An Imperfect Human's Guide To Body Positivity

What it actually means, how it's evolved over time, and what's at stake without it.

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So, you've probably seen or heard the phrase "body positivity" floating around a lot lately. Maybe you'd like a better understanding of it, or maybe you worry you’re excluded from it because of how you look or feel about yourself.

What is body positivity, anyway?

Body positivity is unlearning the idea that only certain bodies are worth acceptance and praise, and instead recognizing that all bodies are equally valuable. It's deciding what feels good and healthy for you personally, and letting other people do so for themselves. It's understanding that you deserve to live in your body without receiving the prejudice of others (whether that means rude comments, reduced economic opportunity, inadequate health care, or something else), and working toward a world where no one's body is the target of such bias.

First off, it doesn't make you immune to the pressures society places on your body.

Listen: We're all humans, and we've all been affected by the world around us. It's completely normal and okay to have bad body-image days, and beating yourself up over it will only make you feel worse.

All you can do is try to be kind to yourself (maybe some of this stuff will help), and always stand up for other people who are being treated unfairly because of social attitudes toward their bodies. And if you feel like loud, proud body love would be too awkward or performative of an act for you personally, you may want to investigate body neutrality.

Okay, moving on! Modern body positivity is for people of any size.

I can't tell you how often I read comments like, "Body positivity is only for plus-size women." Then again, there are certainly fitspo Instagrammers and other straight (not plus-) size people who claim the only way to be truly body-positive is to eat and work out until you look more or less like them. Which, BTW, isn't an option for everyone even if they choose to follow a particular regimen, since not everyone's bodies respond to food and activity in the same way.

In actuality, living a body-positive life means embracing principles of acceptance regardless of size. That goes for your own body, and everyone else's too.

(Although this gets a little tricky.)

The roots of body positivity can be found in the fat acceptance movement, which supports the liberation of fat bodies and fights against stigma surrounding them. But the colloquial definition of body positivity has been broadened — as some see it, diluted — to encompass bodies that haven't traditionally been the target of such disproportionate bias. Today, the term is often stripped of its principles for use as a corporate catchphrase (more on this below), leading many activists disillusioned with the commercialization of their beliefs to assert themselves clearly as "fat-positive" instead.

[Also, now seems like a pertinent time to note, for anyone who's unclear on it: "Promoting obesity" is not a thing. Obesity is not a club that, if the right number of proverbial flyers are handed out, people line up to get into. Living joyfully in one's body and not hesitating to share those joyful moments with others, or giving representation to people who aren't normally visible in media, only "promotes" not delaying happiness until you reach a certain dress size or number on a scale.]

And it's for people of every gender.

You may have noticed the comment mentioned above said "plus-size women." One big misconception is that body positivity isn't for men, which is easy to understand when perhaps the most mainstream representation the concept has ever gotten was ultimately revealed as a "joke."

Don't be fooled by that noise; instead, take heart in the initial excitement over the campaign and the stories of these 14 guys, which are definitely no joke. And of course, recognize that people who identify outside the gender binary (or those who don't easily "pass") should also be able to live in and love their bodies without being treated poorly by healthcare professionals, employers (or potential ones), law enforcement, or anybody else.

It also doesn't make you vain or vapid.

Accepting and loving your body doesn't mean your outside is the most important part about you, or that you cease working to improve your nonphysical qualities. For me, adopting body-positive ideals actually freed up my mind to learn more about what I want out of life, to open myself up more to others, and to work on gaining knowledge and skills I hadn't gotten around to when I was all-consumed with the size of my thighs.

Which is not to suggest that embracing your own physicality is where the journey ends, because true body positivity still means working toward the empowerment (emotional, economic, and beyond) of others. Still, it's worth acknowledging that loving your own body doesn't make you selfish.

And it doesn't come with caveats.

It would be handy to sort people into two groups: the blatantly, outspokenly not body-positive, and the good guys. But like dudes who neighbors describe as "nice" and "quiet" after the discovery of severed heads in their freezers, people's prejudices around size, shape, and associated traits and behaviors often come in insidious packaging.

The #BodyPositiveBut tag shed light on the problem of people who claim body positivity to advance their own status, while cherry-picking its tenets and leaving behind — or being outright harmful toward — people more vulnerable and underrepresented than themselves. The truth is, actual body positivity isn't reserved for people under a certain size, or people who eat or exercise a certain way. It's not just for hourglass-shaped people, or people with light skin, or people who fit neatly into hetero- or cisnormative boxes, or people who walk without a cane, or people who walk at all.

