When social media created a space for body positivity, I thought, “This could be good. We might be considered worthy, stop being ignored in line, and publicly disparaged!”Suddenly, women of all shapes, sizes, and colors danced in soap and underwear ads.
But I didn’t feel healthy. I couldn’t get out of bed most days. My body ached. Depression and anxiety were my closest friends, and I had let them rule the roost. I was 125 pounds overweight, and my glucose levels were high.
As an educational psychologist, I focus on public health education, behavior change, motivation, and assisting communities in reaching mental and physical health goals.
Body Image and the Body Positive Movement
Societal pressure to conform to beauty standards, past experiences of body shaming or bullying, and negative self-talk can contribute to negative body image. Having a positive body image means you like how you look.
Body positive is different from positive body image. Body positivity is a social movement that advocates accepting all body types, regardless of size, shape, or appearance. It encourages us to embrace our bodies, love ourselves, and challenge societal norms around beauty standards.
The body-positive movement emerged in the 1960s as part of the larger feminist movement, challenging the cultural idealization of thinness and promoting body acceptance regardless of size, shape, or appearance. The movement gained momentum in the 1990s with the publication of Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, which exposed the oppressive and unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women by the media and beauty industry.
Since then, the movement has expanded to encompass a diverse range of body types and identities, with social media playing a crucial role in amplifying voices and promoting body positivity. While the movement has made significant strides in promoting self-love and acceptance, society must continue to address the systemic discrimination and stigma individuals who do not fit traditional beauty standards face.
As someone who has struggled with the stigma of living in a thin-obsessed society, I can attest to some of body positivity's power. On the one hand, it has helped me counteract harmful beauty standards. I feel more confident and accepting of my body, and appreciate myself for whom I am rather than constantly striving to meet unattainable beauty standards.
On the other hand, this movement may have had a few negative side effects. Focusing on my body, whether positive or negative, still encourages a focus on my appearance and not my health and well-being. I have accepted unhealthy behaviors or even dismissed serious health concerns. I know because I sat in bed rationalizing how I should love myself the way I am. But it didn’t feel like I loved myself as well as I could.
Expert summary: Body image and body positive are different. It helps to understand that body image is how you feel about yourself, and body-positive is a social movement.
How I practice: I accept elements of body-positive messaging, like not giving into societal beauty standards. But I strive for mental and physical wellness.
Body Positive vs. Body Negative vs. Body Neutral
We can compare body positive with body-negative and body-neutral attitudes. Body negativity is disliking one's body and criticizing how it looks. In contrast, body-neutral attitudes involve being indifferent toward appearance. Body neutral focuses on accepting and appreciating the body for what it can do and how it functions rather than how it looks. Body positive promotes a third option: People embrace all bodies, including their own, and appreciate their unique qualities.
There may be some potential negative consequences of body positivity. As I said earlier, we should accept all bodies, but that does not mean all bodies are healthy. I admit I used body positivity as an excuse to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as overeating and avoiding exercise. Also, some body-positive messages don’t improve our body image.
What do mental health experts think?
Body Respect authors Linda Bacon, Ph.D., and Lucy Aphramor, Ph.D. and RD, suggest that promoting weight loss to become healthier can lead to weight stigma, disordered eating, and negative impacts on mental health.
Mental health experts agree that appreciating how the body functions may prevent and treat negative body image. Body appreciation is positively associated with self-esteem, self-compassion, and sexual satisfaction. A pilot study found that body neutrality was associated with lower body dissatisfaction, higher body appreciation, and greater well-being.
Overall, mental health experts recommend combining a bit of body positivity with body neutrality to improve mental health and well-being rather than focusing on weight loss to improve body image or achieve health. We can do this by:
eating nutritious meals to help our bodies function
not comparing our appearances to others
not being concerned with what size clothes we can fit into.
Some call this body-positive weight management.
Expert summary: Try to combine body-positive and body-neutral ideas to improve body image and achieve mental and physical health.
How I practice: I eat nutritious meals, don’t compare my appearance to others, and am not concerned with what size clothing I can fit into.
A Framework for the Middle Ground: Body-Positive Weight Management
Body-positive weight management involves healthy lifestyle changes while prioritizing self-love and acceptance. It's about recognizing that weight loss isn't the only measure of health or beauty and that each of our bodies is unique and deserving of love and acceptance. Here are my suggestions for how to do this:
Identify your goals. Set specific and realistic goals for your health and well-being. Consider short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals you want to achieve. When I started this journey in March 2022, I had 125 pounds to lose. I set a goal of 24 months. I map on my calendar where I want to be weekly (short-term), monthly (mid-term), and overall (long-term). It’s much easier to think about losing 1.5 pounds this week or 5 pounds this month than 125 pounds overall.
Create an action plan. Make a plan that details the actions you must take to accomplish your goals. This could include dietary changes, exercise routines, hiring a personal trainer for accountability, and self-care practices.
Start small. Focus on making small, achievable, sustainable lifestyle changes. This could mean incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet, walking daily, or practicing mindfulness for a few minutes daily.
Stay consistent.Consistency is key to making healthy lifestyle changes. Try to stick to your plan as closely as possible, and don't get discouraged if you experience setbacks or challenges. I have the word “Consistency” stenciled at the foot of my bed. I am mindful of my thoughts; if they aren’t consistent with my goals, I have to let them pass and not act on them.
Practice self-love. Self-care is a priority. It can be setting aside time for relaxation, engaging in activities that bring you joy, or seeking support from loved ones or a therapist. I like to get a massage every six weeks. It helps with muscle aches from exercise, and encourages me to relax. If that’s not something you can do, remember to engage in an enjoyable craft or activity that inspires flow and relaxation.
Celebrate your successes. Acknowledge and celebrate your successes along the way, no matter how small they may seem. This will help you stay motivated and inspired to progress toward your goals. I like to keep an eye on an inexpensive piece of workout clothing I’d like to fit in, and when I reach a mini-goal, I buy it.
Be patient and kind to yourself. Remember that change takes time, and it's okay to make mistakes or experience setbacks. Be patient and kind to yourself and focus on progress rather than perfection. If you wouldn’t say it to your child or best friend, don’t say it to yourself.
Following this body positive weight management framework with my doctors made me feel better mentally and physically within a week. Over the past year, I’ve cut back on anxiety and depression medication, felt less pain, eliminated my risk for diabetes, and lost 70 pounds. Mental and physical well-being is the prize. Weight loss is the gravy.
If you’d like individualized advice on reframing your thoughts about weight loss, sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer today.