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When Body Positivity Isn't Cutting It

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

In the last few years, there has been a huge influx of body positivity talk on social media. Overwhelmingly, the posts on body positivity that receive mainstream attention focus on the conventional thin white woman. It’s also frequently seen that in the same breath they tout body positivity, they show their fatphobia and agree that anyone in a larger body should lose weight “for their health”. This completely negates the mission and history behind the body positivity movement and often leaves us feeling guilty when we don’t always love our bodies. If you’re feeling this guilt for not loving your body all the time and not fitting into the ideals that searching for body positivity on social media brings - let’s find out what body positivity really means and how we can shift to other phrases and mindsets about ourselves.


History of Body Positivity

The National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA), formerly the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, was founded in the 1960s. As the movement grew, other fat liberation groups, such as The Fat Underground, were formed and were fighting for "equal rights for fat people in all areas of life".

A news clipping titled "NAAFA NEWSLETTER" with two men and two women, some of them fat. reading an article and conversing.
NAAFA Newsletter Image, photo from NAAFA.org

In other words, they were fighting to be given the same acceptance and freedoms as straight sized people. Through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, NAAFA, The Fat Underground, and other groups advocated for fat liberation through interviews, protests, and participation in pride parades. Into the 2000s, as the internet rose in popularity, the term "body positivity" was used by these groups to spread awareness of fat liberation and to fight for equal rights across this new platform.



The Current State of Body Positivity

Today, the term “body positivity” has grown and evolved through social media and has been growing on Instagram since 2012. However, with its growing popularity, there’s been a shift from focusing on fat folks and fat liberation, to highlighting straight sized, white women most of the time. While every group of people deserves to feel comfortable in their body, this takes away from the fact that fat people face serious discrimination in social settings, medical settings, and even in the workplace. The body positivity movement was a place to seek justice for these inequalities that straight sized people do not have to think about for themselves.

With the body positive movement becoming mainstream and having over thirteen million posts on the Instagram hashtag in 2020, the original mission and intensions of NAAFA have been diluted with conventional views and bodies. At the time of writing this post, NAAFA uses #fatrights and #equalityateverysize in their posts - which have gained significantly less traction than the saturated #bodypositivity thread. #bodycompassion and #effyourbeautystandards are hashtags with more traction that show a more diverse range of bodies, gender, and race if you're looking for a supportive social media scene. While I believe social media has become a safer space for more diverse conversations, I know there is still a lot of work to be done to make it a safer place for everyone.


Besides making body positivity more mainstream and whitewashed - body positivity gives off the idea that we should love our bodies no matter what. That if we have a bad body image day, we should just self-love ourselves out of it. But the reality is, we are going to have bad body image days with the society we live in telling us we need to look a certain way and doctors insisting we need to lose weight for x, y, z condition (spoiler- you don’t!). Because of this, a different phrase has become popular in the last few years... Body Neutrality.


Body Neutrality

The term body neutrality focuses on what your body does for you and gives you permission (not that you need it!) for you to exist just as you are while still respecting your body. On the good days, bad days, and everywhere in-between - your body is there for you, keeping you alive. You can acknowledge the way your body feels good and the ways in which you feel uncomfortable. Both are allowed to exist. When you focus on neutral feelings about your body, you can bring that neutral feeling into food and exercise/movement as well. This article on How to Practice Body Neutrality gives amazing tips on how to bring body neutrality into different aspects of your life.


So which term should I use?

Now that you know some history (click the links throughout to learn more!) about the fat liberation/body positive movement, you might wonder which term to use.


This is where some nuance comes in. There might be some days you feel positive about your body and others where you have neutral or even bad body image. All of these feelings are okay! It’s your mindset and actions around them that matter and how you treat yourself and others who use these various terms when feeling these emotions. Our emotions and feelings might change from day to day, but we need to take care of our body and give it the respect and nourishment it deserves. This also means leaving space for others to use whichever words they feel comfortable using, too. This means checking in with our own biases, allowing people with marginalized identities to share their stories, and not sharing healthism and weight loss advice to people who just want to exist as they are.

fat white folks standing in front of large windows, talking. They are wearing business casual attire.

**I hope some of this resonates with you or you have learned something new! If you have any points to add or questions about this topic, please leave them below. The links shared throughout this post are great starting points to learning more. I know this conversation is so nuanced and can be received differently by different people, so I want this to be a welcoming space for everyone to learn and share.


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