In 2010, Linda Bacon, Ph.D., published Health at Every Size, which promoted the idea that everyone should have respect regardless of their weight. Bacon also started a group of the same name to give people resources to stop dieting and find professionals that agree with the idea that fat doesn’t always mean unhealthy. From there, the body-positivity—or fat-positivity—movement grew and began to reduce the stigma of being heavy. People are finally hearing the message that everyone should love their body, no matter what the media or diet industry might say.
Well, doesn’t that sound lovely? What a wonderful world, where overweight people would be seen as ordinary folks, instead of lazy, stupid failures with no self-control. But things don’t stay nice for long. At least, not if the internet is involved.
Some members of the body-positive movement have started to promote some pretty extreme concepts. Like when Everyday Feminism wrote, “Let’s make something clear: Having a goal for intentional fat loss is not body positive.” Or when Ashley Graham lost some weight and received comments like, “I am no longer a fan of yours. You betrayed a lot of people!” as reported by CNN. Or when body-positive blogger Ragen Chastain said, “There is not a single study where more than a tiny fraction of people have succeeded at weight loss long term, and there is no study that shows that people who lose weight live longer or become healthier. Prescribing weight loss for health is like prescribing learning to fly for knee pain.” And don’t forget Salon, with its piece comparing weight loss to gay conversion therapy, which… no.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
But how can body positivity be bad?
First of all, the basic ideals of body positivity are not bad: People should not be mistreated because of their weight, and we should never feel pressured to get our bodies to fit some model ideal of “thinness.” That’s clearly not possible—or remotely healthy—for most people. And we should all learn to love ourselves, whether we’re a size 4 or size 24.
But it’s not that easy. In fact, for some people, like myself, the body-positivity movement only makes things more complicated: Fat people now get the privilege of being judged by others for being too big while simultaneously being preached at that they should just love themselves, muffin-top and all.
“I find body positivity an unrealistic expectation,” says Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, a therapist with years of experience treating eating disorders and weight issues. “People in general struggle to ‘love their bodies.’ Someone who has struggled with body image issues cannot suddenly change from body-hatred to loving the way they look.”
Hershenson advises her clients to focus on things outside of their body to find self-love. Instead of trying to suddenly love the body you’ve always hated, she suggests thinking of your body as a neutral. You don’t have to love or hate it—it’s just a body, and the self is so much more than just its outer packaging.
Outside of the unrealistic expectation to simply start “loving yourself at any size,” some body-positivity activists insist that weight has nothing to do with your health. Sadly, this isn’t true. As Aditi G Jha, M.D., of JustDoc.comsays, “Central obesity is the number one factor associated with diabetes, hypertension, and infertility, in their respective orders.”
Psychologist Deb Thompson, Ph.D., adds, “Obesity is clearly recognized by world and national health organizations as a leading risk factor for disease and death. The body-positivity movement’s denial of science is troubling.”
Also, for most people, being heavier really does not feel better. As a lucky lady who gained a ton of weight over the course of a year, I felt the difference: I got winded easily, my body ached more, and I started developing plantar fasciitis. Though I’m still big, I’ve lost about 30 pounds so far, and it feels better.
So the body-positivity movement isn’t wrong, exactly…
Sure, there are some extreme people who are making the movement look like a bunch of jags. For example, it’s beyond unfortunate that Chastain and Salon both compare fatphobia with homophobia. I’m not saying it’s easy being a fat person, but gay panic has caused a lot more harm throughout history. At the height of homophobia, gay men were labeled as mentally ill, pedophiles, or both. People were jailed and castrated just for being gay. Sure, fat people might get called names and crappy looks from people on the train, but few people have been literally murdered just for being fat.
My hatred of the anti-gay/anti-fat correlation aside, most of the body-positivity movement isn’t wrong. Even though statements like “weight loss is not body positive” sound extreme—they have a point.
