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September 2019: Body Positivity

At Mabel Wadsworth Center, our interns are responsible for updating the bulletin board in our waiting room once a month. In case you haven’t had the chance to visit us recently, you can read about this month’s bulletin board topic here. This post is by our 2019 summer/fall intern, Sarah Penley (she/her/hers), who comes to us from the University of Maine in Orono.

Being a person in the world is hard. Everyone seems to have an opinion about everything, from what we eat to how we look and the ways we move through the world. We’re constantly bombarded by images in the media of thin, hairless, light-skinned young women (often heavily retouched) along with ads from the diet, beauty, and “wellness” industries that promote an unattainable standard of attractiveness. All of that informs our own opinions about ourselves, and our emotions can get pretty intense pretty quickly. But even if we don’t see ourselves as perfect human beings, that shouldn’t mean we need to feel terrible about ourselves 24 hours a day.

The body positivity movement aims to alleviate some of this stress by advocating that no person should be shamed, discriminated against, or held back because of how they look. Body positivity has its roots in the fat acceptance movement, but thanks to the work of advocates from all walks of life, it has become so much more than that. It includes celebration of trans bodies, thin bodies, short bodies, tall bodies, thick bodies, large bodies, small bodies, bodies of varying abilities, bodies of varying races and ethnicities, changing bodies, bodies of all ages, non-conforming bodies, and non-binary bodies. The movement wants to show that you don’t need to squeeze yourself into somebody else’s narrow definition about what a person ought to look like. You are allowed to take up space, and you are worthy of being admired.

Some people prefer the term “body neutrality” to body positivity. This recognizes that sometimes the pressure to think positively about one’s body ends up being more of a burden than a relief. People who are experiencing illness or chronic pain might not have the capacity to love their bodies – but nor should they need to constantly beat themselves up about the parts of their bodies they don’t care for. It also recognizes that no person is going to have perfect self-confidence or love for their bodies at all times: our emotions naturally fluctuate depending on what we’re going through at any moment in time. It’s totally okay to feel bad about yourself from time to time as long as you are not paralyzed by constant self-scrutiny.

Reaching a place of positive self-image, or even body neutrality, can take a lot of work. To begin with, investigate your assumptions about other people you see out in the world living their lives. When you see a fat person running on the sidewalk, what are your assumptions about their life and their motivations? Ask yourself, would your assumptions change if the person you saw running were thin? Recognize that these assumptions come from years and years of social conditioning and do not have any bearing on an individual’s worth as a human being. When we begin to practice seeing every person’s dignity and worth, we can begin to see our own inherent value as well.

So how do we translate acceptance of our own bodies into action that improves our community? There are several ways:

  1. Model body positivity: Modeling body positivity around others creates an environment of loving support. Kids who are forming their own relationships with their bodies use adults as their example. Avoiding negative self-talk about your own body, modeling intuitive eating, and celebrating your physicality can promote positive self-image in others. Modeling positive behavior includes how we refer to others – especially as they relate to ourselves. Celebrating your own body doesn’t mean you have to put down other bodies that don’t look like yours – for example, we can celebrate curves without demeaning “skinny” people in the process.
  2. Advocate for representation: Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in public in a positive way. Seeing people we can relate to tells us that we are not alone and that it’s okay to celebrate the way we look. Without representation of many different body types in the media, we are missing out on stories about people who matter. Unfortunately, some companies have used fat acceptance as a tool to sell products without truly understanding what the body positive movement is about. Take action by holding companies accountable who drape themselves in the mantle of body positivity but only actually show images of young, white, cisgender, able women who are no larger than a size 16.
  3. Support Others: Gaining a positive body image is a journey, and it’s one that’s easier to make when we know we’re not alone. Notice when your friends and family engage in body positive behavior and let them know you appreciate it. Celebrating others makes us feel good about ourselves, too, creating a positive feedback loop that helps us build upon the inner strength we already have. If you witness others beating up on themselves for their looks, you don’t have to immediately shut them down – instead, seek understanding about why they feel that way and collaborate with them on getting to a place of acceptance. Support for others also means standing up for people who are being treated unfairly for how they look.