Warning: Unpopular opinion ahead.
I hesitate to publish this, because the source that I’m about to write about gets it right some of the time, and I consider some of the writers acquaintances — whose work I have respected.
However — and however much it pains me to write this — recklessness has to be called out, no matter who is perpetrating it, and maybe even doubly so if it’s someone whose work is closely enough aligned with your own that you might be sharing an audience.
So here goes:
The other day, a writer for a publication that has a huge reach in the fitness and body image world sent out a tweet that said (and I’m paraphrasing for relative anonymity):
“Here’s a body-positive, evidence-based post to help you reach your goals. [emphasis mine]”
And it linked out to a blog post that was essentially about how to weight train for fat loss.
Body positive…fat loss…goals.
That’s not a thing. It’s impossible to advocate for body positivity and changing your body in the same breath.
This wasn’t the only transgression like this I’ve seen. It’s becoming clearer and clearer every day that body positivity has lost its meaning.
Like “feminism,” body positivity has been co-opted by anyone and everyone with a product to sell to you.
The term “body positivity,” for a little history lesson, was coined (at least as we know it) in 1996 — which is a surprisingly short time ago. It was part of a “feel good” project about learning to accept and love your bodies, with the goal of helping people become “liberated from self-hatred, value their beauty and identity, and use their energy and intellect to make positive changes in their own lives and in their communities.”
The coaching, workshops, teaching, etc. (because that’s essentially what thebodypositive.org does) are based on experience in eating disorder recovery, and they are meant to help recovered or recovering people “focus on changing the world, not their bodies.”
Before I go on, let’s keep this phrase in your mind: “changing the world and not [your body].”
Body positivity was not necessarily a political movement, nor was it a consumerist movement meant for T-shirts and soap campaigns. It was…for eating disorder recovery/prevention. And it was expanded to the public at large because, let’s face it: We could all stand to do a little more changing of the world and not our bodies. The movement became political as it entwined with the fat positive/fat acceptance movement, and then it shifted into the consumer realm, well, because capitalism.
As a result, “body positive” moved past clinical eating disorder awareness and into the language of liberation. It became a tool for “empowerment” first for fat bodies and then for anyone willing to buy the T-shirt.
But with that definition (changing the world and not your body), it’s possible that “body positivity” is actually a misnomer: “Positivity” suggests that anything you do to “feel positive” about your body falls in line with the goals of body positivity as a practice. However, the culture in which you and I live, is one that dictates that you “will” feel more positive about your body if you lose weight/exercise more/restrict your food/be “healthy.”
Feeling positive about reaching specific societally accepted goals (like losing fat on purpose) is not the same thing as loving yourself unconditionally — because “losing fat” is literally a condition that you’re trying to meet. Yet there are people who will argue, with a straight face, that being thinner makes them feel good about themselves, so therefore it is body positive — even in the presence of the argument that cultural dictates about body size have more to do with keeping the diet and fashion industries flush with money than they do about health or worth.
In the face of that argument, I believe that body positivity should be refocused as or renamed “body acceptance.” Body acceptance gets more to the point than body positivity does, and leaves less ambiguity: It becomes about taking care of your body regardless of what it looks like on the outside. It’s not about “giving up on yourself” or “letting yourself go,” but accepting, in real time, that your features are yours, and nourishing yourself regardless of how you feel (or how culture has primed you to feel) about them — or how you wish they looked.
But, unfortunately, body acceptance doesn’t sell the way body positivity does, because body positivity still leaves the door open to your personal interpretation of what will make you feel positive. Yet that semblance of “choice” is what makes the label “body positive” so easy to misuse.
Body positivity started with a noble goal, but, unfortunately, due to both semantics and marketing, it isn’t currently achieving said goal, at least on a culturally pervasive level.
Body positivity, as we know it today, is now sometimes about loving and accepting your body, but also about selling soap and tampons and fitness plans and weight loss shakes.
Recently, I stopped writing and podcasting about body positivity, because, frankly, we don’t need more writing about body positivity. What we need is more awareness about the ways in which the term “body positivity” is being co-opted to market and sell you products that reinforce the notion that you and your body are not good enough.
So let’s get back to this post I saw on Twitter.
It’s a post about specifically using some scientific evidence about fat loss and strength training to force an expected outcome on the size and/or shape of your body.
So let’s make something very, very, ridiculously clear:
Having a goal for losing fat is not body positive.
That is literally the opposite of the definition of body positive. Fat loss goals are literally about changing your body. By definition, the two are diametrically opposed.
