Body Positivity

Fat acceptance movement

Body positivity is a social movement initially created to empower overweight individuals, while also challenging the ways in which society presents and views the physical body. The movement advocates the acceptance of all bodies regardless of physical ability, size, gender, race, or appearance.

Body-positive activists believe that size, like race, gender, sexuality, and physical capability, is one of the many ways that our bodies are placed in a power and desirability hierarchy. The movement aims to challenge beauty standards, build positive body image, and improve self-confidence.

A central belief advocated is that beauty is a construct of society and that this construct should not determine one’s confidence or self-worth. Individuals are encouraged to love themselves to the fullest while accepting their physical traits. Although body positivity is perceived as the celebration of one’s physical appearance as it is, women are highly motivated to advocate the normalization of body hair, bodily fluids, menstruation, and to challenge preconceived ideas regarding a woman’s appearance.

Body positivity has roots in the fat acceptance movement as well as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. Body positivity differs from fat acceptance in that it is all encompassing and inclusive of all body types, whereas fat acceptance only advocates for individuals considered to be obese or overweight. The movement argues that neither fat-shaming nor skinny-shaming is acceptable, and that all body types can and should be celebrated.

As part of the first wave of feminism from the 1850s-1890s, the Victorian Dress Reform Movement aimed to put an end to the trend of women having to modify their bodies through use of corsets and tightlacing in order to fit the societal standard of tiny waistlines. A minority of women participated in this tradition of conformity, but often ended up facing ridicule whether or not they were successful at shrinking their waistline. The practice of tight-lacing proved to have many negative health risks, and was also extremely uncomfortable for women who partook. As part of the Victorian Dress Reform Movement, women also fought for their right to dress in pants.

In 1967, New York radio host Steve Post held a ‘fat-in’ in Central Park. He described the purpose of the event ‘was to protest discrimination against the fat.’ Five Months after the ‘fat-in,’ Lew Louderback composed an essay entitled ‘More People Should be Fat!’ as a result of him witnessing the discrimination his wife experienced as a result of her size. The piece initiated a new movement with goals of correcting fat-shaming, and the belief that being fat is always indicative of being unhealthy.

The essay shed light on the discrimination fat people experience in America, and the culture surrounding fat-shaming. Louderback’s contribution inspired the creation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance in 1969 by Bill Fabrey, with the mission of ending discrimination based on body weight. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was also dedicated to changing the dialogue surrounding obesity and health, and spread awareness of the distinction between being fat and being unhealthily obese.

Health at Every Size (HAES) is an initiative that resulted from the creation of NAAFA, and set forth the concept that health is better determined by medical testing (e. g. heart rate and blood pressure) rather than empirical observation of one’s weight.

The second wave of body positivity prioritized giving people of all sizes a place where they could comfortably come together and exercise. There were programs being made specifically for overweight people. A popular program at the time was ‘Making Waves’ which was a weekly fat swim. Home exercise programs like Genia Pauli Haddon and Linda DeMarco’s home exercise video series ‘Yoga For Round Bodies’ were also made for those who were not comfortable joining a wellness community.

Since the rise of social media platforms, there has been a heightened presence of the movement. Model and feminist Tess Holliday founded ‘@EffYourBeautyStandards,’ which brought an outpouring of support to the body positive movement. After founding the movement, Holliday was signed to Milk Management, a large model agency in Europe as their first model over a size 20; she is a size 26. I

In 2016 Mattel released a new line of Barbie dolls under the name ‘Fashionistas’ with three different body shapes, seven skin colors, twenty-two eye colors and twenty-four hairstyles to be more inclusive. Body artists have also helped promote and spread education about body positivity, producing a number of notable outdoor nude painting displays for plus sized men and women.

A main goal of the body positivity movement is to improve psychological well-being in individuals, especially those who suffer from negative body image. Poor body image, also known as body dissatisfaction, has been linked to a range of physical and mental health problems including anorexia, bulimia, depression, and body dysmorphic disorder. Partakers are encouraged to view self-acceptance and self-love as traits that dignify the person.

