18 May 2024

When body positivity becomes problematic

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 18 May 2024

The body positivity movement started off as a counter to skinny culture, but it's gone down a social media rabbit hole. Some aspects of it are now sending out dangerous messages

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Photo: 123rf

Forget thin is in, apparently now bigger is better... or is it?

After over a decade of body positivity, girls, teens and women are even more confused about what body positivity actually is.

The movement began with women confronting unrealistic expectations of how their bodies should look. 

But sub-strands of the movement have muddied the waters and mystified the initial message of the acceptance of bodies no matter what the size, and self-love.

On top of that, unrealistic beauty standards the movement intended to get rid of, still exist.

Hannah Tunnicliffe is an author specialising in body acceptance, eating disorder recovery and mental health. 

She thinks progress has been minimal.

"I have three daughters, and there's a lot of pressure on them to have beautiful eyelashes, big round bums, and really there's still that pressure to be thin and have that certain look," she says.

Kate Manne is an associate professor in philosophy at Cornell University in New York, she's also critical about where the movement has ended up. 

"I think that for a lot of people it's lost its radical roots... it has become to some extent a matter of often centering thin white bodies who are celebrating a mere roll of flesh or a couple of stretch marks. It doesn't always end up centering the bodies that the movement was designed to centre," she says.

While Manne agrees that all bodies should be accepted and treated positively, she argues the movement intended to centre those who have been historically devalued because of the way they look.

"It's true that we can say that we should be positive about all bodies, but that ends up being a little bit like the phrase 'all lives matter'. No one doubts that all lives matter, the thing is that when someone points out that certain bodies are devalued or subject to aesthetic derogation, it's trying to highlight particular forms of marginalisation that deserve to be centered in political movements," she says.

While some of the narratives which have sprouted out of the body positivity movement, like health at every size (HAES for short) and fat activism carry positive elements, there are some at the more extreme end which health professionals say are potentially harmful. 

Some HAES influencers for example say obesity is not dangerous, weight loss is scientifically impossible and those who do succeed with it are engaging in disordered eating behaviour and extreme amounts of exercise.

Registered doctors and dieticians have been quick to counter these claims, accusing those involved of manipulating scientific research to validate their personal bias. 

The Detail also looks at how the rapid rise of social media has influenced the movement.
Former post graduate student Portia Campbell did her masters on the way millennial women make sense of body positive content on Instagram.

Despite Instagram claiming that giving greater diversity of body shapes and sizes would make people feel more positive about their own physique, it actually does the opposite.

"You're standing in the line, waiting for a coffee, you're scrolling Instagram, and you're exposed to 100 bodies in the space of two minutes ... the way that content is created, reproduced and distributed now means that there millions of opportunities for that problematic looking," she says.

Campbell also touches on self-comparison which she says is actually an innate human trait. She explains it's the way people make sense of the world and where we fit.

"I'm a wife, I'm a daughter, I'm a sister. I am those descriptors because of my relations to other people," she explains.

Campbell says where it becomes an issue is when it starts to make you feel not great about yourself.

Regarding the way body positivity has evolved she says that telling everyone they have to appreciate their body no matter what also doesn't gel with the movement's initial intentions.

"Its origins were about the acceptance of bodies and self-love, and the rejection of societal standards of accepted beauty, and I think that feels like a more inclusive position to take," she says.

"If you say that you must feel positive about your body, that's layered with feelings of guilt if you don't. I don't think anyone should tell you how you feel about your body. Often your relationship with your body changes as your body changes. As you get older and you go through life stages your body changes and that's a really personal journey and experience."

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