For many decades, certain body types and sizes have been considered most acceptable by society. Traditionally, Western countries have given recognition, appreciation and privilege to those whose appearance fits within a certain ideal. Most often, this ideal involves thinness, muscularity or body shape.
The messages of what is considered an attractive or appropriate body type and size can be damaging for many people who do not fit these specific criteria. These expectations can lead to poor mental health, body dissatisfaction and unhealthy behaviors around food and exercise.
The body positivity movement was born out of the need to widen the range of bodies considered acceptable by society. The movement encourages a rejection of ideas that bodies must fit a certain mold and encourages people to accept and celebrate their body as it is.
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History of the Body Positive Movement
Ideas of body positivity have been around for over a hundred years, but have only more recently formalized into a social movement. Body positivity dates back as far as 1850, where women protested that they should not be required to use corsets to change their body shape.
The idea of body acceptance became a topic of discussion following the publication of an article titled “More People Should be Fat!” by an author named Lew Lauderback. The author argued that fatness did not equate to being unhealthy and pushed back against fat-shaming. This article contributed to the creation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance in 1969.
More formally, the body positivity movement was created by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott in 1996. The movement was started based on Connie’s own experience with an eating disorder. Elizabeth, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders, also co-founded the organization.
Since this time, the body positivity movement has grown to include activists, health professionals and scientific researchers. The body positivity movement has impacted the fashion and advertising industries, use of social media and general levels of inclusion and acceptance of different body types within the wider community.
What Exactly Is Body Positivity?
The phrase “body positivity” is used more frequently now than ever, but there is still some confusion around what body positivity is. Body positivity is a movement that represents appreciation, respect and acceptance for bodies as they are, and for the functions and activities they do. More specifically, body positivity includes:
- Appreciating unique aspects of one’s body
- Gratitude for the functions a body can perform
- Admiration for parts and features of the body, even if they differ from societal ideals
- Comfort and confidence within one’s body
- A focus on the positives rather than perceived imperfections or flaws
- A rejection of negative images or information about bodies
Body positivity is a process and requires the practice of self-compassion and acceptance. While the process of body positivity and acceptance is most certainly difficult, it can lead to improved well-being and mental health and encourage society to be more inclusive and accepting.
The body positivity movement challenges some of the long-held beliefs of society. Because of this, there can be many misconceptions about body positivity and the intentions and benefits of the movement.
Body positivity is a broad concept. Within it there are many types of body diversity and acceptance. Often, comparisons are made between body positivity vs. fat acceptance, and though they share many values, they are not the same thing. Fat acceptance is part of the broader body positivity movement, but it includes the specific acceptance and equality provided to people with fat bodies.
Self-love and body positivity encourages acceptance of bodies as they are. For many, this can mean giving respect and acceptance to bodies that are overweight, underweight or look different from what is commonly deemed “acceptable.” This can be a difficult concept since messages of what bodies should look like are strong and persistent.
Common misconceptions about body positivity might include the belief that people who are body positive:
- Are lazy or neglect taking care of themselves through diet and exercise
- Are simply people who don’t feel overly negative about their body
- Are vain
- Make judgments on others to improve their own body positivity
- Are able to simply ignore or reframe constant social messages about body and appearance
Some people may also believe that body positivity simply involves changing thoughts. However, true body positivity is an ongoing process of changing beliefs, thoughts and behaviors and examining how they interact with one another.
Psychology Behind the Body Positivity Movement
The body positive movement was born out of the understanding that strict and negative messages about bodies and appearance were emotionally, psychologically and physically damaging to many people. The body positivity movement offers a solution to the problematic and harmful beliefs encouraged by social messaging and negative body image.
Body positivity is founded on positive psychology, which focuses on ways to improve functioning and well-being rather than focusing on illness or disorder. Body positivity includes not just the absence of negative body image but also having meaningful respect and appreciation for one’s body.
Of course, negative body image can have consequences for mental well-being and can worsen many aspects of functioning. Body positivity is guided by the understanding that feeling positive and accepting of appearance can improve mental health, reduce the risk of eating disorders, and allow someone to function at their best. Psychological research has shown that body positivity is associated with improved self-care behaviors, including healthy diet and exercise, fewer unhealthy diet behaviors and lower risk of depression.
