Today, for every celebrity who’s advocating a diet pill, there’s another urging us to love ourselves exactly as we are.
From big brand campaigns to social media feeds, your screen is likely to be overflowing with affirmations designed to elevate your body image and self-esteem.
But with all the noise, sometimes the body positivity message can get muddled. Here, we discuss the concept and debunk some of the myths that have plagued the movement as it’s become more commercialised.
What is body positivity?
There are some body types and sizes that tend to better match society’s perception of the body beautiful. If we don’t fit the desired criteria, many of us put ourselves under pressure to change our bodies to fit the ideal.
This can be damaging for our mental health. It can also potentially lead to body dissatisfaction and an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise.1
The rise of body positivity calls for the acceptance of bodies in all shapes and sizes. It firmly rejects the idea that bodies must fit a certain mould to be considered attractive.
The body positivity movement has gained momentum in the past few years, but the origins of some of the core beliefs go back as far as fat activism in the late 1960s and 1970s in the US.2
What does body positivity really mean?
You’ll hear the phrase ‘body positivity’ everywhere. But despite its popular use, there can be some confusion around what body positivity really is.
As a result, it’s difficult to find a single, universally approved definition of what it means to have a positive body image, but the following aspects are commonly approved by supporters of the movement:
Common principles of body positivity
- Appreciate the unique aspects of your body, focusing on the positives rather than any perceived imperfections
- Observe your body with compassion and acceptance, rather than letting your appearance get you down
- Concentrate on appreciating your body for what it does rather than focusing on how it looks
- Instead of fixating on a single, beauty ideal, embrace a more diverse appreciation of what makes different bodies beautiful
Body positivity challenges some long-held beliefs about body image. As a result, it can attract controversy and is prone to misinterpretation. Unfortunately, this has caused some inaccurate myths to emerge surrounding body positivity and the intentions behind some campaigns championed by the movement.
Body positivity is NOT:
- An excuse to neglect taking care of yourself through diet and exercise.
- As simple as not hating your body.
- Being shallow or vain.
- About making judgments about others’ bodies to improve your own self-esteem.
- Adding #bodypositivity to a heavily filtered Instagram post showing you posing in a bikini.
Why is body positivity so important?
Every day you’ll probably come across something that could trigger doubts about your own physique. This can unearth feelings that your body isn’t good enough because it doesn’t meet society’s standards of attractiveness.
It could be a conversation with a friend about their weight loss intentions that changes how you perceive your waistline.
And then there’s the ongoing toll on your confidence of scrolling through all of those images of people with perfectly groomed eyebrows and flawless complexions on social media.
The impact this has on us was shown by a UK survey of 4,505 adults (age 18 plus) conducted by the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov in March 2019.3 Here are some of the findings:
- One in five adults admitted experiencing shame and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image
- A little more than one third said they felt anxiety or depression as a result of their poor body image
- 13% of adults went as far as to say they’d had suicidal thoughts or feelings provoked by concerns about their body image
In addition, further research by the Mental Health Foundation found that higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life and psychological distress.4
It also increases the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders. This supports the claims by body positive supporters than improving body satisfaction can lead to better overall wellbeing and reduces the likelihood of unhealthy dieting behaviours.
4 of the best body positivity quotes
"Even I don't wake up looking like Cindy Crawford." — Cindy Crawford
Obsessing over the idealistic beauty standards portrayed in some corners of the media can make you feel negatively about your own body.
However, the body positivity movement is starting to counteract this with more and more celebrities saying no to photoshopping.
We’re also seeing the mainstream media start to embrace more body diversity in the imagery they use.
"I don’t look in the mirror and go, ‘Oh, I look fantastic!’ Of course I don’t. Nobody is perfect. I just don’t believe in perfection. But I do believe in saying, ‘This is who I am and look at me not being perfect!’ I’m proud of that." — Kate Winslet
You don’t have to love everything about your body every single day.
Being body positive doesn’t mean you can’t feel unhappy with your body sometimes.
However, by recognising it’s natural to feel this way from time to time, you can deal with these moments with perspective and compassion.
Body positivity isn’t about forcefully suppressing any discontent with your appearance. Instead, it advocates not letting dissatisfaction overwhelm everything.
The important thing is to try to accept any negative emotions and not let them detract from your other priorities in life.
"I smile just as wide no matter my current size because I'm proud of what this body has seen and done and represented." — Lena Dunham
Instead of judging your body based on what you see in the mirror, recognise and applaud all the things that your body helps you to do.
This could be achieving fitness goals, growing a baby, enabling you to do the things you want to do, or see the people you love.
And then think of all the things you’d be missing out on if it wasn’t for your body.
“Stop trying to fix your body. It was never broken.” — Eve Ensler
You don’t need to change your appearance to become body positive.
There’s a misconception that the route to a more positive body image is to change something about yourself.
It could be to lose weight. Maybe to experiment with a new hair colour. Or do you believe overhauling your wardrobe will be your path to body positivity?
Learning to love yourself takes more than changing how you look. It requires developing a gentler, more accepting attitude towards your body.
Does everyone have body positivity?
Body positivity tells us that we can all feel good about our bodies – whatever our shape. However, it’s often not as simple as that.
Despite its inherently inclusive nature, body positivity isn’t for everyone. There are lots of factors that can affect our body image.
Although there are many inspiring messages we can take from the movement to help us on our way to a healthy body image, it’s also important to accept for some it goes way deeper than cultivating a better attitude.
How can I make my body positivity?
There are three important parts of building a positive body image – developing self-esteem, embracing a positive attitude and cultivating emotional awareness.6
- Developing self-esteem. This involves taking control of a negative inner voice and building a more positive opinion of your body and how you feel about it.
- Embracing a positive attitude. View your appearance with optimism and gratitude instead of judging it entirely on any perceived faults. Focusing on what your body can help you to do and what you like about it is a great way to foster a more positive mindset.
- Cultivating emotional awareness. Inevitably you’ll see and hear things that will cause negativity to creep into your body conscience. Rather than shutting down these unhelpful emotions, body positivity encourages you to recognise them and learn how you can manage these feelings better.
Activities that could help you to build a healthy body image
- List ten things not related to your appearance that you really like about yourself. This is a great way to appreciate there’s a lot more to you than what you look like.
- Make a second list focusing on ten things your body helps you to do. This is a reminder of all the things you would struggle to do without the help of your body.
- Give yourself a little love and appreciation from time to time by indulging in some form of treat. Dedicating time to doing something frivolous is a powerful way to show you value yourself.
- Think about the people around you (in real life and online on social media.) If you surround yourself with people who have an optimistic attitude towards themselves, you might find you pick up on this positive vibe and your body image gets a boost too.7
Summary: The case for being more body positive
The body positivity movement emerged to tell us, we’re OK just the way we are.
Campaigns challenging our fixation with unrealistic body ideals have inspired thousands of people to develop a broader acceptance of different body types. This has led many people to experience improvements in body confidence and self-esteem.
But despite good intentions, it’s important to recognise that not everyone wants to or can willingly adopt the ethos.
Last updated: 10 June 2021