The Body Positivity Paradox

by Lisa Maguire

You may be surprised to learn that the body positivity movement began around 50 years ago with a few people who were incensed at how larger people were treated. In an effort to stick up for his wife, Bill Fabrey, an engineer in New York, began the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, (now called the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance). Four years later, the “Fat Underground” was developed in California, and their “Fat Manifesto” was released. In their proclamation, they coarsely asserted that the problem was with society, not with the individual, and that the pressure to change individually should be diverted to change how society perceives heavier people instead.

Fast forward to today, and there are equally as many people on the internet promoting diet pills, cleanses, and fad diets as there are people loudly fighting against diet culture and having to look a certain way.

The vehement argument against the “fat liberation” movement has always been that it promotes a culture of unhealthy lifestyles, and here is where the paradox lies. There are a number of health concerns proven to be directly related to lifestyle choices, which are often correlated to weight – in both directions. Being underweight or overweight can have life-threatening consequences, however, the mental impact of constantly trying to look a certain way can also be horribly harmful to health and well-being.

“The vehement argument against the ‘fat liberation’ movement has always been that it promotes a culture of unhealthy lifestyles, and here is where the paradox lies.”

Figuring out where you are on the spectrum can be just as confusing and frustrating as constantly feeling less-than or comparing yourself to others. The best method to identify where you are and combat some of that anxiety is being educated. There are some overarching concepts to familiarize yourself with, and you can dive in deeper from there. An easy and important place to start is fat- and body-shaming.

The technical definition of fat-shaming is “the action or practice of humiliating someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size.” While it may seem extreme to humiliate someone because of their weight, it happens with an unfortunate amount of frequency, especially with the advent of the internet and social media. The introduction of these platforms has helped spread many body-positive messages, but it has also given many people an anonymous platform to express hurtful opinions with no repercussions.

Body-shaming is the equally harmful counterpart to fat-shaming, which focuses more on body-shape-specific comments versus weight and diet specifically. Think of the attention that goes to specific body-parts on men and women that may make them particularly self-conscious – waist, hips, rear, bust, abs, calves – many “influencers” are causing fitness culture to become more and more likened to body-contouring by working out for specific assets.

Even more difficult is that fat- or body-shaming doesn’t necessarily have to be “humiliating.” In fact, it’s often in the form of comments or suggestions that a lot of people don’t even realize are hurtful. From “have you put on weight?” to “your [medical condition] would get better if you changed your lifestyle,” or even “but, don’t you work out a lot?” people oftentimes think they’re being helpful or supportive. Studies show that comments like these are so counterproductive that they can actually cause weight GAIN and mental health issues. In a study of 6,157 people, researchers found that participants who were not obese but exposed to weight discrimination during the study were 250% more likely to be obese four years later.

Ready to make it even more complicated? Making comments to a person that’s thin about their body is just as detrimental! “Eat a cheeseburger,” and “you’re all skin and bones,” can be equally damaging to someone who struggles with body-image because they’ll never achieve that Kim K. hourglass. Or how about, “You look great!” or “You’re so skinny!” – while they may feel like compliments, eating disorders are so prevalent, you may be reinforcing their behavior.

It’s okay to want to work out and eat for a fit body. It’s okay to want to look a certain way. It’s also okay to not care about what you look like physically. As long as you’re mentally and medically in good health, no matter what you’re eating and why you’re working out (or not!) is your business. It’s also a safe assumption that people who are overweight by any standard are aware and do not need your advice or opinion about it.

“Taking care of your body looks different for everyone”

The best practice is to not offer any unsolicited advice or weight-based comments, even if they are compliments! If you’re looking to support the movement but still compliment a friend or loved one who’s lost weight, try “You’re glowing! What are you doing differently?” to open the conversation. After all, the best lifestyle is one that leads to a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life – and that doesn’t come in any one shape or size.

There is one exception: if you notice that someone is participating in dangerous behavior that is likely linked to an eating disorder, it’s important to act. However it’s a very delicate subject. You should not approach your loved one without first seeking the advice of a professional. If you are concerned about whether or not you have an eating disorder, don’t be ashamed – it’s very common! It’s important to reach out for help – if you need a safe place to start, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our Registered Dietitians. Developing a healthy relationship with food is a critical life skill that many people are working toward.

So, what does having a healthy relationship with food even mean? Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt says, “To have a healthy relationship with food means that one is able to eat for the reasons of physiological rather than emotional hunger and to stop eating at a point when the body and mind are truly satisfied. In order to have a healthy relationship with food, one must first have permission to eat. Our diet mentality has robbed us of even having permission to eat.”

As a general rule, we know that calories in versus calories out is what dictates weight loss or gain, though it does not dictate where that loss or gain happens. Different types and quantities of food will build different types of material (fat vs. muscle) in different places in the body.

So often, people get caught up in fad diets or restricting specific elements from their diet that aren’t very sustainable in our culture. Carb-conscious dieters have to avoid pizza, burgers, and pasta – all things that are advertised nearly hourly on television commercials, right? If you have a healthy relationship with food, you’re able to eat things that you enjoy in moderation, just as Dr. Oliver-Pratt suggests. And too often, the restriction comes from a place of “well if I want to look like that, I can never eat ‘X’ food,” which is where body positivity comes into play. You can’t have a healthy relationship with food and exercise if every decision is made based on the physical outcome. When we change the goal from “thin” or “fit” to “healthy,” the entire mindset can shift. The end result? Healthier, happier individuals who ultimately become more confident in their bodies as a natural result of leading healthy lifestyles!

In a nutshell, it’s your body. As the old proverb says, “If you don’t take care of your body, where are you going to live?” Taking care of your body looks different for everyone – we’re all unique, with our own desires, tastes, and interests. Why spend energy on judging other people for the way they look?

So this summer, forget about the “beach body,” all bodies are beach bodies. The only thing that matters is that YOU are confident in yourself no matter what you decide to wear this summer. And it’s okay no matter what that is. If you want to be more fit or you want to wear a bikini in the skin you’re in, we’re here to cheer you on.

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