As the body positivity movement continues to gain momentum, it’s important to acknowledge its roots and why it exists in the first place. Take a closer look what it really means.


Look everywhere in mainstream and social media, and you’ll see that the body positivity movement is on the rise.  And if you were to try and understand it, you may believe that it’s all about liking your looks. That’s because as it’s gone more mainstream, its original message has become more and more diluted.

Body positivity grew out of the fat acceptance movement, an anti-discrimination movement led by black and queer women in the 1960s. Yet most of the body positivity you see these days are images of women in revealing clothes, paired with messages about loving yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a space for that. In fact, it’s empowering to see people of all sizes feeling confident in their bodies, and disproving society’s narrow definition of beauty. I myself have had many clients who have experienced breakthroughs after finding people on social media who look like them, and when they know that person likes their looks (along with thousands of others), they recognize that they don’t have to hate their bodies so much.

The problem is when body positivity stops there.

Everyone deserves to hold positive feelings towards their body, but there are factors much more complex than an aesthetic ideal that have become barriers to positive body image. That’s because body image is about so much more than liking your looks.

According to The Body Image Workbook, body image is “how you personally experience your embodiment. More than a mental picture of what you look like, your body image consists of your personal relationship with your body – encompassing your perceptions, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions that pertain to your physical appearance.”

Body image is often talked about as if it were a matter of choice – just choose to love your body and everything will be OK!

But that sentiment is often a result of privilege and a knowledge gap when it comes to body image. In fact, there are many factors, including some that are outside our control which can have a profound experience on how you may experience and relate to your body. Here are a few to consider.

1. Weight stigma

For starters, there’s weight stigma. It’s one thing to personally accept your body, but if you have a larger body, that doesn’t mean society will accept it.

Body positivity won’t stop doctors from recommending a diet when all that’s needed is an antibiotic for strep throat. Body positivity won’t make airplanes with seats that comfortably seat larger bodies, or stop the microaggressions from the person sitting the next seat over. Body positivity won’t stop employers from discriminating against fat people in the workplace.

For those who have experienced trauma or are in a marginalized group, body image may have more to do with feeling safe than loving your rolls. If you’re afraid of being harmed, positive body image might mean feeling like you have the strength to fight back, or are “invisible” to blend in.

2. Gender roles

Gender expectations also play a role in body image. Of course, we all know about the impossible beauty expectations placed on women, but men also receive messages about what masculinity supposedly looks like. Because eating disorders/disordered eating are often thought to be a “woman’s illness,” men have less outlets for discussing their body dissatisfaction. It gets more complicated when we get outside the gender binary.

Body positivity says to love your body just as it is, but for someone who is trans or gender non-binary, changing their body actually may relieve some of the dysphoria they are experiencing.

3. Health status

Health status also plays a role, especially for those with any kind of visible disability. As you can imagine, navigating a world that was built for people who are non-disabled could have a significant impact on one’s relationship with their body.

You do not have to personally identify as someone with a disability for health status to affect your body image. As an example, for those with IBS, whose physical appearance can change rapidly in a short period of time due to bloating – you can imagine how distressing it might feel to all of a sudden look like you have a pregnant belly after eating. There are also women who struggle with fertility issues, whose missing periods chip away at the trust they have within their own body.

If you’re someone who has been struggling with body image, recognize that that is much more complex than loving your looks.

There are many factors outside individual control that can impact your individual relationship with your body. There aren’t easy answers, but identifying and understanding these influences can bring its own bit of peace, and can help you identify positive behaviors that nurture a healthier body image.  This can open you up to connecting with other people in your community, taking a personal defense course, or seeking out therapy.

It’s also helpful to distinguish between accepting and respecting your body, and liking your looks. The latter matters very little in the grand scheme of things, and thinking less about your body and looks can actually be liberating.  

If holding positive feelings towards your body feels impossible right now, that’s OK. You don’t have to confidently stroll onto a beach in a bikini to improve your body image. Instead, take a step back and focus on how you can simply treat your body with respect.

Everyone deserves to feel comfortable and safe in their own skin.

Adapted from the original article.

Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE is a private practice dietitian, food enthusiast, and nutrition expert based in Columbia, SC.  By guiding others to rediscover the joy of nourishment rather than deprivation, Rachael helps men and women alike improve their health and well-being through delicious whole food recipes and practical advice through intuitive eating.

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