Medically reviewed by Alida Iacobellis, Registered Dietitian (RD), MHSc
Writing and research contributions by Alana Freitag, Olivia Kuhlmann, and Ann Le
In this post, we dive into what body positivity is, how the movement started, what it’s meant to symbolize, and some of the criticisms it faces.
Throughout this post, you will notice the word fat appearing quite often, so I wanted to take a moment to explain. When I first started using this word, it felt a little jarring, can you relate? It’s a word that has taken on so many negative and hurtful connotations that it feels a little taboo to use. I often found myself using words like larger bodied as an alternative that felt a little more comfortable, potentially less hurtful, and more politically correct.
The Body Positivity Movement: Reclaiming the word fat
The thing is, fat is just an adjective. Just like we would describe someone as tall or short, or the colour of their skin as white, brown, or black, fat is just a descriptor. And in the spirit of celebrating all bodies as good, it felt important to use the word fat throughout this post, unapologetically, as a step towards neutralizing and normalizing it.
The word fat is often stereotypically associated with other terms like failure, ugliness, laziness, dirtiness, lack of intelligence, and worthlessness (1). As a result of these unfair and untrue associations and generalizations, fat has become a marginalized identity. That is, fat people are often excluded from mainstream social, economic, and/or cultural life.
What is Body Positivity?
If you are on social media, I am willing to bet you have (at least once) come across a #bodypositivity post before.
If you’re hearing this term for the first time, “Body Positivity” is really about recognizing the rights that all bodies have to be valued, visible, and accepted (2). It is a social justice movement that amplifies the voices of individuals living in marginalized bodies including fat, disabled, trans, and other bodies of different races and ethnicities.
It raises awareness of the right and worthiness everyone has to take up space and find peace and respect for themselves (3), regardless of how society and popular culture view ideal shape, size, and appearance (4).
As popular as the body positivity movement has become as of late, the term actually roots back to the Fat Acceptance Movement that started in the late 1960s.
The Fat Acceptance Movement
Back in the late 1960s, Bill Fabrey, a young engineer in New York, was angered about the way the world treated his fat wife (5). He was appalled by the mistreatment fat people faced in society, so he gathered a small group of people to mobilize and stand for equality – he named it the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (known today as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance or NAAFA) (5).
Shortly after that, fat acceptance and fat activism continued to grow. By 1973, the Fat Underground, a group led by Californian Feminists released their ground-breaking Fat Manifesto that demanded “equal rights for fat people in all areas of life” and identified diet culture and alike industries as “the enemy” (5). In the 1980s, The London Fat Women’s Group and other fat activists spoke openly about their experiences with fat phobia and protested for a society that would be more accepting and liberating (5).
For the last 51 years, fat activists around the world have been fighting for respect and equality for individuals living in fat bodies who experience systemic oppression and discrimination. From here, the Body Positive Movement arose to continue this work.
The Body Positivity Movement
The Body Positivity Movement encourages people in marginalized bodies to:
- Appreciate their uniqueness and
- Exercise gratitude for all that their bodies can do
- Admire their body parts and features even if they differ from societal norms,
- Show comfort and confidence in the bodies they live in
- Focus on the positives or what they like about their body rather than what’s perceived as imperfect, and
- Reject negative images about their own and other people’s bodies (4)
Founded in 1996, a non-profit organization called “The Body Positive” was created by two women, Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott, who shared a passion for helping others reclaim their body peace (6). The organization set out to offer a community of healing and freedom from oppressive societal messaging and body shaming (6).
They designed a model that encourages the development of self-care skills and promotes internal harmony and peace with your body. The Be Body Positive Model was developed based on the needs of thousands of individuals who shared similar lived experiences of body shame and suffering (6).
The 5 core competencies include:
- Reclaiming your Health
- Practicing Intuitive Self-care
- Cultivating Self-love
- Declaring Your Own Authentic Beauty, and
- Building Community (6)
Connie and Elizabeth found these self-care practices to be quite effective in inspiring and empowering body positive communities in finding their own paths to happiness and health (7). In fact, a pilot study was conducted in 2014 by researchers at Stanford University in the United States to investigate the effectiveness of these 5 Competencies (7). What they found was that feelings of self-guilt, beliefs of thin ideals, body satisfaction, and social determinants of body image were positively affected in those who practiced these self-care skills (7).
So why would the Body Positive Movement be criticized so much if it’s making space for marginalized bodies to find peace and happiness with themselves? Historically, this movement has been challenged on the grounds that it promotes obesity.
The Body Positivity Movement and Obesity Promotion
Much of the criticism that the Body Positivity Movement and other approaches that focus on size acceptance and diversity attract (like Health At Every Size), is that they promote obesity. Accepting is not the same as promoting. Accepting people of all body shapes and sizes, making sure they are provided with accommodations, and working to ensure they have equal access to resources is a matter of fair and equal treatment which in and of itself is health-promoting.
