Body positivity: is it really that positive?

What was once just a story from the Land of the Free has now become a regular occurrence closer to home. Obesity is now a leading cause of early death, killing 2.8 million people each year in what is widely recognized as a global epidemic [1]. While this problem is getting bigger and bigger (no pun intended), there is one movement that almost seems to promote an unhealthy lifestyle and to be satisfied with being overweight. Namely, the ‘body positivity movement’. In essence, this movement wants everyone to love their body and not let physical appearance get you down [2]. But it seems to have turned into a movement that’s dismissive of science and convinced that people being overweight is just as healthy as being thin. At least, that is what critics fear (me being one of those critics). Admittedly, as a thin and fairly healthy person, I was a bit biased beforehand. But this bias also made me want to look at the movement’s message and how it affects those within the community; to see if it does more harm than good, or if it is genuinely as positive as the name suggests. 

The movement originates from the fat acceptance movement of the 1960, that challenged the biases that obese people had to deal with on a daily basis. People believed that obese people interfered with labor productivity, as they were considered less efficient.  Since then the movement has gone through some transformations, but never really disappeared. 

In the beginning of this century, it took on a new name; the body positivity movement. The movement, first led by fat black and ethnic minority groups, quickly became something bigger when it was picked up by mainstream social media. It really took off in 2012, when it entered the third wave of the movement. It became a movement of self-love and body acceptance, advocating a wider representation of the average-sized body in the media. They challenged the unrealistic beauty standards that we are confronted with everyday through social media and advertisements [2].

Since then, the message has shifted to a more harmful one: all body sizes are perfect, even when unhealthy

It has become a bit of a toxic community that strongly believes that the negative health effects of being obese are being exaggerated, merely for the purpose of keeping people thin. 

Positively complex

While looking at the science, there is a lot of evidence that overweight and obesity can cause lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, etc. In the US it’s already become a leading cause of death and this is spreading to the rest of the world as well[1]. This increase is partly due to the default American Lifestyle, as it is being called. The last century we have become wealthier and more productive. But this also means that people are less physically active, eating more fast-food and depending on medical interventions[3].

To override this unhealthy lifestyle and take back control, a lot of mental effort is required from the individual, especially for those who already have a hard time changing unhealthy lifestyles. This is exemplified by lower educated people, who have been shown to have poor health due to less financial resources, knowledge and sense of control, which already often causes them to not recognize the risks of an unhealthy lifestyle. This becomes even harder when a movement like body positivity tells them that it is okay to be obese[3].

Besides that, studies have shown that when someone receives more exposure to obese people, their perception of what is a healthy weight will change as well. Especially on social media it is easy to choose the content you want to see.

Following more obese people from the body positivity movement can shift perceptions of what is considered a normal body size. As a consequence, some people could feel less of a need to lose weight and become healthier[4].

On the other hand a minority of the people in the media are overweight. Even though more and more brands are joining the trend of being body-inclusive, a lot of brands still use models that are smaller than the average person. There are many Instagram ‘influencers’ that promote certain lifestyles that are unachievable for most due to lack of time and money (and probably also editing skills). Seeing these body types and lifestyles on a daily basis can lead to increased body dissatisfaction, which can negatively affect someone’s mental health[5].

Lifestyles that are unachievable for most due to a lack of time and money

It doesn’t stop there. It’s not just on the internet that people are experiencing these negative feelings. It’s also offline. The belief that being overweight is a bad thing, is so ingrained in our society that overweight people experience a lot of so-called ‘fat-shaming’ and weight bias. They are being judged for not being able to lose weight. People assume they are lazy and they cannot control themselves. They are being discriminated against because of their size. 

Not just by their environment, but many healthcare providers have a weight bias as well. They justify fat shaming as a means to help people lose weight, but the opposite effect is often achieved[6]. People start to internalize the weight bias, which does more harm than good. It actually leads to heightened feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem[7].

A Healthy Body Needs a Healthy Mind

Having to deal with this everywhere you go, it is understandable that you want to look for a place where you feel less judged, where you don’t have to stress about your weight. Stress is also very harmful to your health, especially when it is chronic, which is often the case for overweight people. Stress will activate systems in the body that help cope with certain events. This can be helpful when you’re in a life or death situation, but in the long term this is very harmful to your body. The stress level cortisol also increases your appetite and decreases self-control, which will result in stress eating[8]. You then of course get stuck in this vicious cycle of gaining weight, getting more stressed and gaining more weight again. 

Looking at it from that perspective, reducing the stress that overweight people experience might actually benefit not just their mental health but also their physical health. Having now read more about it, I realise this is what the body positivity movement is trying to advocate for as well. By making it more acceptable to be overweight, you take away a lot of the unhealthy stress that comes with it. As a result, people might actually start to lose weight. 

So is the body positivity movement actually a positive thing? It’s difficult to say. I think in essence, yes. As a society we should put less pressure on overweight people, to improve their mental health and really help them become physically healthier as well. But the message that the movement is trying to spread right now is not as positive as they might think.

I think we need to take a step back and really focus on what is important. Obesity is already a big problem and many people do not have the knowledge or means to live a healthy life. We cannot completely place responsibility on the (overweight) consumer, we need to work on this as a society. So, yes to more positivity, but also still a big yes to healthier lifestyles. 


[1] WHO (n.d). Obesity. Retrieved from 

[2] BBC (n.d.) From New York to Instagram: The history of the body positivity movement. Retrieved from 

[3] Mirowsky, J., & Ross, C. (2015). Education, Health, and the Default American Lifestyle. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. doi:10.1177/0022146515594814 

[4] Robinson, E., & Kirkham, T. (2013). Is he a healthy weight? Exposure to obesity changes perception of the weight status of others. International Journal of Obesity, 38, 663–667. doi:10.1038/ijo.2013.154

[5] Van Vonderen, K.E., & Kinnally, W. (2012). Media Effects on Body Image: Examining Media Exposure in the Broader Context of Internal and Other Social Factors. American Communication Journal, 12(2), 41-57.

[6] Sackett, D.R., & T. Dajani, MPH. (2019). Fat Shaming in Medicine: Overview of Alternative Patient Strategies. Osteopathic Family Physician, 11(4). Retrieved from 

[7] Vogel, L. (2019). Fat shaming is making people sicker and heavier. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 191(23), E649. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-5758 

[8] Thoits, P. A. (2010). Stress and health: major findings and policy implications. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51, S41-S53.

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