The past few decades have seen a range of trends around body positivity and acceptance – or lack thereof.
There have been stick-thin aesthetics on the catwalk, where models eat tissues instead of food. Magazines subject us to headlines about “losing two sizes” and “get that bikini body”.
We’ve seen “fat acceptance” and “fat positive” movements. Social media has spruiked “thigh gaps” and fitspiration. Websites span the spectrum from pro-anorexia sites to pages that fetishize larger women.
Of the many aesthetics and fads flying around, “body positivity” has endured – and today, it’s a term that most people are familiar with.
But the term has changed so much in the past several years. Do we know what it really means any more?
Like many other movements, “body positivity” has morphed as a term. It’s occasionally been used as an umbrella for a host of approaches to body acceptance – whether it’s “fat positive” or “thin positive” or anything in between.
As a result, what “body positivity” means is now convoluted – and I notice a lot of misconceptions about body positivity.
Here are a few ideas that aren’t body positive… but can be marketed as such.
“Losing weight is bad”
It’s true that you are fine, whatever size you are. You are not a bad person if you are morbidly obese, for example. But being obese causes all sorts of health issues, and shouldn’t be ignored. Equally, losing weight to be thinner than you should be is also not body positive. It’s not respecting or taking care of the body you have.
“Real women have curves”
Many – perhaps most – women are larger than the models you see in magazines.
But “real women have curves” stems from the same thinking as “real women are skinny models”. It’s saying that women’s bodies need to look a certain way to be valuable. It’s also implying that thin women shouldn’t be positive about their bodies.
The truth is that real women come in all shapes and sizes. They are all heights, skin tones, weights, shapes, ages and abilities. Real women identify as women. The end.
“Men are already body positive”
Body positivity also isn’t an issue confined to women. It’s more common for women to be made into objects and told that they need to look a certain way. As a result, much of what’s said about body positivity is by women, for women.
But more and more men are feeling pressured to lose fat and gain muscle, thanks to media portrayals and pressure from society. We are also seeing many men develop eating disorders.
So, what is body positivity, actually?
When you get down to it, body positivity doesn’t really have much to do with your body. It’s more to do with your mind.
Body positivity is accepting your body and viewing it as good at whatever size
Too often, we’re told that our bodies are as good as how they look. Body positivity is seeing your body as more than something to look at.
It also involves unlearning the idea that some bodies are better than others, or that there should be one size or aesthetic for attractiveness.
Body positivity is loving your body enough to treat it well
When you’re body positive, you’re not punishing your body with starvation and exercise. Equally, you’re not abusing it with empty calories and junk food. You are taking care of it, nourishing it and doing your best to make it the healthiest it can be.
Body positivity recognises that diversity is okay
It sounds obvious, but our bodies are created differently. Even if we tried, many of us couldn’t achieve a waif-thin Victoria’s Secret model body. But I don’t need to try to be like one of those people in the magazines, because I’m not. That I don’t look like them isn’t a failing on my part. It’s just how I’ve been put together.
I have naturally smaller hips and larger boobs. My waist tends to carry fat more than my thighs. I can’t have a perfectly flat stomach, because, you know, internal organs. I can try to have a better butt, but I’d have to work for it – it’s not natural to me.
These are all things unique to my body. Yours may be different. The point is, you don’t look like me, and I don’t look like you.
Why are we even trying to all look and weigh the same?
That’s the point of body positivity. You don’t need to. You just need to know that your body is good the way it is – and learn how to take care of it well.
Embracing body positivity
Body positivity is important because your thinking around your body is contagious.
Many of us fall into the trap of saying, “I feel fat today,” or joking about going on a diet after eating a piece of cake. Unfortunately, speaking like this about our bodies just perpetuates negative ideas about what our bodies are and how to care for them. It impacts all of us – and especially young people.
So how do we practise body positivity? Here are a few ways to train your brain to think better about your body.
Nourish your body each day
Your body is worth caring for – and that means putting good fuel in.
Nutrition plays a huge role in your physical and mental wellbeing. Read up on what you’re eating, how it impacts you and what you could eat more of. Eat widely from all the food groups.
Notice, also, everything your body can do – and appreciate that. It’s not about aesthetics. It’s that your body is pretty amazing, whatever size it is.
Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad”
It may sound corny or PC. But labelling foods “sometimes” foods – instead of “bad” foods – makes a huge difference to your perception.
You probably shouldn’t eat ice cream every day. But eat it every so often – and enjoy it when you do. There’s no need to beat yourself up or joke that you’re going to get “fat”.
It’s not necessary to demonise foods to be healthy. Recent fads saw many people try to eliminate sugar from their diets, and I don’t judge. Me, I think balance is important – and we can’t forget that natural sugars (like those in fruit) are actually good for you.
Remember that exercise is not a punishment
Don’t do it because you ate something “bad”. Find something you enjoy doing, whether it’s swimming, walking, playing sport or whatever it might be – and do it regularly. Don’t exercise to work off that piece of cake. Just exercise because it’s good for you.
Be careful what media you consume
Remember that the bodies you see in photographs are posed and idealised. Remind yourself that some people are paid to work out, in a way that normal people can’t do sustainably. And don’t forget that even your friendly Instagram feed has carefully curated and posed images that can make you feel worse about yourself.
It’s not always easy to change your thinking – especially when you’ve been taught your whole life to view your body in a certain way. But it is possible to take steps to rebalance the conversation.
Sometimes the hardest thing is to give up doing something, but the way to overcome it is to introduce something new. It’s not about having to completely ditch being concerned about appearance but balancing it out with an understanding of how fantastic your body really is, and what it enables you to do.
Focus on your body for what it is. See its goodness. And you’ll help other people do the same thing.