True body positivity means you can do whatever you want with your body as long as you do it with love. Some people do need to lose weight for their health, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Others want to lose weight to look different—and that’s their right. If you aren’t obsessed with losing weight, then I don’t think it’s a problem.
But dieting culture is a problem for a lot of people.
Let’s take a little journey through my fatness, to illustrate the unfortunate effects of our dieting culture.
Personally, I was always chubby, and I never felt bad about it—until junior high. I wasn’t made fun of or criticized for my weight. In fact, if I ever said, “Oh, well I’m so fat,” I’d hear an instant chorus of “Oh, my God. Don’t say that! No, don’t think that about yourself.”
Though I wasn’t allowed to say fat, that didn’t stop every other girl I knew from commenting on her appearance. Once we hit 14, a part of every lunch period was devoted to each girl talking about how fat she was—these were all thin girls, by the way. So, I thought, If they think they’re fat, they must think I’m some monster! This began my wonderful journey of hating my body that continues to this very day.
You might hope that all this “I’m so fat” talk would disappear after high school, but it’s still going strong. About half the time I hang out with a group of women, we get into a whole “my [insert body part here] is so horrible” conversation. Of course, I can’t actually join in on the contest of who hates themselves more because if I talk about feeling fat, people just sadly look away, a faint, “well…” passing through their lips.
Now I truly am fat, and people—friends—act like it’s the saddest thing I could ever be. Friends who don’t even realize they’re acting this way and would never purposely say anything to make me feel bad. Even if they’d never consciously judge a fat person negatively, they’re responding to a little, internal voice that says, “Yeah, but if she just tried a little harder…”
We’ve been trained to think of “fat” as “bad,” and you can’t reverse a lifetime of thinking in a couple of years’ worth of blog posts.
So when people talk about body positivity and dieting, it’s understandable why people in the BP movement get upset. Blogger and YouTuber FatGirlFlow discusses her history with eating disorders, doctors who continually told her to lose weight, and how dieting to be “healthy” nearly killed her. Eventually, she found the body-positivity movement, which “saved her life.”
So although it sounds extreme to say that dieting and weight loss are not part of body positivity, I think there’s some truth to that statement. That doesn’t mean you can’t lose weight or want to lose weight and still think positively of yourself. Individuals should do whatever they want.
But there should also be some space out there on the internet for women not to have to hear about dieting, because when you say you need to diet, that makes girls like me feel like we need to diet. When body-positive activists like FatGirlFlow say “keep dieting out of body positivity,” they aren’t telling you not to lose weight—they just need a break from hearing that weight loss will always be the answer.
Does body positivity promote obesity?
Think about it: Can a couple of bloggers and a Dove ad really make thin women binge on Häagen-Dazs and gain 40 pounds? This movement isn’t nearly big enough to really make people feel good about being obese, and it’s certainly not going to convince people that fat is the new black.
Sure, some of the claims that obesity has no link to health are misleading. But the truth is that the science around health and obesity is far from clear.
“Yes, weight can affect your health, and there has been research to show that there may be some correlation,” says Zach Cordell, registered dietitian nutritionist. “However, in the scientific community, we know that correlation is not causation. Just because obesity and diabetes rates have risen in tandem doesn’t prove that they are connected. You could also draw that correlation between the availability of organic foods and diabetes. Does that mean that because more organic food is available, more people have diabetes? No, it is just a correlation.”
Cordell says that obesity and diabetes have quite a few links, but that a person’s behavior is more predictive of disease than their size. Yes, many obese people eat poorly or don’t exercise. But that’s not always the case. Some overweight people don’t eat junk food all the time and are still heavy. And there are quite a few thin folks who frequent the McDonald’s drive-thru. Though obesity is a symptom of unhealthy behavior, it’s not necessarily the cause of all disease.
Then, take a look a nutritional information. Doctors’ recommendations change drastically every ten years or so (remember when Snackwells would save us all?). Now, this isn’t a bad thing: It’s good that science is always evolving. But it’s frustrating when you’re told to eat a bunch of eggs, then five years later, you hear that all those omelets will probably give you a heart attack.