That doesn’t mean to suggest that body positivity means that you can’t take care of yourself. That doesn’t mean that you can’t exercise or eat healthily or take medicine or get sleep or do things that end up maybe changing your body (or maybe not). That doesn’t mean that you can’t strength train or have goals around fitness.
But what it DOES mean is that if you have a defined goal of changing your body, and you plan to use the “evidence” to reach that goal, that is inherently not body positive.
You can certainly have goals around strength training that involve lifting more weight or reps, but it is not body positive to make losing weight the focus of the activity. (i.e. “I want to lift 10 more pounds,” not “I want to lose 10 more pounds.”)
I don’t care if you’re not being body positive in your post. (Okay, actually I do care, but let me make my point.) What I care about is the use of the words “body positive” if you’re not being body positive. I shouldn’t have to explain this, but: Don’t use the words “body positive” in a post that is inherently not about body positivity.
I know that you have to appeal to the body positive feminists in your readership to get clicks, because that’s what the cultural zeitgeist says to do, but if your post isn’t about body positivity…then don’t use the phrase in your marketing of whatever worldview that you are writing about.
Conscious, targeted, “evidence-based” fat loss isn’t body positive. That’s okay, if that’s the thing you believe in and are writing about, but don’t try to fool yourself (or your readers) by just slapping a label on whatever you’re writing about just because you want it to be body positive.
Wanting something to be body positive doesn’t make it body positive. Choosing to believe it’s body positive doesn’t make it body positive. This is not about your individual choice — you don’t get to decide to change the definition of the movement, just because it suits your economic or social goals.
Just because you describe yourself as a body positive feminist doesn’t mean you actually are one. The ultimate test of that description comes not from how you self-identify, but from your words and actions.
In We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler, she speaks about how the language of “empowerment” and “feminism” have been completely co-opted and manipulated because of the idea that “every choice can be a feminist one so long as a feminist (even a momentary one) is doing the choosing.
It’s the same thing with body positivity. Just because you say, “I choose this for my body, and I feel positive about it, so therefore my choice is a positive one,” doesn’t actually make you body positive.
In Zeisler’s book, she discusses what she calls “marketplace feminism,” which includes marketplace body positivity. I’ll let her say it in her own words:
“The business of marketing and selling to women literally depends on creating and then addressing female insecurity […] There was good reason for industries that sustained themselves on the self-hatred of women to dread the potential reach of feminist movements. Co-opting the language of liberation to sell their products allowed them to have it both ways, celebrating the spirit of the movement while fostering a new set of insecurities (“Natural-look” cosmetics, anyone?) and a new aspirational archetype.”
That is literally the same thing that’s happening in the body positive movement. In order to sell you a fitness program, rather than teaching you how to liberate yourself from body image obsession and fat loss goals, this writer (and all of the people who have written similar posts to sell similar lifestyles that lead to product and service purchases) turns to the language of oppression (“Your body isn’t good enough; it’s too fat!”) and couches it in the language of liberation (“But here’s a body positive approach to fixing it!”) in order to get you, the body positive feminist, to click, follow, and buy.
Strength training is not, inherently anti-body positive. The language with which this writer was discussing ts purpose is the problem. Strength training does not inherently lead to fat loss; strength training with “evidence” to specifically lose fat is the issue.
I understand that the immediate reaction to a post like this is to get defensive, but understand that I’m not calling out this writer as the only perpetrator of this type of co-opting of language, nor am I suggesting that she is doing so maliciously; she, like most of us, is affected by a larger cultural shift toward Zeisler’s description of “marketplace feminism,” and may not even realize that this is what she’s doing.
As Zeisler says, “[t]he further into the marketplace ‘choice’ has moved, the more it has become a nebulous designation. […] The use of ‘choice’ to rationalize individual choices—and, perhaps more important, to signify that criticizing those choices is unfeminist—isn’t unethical or amoral so much as it is underachieving.”
If you want to be body positive for real, messaging matter. And if you are a strength coach who wants to “empower” your clients to stop obsessing about their bodies, talking about fat loss, even if that’s the thing that your clients think they want or you think they should be able to choose, is not going to fix the problem. If you truly want to “empower” your clients, then become aware of your language and consciously change it.
Or, if you do think that evidence-based fat loss goals are a valid choice for your clients, then just call them what they are: fat loss goals. Own it. Do not use the language of body positivity to influence someone’s purchase while muddying the meaning of that language in the first place.
Your language matters. Make the conscious choice to do better.
TL;DR: A blog post about evidence-based fat loss isn’t body positive, even if the writer describes herself as a body positive feminist.