The movement advocates against determining self-worth based on physical appearance or perceptions of one’s own beauty. This is referred to in the field of psychology as appearance-contingent self-worth, and can be highly detrimental to an individual’s mental health. The degree to which one feels proud of their physical appearance is referred to as appearance self-esteem. People who fall under the appearance-contingent self-worth umbrella put great effort into looking their best so that they feel their best. This is can be beneficial when an individual feels that they look good, but is extremely negative and anxiety-inducing when they do not.

The body positivity movement focuses largely on women, recognizing that societal beauty standards are more pronounced for women than they are for men. Men do, however often face similar societal pressures as women to fit a mold of a certain prototype of the ‘ideal’ masculine man. Qualities that fit that mold are height, ‘six pack abs,’ a broad upper body, muscular arms, shoulders, pectoral muscles, etc.

Men may face anxieties similar to women, and feel pressure to maintain or shape their bodies a certain way to fit the mold, and can certainly struggle with body image. Men and boys struggle with body dysmorphia and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa as well, though this is often less publicized. Body positivity remains largely concerned and discussed with regard to female populations, but still applies to people of all genders, ages, ethnicities, sexual preferences, religions, and sexes.

The movement for body positivity has played a role in influencing marketing campaigns for major corporations. In 2004, Dove launched their ‘Real Beauty.’ campaign, which commercials and advertisements depicted women of varying body types and skin tones in a manner that portrayed acceptance and positivity towards their bodies. On their website, Dove presents its Dove Self-Esteem Project as a mission for ‘helping young people reach their full potential by delivering quality body confidence and self-esteem education.’ The company also partners with and raises money for eating disorder organizations.

In 2017, the American women’s underwear company Aerie launched a campaign called ‘AerieReal,’ in which the company promised to not retouch or photoshop their models, encouraging body positivity and body-acceptance despite features such as cellulite, stretch marks, or fat rolls. Aerie has begun featuring body positive influencers in their photo shoots and advertising campaigns, as well as plus sized models. To accommodate the last, the brand has launched a plus size clothing line.

In 2019, Decathlon joined the efforts of other companies with their #LeggingsForEverybody campaign, stating their mission as ‘to boost body confidence and support you in your fitness journey.’

Recently, paradigms on social media have been changing from pushing feminine beauty ideals to challenging those ideals through image related empowerment and inspiration. Several influencers such as AerieReal model Iskra Lawrence have been preaching body positivity, creating hashtags such as #IWokeUpLikeThis, #EffYourBeautyStandards, #HonorMyCurves, #CelebrateMySize, #GoldenConfidence, and #ImNoModelEither.

The body positivity movement has been criticized for encouraging lifestyle habits that negatively affect one’s health. A central complaint is that excessive approval of overweight and obese individuals could dissuade them from desiring to improve their health. Among health professionals, agreement with the movement is very low. A 2012 study found that among a sample of 1,130 trainee dietitians, nutritionists, nurses and doctors, only 1.4% had ‘positive or neutral attitudes’ regarding excess body fat. According to internist Aditi G Jha, M.D., ‘central obesity is the number one factor associated with diabetes, hypertension, and infertility, in their respective orders.’

The body positivity movement is sometimes discussed as a ‘denial of science.’ A central concept in the body positivity movement is that beauty is mostly a social construct. The body of scientific evidence currently available indicates that a significant portion of beauty standards are not learned from society, and similar throughout the world. A 2000 study involving 29 newborn babies suggested that newborns prefer to look at pictures of women’s faces which are rated more attractive than faces which scored lower in attractiveness. A 2015 study suggested that on average men prefer thin women with a body fat index of 19; the study involved over 1300 male participants from Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The movement has also faced criticism from feminists. Gender scholar Amber E. Kinser wrote that posting an unedited photo of your body to a social media website, which is an example of an action associated with the movement, does little to prevent women’s worth from being directly correlated to their physical appearance.

Additional criticism is that the movement puts too much emphasis on the role of the individual to improve their own body image, and not enough attention on identifying and eliminating the cultural forces, messages, beliefs, and advertising campaigns accountable for causing wide-spread body dissatisfaction.


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