connie Sobczak, co-founder of thebodypositive.org and author of Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!) to clarify some common misconceptions about body positivity and better understand its intent. With help of the statisticians behind the post-secret style app Whisper, I also wrangled some data on how we understand and enact the idea in our everyday lives.
Read on for a primer on where things stand with body positive and what (still) needs to be ironed out.
How do you define body positivity?
Mallorie Dunn: To me, body positivity means accepting the body you have as well as the changes in shape, size, and ability it may undergo due to nature, age, or your own personal choices throughout your lifetime. It's the understanding that your worth and what's going on with you physically are two separate entities — that no matter what's happening inside, outside, or to your body, you're still just as worthwhile as the person next to you.
Kaila Prins: I like to think that body positivity's intention is really body acceptance. The idea that you can live comfortably in your body, as it is right now, or work on treating it right through nourishment and joyful movement and self care without punishing yourself for looking the way you do.
[According to the data crunchers at Whisper, 35.1% define body positivity as "being okay with flaws;" 29.3% define it as "loving yourself;" 21.1% define it as "being confident;" and 14.5% of users define it as "appreciating your body."]
How does someone become body positive?
Connie Sobczak: To be body positive, it is important to assume responsibility for figuring out what your body needs. In many ways, this feels harder than having an external "expert" voice tell you what to eat and how to move. But playing with the word "responsibility" makes it much less intimidating: response ability simply becomes the ability to respond to the stimuli present. In this case it is the ability to respond to sensations of hunger or fullness and the need for movement or rest. Honor the life and circumstances that make it difficult at times to take care of yourself the way you would like and simply do the best you can in the moment. Be willing to trust your ability to know what feels good for your unique body. Learn from trial and error, and be kind to yourself when you make mistakes.
Another approach to being body positive is to examine the messages you've received —and continue to receive — throughout your life about health, weight, food, and exercise. You'll want to pay attention not only to what you've been told by the media and medical professionals, but also by your family, friends, and culture. Once you clearly identify the messages, you can begin to think critically about which ones work for you. If particular information is intriguing, try it out to see how it makes you feel. If you adopt a behavior that leads to better physical and/or mental health, and — most importantly — it is something you can sustain over the long term, keep it in your toolkit. From this same observant position, you can also identify the messages that trigger guilt or shame. If the information doesn't make you feel better or it is a behavior you can't maintain over time, discard it and return to what you know to be right for you.
This doesn't mean you should ignore what your doctor or other health practitioners tell you. But what you don't want to do is follow the advice of an "expert" blindly, especially if they tell you it's imperative that you lose weight to improve your health and suggest going on a diet. Perhaps your condition will improve by increasing physical activity or making dietary and other life changes. But it's up to you to listen to the signals from within to help with these kinds of decisions.
[Per Whisper, 45.5% of users say "encouraging each other" is the best way to promote body positivity;" while 29.2% advocate for shining more attention on "models who aren't perfect" and 25.3% think "the media should embrace all sizes."
Whisper users also shared their own ways of enacting body positivity. The most popular was "wearing great clothes" (40.29%), followed by "telling yourself you're awesome" (25.83%), "healthy eating & fitness" (18.14%), and "inspiring others" (16%).]
What are some issues you see with the body positivity movement — or body positivity — in general?
Kaila Prins: Sometimes body positivity can come off as more of a candy-coated movement to help us all 'feel beautiful' and love ourselves all the time, which I think is really tough to ask of a person.
Shame masked as pride, or its pursuit, is not body positivity. Many popular weight loss and fitness companies run so-called "body positive" campaigns whose surface message is: you should feel good about being in your body. But the subtext is, you can't feel good in your body as it is — loving yourself and being body positive is about "creating a body you love" instead of starting from a place of love and acceptance and not needing to change your body. The idea behind their messaging is that you should be able to love yourself, and since you can't do it the way you look now, we can give you a body that you CAN love.
Essentially, as soon as "body positivity" becomes a marketing tool, it stops being about body positivity but about brand and share of voice.
Mallorie Dunn: Some people misappropriate body positivity when they leave out of its definition people who are disabled, people who are very large in size, people of color, gender queer people, or people who may seem too small to take part in it. Whenever you're erasing one group you're missing the point. Many large retailers, for instance, promote a very narrow image of body positivity as a bunch of light-skinned women who are "small plus" and shaped like an hour glass — this is often referred to "acceptable fat."
What are the most common misconceptions about body positivity?
Mallorie Dunn: One major misconception about body positivity is that it involves feeling incredible in your skin every moment of every day. But body positivity isn't about forcing yourself to feel beautiful and wonderful 24/7. You don't have to adore every aspect of your appearance to be body positive; you just have to divorce that appearance (and your feelings about it) from how you evaluate your worth as a person: You're not a worse human on a day that you happen to feel ugly or insecure. You don't deserve any less because you don't fit into a particular size. What you look like should not have any bearing on your decision to be kind to, and love, yourself and others.
Another misconception is the assumption that championing body positivity equates to telling people to be unhealthy or to stop taking care of themselves. On the one hand, that’s NOT what it’s doing; it’s telling you to be okay with yourself — there’s ample research that if you hate yourself you're not going to take care of yourself; studies show you have to care about yourself in order to take charge of your health and wellbeing. On the other hand, other peoples' health is nobody's business but their own. If someone is being unhealthy in a way you deem inappropriate, that’s not your concern; it’s their body - it's called autonomy. This misunderstanding stems from a deeper societal issue of fatphobia — and people's inability to own their discomfort with and prejudice against those who are larger in size.
Kaila Prins: A common misconception is that body positivity is about "letting yourself go," or sitting on the couch eating junk food all day and not caring. That is an enormous (and nonsensical) leap from trying not to hate yourself or making the effort to stop forcing yourself to fit into an impossible cultural standard. The idea that a body is "let go" simply because it's not being weight-suppressed and beaten into submission and creamed and botoxed and tightened and toned is semantically wrong.