By Janna Breslin
Body positivity is a phrase we hear more and more often, lately. It’s a push to alert people—especially impressionable children and teens—that there are many harmful media representations out there, especially for women.
Just as people once wrung their hands over Barbie’s unnatural shape, the Kardashians and other airbrushed social media influencers make certain “desirable” body shapes seem naturally attainable. We’re all guilty of it to a certain extent. Who doesn’t use strategic selfie angles to mask our “imperfections?”
The body positivity movement is aimed at normalizing all body types, rather than focusing on and celebrating only super-ripped Abercrombie and surgically-enhanced Victoria’s Secret models. Realistically, no matter how much we diet and exercise, the majority of humans can’t achieve those standards. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wear the clothes we enjoy or avoid photos with friends.
But acceptance is a balancing act. We should all recognize that our bodies are constantly changing, and to hold ourselves to impossible ideals is detrimental to our mental health. On the other hand, body positivity isn’t a substitute for physical wellness. Luckily, physical health also comes in a number of different packages.
The push to normalize all body types
Your body image is how you feel about the way you look and feel, when you look in the mirror or at photos of yourself. Healthy body image is not merely not hating the way your body looks, but actively accepting it without trying to change yourself to fit arbitrary standards. For example, if you tell yourself, “I’ll look better once I lose fifteen pounds,” that’s not a healthy body image—even if you actually need to lose that weight to be healthy. In fact, it can actually promote unhealthy behaviors.
Body positivity initially started as a plus-size movement, and has grown more inclusive over time. The movement includes people of any shape, size, gender, race and physical ability (or disability). The point is to challenge the way society presents the physical “ideal” in pop culture, media, and more. That ranges from putting plus (or even average)-size models in ads to workout videos hosted by plus-size yogis.
How acceptance can help you stay healthy
For some people, the idea that you can be healthy and physically active, even if you’re plus-sized, is nothing short of revolutionary. Of course, there’s plenty of blowback—detractors accuse body positivity advocates of “glorifying obesity.” Since the movement is diverse, you may come across conflicting options from different sources. The key is that weight stigma hurts your mental health—and when you’re struggling emotionally, it’s that much harder to get fit and enjoy life.
Judith Matz, a clinical social worker cautions people not to put off activities until they reach a certain weight or fitness goal. The key to body acceptance (and staying or getting fit) is to continue to practice healthy behaviors regardless of your current size. When you consistently get the message that you’re not worthy of taking a barre class while you’re thirty pounds overweight, or you can’t wear a crop top until you’re perfectly toned, you’re more likely to give up.
That’s how body positivity can help: it reminds us that we all have the right to exist in and enjoy our bodies just as they are, right now. That includes engaging in healthy exercise and enjoying balanced nutrition.
Body positivity is no substitute for physical wellness
With that said, body positivity isn’t a substitute for physical health. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a physically fit person at a higher weight. As long as you and your doctor are happy with your fitness and body size, healthy bodies really do come in all shapes and sizes.
The key is to balance the mental health benefits of body acceptance with physical fitness. You don’t have to be the “perfect” BMI (and in fact, research suggests that is an outdated metric) with ripped abs and biceps to be healthy or to love your body. However, if you struggle to get off the couch and get any physical activity at all, chances are you could stand to get back into fighting shape. You wouldn’t be alone, either. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are struggling now than ever—which feeds right back into negative body image.
The goal for everyone should be to accept ourselves as we are—works in progress—and prioritize our physical fitness over whether we fit into arbitrary aesthetic standards. When we do that, we make healthier decisions.
Janna Breslin is a well-known fitness model, certified personal trainer, health coach, and
nutrition expert. With Evan DeMarco, she co-founded Complete Human, the new
multi-media platform that takes a deep dive into the areas of mind, body, soul, and planet while
exploring what makes us who we are and what will make us better. Their flagship podcast can be found on all major streaming podcast players including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play, and their namesake streaming video channel is online at YouTube.