I was scrolling through my newsfeed and there it was: a bevy of fatphobic fitspo garbage topped off with the hashtag #bodypositive. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a post like that. As the philosophy of body positivity hits the mainstream, more people are co-opting the movement and redefining it as not being mean to others’ faces when they don’t meet society’s beauty standards, which obviously isn’t body positive at all.
The Body Positive (bodpos) Movement is about developing positive feelings surrounding our physical bodies. This could be about weight, but it also includes physical “flaws,” our general state of health, and really everything to do with our physical selves. The idea is to be comfortable in the body you have and take as much care of it as you can. The second part of that statement is where things get a bit problematic for some people.
Taking care of your body often involves eating well and working out, and discussions around those factors are often littered with fatphobic, ableist, and otherwise harmful language, all under the mistaken idea that the person speaking is being body positive because they’re not being awful to another person. However, in many cases, they’re still unintentionally upholding oppressive standards.
1) You Can’t be Body Positive and Use Fatphobic Language
Many posts the have come from the mainstream front of the bodpos movement are part of a rebrand of diet culture. Most people have realized by now that it’s not in vogue to call people disgusting for their bodies, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve moved past body shaming. They’ve just gotten more subtle.
There is a lot of coded language involved in the mainstream bodpos movement, much of it based on the idea that it’s okay to talk about yourself in a certain way as long as you don’t talk about other people in the same way.
For instance, it’s not okay to say “fat makes you look gross,” but it’s perfectly okay to say, “I looked gross when I was fat” after weight loss. It’s not okay to say “fat people are unhealthy,” but it’s perfectly fine to say, “I was fat and unhealthy.”
Though these comments are self-directed, they’re just promoting the same fatphobic messages as more outwardly hostile comments. Shaming a heavier past self is still parroting society’s idea that fat is bad and unattractive.
In short, whether you’re talking about yourself in the past or a random fat person, that sort of language is still fatphobic and harmful. By using fatphobic language to describe your past self, you are being no more body positive than you would be if you say all fat people are disgusting because you are still reinforcing the idea that a certain body is better and more deserving than another, and that’s not body positive at all.
Instead of criticizing your own body, don’t put yourself down at all. The body that you had before was just as deserving as the one you have now. Instead of using those tired tropes, focus on what you are doing now and how it feels. Talk about your real gains (how much you can lift, how far you run) rather than how much better you fit into the pre-manufactured beauty box.
2) Before and After Photos are Tools of Diet Culture
You’ve just taken a selfie in the mirror and notice how much more defined your abs are than they were before you started your health and fitness journey. Awesome, but you don’t need to post that next to a picture of you from a year ago to show the difference. You can just tell people there’s a difference. They’ll believe you.
Before and after photos are a tool of diet culture. They’ve been used for decades as a way to shame people for their bodies and push them to make changes that will “help” them achieve media-defined goals of perfection. Even your well-meaning and personal before and after photos will serve this purpose once shared.
Instead of doing this, just post your current photo. You don’t need to shame anyone, including your past self, to make your current self feel better.
3) Assigning Moral Values to Food Are Classist and Fatphobic
The food we put in our bodies has a huge impact on how we feel. If you’re having a bad day, a surprise sweet treat will probably make you feel better! You thought I was going to talk about how eating too many corn chips is bad or something, but I’m not because that moral judgment around food is part of the problem. What’s worse is that those foods deemed “good” are often more expensive and therefore out of reach for many people, who are then shamed for eating what they can afford.
By focusing on food in discussions of body positivity in an “eat this, not that” way, we are subtly shaming people who live in poverty and living in food deserts with limited access to fresh ingredients. By doing this, we are saying that their health in relation to their food is their own fault while ignoring the complex intersections of race and class that create situations in which people simply don’t have access to the options that we deem the “best.”
Instead of labeling food as good or bad, better or worse, speak of it in neutral terms. “Cheat days” and “being bad” by eating a pizza instead of a salad are just ways of reinforcing fatphobic ideas. Food is food. We need to eat to live, and the kitchen is not a moral battleground.
4) The “No Excuses” Fitspo Trend Is Ableist Trash
By now, most people have realized that the “no excuses” brand of fitspo that once decorated the walls of the fitness side of the internet is actually pretty exclusionary in nature. However, people still use that language as if it’s body positive when it’s not.
The intent of the slogan “no excuses” is to say that there are no reasons for not doing what’s “best” for your body. However, the reality is that there are countless reasons—many of them related to personal health restrictions—that make it impossible for people to hit the gym, walk the path, or otherwise workout on the regular. The no excuses mantra completely ignores the reality of people who physically can’t meet those false standards.
Rather than remark on your lack of excuses, instead talk about how proud of yourself you are. Instead of “I made it to the gym! No excuses!” try “I made it to the gym, and I’m proud of myself!” The latter is uplifting without the side-effect of shaming people (including yourself) who can’t make it to the gym every day.
Shaming Language Isn’t Body Positive
The language we use is important. Even if someone doesn’t mean to body shame, they can still use language that is inherently shaming. Intent does not erase effect. If we continue to use fatphobic, ableist, and classist language, we support those ideas and perpetuate the oppression of bodies that don’t fit society’s biased standards.
It is perfectly fine to talk about fitness and health, but we must all be careful to ensure that we are doing so in a way that is positive and uplifting without relying on shaming tactics. Only then are we truly being #bodypositive.