Online and in the media, body positivity is a phrase we have heard more and more frequently over the past few years. Many of us are aware of the message behind the body positive movement whether or not we are well-versed in the history or origins of the movement – loosely speaking, body positivity is the idea that every single body is beautiful, and that everyone deserves to be treated with respect regardless of their size or weight. Body positivity also has a particular focus on the more marginalized members of society such as plus-size people, and in particular plus-size women, as well as the disabled community who so often get overlooked during discussions on beauty standards. But where did the term come from, has it always been defined this way, and is it the most useful attitude to adopt towards your body and appearance in a world that is full of external (and internal) pressures to be thin and attractive?
The body positivity movement arose from the fat acceptance movement in the late 1960’s which was created as a radical opposition to the damage that arises as a result of the beauty standards imposed primarily on women with regards to their weight and clothing size. This movement continued well into the 80s and 90s, with a focus on addressing the harm caused by the diet industry, which was particularly popular in the 90s, and the term eventually morphed into the more recognizable ‘body positivity’ that we hear about today.
There are several intersections within the movement, due to the nature of these beauty standards being universally damaging; many disabled and chronically ill people, as well as people of colour, face challenges as a result of not subscribing to the restrictive standards that women are expected to force themselves to live up to. Many figures within the movement have called for better representation of people who aren’t thin, white, and able-bodied in media and television so that young people can feel seen and heard by the general public rather than silenced and marginalized.
Another crucial goal of the movement is a dissection of the diet industry which targets the insecurities of women and capitalizes on them by selling products with the aim of promoting ‘fat-loss’ but which often promote unsustainable and often extremely restrictive diet and exercise regimes that perpetuate yo-yo dieting and eating disorders, particularly in young girls. The statistics on eating disorders in young women are harrowing, especially due to the high mortality rates in more restrictive disorders such as Anorexia, and the pressure to be thin no matter what has profoundly affected entire generations of young people who wish to be seen as beautiful at the cost of their own health, proving that these beauty standards are not in fact promoting a healthy lifestyle but rather are perpetuating unhealthy and potentially fatal behaviors. Body positivity challenges these companies and beauty standards on a wider scale, questioning why it is considered more important to be thin than to be healthy.
This is not to say that body-positivity is in direct opposition to the idea of losing weight for health reasons, though there are of course disagreements in every movement. Losing weight or dieting is not necessarily seen as a negative thing, and many people are able to do so in a healthy way, and of course there is a certain truth behind the idea that a healthy weight is optimal for your wellbeing and longevity. Rather, it is opposed to the reasoning behind many people’s attitudes towards weight loss, particularly for aesthetic reasons, and wishes to challenge the origin of the beauty standards which people are striving to subscribe to, many of which are rooted in racism and ableism.
Of course, the body-positive movement has not been entirely well-received; body-positive advocates have faced considerable kick-back from critics who consider the movement to be promoting obesity and unhealthy lifestyles under the guise of empowerment. There are also those who believe body-positivity does not actually destroy or address the damaging beauty standards, but simply to alter the parameters of what is considered acceptable within this framework so that the oppression of those who do not conform is simply directed elsewhere.
While the body-positive movement has merit, some of the critiques are not entirely unfounded – there is still a considerable emphasis placed upon physical appearance, with the aim being for everyone to be considered ‘beautiful’ and treated with respect due to this. In response, another movement has risen which addresses these issues in an entirely different way, and that’s the turn towards ‘body neutrality’ over ‘body positivity’.
Body neutrality, in simple terms, is the attitude that your physical appearance should not define or represent your worth as a human being, and instead treats your body as though it is a vessel through which your more valuable and important traits can be communicated and appreciated. Rather than trying to be perceived as beautiful in a world of ever-shifting goalposts or building your self-esteem upon foundations that might be pulled out from beneath you the next time the trends change, body-neutrality rejects the idea that being beautiful is a goal worth building your self-worth around. It is far more important, for body neutral advocates, to celebrate being intelligent, kind, patient, generous, curious, compassionate, and inspired, than simply nice to look at. There is of course a place for this too, and many people feel better when they are happy with their appearance, but body-neutrality argues that how you look is the least interesting part of you, and that you have much more to offer than being thin or attractive.
Adopting a body-neutrality stance has considerable benefits too – once you change your attitude towards your body, you are more in-tune with its legitimate needs and strengths and are able to approach addressing these needs from an objective standpoint. When your focus is on prolonging your life and improving your health so that you are best-able to achieve your full potential in other areas, eating healthily and exercising becomes less about punishing yourself for not looking a certain way or fitting into a certain dress-size, and more about treating yourself and your body well. Eating food that fuels your movement and brain and promotes healthy body-functions and exercising so you can be more agile and are more able to enjoy activities with those you love means you are celebrating your body in a way that is sustainable throughout your entire life.
Biblically, our bodies are designed to be vessels, and taking care of those vessels to promote longevity and optimum performance is far more productive than decorating the vessel to subscribe to beauty standards created by worldly ideas of success. We were not created to be visually pleasing to a world that prioritizes consumerism and shallow measurements of success, nor were we created to be distracted by the standards set by other people which don’t further our goals or empower us to thrive. In this manner, body-neutrality reflects the attitude we are not put on this earth to look a certain way or to subscribe to certain pressures from the world, but that we have something more important to offer which comes from within the vessel.
There are many merits and flaws to both movements, but for many people who have struggled with their weight and body image throughout their lives and have found their mindset towards themselves shifting towards the punitive or obsessive, body neutrality can be a valuable mindset which promotes treating your body well so that you are more able to celebrate your other strengths and pursue your other goals, and to place your self-worth in something more unshaking and internal.
Article Written by Abigail Whitney of Lkambi Global Publishing