Changes in Media and Advertising
There is a growing understanding of the impact that the media, social media and messages about bodies and appearance can have on an individual and the community. As a result, there has been substantial pushback regarding the types of messages and bodies represented in mainstream media.
Due to this pushback, there’s been an increase in positive body image in the media. This includes representation of different body shapes, sizes and races, and diversity in the types of bodies shown on a regular basis. There are several campaigns that have improved understanding of how media can positively affect body image.
Truth in Advertising Act
The Truth in Advertising Act is a federal law that states that all types of advertising must be truthful and supported by scientific evidence. It’s considered illegal to mislead consumers in advertisements about food, medications or diet-related products. This law aims to protect consumers from being misled or taken advantage of by claims about weight loss or changes to appearance.
Aerie Real Campaign
The Aerie Real Campaign is a campaign that includes a wide range of bodies, abilities and ethnicities, with no retouching. The campaign followed the company’s recognition of the impact of negative body image on communities and, in particular, women. Since 2015, Aerie has partnered with the National Eating Disorder Association to work toward the prevention of eating disorders.
Dove Real Beauty
The Dove Real Beauty campaign was launched by Dove to promote beauty as a source of confidence, not anxiety. Within this campaign, beauty is shown through real women who represent the diversity seen in society. In addition, the campaign uses only non-models and is committed to no retouching or digital distortion in their images. The campaign aims to improve body positivity and education surrounding positive body image in women and young people.
Criticism of the Body Positivity Movement
As with most social movements, the body positivity movement has been subject to some criticism. Although the movement has made great strides in promoting the acceptance of diverse bodies, some critics suggest that body positivity encourages obesity. This criticism is based on the belief that bodies that do not fit the norm (like thin or lean bodies) are a result of laziness or moral failure. Critics suggest that weight poses a significant risk to health and should not be underestimated. There has been significant debate about whether intentional weight loss can be considered part of body positivity.
Body positivity has also been criticized as unrealistic or expecting that people should feel good about their bodies all the time. Although body positivity encourages self-compassion, it is normal to have days where acceptance and celebration are difficult. Based on this, critics suggest that some people may feel they have failed at body positivity if they feel critical or dissatisfied with their appearance, which may worsen their self-esteem.
There is clear evidence to support the role of body positivity in improving mental health and well-being. Despite these body positivity movement criticisms, acceptance, inclusion and tolerance of diverse body types can improve the health of individuals and the community as a whole.
Tylka, Tracy L., & Wood-Barcalow, Nichole L. “What is and what is not positive body image? Conceptual foundations and construct definition.” Body Image, June 2015. Accessed July 3, 2019. National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. “About us.” 2016. Accessed July 4, 2019. The Black Dog Institute. “Positive Psychology.” Accessed July 4, 2019. Wood-Barcalow, Nichole L., Tylka, Tracy L., & Augustus-Horvath, Casey L. “But I Like My Body”: Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women.” Body Image, 2010. Accessed July 4, 2019. Tiggemann, Marika. “Considerations of positive body image across various social identities and special populations.” 2015. Accessed July 4, 2019. Cooper, Charlotte. “What’s Fat Activism?” University of Limerick Department of Sociology Working Paper Series, 2008. Accessed July 4, 2019.
Tylka, Tracy L., & Wood-Barcalow, Nichole L. “What is and what is not positive body image? Conceptual foundations and construct definition.” Body Image, June 2015. Accessed July 3, 2019.
National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. “About us.” 2016. Accessed July 4, 2019.
The Black Dog Institute. “Positive Psychology.” Accessed July 4, 2019.
Wood-Barcalow, Nichole L., Tylka, Tracy L., & Augustus-Horvath, Casey L. “But I Like My Body”: Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women.” Body Image, 2010. Accessed July 4, 2019.
Tiggemann, Marika. “Considerations of positive body image across various social identities and special populations.” 2015. Accessed July 4, 2019.
Cooper, Charlotte. “What’s Fat Activism?” University of Limerick Department of Sociology Working Paper Series, 2008. Accessed July 4, 2019.