Over the years I’ve been on Instagram in various forms I’ve witnessed the divide created in response to the term ‘body positivity’. I see this as quite a natural response – we’re not used to asking people the definition of terms they are using. Our brain makes assumptions because it’s a power saving move – if we had to check the understanding we each had of words we used throughout the day, we’d get nothing done. With this specific term however, we need to enquire further because it’s not a simple term despite it appearing that way on the surface.
The most common interpretation (not the original meaning) of this term is that body positivity simply means – be positive, feel positive about your body, in your body. It’s an easy, surface reading of the term. That it’s a term all people can claim in all bodies, and it doesn’t have any social or political roots. Many like this definition because it’s a break from all the ways they have been told that they need to change their body or keep it ‘in control’. Some even use it as an approach to health, in that they ‘treat their body with positivity’ – and whatever they subjectively associate positively to health – including diets or lifestyle changes, meaning it’s a part of their body positivity. Social media tends to use this term for individualist health-based posts, fitspo etc and marketing in wellness spaces.
However, the original creation of this term, is decades old – it precedes social media, and arguably the internet. Body positivity is a socio-political term and name of a movement. It comes from appearance, disability and fat activism. It is a word that many have fought to claim as a group identity for individuals who do not ‘fit’ the dominant anglo-eurocentric cultural message that bodies are to be ‘able, thin/smaller (fem), muscular/big (masc), white, heterosexual, conventionally attractive’. The term is not a health approach – it is not for or against ‘health’ – however, it’s does provide commentary from a sociological and anthropological perspective about how ‘health and wellness’ is framed in cultures, including our own. When it is referred to in the original meaning, it’s talking about a social movement for marginalised bodies. Those who are in bodies which are marginalised typically experience disadvantage, discrimination, stigma on a social levels which impact access to health care, opportunities for employment, education etc – all on the basis of the way their body appears and what that ‘means’ about them. Many of these bodies are either not shown in the media or are shown through a negative lens – e.g. sick, unhealthy, in need of help, helpless, hopeless, and/or a deviant in society due to stereotypes.
What are my thoughts on the divide, what does it all boil down to and what do we do?
When those who understand and use the original term, see individuals using a term with a surface reading – if you have read the above – you can get an idea of why there is conflict. Let’s use an analogy from sexuality and gender – imagine if someone who once had a thought that someone of the same gender was ‘pretty or hot’, yet identifies as heterosexual and gender conforming, and then they wanted to identify as LGBTQIA+…can you imagine how that would go down? This person can be an ally, but not a member of that group identity as it’s disrespectful to those who need the group.
There are individuals and populations of people who need the term ‘body positivity’ and need its social and political roots to fight for their human rights – rights to not be discriminated against on body size, ability or appearance. So they have equal access to employment. So they can gain entry into their chosen field of education without their intellect being called upon. So they can go to the Dr and receive healthcare that's free of cultural bias. There is conflict because there are individuals who use the term without consideration for the actual meaning of it – this is called co-opting a term.
You are not a bad person if you have co-opted the term. You’re okay, you haven’t committed a crime. You do have a social responsibility, though, to keep learning, and reconsider the terms you use. If you are in a body that is be ‘able, thin/smaller (fem), muscular/big (masc), white, heterosexual, conventionally attractive’ (body privilege) – you can be an ally of this movement. If you are an ally, you have a responsibility as well – to talk about these issues and to raise the voices of those who aren’t listened to or seen visually, for starters. It doesn’t mean you can’t feel positive about your body – it means the term is already taken.
Some people who discover these deeper roots and realise the harm they are doing by declaring themselves a member of body positivity when their body isn’t marginalised socially, have started to use the term ‘self-love’, or ‘body love’ or ‘body peace’ – there are many other words you can use. It can be hard to give up this term too because we all want to feel accepted, and have our bodies be accepted. Giving up this term, doesn’t make your body wrong, doesn’t make your feelings about your body wrong, doesn’t discount or remove your hardships in your body – it’s a socio-political term for marginalised bodies who need group identity, it’s not about you as an individual and what you can and can’t have to feel okay about your body and self.