Historically, our approaches to weight management were formed around the assumption that weight loss for people in larger bodies would lead to better health. Until recently, it was assumed that excessive fat stores on the body were fully to blame for the poorer health outcomes experienced by people in fat bodies. However, we are now beginning to understand more of the nuance that surrounds the relationship between body size and health, and we are learning that weight stigma may have an important role to play (8).
Weight bias can have some very real and damaging health effects on those living in fat bodies who experience this type of discrimination, especially with the so-called “war on obesity” gaining momentum over the past few decades (9). Ironically, weight stigma has also been found to be a contributor to factors that are associated with obesity (10). Eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and avoidance of routine medical care are among some of the health risks seen in those who experience weight bias and stigma, all of which lead to poorer health outcomes.
If you’d like to learn more about the research on the effects of weight stigma head over to my 3-part blog series on Health At Every Size (HAES).
Mainstream Social Media’s Sabotage of the Body Positive Community
A quick search of the #bodypositive on Instagram reveals many posts showcasing images of individuals who would not likely be marginalized based on their appearance, with captions sharing about loving yourself and working to heal negative body image.
Similar to the way that the body mass index (BMI) was not designed to accurately measure someone’s health, the term “body positivity” was not meant to capture your personal and complex relationship with your body (11).
Perhaps you’ve seen one of those before and after photos of a straight- sized person posed a certain way, free of cellulite and skin folds/rolls, and then sitting or standing unposed where their cellulite and skin folds/rolls are visible?
All bodies are worthy of respect and equal treatment, including straight-sized ones. But the Body Positive Movement wasn’t intended for straight-sized bodies. These bodies already come with a lot of inherent privilege, and they are crowding out the people the movement was intended for in the first place.
Thin, white, and cis bodies are privileged because they embody the beauty ideal. So, while it’s valid to express their individual processes of self-love, using the #bodypositivity is actually silencing those who are marginalized3.
Body Positive and Positive Body Image – What’s the difference?
The Body Positivity Movement is not the same as having a positive body image. In fact, it’s completely separate from having a positive body image or loving the way your body looks (3).
It is more than aesthetics, it’s a social justice movement that’s meant to amplify the voices of marginalized bodies and acknowledge the oppression they face in our society. More importantly, it’s meant to protect the fundamental human rights that diverse bodies have to be treated equally and fairly, regardless of their size, shape, ability or appearance (11).
Anyone and everyone can feel negatively about their body, but this is not the same as the systematic discrimination that fat, disabled, trans, and ethnically diverse bodies face. While both are completely valid, the respect given to thin, white, cis bodies does not exist for the marginalized ones (12).
The Cost of Negative Body Image
Poor body image can lead to a lot of internal distress. Research shows that individuals who experience negative body image are more likely to also experience depression, low self- esteem and may even develop an eating disorder (4).
o Depression: While both men and women experience depression, the rates are much higher in women (13). Some researchers believe that poor body image may play an important role in explaining the rates of depression (13).
o Low self-esteem: Research has also found a strong relationship between negative body image and poor self-esteem, specifically in adolescents regardless of their gender, age, weight, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (14).
o Eating disorders: Poor body image has also been linked to disordered eating, particularly among adolescent girls (15).
While the Body Positivity Movement is more than promoting positive body image, celebrating uniqueness and encouraging others to find peace with their bodies builds a foundation for others to recognize the many influences that contribute to poor body image (4). The hope is that this recognition will inspire others to adjust their own body expectations and begin to feel more positive and accepting of their bodies. Perhaps then can they combat the toll that poor body image has on mental and physical health (4).
Body Positivity and Reshaping Social Norms
Did you know that by preschool, children can pick up on which physical characteristics society favours and begin to judge their own physical appearance? (16) The messages we are repeatedly exposed to eventually become social norms. And these social norms can have a significant impact on our mental and physical health.
Research has shown that exposure to the “thin ideal” such as those widely represented on social media, has been associated with behavioural and emotional symptoms related to eating disorders and disordered eating (4,17). Consistent exposure to these images promotes the belief that “beauty, success, and self-esteem are determined by thinness” (4). When people internalize these ideals, they are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction and engage in unnecessary dieting (4,18).
The body positive movement has the power and potential to help us re-shape social norms and redefine beauty standards. By extension, this will improve the mental and physical health of everyone.
By magnifying the voices, experiences, and images of those who do not fit the currently accepted beauty ideal, we can showcase the full breadth of diversity that naturally exists among bodies. In doing so, we can help improve self-image for all people, including those with marginalized identities.
The fact that our social norms around beauty are so narrow is what contributes more to widespread negative body image than anything else. Expanding this narrow construct can bring with it a lot of healing.
Much like the costs that negative body image can have on our physical and emotional health, having a healthy body image can positively affect our daily lives. Studies show that increased self-esteem, decreased social anxiety, and healthier attitudes about eating often result from improving our body image (16). These findings suggest the power that positive body image can have on reducing emotional distress and recovery from eating disorders (16).
