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Changing avatars of the body positivity movement

In this excerpt from his new book, The Book of Body Positivity, Dr. Rajeev Kurapati traces the evolution of the body acceptance movement – from the 1960s right up to the 21st century

Body positivity activists are now advocating for ‘body neutrality’ which focuses on health rather than appearance. (Pexels/RDNE Stock Project)

By Dr. Rajeev Kurapati

LAST PUBLISHED 21.11.2023  |  08:37 AM IST

In the 1960s, black women pioneered the fat acceptance movement, which was the first cultural pushback against fat shaming especially in public settings like the workplace and the doctor’s office. In 1969, a non-profit organization called the National Association to Aid Fat Americans was established, serving to fight for the civil rights and acceptance of fat individuals. It eventually changed its name to the current one used today—NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. This organization was a driving force behind the fat positivity movement, which was started in response to the rise of fat shaming and fatphobia in American culture.

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In 1996, the phrase ‘body positive’ was coined with the launch of thebodypositive.org. This website offered educational materials to help people feel satisfied about their bodies by taking off the focus from losing weight through extreme diets and exercise efforts. It was not until 2012 that the body positivity movement attained widespread recognition as we know it today. Incidentally, this was also when social media platforms gained popularity as a mode of mass communication, surpassing the conventional media, TV, newspapers and journals. Modern social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit bloomed between 2004 and 2006, followed by Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat, which all emerged in 2010.

The body positivity movement started when a group of fat activists networked online through forums and chat rooms. They then extended their conversations to Instagram and Tumblr. The movement garnered the most traction on Instagram, where #bodypositivity had over 7.2 million posts—a number which is growing daily. Body positivity, popularly referred to as #bopo, became a global trending topic. Since then, everyone has jumped on the bandwagon—registered medical professionals, influencers, you name it—some with purer intentions than others.

The fundamental notion behind body positivity is admirable—no individual should face discrimination based on their size, shape, weight, gender or physical appearance. Every person deserves equitable treatment across all aspects of society. It’s crucial to eliminate both financial burdens, such as paying for extra air plane seats, and the social stigma attached to being overweight or obese due to a prevailing pro-thin culture. Body positivity is about embracing and appreciating all body types.

Unfortunately, as with most movements, the body positivity movement also became a target for major corporations. As the idea gained widespread momentum, big corporations exploited it and used it as a marketing ploy. Worse still, it often became an excuse for poor lifestyle choices.

In 2004, Dove famously led the charge in profiting from the body acceptance movement with their campaign for ‘real beauty’. The commercial campaign advertised a skin-firming lotion with the slogan ‘New Dove Firming: Tested on Actual curves’ alongside six ‘real’ plus-size women. Dove was advising women to be comfortable in their skin, but at the same time, was also encouraging them to make it firmer by purchasing and using their product.

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Even though many people noticed the irony, the project generated more than $1.5 billion in sales following its launch. Many large-scale companies decided to replicate Dove’s marketing strategy.

This has led body positive advocates and researchers to question whether a beauty brand or any brand, regardless of its progressiveness, is truly championing body positivity. Their concern lies in the potential to create a sense of inadequacy, prompting individuals to spend their money.

Body positivity should not be manipulated for financial gain. Unfortunately, even individuals within the medical field sometimes leverage the body positivity movement to promote books or consultations in order to generate extra profit. Another campaign emerged and quickly gained widespread recognition to counter both the diet culture and the body positivity movements— ‘health at every size’. 

The cover of 'The Book of Body Positivity'

HEALTH AT EVERY SIZE
‘Health at every size’ is one of the most popular movements in the US along with the body positivity movement. Unfortunately, the idea can be misleading, jeopardising its well-intentioned goal. A severely underweight person is as unhealthy as a severely overweight person.

Beyond looks and appearance, this is an internal, physical, biological and metabolic health issue. Severely underweight people are more likely to suffer from brittle bones, low blood pressure, amenorrhea, malnutrition and mental illness. Correspondingly, people afflicted by sick fat are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and mental illness.

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Body positivity may be well intentioned and while it is good to have these ‘good vibes’, we should never ignore the health risks associated with adiposity and imagine that we are ‘not at risk’ even if we are severely obese. It is understandable to cling to optimism as a form of encouragement when we face shaming from many corners of society, but that doesn’t mean we deliberately give ourselves false hopes irrespective of the reality. In doing so, we neglect our emotions and adopt a coping technique that is actually unhelpful or even toxic.

The term ‘toxic positivity’ is gaining momentum in the media parallel to the body positivity movement. Toxic positivity holds that you should always maintain a positive mindset, no matter how difficult the situation is. This belief is toxic for several reasons—it is unrealistic to expect someone to think positively regardless of circumstances; we are too complicated and multifaceted for that to happen. Besides experiencing positive feelings like happiness and joy, we also experience negative feelings like frustration, anger, sadness, grief and shame. By insisting on remaining positive at all times, we will be doing a disservice to ourselves. We need to acknowledge our negative emotions as much as we need to celebrate the positive feelings and experiences when they come.

Adding insult to injury, today’s landscape of the body positivity movement is very different from the fat activism movement it started out to be. As the hashtags #bodypositivity, #selflove, #selfacceptance and their variants gained popularity, people with smaller bodies began sharing photos and selfies of themselves in their #ootd (outfit of the day) at the gym mirror tagged the same way. So now, when you search #bodypositivity on Instagram, you are more likely to see thin, lean and fit people than larger-bodied people whom the movement was created by and for. Unfortunately, this made larger-bodied individuals feel marginalised yet again.

To address the toxic undertones of pure body positivity, many activists are now advocating for ‘body neutrality’ instead. This method focuses on health rather than appearances. In principle, self-love without focusing on your physical appearance will naturally translate into behaviours that nurture your body. Rather than exercising to lose weight, we will exercise to improve our health. We won’t ‘diet’ but we will eat well.

Excerpted with permission from The Book of Body Positivity by Dr. Rajeev Kurapati, published by Penguin Random House India, 272 pages, Rs. 399.

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