Body negativity: The body positivity movement’s trajectory into toxicity

Supporters of body positivity emphasize the importance of loving your body. Graphic by Haley Morkert.


The body positivity movement has gained a lot of traction over the past few years. As opposed to merely coming to terms with one’s body, the body positivity movement emphasizes totally loving and accepting every aspect of one’s body. 

The body positivity movement finds its origins within the fat acceptance movement of the mid-to-late 20th century. The early movement focused on creating spaces for plus-sized people to unapologetically live their lives without facing bias. In 1967, a group of people in New York City gathered to protest against the discriminatory bias that fat people faced. The Fat Underground was a radical organization that was also closely associated with LGBTQ+ activism that strongly advocated for fat rights and acceptance. 

It should be noted, however, that the early fat activism of the 1960s and 1970s was not inclusive of people of color, Black people in particular. As the fat acceptance movement continued to advance, it contributed to the formation of the contemporary body positivity movement. In its most modern form, body positivity is focused on loving one’s body unconditionally. It emphasizes the idea that all bodies are beautiful, and that this aesthetic value is the basis for the worth of a person and their body. Beauty and value are correlated, which sets the stage for some potentially dangerous beliefs. 

However, body positivity is not the only body-related movement that exists. Body neutrality, a somewhat newer approach regarding one’s body, is a movement that focuses on accepting one’s body for what it is and what it can do. Beauty is not the center of this movement. It prioritizes the body in all its glory, but for its functional value, rather than its potential aesthetic value. Where the body positivity movement emphasizes aesthetic value, body neutrality emphasizes functional value. 

Sophomore biology major Jocelyn Roman believes that although the two movements differ in some ways, they are ultimately connected.

“I see body positivity as a journey to body neutrality,” Roman said. 

Body neutrality strives to highlight the importance of the functionality of our bodies. The insecurities someone might have are not ignored, but the focus is taken away from those insecurities. It advocates for learning to accept oneself for who one truly is, regardless of society’s standards and perceptions of beauty. By taking a more neutral approach, attractiveness and beauty are decentered, which I believe ultimately leads to a better focus on one’s health, both physically and mentally. It prioritizes the importance of the body because it exists, and not because it is perceived as attractive. 

The idea of focusing on the functionality of the body is scientifically supported as well, since a study conducted in 2018 showed that people that engaged in exercise while focusing on the functions of their bodies, as opposed to focusing on their looks, found greater satisfaction from the exercise.

Modern body positivity’s aesthetic focus and positive outlook can undoubtedly provide many people with benefits. It allows people to find a sense of love and care for themselves that they previously may not have been able to exhibit. But the body positivity movement should not have to be the standard for everyone’s personal perceptions of their own bodies. Even with the benefits the movement provides, there are still potential negative aspects of the movement. 

Roman mentioned that one big issue with the body positivity movement was that it did not provide a space for those who are disabled. 

“When you think about body positivity, you’re always imagining people of different [racial and ethnic] backgrounds, and that’s about it,” Roman said. “[We don’t really consider] how able-bodied [people are centered] … I feel like that’s where it lacks.”

Sophomore computer science major Alea Alvi shared their thoughts with respect to inclusivity within the body positivity movement, especially with respect to ableism. 

“I’ve seen a lot of ableism in the body positivity movement,” Alvi said. “[People are] completely ignoring or actively discounting stories of disabled people … The overall movement is very [welcoming], but there are still aspects that it’s really lacking.”

Inclusivity within a movement that aims to be all-inclusive seems to be very common, especially with respect to those with disabilities. The body positivity movement should provide support for people regardless of how able-bodied they are. Ensuring that people who are disabled are fully supported and accepted is critical to creating a healthy and truly positive movement. Ableism is not the only issue that exists within the body positivity movement, however, as not all genders are fully included. 

Haley Harper, a sophomore music education and flute performance major, also spoke on her thoughts on the lack of inclusivity within the movement, especially with respect to gender.

“There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in that movement,” Harper said. “It’s mainly white women … and men and male-identifying people are not always included in that, because the pressure is mainly on women. But, I think that guys do struggle … I know a lot of the body positivity things I see online are mainly white women, and I think that that is obviously an issue. [We should expand the body positivity movement] across all cultures, all races and ethnicities.” 