It's "body positivity" — not "only my body positivity," not "bodies like mine positivity," not "bodies that given my social conditioning I'm immediately 100% comfortable with positivity." Actual body positivity includes everyone. Challenging? Sure; it sucks being confronted with your biases. But that's what it is. Anything else is simply a parroted acknowledgement of the recent, very slight broadening of beauty standards in media, wrapped in a brilliantly marketable and of-the-moment bow.

Body positivity is necessary, in part, to combat industries that profit off our insecurities.

It's no mistake that the people we see in most media look the way they do. Even if you're a cis, white, or light-skinned, non-disabled woman with conventionally "attractive" features and a slim (but of course, not "too slim," because that's apparently a problem too) figure, you'll never be able to achieve what Victoria's Secret does by retouching, because even those models don't actually have all the qualities you end up seeing on billboards and in catalogs.

But because we're inundated with those images from a young age, we tend to internalize them as real, attainable, and the only way to be "right" — and spend a ton of money in the hopes of re-creating such a look. This is, of course, to the benefit of the diet industry, plastic surgeons, franchises like The Biggest Loser, and others.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look "good"; just make sure it's your own version of "good" and not someone else's, because that someone else is making a mint off you.

But the concept is also exploited by some of those industries.

Aerie made a very public pledge to stop retouching its models, continued using almost exclusively young, white, model-thin women in its ads, and watched its sales increase by 20%. The cover of Glamour's recent "Chic at Any Size" issue name-dropped exclusively white, non-disabled, cis celebrity women who are just slightly larger than their peers (including Amy Schumer, who at a size 6 is smaller than the average American woman), and was part of what's sure to be a lucrative collaboration with Lane Bryant. Brands like Nike and publications like Sports Illustrated have also gotten great press for being very slightly more inclusive, but only to an extent they know most people will be able to stomach. Case in point: H&M, like Glamour and SI, tapped Ashley Graham (who, though technically a plus-size and therefore "diverse" model, is conventionally gorgeous, light-skinned, and hourglass-shaped) for a recent campaign — before pulling plus-size clothing from its stores entirely.

I have written about some of these things. I used to get excited about them, and still do to a point, since any scrap of representation is important to someone. But now I realize that until such brands regularly incorporate larger models, models deviating from an hourglass shape, models of different skin tones and genders, and models with disabilities into their advertising — and actually provide products and services for those people — they're probably just hoping for some press.

Body-shaming is off 👏 the 👏 table 👏.

You can try to lead a body-positive life and still have days where you don't feel great about your own body. You can't lead a body-positive life and shit all over others.

This means not praising your own "bass" by insulting "skinny bitches." It means not shouting as loudly (literally or otherwise) how "concerned" you are about someone's "health" when you don't know them from Adam, or challenging a body-shamer with a line like, "I wouldn't be talking if I looked like you." It means not calling an athlete like Ronda Rousey "too muscly," but it also means not responding to criticism, as Rousey did, by insulting other kinds of bodies. And it means calling it out when you see other people doing it, too. You catch my drift?

Body-shaming is never acceptable, no matter how the recipient looks or acts. And for goodness' sake, if you want to verbally spank a body-shamer, shame their seriously bad character instead.

But also, not all shaming is created equal.

Let me be doubly clear on this: Body-shaming is never acceptable.

Okay, great. Now that that's out of the way, it's important to understand how shaming and stigma manifest differently around different kinds of bodies. For example, thin people may receive insults and even concern-trolling (i.e., "Eat a sandwich!"), while larger people receive those things as well as facing assumptions of moral failure (gluttony, laziness, stupidity, etc.), discriminatory employment and labor practices, and frequent prejudice and even refusal of treatment from doctors. People with illnesses and disabilities face similar structural issues and assumptions, not to mention the simple lack of accessibility in many parts of the world (you can read more about that here).

Even within the spectrum of marginalized bodies, some are more privileged than others. For instance, clothing is more readily available for a size 12 than a size 24, and for a size 24 than a size 32, and the idea of the "right" way to carry fat (read: an hourglass figure, not an "apple shape") is so pervasive that San Francisco's employment laws stipulate that not only can employers not discriminate based on weight, but also on how said weight is distributed. Fascinating, huh? Well, fascinating and enraging.

