Body positivity is about self-care, not how ‘beautiful’ you are

The body positive movement is wrongly co-opted as an articulation of ‘alternative’ and ‘inclusive’ beauty when in reality it’s just another way to tell women their worth is bound to their looks, writes Rhianna Goozee

As body positive campaigns have become increasingly commonplace in advertising and visual media, society has become increasingly fixated with health and fitness. This has caused a kind of paradoxical situation in which non-conventional body shapes are celebrated in some arenas while notions of health have been used as an excuse to body shame people in others.

In an ideal world, health and fitness could go hand-in-hand with body positivity. However, in the real world, the relationships between the two and the tensions that can arise are complicated.

This may partly stem from the misunderstanding of the definition of body positivity. Founded in the 90s, the movement originates from personal and professional experiences of founders Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott. Scott is a seasoned psychotherapist while Sobczak experienced an eating disorder during her teen years.

Body positivity is supposed to be about rejecting societal influences on your personal health and weight and learning to live more intuitively in your body, developing a “weight-neutral, health-centered approach to self-care”. Like the UK-based Health at Every Size, a core aim is to rid oneself of body hatred, which ultimately is seen to stem from societal expectations for what health and wellbeing should look like.

However, body positivity has been subsumed under a much wider umbrella of ways in which we view our bodies, arguably including more pernicious perspectives. In many cases, body positivity is equated with fat acceptance, warping the original focus on self-care and how we feel in our bodies to concentrate on aesthetics and notions of beauty.

These inaccurate interpretations of body positivity (often powered by advertisers trying to sell something) bring women right back to where they started, focusing on their looks and how acceptable they are in others’ eyes, rather than building a positive personal relationship with their body.

The problem with such messages is that they are not really about women and their relationships with their bodies and actually have a deceptively narrow focus on beauty.

They are reaffirming that a woman’s value is wrapped up in the way she looks, in how ‘beautiful’ she is in terms of a slightly broader definition of what’s conventionally accepted as beauty: Western, white, and conventionally pretty women still tend to be used, though they may be larger than the average model.

Having a body has come to be a second job, with perfecting one’s body accepted as a worthy and commendable life goal, just so long as it is defined within notions of health

While such campaigns may reassure some women that the way they look is okay, what they fail to tackle is the core of the problem. Focus is kept on a woman’s body as a viewed object. The way she looks is more important than who she is her entirety.

A more inspiring message would be to teach women and girls to view their bodies not as objects to be viewed but as tools they can use to act on the world around them. Such a message would emphasise that our body is the vessel by which we can move through the world and exert our strength and abilities.

Within the body positive movement some have argued that it is possible to be ‘fat but fit.’ The idea that being overweight does not negate your ability to inhabit a healthy body chimes in nicely with a body positive movement that aims to celebrate bodies at all sizes; that you don’t have to look like a size 10 gym bunny to be healthy. At its best, it could allow a person to feel that their level of health and wellbeing is not entirely determined by the way that they look.

However, research that recently hit the news suggests that obese people who are ‘metabolically healthy’ (i.e., people with healthy blood sugar and fat levels, healthy blood pressure, who don’t have diabetes) are at greater long-term risk of heart failure and stroke than lean, metabolically healthy people. News outlets, like the BBC and the Guardian, screamed headlines denouncing the fat but fit ‘myth’.

There are a number of issues with the way this study was reported in the media. Firstly, it is a single, unpublished study that is yet to undergo peer review or replication. Peer review is an important stage of quality control in scientific research. It involves recognised experts who did not conduct the study providing criticisms of a paper, and deciding whether it is of a high enough quality to be published. It’s a way of spotting any potential flaws in the way a study has been conducted, or the methods used for data analysis and interpretation. Without peer review, any findings are considered preliminary.

Second, the conflation of fitness with long-term health outcomes and the (unsurprising) oversimplification of the results by news vendors should both be questioned. However, it is not my objective here to critically analyse the science supporting either side of these arguments (or to outline all the ways in which journalists could improve their reporting of health and scientific research findings…). I’m interested in how the findings and the reaction to them reflect the ways in which we use notions of health to body shame women and how this might relate to and modify body positive messages.