Body Positivity and Other Terms You May Have Heard
While the term body positivity has become more mainstream over the years, you may or may not have heard about these other related terms:
The term, “Body liberation” is defined as the belief that white, able-bodied, cisgender, thin, or physically fit bodies are not superior, worthier, or inherently healthier than any other body. Feeling body liberation often means that individuals feel free from any societal oppression that works to make them feel they are less worthy, healthy or desirable than others.
Sometimes, loving your body isn’t easy, and sometimes it takes time to get there. Body neutrality is exactly what it sounds like – accepting your body as it is. It also encourages you to acknowledge your body’s abilities and recognize that your physical appearance is not what drives your worth.
This term refers to the discrimination and prejudice individuals in society experience based on their size. For example, individuals having to buy two seats to ride an airline is sizeism.
This term is quite complex but it essentially refers to the discrimination and societal prejudice individuals living with physical, intellectual or mental disabilities face, and the assumptions society has about their ability status. For example, assuming someone mobile in a wheelchair cannot walk at all, or assuming someone living with autism is less intelligent.
What you can do:
If you are interested in supporting the Body Positive Movement and you are someone living in a privileged body here’s what you can do:
- Follow others who hold marginalized identities. Read, learn from them and support them.
- Educate others on the difference between Body Positivity and positive body image. Call people into this conversation when you see them sharing problematic content or misusing terms like body positivity.
- Reflect on your choice of vocabulary when it comes to describing bodies (4)
The Bottom Line
From its roots in the Fat Acceptance Movement, Body Positivity makes space for the lived experiences of marginalized bodies to be heard. It also celebrates the unique and diverse bodies of a community that experiences oppression. Body positivity is social justice. It’s working towards a world where all bodies receive respect and equal treatment regardless of their size, shape, ability, and appearance.
Alida Iacobellis is a Registered Dietitian with her Master’s in Health Science based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She is the creator of The MORE Method – the framework she uses to help her clients take their eating from disordered to intuitive and through Moderation, Optimization, Restoration and Elevation of their diet and mindset. Her coaching philosophy and approach is informed by Intuitive Eating, Health At Every Size, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Dialectical behaviour Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing.
- Shackelford, A. (2019). Fat Is Not a Bad Word – It’s a Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/fat-is-not-a-bad-word
- Johansson, A. (2021) Fat, Black and Unapologetic: Body Positive Activism Beyond White, Neoliberal Rights Discourses. In: Alm E. et al. (eds) Pluralistic Struggles in Gender, Sexuality and Coloniality. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47432-4_5
- Magee, D. (2021). Positive Body Image vs Body Positivity. Retrieved from https://rbitzer.com/positive-body-image-vs-body-positivity/
- Cherry, K. (2020) “Why Body Positivity Is Important.” Verywell Mind,
- [bitesize] The history of the body positivity movement. (2021, June 16). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/articles/z2w7dp3
- The Body Positive. (2021). Retrieved from https://thebodypositive.org/about-us/
- The Body Positive. (2021a). Retrieved from https://thebodypositive.org/research/
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- Berkenwald, Leah. (2021). The Personal and the Political: Body Neutrality and Body Positivity. Retrieved from https://thebodypositive.org/the-personal-and-the-political-body-neutrality-and-body-positivity/
- Severson, A. (2019, June 14). Why I’m Trading Body Positivity for Fat Acceptance. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/fat-acceptance-vs-body-positivity
- Ferreiro, F., Seoane, G., & Senra, C. (2014). Toward understanding the role of body dissatisfaction in the gender differences in depressive symptoms and disordered eating: a longitudinal study during adolescence. Journal of adolescence, 37(1), 73-84.
- Van Den Berg, P. A., Mond, J., Eisenberg, M., Ackard, D., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2010). The link between body dissatisfaction and self-esteem in adolescents: Similarities across gender, age, weight status, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Journal of Adolescent Health, 47(3), 290-296.
- Figueiredo, R. A. D. O., Simola-Ström, S., Isomaa, R., & Weiderpass, E. (2019). Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating symptoms in Finnish preadolescents. Eating disorders, 27(1), 34-51.
- Joplin, M. (n.d.). Evaluating “The Body Positive,” a body image curriculum focused on body appreciation, intuitive eating, and self-compassion [Psy.D., The Wright Institute]. Retrieved May 28, 2021, from http://www.proquest.com/docview/1787197931/abstract/64EED277DD954A9APQ/1
- Hausenblas, H. A., Campbell, A., Menzel, J. E., Doughty, J., Levine, M., & Thompson, J. K. (2013). Media effects of experimental presentation of the ideal physique on eating disorder symptoms: A meta-analysis of laboratory studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(1), 168-181.
- Juarascio, A. S., Forman, E. M., Timko, C. A., Herbert, J. D., Butryn, M., & Lowe, M. (2011). Implicit internalization of the thin ideal as a predictor of increases in weight, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating. Eating behaviors, 12(3), 207-213.