Even now, you can read material written by Joel Fuhrman, M.D., and be convinced that his almost no-fat, vegan diet is the only way to get thin and healthy—and he’s got the scientific studies to prove it! Then, you read The Obesity Code by Jason Fung, M.D., and learn that the amount of fat you eat has exactly no correlation to weight gain. In his opinion, insulin is primarily to blame for weight gain, so you should intermittently fast and eat a diet high in fat and low in carbs—and he’s got the scientific studies to prove it!
Now, I’m not a doctor, but the studies for each of those diets seem equally valid, even though they’re diametrically opposed. Cordell agrees that either of those diets, or anything in-between, can work for people. Cordell says that it doesn’t really matter what the results of all the new studies are—you have to choose a way of eating that works for you and that you can keep up for the rest of your life. Almost any diet can prove some kind of weight loss, but those studies don’t reveal the fact that to keep the weight off, you have to eat healthily forever.
And weight loss isn’t always the answer.
I know from experience that weight is not the primary factor of healthiness. When I was 275 pounds, all my bloodwork was good: low blood pressure, low cholesterol, good everything. Now, I didn’t feel good at that weight, but I was technically fine.
But when you’re heavy, the first thing a doctor tells you is “lose weight.” This has happened to me—when I weighed a lot less—and to many others. When I last went to the doctor, she said, “Eat 1,200 calories a day. You can eat up to 1,500, but try to keep it closer to 1,200.”
Now, this is bad for a few reasons: One, I’m a fat lady in her 30s. Do you think I’ve never tried dieting before? Have I lived under some fat-blocking rock for the last three decades and suddenly emerged as my unpleasantly plump self? No. I’ve tried lots of diets, my friend.
Also, if you have a bad history with obsession and weight, there’s no better way to trigger that than having a doctor tell you to starve yourself. (Also, this doctor was my same weight and said how she “felt sorry for Harvey Weinstein” after all the allegations came out. Just to paint a clearer picture of my hell.)
My little story is just one of many, but if the body-positive movement can help bigger people not get immediately brushed off by every doctor, that would be a huge victory in and of itself. I’m not saying doctors shouldn’t mention weight. But when weight loss is the only answer they give, that’s a problem.
Also, doctors should always approach weight with empathy: Ask the patient if they have a history of eating disorders. Ask them why they want to lose weight and why they’ve had trouble in the past. Then work with them to find an eating plan that the patient might actually stick to.
People can be overweight and healthy. Chastain just completed the Life Time Tri, a mini-triathlon. Now, can people be obese and healthy? I don’t know. But what’s better? Someone who’s able to live an active life at a heavy weight or someone slightly smaller who devotes all their mental energy to dieting? I know there are shades between those extremes, but believe me, if you’re trying to go from obese to a normal BMI, it’s very hard to keep obsession from kicking in.
I’ve had mixed feelings about the body-positivity movement, but I’ve become more positive for body positivity than I would have thought. To me, they’re asking that we end the cycle of obsessing over our bodies. Sure, some proponents of this movement go too far and claim that people who lose weight are traitors. But most advocate just appreciating yourself as you are, and that means being OK with wanting to lose weight or being OK with staying heavy.
Still, there aren’t a lot of winners here. Most people are stuck in this weird limbo between fatphobia and body positivity. Model Ashley Graham got criticized for losing weight but also got crap for “promoting obesity” when she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. People who try to slim down get lots of positive attention when they start to lose, but if they lose too much, the folks around them start saying things like, “Are you sick?” or “You’re getting too skinny. It’s not healthy.” You can never win.
And you want to know the really sad thing? When I see people like FatGirlFlow and Ragen Chastain, a part of me applauds them for their self-acceptance. But also? A little voice always says, “Yeah, but if she just tried a little harder…”