How redefining body positivity can lead to happier and healthier lives

How redefining body positivity can lead to happier and healthier lives

Let’s start with a little history about body positivity: It is rooted in 1960s fat acceptance activism and later proliferated in the 2000s on the internet. Back then, it was a seemingly apolitical term with simple and reasonable intentions: to recognize the beauty of all bodies regardless of size, shape, gender and so on. Proponents wanted to combat discrimination against people’s bodies, particularly those in marginalized communities.

I recently came across fat acceptance TikTok compilations on YouTube. Nowadays, with these videos as examples, the original message of this movement has become distorted to primarily focus on justifying obesity as healthy. Marginalized communities within the movement are often underrepresented. Moreover, as body positivity becomes more widespread, it’s served as fodder for culture wars and political commentators debating its merits. Consequently, body positivity lost its efficacy due to the lack of a clear message. To fix this, we must first reframe the “fat acceptance” part of body positivity. But unlike the original movement, society must shift the emphasis away from weight and physical appearance and reevaluate how we view our bodies.

Currently, body positivity often conflates beauty with being healthy. They are not equivalent. No matter what, you are beautiful inside and out, which makes each of us special and valuable. Many advocates say that being healthy can occur at every size, which is somewhat true, as a healthy weight for someone depends on a multitude of factors. But universally, being overweight isn’t healthy and feels terrible, both mentally and physically.

I would know.

I was severely overweight when I entered college before losing nearly 40 pounds over the next year and a half, significantly improving my quality of life. I experienced a plethora of physical health complications. My excess weight further exacerbated a chronic health condition I had. Combined with inactivity, my knees, joints and back frequently ached. My ankles were twisted and swollen under my weight. Basic tasks, like taking the stairs or walking, quickly put me out of breath. This was upsetting.

But what really did a serious number on my self-confidence was finding clothes. It was a Herculean effort to get properly fitting clothing in my size. This was when I desperately wished that stores stocked more sizes. Trying on clothes was even more painful and served as a reminder of how I was too big, which I blamed myself for. If I bought clothes, they were tight and burst at the seams. For years, I refused to wear tank-tops and jeans because it was uncomfortable, and I didn’t feel worthy of wearing them. Thinking about the damper my weight put on my life was depressing, and that felt infinitely worse than any physical consequences.

However, the body positivity movement should have a clear rebuttal to what people often say about overweight individuals: “Oh, it’s simply a lack of willpower!” That’s pretty inaccurate, considering the high failure rates of diets. Oftentimes, people became that way for medical reasons—for instance, taking vital medications that cause weight gain or having a condition that makes it hard to lose weight. Even if obesity was due to a poor diet, or, in my case, a lack of exercise, there may be adverse circumstances, such as food addiction or financial strain. The point is, we never know what someone is going through. This doesn’t mean these individuals shouldn’t have any accountability, but we should broach the topic more compassionately. Furthermore, overweight people, especially women, are often aware of their excess weight. Personally speaking, taking this approach only makes people feel more ashamed and resistant to change.

Finally, regarding “fat acceptance,” the body positivity movement must emphasize how there’s many acceptable ways someone can achieve and maintain healthiness. Hearing about the traditional methods of dieting, doing weight-loss programs, or maximizing gym time—think “leg day”—alienated me. I’m not alone. My journey to becoming healthier included eating balanced meals and staying active in a way that worked for me, which was walking across campus for three to four or more miles a day.

While body positivity advocates are correct in saying that we shouldn’t discriminate against people because of their weight, the movement must start de-emphasizing physical appearance. Weight matters for health reasons, but there is far more to someone than that. Instead of focusing on how someone looks and making assumptions about their character, society should give more weight to understanding a person’s inner beauty, which matters most.

Furthermore, body positivity pressures us to deify our bodies and love them unconditionally. That is exhausting. The movement should strongly adopt the principles of body neutrality, a more practical approach. Body neutrality moves away from physical appearance and encourages us to accept our body as it is and appreciate what it does. It takes time to shift to this mindset. One example is how we view “imperfections,” such as stretch marks, acne and sagging skin. Rather than celebrating them, we can just accept them and see them as our body adeptly handling the arduous journey called life.

If we reframe how we perceive ourselves and our bodies, society would be happier and healthier, which is the ultimate goal.

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