By Kira Rakova
For the longest time, I struggled with the concept of body positivity. My interaction with the notion often felt forced. Body-positive mantras and affirmations felt constrained and empty when I tried them out. I had trouble viewing my body through an exclusively positive lens because I felt that I was still hyper-focusing on my body, which somehow inevitably led to critiquing myself. I also struggled to place value on both my physical body and my other qualities and personality traits.
Eventually, I came to discover the wide variety of terms and labels that exist within the broader body-positive movement. Among them, body acceptance resonated the strongest with me. I found it easier to learn to accept my body as it was. While trying to continuously affirm my physicality as positive often resulted in self-critique, body acceptance allowed me to build a relationship with myself that was not centered on my appearance.
However, my particular experience is largely embedded in my various privileges (among them my whiteness). The concept of body acceptance worked for me, but that does not mean it will for everyone. Our ability to connect with particular terms and movements is largely embedded in our social positioning and past experiences.
In order to make body positivity in general accessible to everyone, we must look at the language we use to talk about it. We must look at how these concepts interact with various identities. Most importantly, we have to recognize that this multiplicity is critical for the inclusion of all people in the larger movement.
Here are just four terms within the larger body-positive movement, and why they may be positive for some individuals but exclusionary for others.
1. Body Positivity
Although I use this term in an overarching sense throughout this article, body positivity is in certain ways a movement of its own. There is debate over what the term truly refers to, but the key word differentiating it is “positivity.” It suggests that we move beyond acknowledging the different bodies that exist in our society and start to view them as positive, worthy of value, and deserving of taking up literal and symbolic space.
This is a radical declaration.
Especially for people whose bodies are routinely devalued and threatened with violence and death (e.g., trans individuals, people of color, fat femmes, etc.), body positivity can be radical in its demand for space, visibility, and respect. In theory, it also allows for an intersectional discussion about body image and identity. On a personal level, many individuals connect with body positivity through its revolutionary demand for self-love and declaration that every individual is enough as-is.
However, body positivity is not for everyone, as my case shows. It has been critiqued by individuals affected by eating disorders as being unrealistic, given their experiences with negative self-image. Being told to love one’s body after engaging with self-hate can be a daunting, discouraging journey. Similarly, others have critiqued it for still being hyper-focused on appearance.
2. Body Acceptance
Body acceptance requests that we approve of all the imperfection of our bodies, but not necessarily view everything through a positive lens. It is still radical in that it asks us to build an accepting and loving relationship with our bodies, but it does not require that we perpetually view every aspect of ourselves as positive.
Yet body acceptance is certainly not for everyone either. Some trans individuals have critiqued it for not accounting for body dysphoria. Although not all trans individuals experience body dysphoria, the body-acceptance movement’s demand that we accept our bodies as they are can be exclusionary to trans folx, and other individuals for whom changing their body is critical for their mental health and overall wellbeing.
3. Body Neutrality
Body neutrality clearly suggests that we build neutral relationships with our bodies, rather than ones based on positivity or acceptance. A critical movement for many, including those affected by eating disorders, it asks that we shift the focus away from our bodies. In shifting that focus, we can learn to neutralize and eliminate obsessive thinking without feeling like we have to make a statement. It certainly can work (whether temporarily or not) as a space for certain individuals to move past body hate without feeling like they are failing at body positivity.
But the focus of body neutrality is on a personal relationship with our bodies, which already marks it as problematic and exclusionary. What happens to people who don’t have the privilege not to make a statement with their bodies?
Individuals who experience high levels of violence as a result of the way their bodies are perceived (such as people of color, trans individuals, etc.) can achieve neutral relationships with their bodies, but that does not mean they have the privilege to be viewed that way within society at large. By ignoring the political aspects of body image and personal identity, the body-neutrality movement already assumes that people do not need to consistently insist on the value of their bodies in order to survive.
4. Fat Acceptance
The fat-acceptance movement (and many parallel and intersecting movements like fat positivity) is centered on combatting our fatphobic and fat-antagonistic society. It insists that fatness needs to be destigmatized and fat people deserve to valued, loved, and accepted. The movement—and other intersecting movements like the Health at Every Size community—challenges ideas like the supposed correlation between health and weight, as well as the notion that shaming children will compel them to lose weight.
For those who are thin or do not identify as fat, however, this movement can feel exclusionary. And while thin privilege is real and a movement that centers and prioritizes fat people is revolutionary and necessary, the term itself already constitutes its limits. Certainly thin people can learn to be allies to this movement, but it is not a movement for them.
There are many other terms and movements that exist under the umbrella of body positivity. But that is exactly what makes the movement valuable. In recognizing the need for a multiplicity of terms, we open the door for developments that make body positivity accessible to everyone. By working to make sure our own choice of movement is accessible, we can also learn how to be more effective allies to other movements.
Kira Rakova is an undergraduate student activist at the City College of New York, studying international studies, communications, and anthropology. She is part of various community and online-based organizations, including the Student Mental Health Initiative and the Body-positive Empowerment & Acceptance Movement (BEAM). Her passions and interests include eating disorder justice, destigmatization of mental health, gender justice, and community empowerment.