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Column: Embracing body positivity can lead to rejecting healthy choices

Column: Embracing body positivity can lead to rejecting healthy choices

No individual should have to do anything with their body that they don’t want to, but body positivity movements should encourage healthy lifestyles. Though many proponents of body positivity would prefer to keep the focus of the movement on simple self-acceptance and healthy attitudes, realistically, they are unable to divorce the discussion of body image from body health.

More than one-third of all American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that statistic often inspires light-hearted “That’s America” commentary, it’s actually a serious topic. Obesity is a leading cause of heart disease and diabetes, which are among the most significant causes of preventable death in the United States.

Just as our society encourages wearing seat belts, putting on condoms, and not smoking, it’s not unreasonable to also encourage maintaining a weight within your recommended body mass index range. This isn’t a slight against fat people, it’s common sense.

Popular body positivity bloggers wouldn’t necessarily agree. The website Fat Girl Flow features one blog entry titled “Glorifying Obesity,” which contains ideas that seem to cross back and forth between acceptable and unhealthy.

“I want to be very clear here: I am glorifying obesity,” according to the website. “I am also 100 percent saying that health is subjective and that I am under no obligation to strive for what others consider ‘health’ if I do not want to. Nobody is.”

The second half of that comment isn’t necessarily ridiculous, but the first half is. There are few things more objective than health. If the author is trying to suggest that mental and emotional health are more important than physical health, then they are choosing to ignore how joint pain, greatly reduced stamina and difficulty navigating public spaces affect our moods and lifestyles.

Other body positivity champions, such as Virgie Tovar, are similarly mixed in their messages. Tovar is a positive, professional role model. As a large woman of color, her brand of online feminism is refreshing in the face of the more common white, privileged alternative.

But the hashtags of Tovar and her peers, which include #LoseHateNotWeight and #RiotsNotDiets, are troubling. Certainly one should lose hate, but one should also try to lose weight if they are obese and at a higher risk of heart disease.

Dieting as a fad is a problem. Not all diets, however, are harmful. Programs such as Weight Watchers have helped millions of Americans drop literal combined tons of weight.

A significant portion of the body positivity movement lately seems to focus on pushing obese bodies as sexually appealing. Sexual attraction is subjective, but just as mainstream conceptions of beauty shouldn’t be forced on every American, every American shouldn’t be expected to find obese bodies beautiful.

Videos, such as film director James Lees’ “Define Beauty: In Praise of Body Fat,” feature nude, obese models in sexual situations, with the idea being to present them as any Vogue or Marie Claire model would be.

An emphasis on sex appeal would seem to be antithetical to the idea of emphasizing mind over body.

Lisa Kaplin of mindbodygreen.com spoke to this contradiction in an article last year.

“The message is clear: you can be fat or thin, but the focus is still on how you look,” Kaplin wrote. “The outrageous spotlight on [a woman’s] appearance is keeping us from living full, complex, productive and healthy lives.”

Ironically, body positivity may be leading to the opposite of self-hate: narcissism. If a movement focuses on appearance and—according to that movement—an individual’s appearance is never lacking, then individuals following that movement may have no goal for which to strive and no room for improvement. They may feel they are already perfect.

The emphasis in the body positivity movement should be on fitness over conventional beauty standards instead of obsession with appearance. A powerful, agile, durable body should be the goal.

“Every time that word [diet comes up], we always associate it with body shape, when the emphasis should be on a healthy diet that makes you feel good,” said Christopher Leeth, professional counselor and lecturer at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in an article for healthline.com.

Surely this is a more positive, responsible message than Fat Girl Flow’s glorification of obesity or Tovar’s call to not lose weight and reject healthy diets.

Students at the UA’s Body Smart Initiative concur. Katie Huerta, a junior studying family studies and human development and a marketing intern for the group, wrote about the importance of maintaining a balance between promoting healthy self image and a healthy lifestyle within the body positivity movement.

“I also think that if you’re comfortable with your size, then that’s what’s important, but it’s also important to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” Huerta wrote. “The body positivity movement has an obligation to promote healthy lifestyles because that is the essence of being body positive.”

Like any social movement, body positivity features many shades of gray. The movement at its best reminds society that size, beauty, shape and fitness are not so cut-and-dry. At its worst, the movement gives praise to obesity.

Instead of featuring sick bodies and calling them beautiful, videos such as Lees’ should showcase bodies that are not traditionally beautiful, but healthy and powerful none the less. Seeing these images across different media platforms would go a long way toward helping average Americans feel better about how they look and, ultimately, who they are.


Follow Greg Castro on Twitter.


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