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Has body positivity gone toxic? A few thoughts and suggestions.

Is body positivity in its current incarnation really all that positive or is it time to move on?

By Aurelie | 28 March 2021
The back of two women's body showing their body curves and curly hair

It started out strong: we met, we fell in love, we embraced that love on social media with all the right content… And then we started questioning if this was working so well for us after all. Were we in it for the right reasons? Were we getting enough out of it? Like many one-sided relationships, our journey through #bodypositivity has been conflicted and complex. And so we were left to wonder: is body positivity in its current incarnation really all that positive or is it time to move on?

Body positivity: how it started vs how it’s going

From liberation…

In the beginning was a desire to build a community based on listening, supporting and providing resources with a view to break away from mainstream sociocultural representations and how they impact our often conflicted relationships with our bodies. Before #bodypositivity came about, the movement was known as The Body Positive. Co-founded by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott in 1996, it echoed the “body positive” message also relayed by Debby Burgard in the mid-90s. At the time, body positivity was all about embracing “a way of living that gives [us] permission to love, care for, and take pleasure in [our] body throughout [our] lifespan.” The end-goal of body positivity was “to find what you need to live with as much self-love and balanced self-care as possible”. In its initial iteration, body positivity was deeply rooted in fat acceptance, a movement started in the 1960s to provide visibility and strive to achieve fair treatment and equal access to opportunities by fighting discrimination in public spaces, in the workplace and doctor’s offices. The very existence of body positivity suggests a logical counterpart, also known as body negativity. While there are a number of factors to explain our contemporary tendency to develop negative body images, there is no denying the extent to which mainstream media platforms have made an impact. Unrealistic standards generate a sense of inadequacy related to lack of representation; in turn, this lack of representation generates the internalisation of those unrealistic standards; eventually, this internalisation process further fuels our dissatisfaction with our appearance. While we are well aware of those dynamics, awareness isn’t quite enough to escape the system. This is when body positivity comes into play. In the minds of those who started it, the movement was meant to follow a grassroots approach based on the work of body positive leaders and groups in schools, universities and other local communities. In its current state however, body positivity seems to be almost exclusively experienced through the lens of social media and marketing campaigns.

… to appropriation.

Lizzo said it in a Vogue interview, and others have said it before her: body positivity has been appropriated, and in doing so has lost its intended purpose. Amongst those voices, journalist Bethany Rutter reflected on this loss of meaning in a piece penned for Dazed Digital, one in which she identified what she coined as Socially Acceptable Body Positivity; through that term, she identified the specific kind of body positivity practiced by the brands and influencers who preach it for questionable reasons, mainly in a bid to sell albeit with a good conscience. Beyond the obvious cynicism, Rutter points out how “health” is being used as a discriminating factor against the very people it was meant to embrace; positivity became a privilege to be earned by bodies not deemed as too overweight and therefore “unhealthy” to deserve such exposure. What #bodypositivity came to embrace was in fact a host of mostly white, somewhat chubby, predominantly cisgender, almost always able bodies, at times attached with “imperfect” features, such as the odd stretch mark or light cellulite. The blatant lack of diversity and alienation of those who might benefit from it the most seemed lost on some of its most visible advocates.

In praise of body neutrality

Why are we going #bodyneutral?

While body neutrality has been around for a few years, the need for an alternative to the largely diversity-blind body positive movement is making it more relevant than ever. What body neutrality strives to achieve is to place the focus off the way our bodies look in order to pay more attention to everything they can (or cannot) do. Rather than a currency, the body is treated as a vehicle, one we should treat with care without thinking about they way it looks, be it “good” or “bad”. The energy we put into self-consciousness and self-criticism is considerable, not to mention the undeniably detrimental effect on mental health. What body neutrality advocates understand about our current beauty standards, however “diverse” they might claim to be, is that only be eradicating them altogether can we view ourselves without the burden of superficial self-satisfaction. By dropping the standards, we de facto drop the act, the one that would have us rave about how much we adore our bodies, that is if our voice is being heard at all. Ironically, the repeated injunctions to love ourselves might in fact be some of the biggest obstacles to actually achieving self-love.

Moving away from aesthetics: in praise of self-love

Body neutrality suggests alternative ways to approach and appreciate our bodies, mostly based on feeling healthy and generally good. While healthy belongs on a large spectrum and good is a highly subjective notion, a body neutral practice is rooted in daily rituals that stimulate and inspire. A body neutral approach shifts the focus away from how our actions may affect our appearance to focus on the sensations they give us; this can be implemented to redefine our relationship to everything from the food we eat to the skincare we layer on. In a bid to reclaim our bodies for how they make us feel rather than how they look, a strong sexual wellness routine can be infinitely valuable. This is about exploring everything bodies do for us and few things can match an orgasm or everything that builds up to it. Will masturbating make us instantly love our bodies? Probably not. Will it make us appreciate them to the point of thinking beyond their appearance and projected image? Most definitely.
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