Is Body Positivity Unhealthy?

The last four years of my life have been a journey towards body acceptance.

While I would never claim that I never have poor body image days or that I never speak or think critically of my body, I would argue that I’m in a place of peace and acceptance with my physicality that I’ve never experienced before in my life. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, and it’s a journey that I’ll be on for the rest of my life, but it is absolutely worth every moment of that time.

I’m rather lucky that around the same time I began to explore recovery, the “body positivity movement” began to gain traction online- particularly through social media. People (particularly women) began sharing pictures of their bodies unfiltered, unposed, and unedited to counteract the barrage of photoshopped female ideas portrayed in media and advertising today. The spirit of the movement is centered around accepting the female body no matter how closely it aligns to societal body ideals, and recognizing that self-worth is not bound to that alignment.

I’ve written quite a bit about this movement, from the celebration of healthy weight gain where it is normally shunned, to the power of writing love notes to one’s body, to an in-depth exploration on social media’s body positive community, and would encourage you to read these articles to gain a better understanding of how the community operates and the ideology it utilizes. Because as much as I love talking about the movement, it itself is not the focus of this piece. Instead, I will be addressing a counterargument I see raised time and time again in response to body positive media:

Body positivity just gives people an excuse to be unhealthy.

While I have trouble even entertaining the notion that a movement intended to increase the self-esteem and mental wellbeing of stigmatized women could be dismissed as nothing more than an excuse to be lazy and unhealthy, I see this argument raised enough that I’ve decided it’s worth addressing. Recently, Steph Gaudreau wrote a fascinating article about a comment she received on a photo she posted of herself on Instagram, basically telling her that her body (one built by lifting heavy weights, eating nourishing foods she’s found to work well for her body, and working hard) that she was promoting an unhealthy lifestyle simply because her body wasn’t “toned” enough.

Steph wrote a beautiful response to the idea that body policing other people is ever acceptance, and I’d encourage you to read it. But even more disturbing than the entitled attack on someone else’s appearance, to me, was the perpetuation of the idea that accepting one’s body (when it is not already aligned with societal body ideals) automatically means you are using body acceptance as a way to become complacent when it comes to your health.

I’ve seen this arise time and time again. Opinion pieces are constantly being written based on the idea that by promoting body positivity, we are inherently promoting unhealthiness. The general argument given is that by accepting bodies in all shapes and sizes, we are ignoring facts and data that suggest being overweight is detrimental to our health.

There’s a few holes I want to poke in this argument.

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For starters, I think I want to address what body positivity is, and what body positivity is not. Body positivity is accepting your body, as it is in the present moment, despite its outward appearance’s alignment with societal body ideals. Body positivity is not basing your self worth on the comparison of your body to other people’s bodies, and it is recognizing that your self worth does not have an inverse correlation with your weight. Because oftentimes, the message we’re sent by the media is this:

Heavier you are = The less worthy you are.
Lighter you are = The more worthy you are.

Here is what body positivity is not. It is not the idea that you must be heavier in order to be beautiful (or lighter, or more muscular, or anything- that’s kind of the whole point). It is not the idea that those who do happen to adhere to society’s body ideals are inherently “bad” or “unhealthy.” It is not the idea that you can never seek to change your body composition, health, or diet while practicing body positivity. And it is certainly not an “excuse” to be unhealthy.

And I will tell you why. Practicing acceptance of your physicality does not mean deciding your body must now look a certain way forever in order to be worthy of your acceptance- whether you happen to be at an unhealthy or healthy weight is completely irrelevant. In fact, a large part of body positivity is embracing the idea that bodies change in appearance, size, and health throughout our lives, and separating our self-worth from any one singular representation of it.

What this means is that if someone is unhealthy (whether that means they are underweight, overweight or none of the above), they can practice accepting and loving their body even as they are actively changing it through food, exercise, medical intervention, and rest. To shame someone who is currently unhealthy for practicing acceptance of their body is perpetuating the idea that we must wait until we look or act a certain way to be deserving of self-love and the love of others. To which I would like to say:

You do not have to “earn” love. You are worthy of love no matter where you are in your journey.

I would also like to point out that weight is simply not the only measurement of health. Self-love isn’t something only to be practiced by those who are heavier than supermodels. It’s something that can be practiced to combat ableism, and the idea that persons with disabilities are somehow less worthy because they are “not as healthy” as they “should” be. It’s something that can be practiced by those with certain physical characteristics outside of what society has deemed as “beautiful,” like a gap between your teeth or grey hair or wrinkled skin. It is not something merely intended to be appropriated as an excuse.

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I’ve also heard several women who have gone through dramatic body composition changes say, “But I was far less confident before I lost weight/gained muscle/changed some other aspect of my appearance. Aren’t I practicing self-love by attaining goals I have for my body that make me happier?”

I have one major issue with this idea: the idea that even if it was healthy for you to lose that weight, even if you are healthier now that your thighs are smaller/your arms are more toned/whatever, there was no way that you could’ve shown love for your body before it transformed the way it did.

Take a morbidly obese person. Objectively, and as decided by medical professionals who have accessed this person, they are unhealthy (perhaps metabolically, perhaps digestively, perhaps cardiovascularly, etc). This person can decide to change their lifestyle to lose weight (what we would typically understand as adhering to societal standards) while still loving the parts of their body they wish to change. They can love the way their belly looks from day one to the day they step on the scale and see a weight that is healthy for them. They can love their thighs from their first doctor’s appointment to their last. They can make the conscious decision and effort to love their body every single step of the way towards health.

That is body positivity.

To conflate the ideas of worthiness of love and health is to tell people suffering from cancer, from degenerative diseases, from mental illness, and from any other ailment that they are not worthy of love. It is telling people who are not healthy- even if they are thin and pretty- that they don’t deserve the right to accept their physical appearance as it is.

So we need to stop perpetuating the idea that being body positive is being complacent with the health crises that face our nation today. Do we have an obesity epidemic driven by our overconsumption of sugar-rich and nutrient-poor foods? You bet we do. Do we have work to do when it comes to improving the health of our people through nutrition and exercise education? Of course.

But do we have to wait to love ourselves until we look a certain way? Hell no.

This goes both ways. If you have goals of changing your appearance (maybe you want to build up some muscle and get some sweet guns, maybe you want to lose a bit of body fat you can afford to lose to lean up a little), you don’t have to feel as though you’re somehow being “bad” or countering the body positivity movement. As with most things in life, it comes down to context and intention. Are you deciding you won’t be worthy until you reach those goals, or are you devoted to loving yourself every step of the way? Ask yourself important questions such as these as you navigate your journey, and don’t hesitate to redirect if things start to feel negative or out of balance.

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Here is what I would like to leave you with, above all else: only you control your self love.

Believe me, I understand that words hurt and have a very real impact on the ways we view our bodies (I’ve written about it, in fact). And in an ideal world, everyone understands body positivity and seeks to uplift others instead of tearing them down or shaming them for their perceived healthiness or unhealthiness. But we don’t live in that ideal world, as much as I wish we did.

This means that it ultimately comes down to you. There will always be someone out there who says cellulite or big thighs or a round belly is ugly, and you’ll have to decide for yourself that it is something you love about your body. No one ever said being body positive is easy: it requires conscious effort and practice every single day. But goodness, it brings so much more happiness than accepting a culture that profits off of our insecurities.

Some people will be critical of you and your appearance no matter what you look like or how much you change. You may as well choose to love yourself as you are, in this moment.

 

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