The Body Positive Movement

CBC's Sunday Talks looks at the Body Positive movement:

The history of the body positive movement (or fat activism) can be traced back to the late 1960s. Similar to the feminist movement, it can be understood to have occurred in several waves (Cooper, 2008). Recently it has been gaining momentum in response to Western society's focus on diet culture, weight loss, and the thin ideal. We've seen an increase in "plus size" models, beauty campaigns by companies such as Dove and Aerie promoting more diverse body types, and the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement. However, this has not been without criticism.

The main criticisms I have heard are that body positivity encourages obesity. This perspective is demonstrated in the above video by Tasha Kheiriddin, a conservative Canadian media personality. However, as Steven Marsh and Scaachi Koul point out, this misses the major message behind the body positive movement: 

It is not that people are encouraged to be overweight or underweight. It is that they should not be shamed for being these things.

The statement that "real women have curves" is just as body-shaming (although it's important to note that people whose bodies are deemed "acceptable" in society certainly face less overall stigma than those who don't) because real women, real people are diverse and that diversity is beautiful. We are all valuable human beings deserving of respect and there is no body weight or shape that describes this value. We deserve not to be shamed for not fitting one particular mold. We all deserve to see our genders, colours, ages, abilities and disabilities, sexual orientations, and our various shapes and sizes represented in the media. We deserve to feel empowered as we are and to learn that our value in life lies beyond our appearance.

What body positivity does is question deeply ingrained biases in Western culture. From the beauty industry to healthcare, "fat" has become a bad word that supposedly describes much more than weight. In our culture, the word "fat" has become synonymous with certain negative character traits, even the morality of a person. "Fat" is associated with the words "lazy," "ugly," even "bad," and is seen as a person not caring about themselves or others around them. It is seen as a wrong, selfish choice reflective of poor control (and oh how Western society loves to idealize control! It is why people are more likely to admit they starve themselves than use any other kind of eating disordered behaviour, because somehow that addictive pattern is seen as being a demonstration of willpower despite it being the opposite.)

Fat itself is simply a necessary type of tissue (adipose) present in all human bodies to different degrees. It serves several critical functions including: thermo-regulation, providing cushioning for our organs, storing fat-soluble vitamins, and releasing important hormones. We need fat to survive.

In different times and across different cultures, fat has been celebrated and hated. Even in Western society we've seen transitions across the decades in beauty standards from Marilyn Monroe to Twiggy to "heroin chic" (which is an incredibly disturbing term...) to body positive models such as Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence, and Meghan Crabbe (aka bodyposipanda)

I come from the world of healthcare and thus my education has been steeped in weight bias. I have seen the issues posed by heart disease and diabetes mellitus firsthand and it is concerning. But what I have also seen is fat people who are "healthy" and thin people who are "unhealthy" and whether a person is thin or fat, "healthy" or "unhealthy" (and it's important to look at how we are defining those terms...) they are all valuable human beings who deserve respect.

In a TED talk given in 2013, Peter Attia MD, gave a touching apology to a patient he had encountered in his surgical residency. This patient had a diagnosis (and complications of) diabetes mellitus type II. She was also obese. Attia's approach was one that is common everywhere. This patient was less of a person because she had done this to herself when she should have been just exercising and eating right.

Attia goes on to discuss why obesity and diabetes are much more complicated and have some causes that are outside of people's control. I don't want to get into that information as much as I wanted to acknowledge him recognizing his own judgment as a healthcare professional and how it may have impacted his patient's care. (I would advise anyone with an eating disorder or a history of such that the video talks about nutrition and weight/weight loss from Attia's perspective and thus could potentially be triggering.)

Studies have examined the outcomes of weight bias/stigma in healthcare and how it affects patients; a weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach has been shown to be more effective in improving physical, behavioural, and psychological indices (Tylka, et al., 2014)

This kind of research is important in the face of back-and-forth nutrition research and the constant onslaught of information about the obesity epidemic. Obesity is complicated. Diabetes is complicated. Heart disease is complicated. It is human nature to look for simple causes we can point the finger at, whether that be cholesterol, fats, or carbohydrates, and so on. None of these things are "bad" they simply have different effects in the body. Just as your body would be lacking important nutrients if you only consumed ice cream, your body would be lacking important nutrients if you only consumed kale. Obesity is much more complicated than watching what you eat or how much you exercise: there are causes well beyond human control (e.g. chemicals we encounter on a daily basis that mimic hormones, viruses that have been shown to effect adipocytes, etc.) The point is that it is complicated, but the more important point that body positivity makes, is that regardless of a person's weight or "health," people are inherently valuable and deserve to be treated with respect. 

It is so ingrained in our collective thinking that thin equals happy, healthy, beautiful. It does not, but millions are made so long as we think these things are true. 

Weight loss might be something that occurs when a person learns to maybe not love, but tolerate or accept their body and what it does for them. Weight loss might happen when a person learns to tune into their body and eat intuitively. So it is not that body positivity proclaims weight loss is bad, it is just that it is completely beside the point. The focus of body positivity is on making peace with yourself as you are, feeling empowered, and continuing to strive and grow in your life and that is something truly beautiful.

-S. Ritchey

Shaely RitcheyComment