What Is Body Positivity?

It’s really easy to think that a positive body image means looking in the mirror and liking what you see.  This belief will only limit you, keeping you stuck in the idea that body positivity is related to appearance.  

Instead, body positivity has much more to do with how you care for, respect and connect with your body’s needs while cultivating gratitude for what it can do, or what it can allow you to do.  It’s very likely that your body shape and size will change multiple times throughout your life and if you attach or cling to one certain image, you’ll lack acceptance while feeling powerless and frustrated.

Life is messy.  This is a hard concept to accept for all of us, especially those inclined toward rigidity or all-or-nothing thinking.  We want straight lines and consistent patterns and predictable outcomes.  The thing is that it's not real.  We are holding on to something that doesn't exist.  All we are doing is driving ourselves crazy while missing life.  

I've come to know that life gets so much sweeter and more vibrant and a whole lot more relaxed and fun when I embrace each day, each moment, as it comes.  It's a daily practice for me to slow myself (and my mind) down but I'm always glad I made the effort.  I feel so good when I can look in the mirror at the end of the day and feel like I connected with people and experiences rather than rushing through them to get to the next thing (my default mode).  

A more relaxed approach might feel like you are losing control, but that's just the illusion.  It’s easy to feel like letting go of your quest for a different body shape and size means giving up.  I think you’ll find the opposite is true.  You'll gain a whole lot, including the real you that’s been waiting to start living a full and meaningful life outside of weight or body size preoccupation.

This is especially true if you have disordered eating patterns.  You are fighting food because you are fighting your body.  If you hope to make peace with food, you’ve gotta make peace with your body.

In the culture we live in, we aren’t naturally inclined toward body positivity.  Although we come in all different shapes and sizes (naturally and biologically!), it’s easy to compare yourself to the thin ideal (or muscular ideal these days).  It’s quite possible to live your whole life feeling broken and inferior.  

You could choose to continue chasing diets and food rules until you finally meet your dream weight or body shape.  OR, you could choose to find and embrace your true purpose for living which has nothing to do with the way you look.  This will likely result in you taking care of your body in a way that allows you to live to your full potential, instead of living to get smaller.  Don’t ever feel like you don’t have a choice.  YOU get to decide.  

While cultural influences may shape your expectations for what your body should look like, you hold the final judgment.  We tend to be our own worst critic, being harder on ourselves than we would ever be to others.  While it would be great to completely transform the unrealistic beauty standards that exist in society, a better and more effective goal will be to transform your own expectations of yourself.  

I encourage you to take time to reevaluate the expectations you have for your body.  I subscribe fully to the data we have on set-point theory.  This means your body has a predetermined body shape, size and weight that it feels most comfortable at.  Fighting against it will get you nowhere. The great paradox is that dieting, the method we use to lower our set-point, only works to increase it therefore causing weight gain long-term.

Which brings us to the #1 question regarding body positivity - can you be actively pursuing weight loss and claim body positivity?  Those in the body positive community, including me, would answer with a resounding no.  That doesn't mean I'm anti weight loss, instead it means I'm weight-neutral.  If your body changes as result of you listening, respecting and taking care of it...then there's that (without any judgment of that being good or bad, it just IS).  If it doesn't, it is no less deserving of being listened to, respected and taken care of.  

This is a stance I've taken after very careful consideration of the scientific data we have on dieting and what I've observed in those I've worked with.  It's much too risky to deliberately seek to manipulate your body and casualties often include: disordered eating, food anxiety, depressive symptoms, greater preoccupation with food and body image, lower metabolism, fatigue, digestive issues, disconnection from the body and it's intuitive signals, increased cravings, and an erosion of self-trust and self-efficacy.  

On the other hand, aiming to connect, listen to and respect your body (while putting weight and body shape concerns on the back burner) tend to do the opposite: improvement in eating patterns with a noted decrease in disordered eating symptoms, less cravings, more energy (both physical and mental energy!), less preoccupation with food, a rebound in metabolism, more regular metabolic function (including sleep, digestion, hormonal balance, etc), greater self-trust, resiliency and confidence (with food and otherwise!) and the opportunity for your body to find it's natural weight.  That sounds WAY more body positive to me.  

The good news is that health can be found at your natural weight, no matter what it is, and has much more to do with how you care for your body than what size it is.  The only thing between you and this reality is the idea in your head of how things should be.  

You can live from day to day with less body preoccupation.  It may not be a realistic goal to love, or even like, your body - at least at first.  By deciding to put your time and energy into things you find meaningful, enjoyable and important, you give less time and attention to the size or shape of your body.  

I get it, it’s hard to let go. It feels super overwhelming, but I hope something in this blog post has given you a place to start.  Maybe it’s aiming for body respect and/or weight-neutrality rather than loving or even liking your body?  Perhaps it’s to focus less on appearance and more on how your body is functioning and feeling?  Maybe expressing gratitude for what it can do?  What about practicing more self-compassion and positive self-talk?  

Maybe more practical tips would include decreasing (ideally quitting) body checking, spending less time in front of the mirror, detoxing your media messages, and/or replacing negative thoughts with neutral ones (if positive thoughts feel too hard). Continual small steps forward is how you shift your mindset.  

Body positivity is not appearance based and functions independently from any changes in body shape or size.  It's something essential to cultivate for your own wellbeing and is much more important for improving your health than losing weight or changing your body shape will ever be.  

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD