Stroll through just about any mall or browse a fashion-oriented social media site and you'll find many examples of the movement toward "body positivity." The concept behind the movement is simple: Love yourself no matter what shape or size your body happens to be. The goal is to encourage self-esteem and self-acceptance among those of us (virtually all of us) who don't meet the cultural idea of the perfect physique.
Body positivity is a good thing. For decades, ads and movies have brainwashed people to believe that female beauty is embodied by impossibly-thin, unsmiling waifs, while the perfect male has a perennial two-day beard, massive lats, and a 25-inch waist. Why do so many people fall prey to everything from bulimia to narcissism as they chase these unreal images of beauty? Why do Americans spend more than $66 billion a year trying to get unnaturally thin? Because these are the body images that pop up every time we turn on the television, go to a movie, or browse fashion sites. Surely it's time for people to reject these unreal, unattainable beauty standards.
Although, maybe there's something to be said for society establishing models of what it looks like to be healthy. Maybe we've just picked the wrong models.
Loving Ourselves to Death
Before you choose sides in this highly charged debate (I can imagine the Comments section already), hear me out.
A recent study published in the journal Obesity shows that the number of overweight people who misperceive their weight has increased dramatically in recent years (the number of men underestimating their size has nearly doubled since 1997). This is not good news. If you don't view yourself as overweight, you may not take steps to get into better shape.
Being overweight can lead to some very real—and often very serious—health issues. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, carrying around excess body fat can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, fatty liver disease, kidney disease, and pregnancy problems.
Obese people also have a greater tendency to be depressed. A study on morbid obesity and depression that appeared in the American Journal of Epidemiology indicates that people who are morbidly obese are five times more likely to be depressed than those who are not obese.
While many people conjure up the image of a jolly, portly Santa Claus, there is nothing funny about the very real impact excess body fat can have on the lives of those who carry it. Is it right to just turn a blind eye as more and more overweight Americans—along with their counterparts in just about every country on earth—expose themselves to increasing risk of disease and discrimination? Is it right for obesity to become just another "lifestyle"?
Saner voices in society have spoken up for years to argue that being runway-model thin is not healthy. Does discouraging people from starving themselves amount to a form of body shaming, or is it simply advocating for better health? Should these same voices say the same thing about being overweight? Where does being "body positive" end and advocating for better health begin?
Follow the Money
Clearly, people who have been shamed for being "too fat" or "too thin" have every right to stand up for themselves, to demand the right to be accepted for who they are, not what they look like. But there is a commercial side to it as well. Increasingly, consumers are demanding that clothes be available in plus sizes, and the market is responding.
Target has stated that it is doubling the number of stores offering a broader range of plus-sized selections, with brands such as Nordstrom, REI, and Nike following suit. These retailers are marketing "bigger bottoms" in the form of yoga pants, "wide-cut" jeans, and new stretchy fabrics.
No one disputes the fact that consumers should have access to clothes in which they feel comfortable. An unanswered question, however, is whether this trend will encourage weight gain—or at least minimize the need to maintain a healthy body weight—at a societal level.
A recent report from Coresight Research indicates that the plus-size market, currently valued at about $46 billion per year, is growing faster than the overall fashion market. Acceptance of larger bodies has certainly proven to be good for business.
Discrimination in the Job Market
This is not to say the body positive movement is just a front for commercial interests. No one wins when individuals experience everything from extreme guilt to size discrimination.
And such discrimination is real. Data shows that only 15 percent of hiring managers are willing to offer an obese woman a job, even when she has the same or better experience as other applicants. Even if the woman sees the bias directed against her, there is little she can do about it: Weight is not a protected hiring status under federal or state law.
And when "very heavy" women do get hired, they are typically paid dramatically less than their "very thin" peers.
Saving Our Future Selves
The animated movie "Wall-E" portrays a dystopian society in which people are so overweight they move about using computer-controlled floating chairs. Their lives are limited to watching television and gobbling up an endless stream of food and drink, with no other apparent purpose in life other than to consume.
"Wall-E" isn't the first fictionalized attempt to take current lifestyle habits to their logical conclusions. It may, however, be the first time these dire predictions are softened by those who say that it's perfectly acceptable to feel positive about whatever body type you have.
Beauty is—or should be—in the eye of the beholder. The body positivity movement seeks to expand the social definition of beauty, and that's a good thing. The downside is that it makes it acceptable to have a higher-than-healthy body fat percentage, even though being overweight should be no more desirable than being underweight.
What if, instead of fixating on someone's "look," we as a society focused on their health? What if we promoted images of healthy, fit people—people who come in a variety of shapes and sizes—while underplaying those at the ends of the spectrum? Because the truth is that the more you approach these ends—the skinnier or the heavier you become—the more you put your health and quality of life at risk.
Choose to Be Healthy
This is not to say we shouldn't all be free to celebrate ourselves just as we are. After all, there is no perfect body, only bodies determined largely by the DNA inherited from our parents and ancestors. We do, however, have some say in the matter.
For a large majority of people, the better food choices you make and the more physically active you are, the more fully you're able to share your life with the people you love. Your choices affect how active you can be—whether you can play on the rug with your kids or grandkids, or whether you have the energy and stamina to go for a walk, run, or bike ride. Exercising and eating well are just small sacrifices we make to enjoy life at a deeper, more physical, and more satisfying level.
So, go ahead and feel positive about your body. Just be sure to do all you can to keep it healthy, too.
- Muttarak, R. (2018). Normalization of plus size and the danger of unseen overweight and obesity in England. Obesity, 26(7), 1125-1129.
- Roberts, R. E., Kaplan, G. A., Shema, S. J., & Strawbridge, W. J. (2000). Are the obese at greater risk for depression? American Journal of Epidemiology, 152(2), 163-170.
- Shinall, J. (2015). Occupational characteristics and the obesity wage penalty.
- Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The benefits of exercise for the clinically depressed. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 6(3), 104