If you've been on the Internet even once in the past decade, there's a good change you've heard of body positivity. The movement has helped thousands of people, teaching them to learn to love their bodies and view them as valuable as they are. But just because body positivity has helped people (myself included!) doesn’t mean that the movement itself is without faults. In recent years, more and more people have begun criticizing the way the body positivity community gives a platform solely to white women or thin women who foster conversations about loving yourself without discussing issues of race, class, gender, and fatphobia.
Many people may argue that body positivity should be an apolitical space, free of radical ideas about dismantling white supremacy, gender and capitalism. However, that ignores two very real facts about the movement. The first is that it was shaped specifically by Black individuals, Queer individuals and fat people (not just women!). The second is that if we really want to rid ourselves of beauty standards rather than just redefining them to include women up to size 16, we have to combat the very things that perpetuate them. That means racism, classism, transphobia, sexism...the list goes on and on. We can't distance ourselves from these conversations because, as the saying goes, the personal is political. There's no separation. With all that being said, let’s get into the history of the body positivity movement!
Body Positivity Has Always Been Political
Today, body positivity is closely tied to the feminist movement, which leads many people to believe that it was started as a counter-patriarchal movement. In some ways, that’s true. Subversive ideas about the body in Western culture can be traced back to the Victorian era when middle-class feminists began protesting the use of corsets and body mutilation used to achieve the “perfect” hourglass figure. These activists also argued that women’s bodies shouldn’t have to be hidden under layers and layers of fabric to be considered respectable, a theme that has carried through to our modern-day conceptions of feminism. However, the body positivity movement as we know it today was started not by women protesting sexism, but by fat activists specifically protesting fatphobia.
Most historians track the origins to 1967, when Lew Loderback published an essay titled “More People Should Be Fat.” In it, he critiqued the treatment of fat people in America and recounted his own experiences facing discrimination in the workplace. That same year, radio personality Steve Post organized a “Fat-In,” a demonstration in Central Park that brought fat individuals and activists together to burn diet books and brandish signs reading slogans like “Fat Power” and “Take a Fat Girl to Dinner.” The momentum gained from these movements led to the creation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) and their “Healthy At Any Size” campaign.
But, as anyone on Instagram can tell you, the body positivity movement isn’t just about our bodies- it’s also about our hair, facial features, height...any physical feature, really. This theme can be traced largely to the “Black Is Beautiful” movement in the 1960s, which advocated for Black people to love their physical features despite the fact that eurocentric standards of beauty were (and still are) the norm.
From the 60s, these precursors to the body positivity movement fell somewhat out of people’s awareness (although the term itself was coined in the late 90s) until the advent of social media in the 2010s. That's when the problems with the movement began to emerge.
How Social Media Corrupted the Movement
Back in the days of LiveJournal and Tumblr, body positivity began to gain traction once again. Social media connected fat individuals, Black individuals, Queer individuals and women, and allowed them to share their individual experiences with body image. These online communities continued the decades long tradition of focusing specifically on fatphobia, to the point where original members of the community, like Stephanie Yeboah, claim that "the term 'body positivity' was interchangeable with the fat acceptance tag." The concept of body positivity slowly gained attention from the general public and began making real changes, from convincing brands to offer a wider range of sizes to creating demand for plus-sized models in ad campaigns.
But while the increasing visibility of body activists may have helped dismantle some long-standing issues, it's increasing popularity meant that it's radical origins slowly started being watered down. More and more brands realized they could increase sales by using key phrases about loving yourself or by using white models who typically wore smaller sizes than the average American. At the same time, people, specifically thin people, began using the term "body positivity" as a blanket term for loving your body, effectively erasing the fact that the movement was started specifically to protest the treatment of marginalized bodies.
The current and popular view of body positivity is somewhat helpful but ultimately fails to challenge capitalism, patriarchy, or white supremacy. And if we're talking about body image, it's impossible to avoid those topics.
You Can't Talk about Body Positivity Without Talking About: Class
People love to talk about America's high rates of obesity, but rarely discuss the ways these rates are directly tied to class. So tied to class, in fact, that obesity rates in poor counties are 145% higher than those in similarly sized middle- and upper-class counties. These rates make sense when you think about the fact that poorer areas often lack of access to fresh produce, are underfunded (leading to a lack of parks and sports facilities), and have higher rates of violence, making people less able to go for runs or walks.
Capitalism ensures it's own survival by convincing us that the wealthy deserve to be wealthy and that the poor deserve to be poor. Fatphobia is a vehicle of that belief, promoting the idea that fat poor people are lazy and unproductive members of society who are unwilling to better their own living situations.