The first step to "recovery" is admitting you have a problem.

Want to better understand the dynamics discussed above? Think about the differences, if any, in your reaction to seeing a thin person eat pizza vs. seeing a fat person eat pizza. Or consider how, while a fat person in sweatpants and a T-shirt remains the archetypal "slob," consumers signal their approval of the same look on thin bodies by buying feverishly into the athleisure trend (which, in line with the industry's projected value of $100 billion by 2020, an increasing number of brands seem to recognize as profitable by the day).

Don't be afraid to sit quietly and think about your instinctive reaction to the different people in these scenarios. If your gut feeling about people engaging in the same behavior changes based on their size or shape, be honest with yourself. You have been taught to make these assumptions, and you have the capacity to question those assumptions too.

Not body-shaming ≠ not having thoughtful conversations with your loved ones.

While I'm never going to believe that random loudmouth (or keyboard) strangers give a shit about the "health" of people they don't know, it's obvious that we all worry about the people we do know and love. If you're legitimately concerned about the well-being of a family member or close friend based on their size or behaviors assumed to be associated with size — not just itching to criticize their appearance — you can compassionately state your concerns, ask if they're okay, and volunteer your help if they want it.

This stuff is not all for the purpose of "political correctness" or "censorship"; it simply requires a mature-adult amount of nuance. Talk to the people you love. Make it clear how much they actually mean to you. Listen to what they say. True caring requires that kind of intimacy.

And you don't have to be attracted to everybody.

Sometimes I think people are so reluctant to embrace body positivity because they're afraid, even if they don't realize it, that they'll somehow get led into a trap where they have to fuck people they're not into. But since body positivity is about working toward equity for different kinds of bodies, and about people taking ownership of their own bodies, its principles actually empower people to voice consent (or lack thereof), should they be in a situation that warrants it.

(Which is a totally different thing than loudly proclaiming what you're not attracted to outside of such a situation, or shaming other people for what they're into. Hint: Nobody cares!)

Bottom line: You can treat people with sensitivity and respect even if you're not attracted to them, and anyone who attempts to pressure you into romantic or sexual activity under the guise of supposed "body positivity" is wrong, to say the least. And to say more, is an asshole.

Though TBH, you should maybe think about why you like who you like.

If you're exclusively or primarily attracted to, say, white, cis dudes over 6 feet tall and under 250 pounds who don't have disabilities, that's your right (although, again, please don't make a whole thing of it). While you can't necessarily "reprogram" yourself to be attracted to a wider range of people, though, it's important to examine whether your preferences are a result of nefarious social conditioning. Are you truly personally not attracted to women with armpit hair, or have you just internalized razor companies' messages that women aren't supposed to have armpit hair?

The beauty of putting body positivity into practice is it encourages you to understand that you have options instead of imperatives, so you can figure out the things you actually want rather than just what you're supposed to want. And who knows? Questioning what you've previously thought to be objectively true might open the doors to some amazing, sexy people.

Finally, know that language around bodies is complicated, and do your best.

When some people use the word "health," they actually mean thinness. When others use it, they take into account that a) you can't tell how healthy someone is simply by looking at them, and b) mental well-being, which is a huge part of health, can be negatively affected by personal and societal messages about what bodies "should" be.

Similarly, "curvy" is an empowering word for a lot of people, while others prefer straight-up "fat" — but either way, people's descriptors are theirs to decide.

You're not always going to be perfect with this stuff; nobody is. But offer other people the respect that you'd like to receive, make an earnest attempt to educate yourself and learn from your mistakes, and you'll be fine. That's all anyone can ask of you.

Ultimately, bodily autonomy is key.

Key for yourself, but not only for yourself. Body positivity is about working toward a world where everyone can live in their bodies as they please while receiving the same respect, representation, and opportunities as everyone else. So explore why you feel the way you do about your body, decide based on those factors what the correct decisions are for you, and be kind and empathetic toward — and consistent in your defense of — other bodies, and you're off to a good start.

Further reading:

This is by no means a comprehensive account of all the aspects and considerations of body positivity. But if what you've read above strikes a chord, you may want to check out more writing on the topic from these awesome places:

Black Girl Dangerous

The Body Is Not An Apology

The Establishment

Everyday Feminism

Wear Your Voice Mag