A movement that claims to emphasize the importance of loving one’s body ought to be thoroughly inclusive. Bodies exist in a multitude of ways, and there should be no reason for only certain body types or demographics to be supported by body positivity, while other groups are not. The body positivity movement seems to embrace all backgrounds and demographics, but this is not the case. 

As inclusive as the body positivity movement may seem, there is still much room for improvement. There has not always been a space within the body positivity movement for people of color, people part of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities. Body positivity should support all types of bodies. In order for the body positivity movement to thrive and provide genuine support and benefit to people, it must be all encompassing. The movement cannot afford to focus solely on certain demographics. 

Alvi also brought up a very important aspect of their identity that they felt that the body positivity movement did not fully encompass. Alvi’s experiences as an autistic person and someone with body dysmorphia have made inclusivity inaccessible. 

“As someone who is autistic myself … it’s like people [think that] ‘autism’ [is] a bad word,” Alvi said. “Autism and dysmorphia [are two] aspects of the body positivity movement [that] are really stigmatized. I’ve been really happy to see my friends positively impacted by the body positivity movement, but I myself haven’t had the same experience, and that sucks.”

Body dysmorphia is a condition characterized by extreme anxiety surrounding one’s body and appearance. Body positivity has the potential to provide a lot of benefit for people who experience deeply negative thoughts about their bodies. However, as Alvi has mentioned, inclusivity within the body positivity movement has not been the best for people with body dysmorphia. Through an email, Alvi explained that one particular aspect of the body positivity movement that was an issue for them was how the voices of people experiencing body dysphoria were often silenced or shut down. It is tough for Alvi to see body positive content with respect to all of their identities.

Alvi has also noticed that a common phenomenon with respect to body positivity is the idea that body positivity exists “in your head”, and for someone with an invisible disability, that sentiment is not inclusive. Alvi’s dysphoria exists within their head, which can make it tough to advocate effectively. These non inclusive aspects of body positivity contribute to the movement’s 

Although social media has provided many body positive content creators with an online space, it is still crucial to be mindful of the potentially toxic content that is available on social media. For instance, the origins of body positivity are strongly connected to fat rights activism, but the modern manifestations of the movement, especially on social media, have deviated from the primary beliefs of fat rights activism in a few ways. The activism of the mid-to-late 20th century radically focused on the acceptance of plus-sized people within society, but the body positivity of today is no longer centered around this. 

Considering the damaging aspects of body positivity, body neutrality functions as a good alternative. Where modern body positivity is focused on the aesthetic appeal of the body and finding love for oneself based on that, body neutrality is dedicated to appreciating the body for what it is and what it is able to do. This mindset can prove to be beneficial for a lot of people, since aesthetic value is no longer the center of the conversation. 

A large amount of the body positive content that is posted on social media today is also less focused on fat acceptance. There are a plethora of body positive influencers that post content related to accepting and loving one’s body, but many have pointed out that the most popular of these influencers are typically not plus-sized or fat. Would these influencers be as popular if they were plus-sized?

Everyone, regardless of body type, should be able to participate in body positivity if they desire to do so. It is important, however, that a movement that aims to advocate for a certain group of people actually has that same group of people at its forefront. When the allies of the movement are at the center, the focus is shifted. fat acceptance activism centered on the struggles of plus-sized people. Body positivity, a movement that originated from the fat acceptance movement and claims to support and accept plus-sized people, often does not focus on plus-sized people, especially on social media. A movement that was once focused on advocating for the acceptance of fat people no longer has fat people at the forefront. 

The modern body positivity movement is unfortunately not everything that it claims to be, but body neutrality can serve as an alternative for a lot of people. Whether one believes that the ultimate goal should be accepting one’s body or loving it unconditionally, it is undeniably important to be grateful for one’s body. 

Bodies should not have to be regarded as beautiful, or regarded positively in any shape or form, in order to be tolerated by society. Flaws and insecurities do not need to carry a positive connotation. When existing in a society where aesthetic beauty reigns supreme, taking a neutral stance means standing up to flawed beauty standards. A body should not have to be considered beautiful in order to be accepted by society; existence is proof enough that your body is important.


Related posts