We need to clear something up when it comes to body positivity. Body positive hashtags are all over the internet. On Instagram alone (at time of writing – July 2017) there are over three million posts tagged with #bodypositive, nearly a million with #bodypositivity, and almost exactly 350,000 posts with #bopo. Don’t get me wrong, it’s BEYOND exciting to think of so much self-love online against the backdrop of diet- and selfie-culture. And I’m totally here for the body positive movement and community, especially at a time where young people report to feeling under more pressure than ever before to look perfect. However, I feel like, occasionally, there is some confusion as to what the term ‘body positivity’ actually means – especially *eye-roll* when certain brands engage in the space for a heartbeat because it’s ‘on-trend’.
Let’s start with what body positivity is not. As a holistic concept, body positivity is NOT thinking and feeling you are drop-dead gorgeous, 24/7. Absolutely no shade if you do by the way – this is awesome. Rather, you do not HAVE to feel beautiful all the time to be body positive. Nor do you have to look like a supermodel or reflect any kind of ideal or standard of beauty. Again, cool if you do, but that’s not what body positivity is about. Remember the body positive movement was borne out of the fat-acceptance movement.
Yet, when we (at the Centre for Appearance Research) run body positive programmes (e.g., ‘the Body Project’ or ‘Confident Me’) with young people and ask them to say something positive about their bodies, more often than not, what we tend to find is this. Without guidance, they will often say an area of their body that they perceive to be most aligned with current beauty standards. Alternatively, they will say a feature that is less prominent in how they define the ideal image (e.g., feet or freckles). Either way, the exercise misses the point. To be clear, it is wonderful if they love their feet or freckles. But, what this exercise is aiming for is to get them to acknowledge, appreciate and accept all different aspects of their body (e.g., stomach, hips, breasts, thighs, in addition to their feet or freckles), regardless of whether these parts of their body reflect the ideal or not.
So then, what IS body positivity exactly? According to body image research, positive body image is characterised by feelings of love, respect, appreciation and acceptance held for one’s body, and has commonly been referred to as ‘body appreciation’(Tyla & Wood-Barcalow, 2015). Crucially, academics draw a clear distinction between body appreciation and body satisfaction. Body satisfaction, by the way, refers to liking the way your body looks and feels, and can be conceived on a continuum with body dissatisfaction. Research shows that it is possible to appreciate, accept, and respect your body, and what it can do, while simultaneously feeling some degree of dissatisfaction towards some aspects of your appearance. For example, you could dislike the size of your arms, but at the same time, you might appreciate them for allowing you to carry things, or being able to hug someone. That is, you CAN be body positive even if you are not 100% satisfied with every aspect of your appearance.
This distinction between body appreciation and body satisfaction is important because funnily enough, body satisfaction is tricky if you do not reflect global beauty ideals (i.e., slim, toned, white / fair-skinned with European features, young, able-bodied) and you live in a media-saturated world where idealised images are inescapable. Certainly, if body satisfaction was easy, body dissatisfaction would not be described as ‘normative discontent’ as it is so commonly in academic circles, and fewer people would report to experiencing body dissatisfaction (up to 80% of women in the UK do not feel satisfied with their body).
So, how do we become more body positive?
Rather than striving to change our bodies to reflect beauty ideals as a prerequisite to loving and being comfortable in our bodies (how many times have you thought, “if I lose weight / had clear skin / had a smaller nose etc., I will like my body more / feel better in my body”?), it is time to try something new. Focusing on accepting, appreciating and respecting our bodies – including their functions and appearance — stands to benefit us all, regardless of what our body looks like. This idea is supported by correlational research that shows that body appreciation adds psychological benefits beyond those associated with reducing body dissatisfaction. These benefits include higher self-esteem and positive mood, and individuals who appreciate their body are more likely to eat intuitively (e.g., based on feelings of hunger and satiety, rather than mood or boredom) and to exercise for joy and health (rather than weight or shape-related motivations) (Avalos, Tyla, & Wood-Barcalow, 2005). Additionally, experimental research suggests that positive body image serves as a protective factor against sociocultural appearance pressures to meet appearance ideals (Andrew, Tiggemann, & Clark, 2015). Importantly, body appreciation can be viewed as a skill that can be practiced, which may get easier and more comfortable over time.
- TRY thanking your body after your next run, bike ride, yoga, or dance class, OR after you create a really neat piece of art or make an amazing sound singing or playing an instrument, OR successfully manage to put up an IKEA flat-pack, OR after you comfort a friend in need with a big hug or a listening ear.
- TRY ‘rewarding’ your body with kindness with what feels right at the time. This could be a hot bath, an early night, a proper lunch break, or a ‘social media cleanse’ where unfollow accounts that negatively affect how you feel about your body.
- If you are able to, when you are exercising or doing something active, TRY focusing on the movement you are making or creating, OR the sense of joy, energy or strength, OR physical sensations such as your heart beat or breathe, rather than calories burned or the desire to achieve ‘goal’ body. If exercise isn’t fun, question why not, and is there an alternative option that you might enjoy more?
- TRY being a positive body image influence among your friends. This can be a challenge, as we are so socially conditioned to talk and comment upon appearance, weight, and shape. When someone says something negative about their appearance, it feels almost instinctive to continue the conversation and this often isn’t helpful to anyone involved. Think of ways you can shift the topic. Another thing to remember that comments that might seem like compliments, e.g., “You look great! Have you lost weight” or “I wish I was as skinny as you” reinforce the (problematic and inaccurate) idea that thinner = better in some way, and can be really triggering (Diedrichs, 2013). Instead, TRY complimenting your friends for being talented, creative, loyal, funny, compassionate, thoughtful [insert adjective of choice].
SIDENOTE. It is possible to talk about appearance and keep the conversation body positive. A good rule of thumb is to focus on aspects of a person’s appearance they have chosen that day. For example, this could be on the colour or pattern of a t-shirt, a lipstick shade, a hairstyle, how an outfit has been put together. Beauty and fashion are not inherently antithetical to body positivity – they can be forms of self-expression, creativity and fun, we just need to think carefully and critically about how we use and talk about them.
These are just some suggestions. Remember, different things work for different people in different ways. Try some out and then do what feels good to you.
To summarise, framing body positivity as body appreciationrather than body satisfaction may allow more of us to embrace and benefit from body positivity. In addition, focusing on what our body can do allows us to love and appreciate our bodies and thus may be an entry point to body positivity. Importantly, we can do this without necessarily being super satisfied with how our body looks. Body satisfaction certainly isn’t a pre-requisite for body positivity. However, it’s possible that in time practicing body appreciation may lead to greater body satisfaction.