The modern body positivity movement has done little to attack these classist beliefs. Instead, we’ve shifted to a sort of fake acceptance of fat people where, if they can prove that they eat clean and exercise, we think they’re deserving of our respect while other fat people aren’t. Aside from the fact that fat people don't "need" to do anything to be treated as human beings, this belief centers around the idea that everyone has access to gyms/outdoor spaces, healthy foods, and clean drinking water which (disturbingly) is just not the reality we live in. If we really want to reach a point where we don't judge others for their bodies, we need to begin by dismantling our own classist beliefs about poverty.
You Can't Talk about Body Positivity Without Talking About: Race
Beauty standards and fatphobia, more specifically, have always been rooted in white supremacy. During the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Blackness began to be associated with hedonism. White people believed that Black people overindulged themselves not just sexually but also in terms of food and drink. As the centuries rolled on, these views became widely accepted and, by the 19th century, fatness itself was heavily associated with immorality and racial inferiority. In other words, Western ideals of thinness only ever emerged to juxtapose Black bodies and further feelings of white supremacy.
With that in mind, it makes sense that the "faces" of the body positivity movement are usually white activists whose fatness is viewed as more palatable because of their whiteness. The activists who aren't white are usually lighter-skinned Black individuals, showing how pervasive colorism is in the community, as well. Who we give a platform matter, as a recent study found. According to researchers, over 70% of Instagram posts that feature the tag #bodypositivity are white passing individuals, meaning that Black individuals are being largely excluded from a movement that they created.
You Can't Talk about Body Positivity Without Talking About: Gender
This heading is probably the least suprising in the entire article, given that body positivity is usually presented as a way women can unlearn patriarchal beauty standards. Culturally, we expect and even encourage teenage girls and women to be obsessed with their body. This obsession starts young, with somewhere between 40% and 60% of elementary aged girls reporting worries of becoming "too fat" and more than 50% of teenage girls using unhealthy restrictive measures to control their weight. These behaviors are usually attributed to just "how girls are" rather than to being a direct symptom of the way patriarchy undervalues women.
The focus on women’s bodies goes back to cultural beliefs that women exist solely for male consumption. We teach children that femininity is tied to being thin or to being slightly bigger with an hourglass figure. This association basically tells us that femininity and womanhood are based on whether a woman can be easily sexualized. The idea that physical appearance and gender go hand is hand is additionally harmful to trans and nonbinary individuals who grow up with society making false assumptions about them based on their bodies. Rather than attacking and dismantling views of gender, the body positivity movement often doubles down on them, using slogans like "All Bodies Are Good Bodies" or "Real Women Have Curves" that isolate these communities.
You Can't Talk about Body Positivity Without Talking About: Health Care
Almost everyone is aware of how fatphobia can hurt people's self-esteem. But there are other very real ways fatphobia hurts individuals that are too often not discussed. One of the biggest fields that discriminates against fat people is actually the medical field itself. Though this may suprise people, there are tons of studies showing that fat individuals get significantly worse medical care than thin people. A comprehensive report on the subject found that physicians spend around 30% less time with fat patients than they do with thin patients regardless of the reason for the visit. Not only that, but physicians are more likely to view fat patients as annoying, report having less patience with fat patients, and statistically have less personal desire to help fat patients.
These disturbing statistics manifest in very real ways when it comes to the health of fat individuals. Fat people are less likely to be given preventative and diagnostic tests and often find that medical equipment like gowns, exam areas and blood pressure cuffs are not made to accomodate them. These prejudices result in fat people being more likely to avoid doctor's visits, making chronic illnesses and health issues much harder to diagnose.
And, by the way, all this discrimination from the medical field comes despite the fact that many widely held beliefs about weight are factually inaccurate. This includes long-standing beliefs like the idea that weight loss on its own improves health, despite the fact that there are no reported links between weight loss and longer life expectancy, or even weight loss and improved health.
How We Can Fix the Movement
What do we do with all this information? It’s clear that body positivity is a movement that is inherently political. The obsession with our bodies continues to be used to suppress women, Black individuals, poor individuals and fat individuals. If we want to make changes going forward, the first thing we need to do is to make this community more inclusive. That means elevating marginalized voices, diversifying our individual social media feeds, and being conscious of the language and imagery used to promote body positivity. But, in addition to all that, we need to think critically about our own views on race, class, gender and body image. If we can’t do that, we’re not actually practicing body positivity, we’re just creating new beauty standards that feed into old problems.