People feel uncomfortable with fat bodies because they subvert the accepted shape of bodies that we are visually pummelled with daily

The society we live in is health-obsessed. There has been a move away from simple dieting and exercise towards ‘clean living’, regular half-marathon running, and constant monitoring of body states with wearable technology like the Fitbit. Having a body has come to be a second job, with perfecting one’s body accepted as a worthy and commendable life goal, just so long as it is defined within notions of health. These trends are accompanied by images in the media of lithe, muscular, Lycra-clad individuals smiling manically while they complete their morning workout.

The state and presentation of a woman’s body has long been tied up with issues of morality. Now, health and fitness is seen as a moral duty.

We praise people for their ability to restrict their diet, abstain from sugar, wheat or carbohydrates, and get up at dawn on a Sunday to run a half-marathon. We see these as laudable investments in health — worthy of admiration — and we wish we had the same willpower. The ability to do these things for the benefit of their health endows that determined individual with moral superiority.

The reverse situation is therefore equally associated with morality. An inability to restrict, to abstain, or pull yourself out of bed to exercise becomes a moral failing, with laziness and greed the most terrible of all the sins. Fat is taken as an accurate and undeniable external marker of a person’s state of health, their lifestyle and choices, and so their moral worth. We lay personal blame on them for ‘ruining’ their body, assuming that if they only tried a bit harder, they could be thinner, healthier, and happier.

It follows then that the promotion of larger sizes within the body positive community is seen as promoting poor health. The furore with which this single study was greeted by the press smacks of “Look we were right all along, being fat is wrong because it’s bad for you!”

People feel uncomfortable with fat bodies because they subvert the accepted shape of bodies that we are visually pummelled with daily. Findings that tell us being fat is indeed bad for you provide the sense that the moral order has been restored.

This all begs a number of questions; too many to consider in depth here. We can ask what moral imperative we have to be fit or healthy. Is it a personal or a public concern? Is there privilege associated with ‘health’ where this is equated with an ability to conform to a particular body shape? If we choose to, how can we truly look after our health without being influenced by societal expectations for the way we should look?

This latter is important. After all, we do know that there are health problems, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, associated with poor diet and a lack of exercise. So how do we engage with our bodies to nourish them appropriately, and can we find ways of partaking in exercise that place enjoyment and wellbeing ahead of burning sinful calories?

The ways we personally categorise ‘fit’ and ‘fat’ are influenced heavily by the bodies presented to us as healthy, desirable, and attractive. It is a tired argument that the ideal weight for women changes with time and place; the idea that the super-skinny torso is ultimately the healthiest and most beautiful is a modern phenomenon.

Even the body mass index (BMI), a clinical composite measure of height and weight that indicates whether a person is underweight, healthy, overweight or obese, has its own issues, and may categorise athletic builds bristling with heavy muscles as unhealthily obese, as reported in New Scientist.

Given the reported rates of disordered eating among women trying to conform to society’s definitions of health, we should be concerned about the effect that using health to body shame is having on all women (and increasingly men), at whatever size. The problem that comes from using health to body shame and imbuing the pursuit of health with notions of morality is that it hinders our ability to build positive, intuitive relationships with our bodies. This is true whether we are the morally superior, constantly battling to maintain our moral status, or the morally inferior unable to meet the standards set for us by society.

Body positive images and messages could be truly positive and be empowering for women if they were to focus on bodies as the tool by which women can affect the world around them. But where they aim to make women simply feel better about the way they look, telling them they can be beautiful at any size, they are a sticking plaster over the wounds inflicted by misogyny. In the long term, they maintain a system that values women based on their appearance and keeps women enchained in a system that requires them to be beautiful above all else.


Rhianna is a science graduate who spends her days as a medical editor and her evenings dabbling in the odd bit of feminist discourse.