Learn the definition of body positivity and how you can practice it in your life.
In American culture, forces internal and external draw our attention continuously to how we can “fix” our bodies to make them somehow finally acceptable. We all engage in this kind of thinking on some level – it’s so ubiquitous that it’s become ingrained, automatic.
It is only in the last couple of generations that voices have begun to challenge the idea that our bodies are in constant need of improvement. From the feminist movement of the 1960s to movements led by Black women in the 1980s to present-day movements on social media, a new line of thinking has instead promoted body positivity (Cwynar-Horta, 2016; Darwin & Miller, 2021).
Body positivity has two elements: (1) the acceptance of all bodies without regard to their shape, size, or features; and (2) a focus on health and functionality instead of appearance (Cohen et al., 2019b; Sastre, 2014).
What does this mean? Instead of limiting our understanding of our bodies to how they look, and in particular whether they meet certain expectations we commonly hold for bodies, body positivity encourages us to respect and honor the inherent value in all bodies (Sastre, 2014). Body positivity also means focusing on what our bodies can do, and placing higher value on the body’s capabilities than on whether it looks a certain way (Cohen et al., 2019b).
Another alternative to body positivity is called body neutrality. This approach involves simply placing less emphasis on physical appearance in the first place (Rees, 2019). It is thought that taking attention away from one’s appearance altogether will help people focus more on finding value in the rest of their being, such as their personality and the things they can do (Rees, 2019).
Body Positivity Tips
How can you practice body positivity in your own life? Below are some tips.
While using social media has been associated with lots of poorer psychological outcomes, this is one situation where being on social media can actually be helpful! Looking at body positive content on social media has been associated with better psychological health in several studies. Specifically, people seem to appreciate their own bodies more and report more satisfaction with their bodies as they see more of this content (Nelson et al., 2022). It may be that people build a healthier body image over time as they view body positive content, becoming less likely to compare themselves to others in the process (Rodgers et al., 2022). So we encourage you to look at body positive content online if you would like to feel better about your body.
Researchers have asked the question of whether all body positive media are created equal. What they have found is that messages that are pressuring or prescriptive may not be as helpful as messages that promote acceptance and encourage agency (Betz & Ramsey, 2017; Legault & Sago, 2022).
What does that mean? Let’s look at a couple examples. In a culture that promotes thinness, a post that celebrates curviness can be body positive. However, there is a difference between a caption reading “Never be ashamed of your curves” and “Sending love to all my curvy sisters out there”. Maybe you can feel the difference – the first message creates pressure to not feel shame, while the other just promotes a feeling of solidarity.
For you as a consumer of media, these research findings suggest you will be best served by looking at content that encourages you to accept yourself just as you are. Content that promotes a certain body type, even if it is pushing back against cultural standards by celebrating something that is not traditionally seen as attractive, may make you feel badly if your body doesn’t quite fit with that particular message.
Here's another tip: It might be helpful to think of your body as a “process”, not an “object” (Franzoi, 1995). There are two key aspects to this approach:
(1) A body in process is a body that does things. It is defined by its actions, the energy it contains, its capacity to change the world. The body as an object is simply an appearance, deriving no value from what it can do.
(2) A body in process is forever changing. Nearly everything we judge in our bodies is impermanent. If we can accept that nothing about our bodies, neither the “good” nor the “bad”, is permanent, then we don’t have to obsess over those parts of us.
There are countless examples of people online practicing body positivity. While we encourage you to embrace and borrow freely from other people’s creativity, you are the one and only authority on what body positivity will look like for you. If you can, be patient and gentle with yourself in your efforts to build body positivity into your life. We all have a lot of programming to undo. Every step is a victory.
Betz, D. E., & Ramsay, L. R. (2017). Should women be “All About That Bass”?: Diverse body ideal messages and women’s body image. Body Image, 22, 18-31.
Cohen, R., Irwin, L., & Newton-John, T. (2019b) #bodypositivity: A content analysis of body positive accounts on Instagram. Body Image, 29, 47–57.
Cwynar-Horta, J. (2016). The commodification of the Body Positive movement on Instagram. Stream: Inspiring Critical Thought, 8, 36-56.
Darwin, H., & Miller, A. (2021). Factions, frames, and postfeminism(s) in the Body Positive Movement. Feminist Media Studies, 21(6), 873-890.
Franzoi, S. L. (1995). The body-as-object versus the body-as-process: gender differences and gender considerations. Sex Roles, 33(5/6), 417-437.
Legault, L., & Sago, A. (2022). When body positivity falls flat: divergent effects of body acceptance messages that support vs. undermine basic psychological needs. Body Image, 41, 225-238.
Nelson, S. L., Harriger, J. A., Miller-Perrin, C., & Rouse, S. V. (2022). The effects of body-positive Instagram posts on body image in adult women. Body Image, 42, 338-346.
Rees, A. (2019). Beyond beautiful: A practical guide to being happy, confident, and you in a looks-obsessed world. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Rodgers, R. F., Wertheim, E. H., Paxton, S. J., Tylka, T. L., & Harriger, J. A. (2022). #Bopo: Enhancing body image through body positive social media – evidence to date and research directions. Body Image, 41, 367-374.
Sastre, A. (2014). Towards a radical body positive: Reading the online ‘body positive movement’. Feminist Media Studies, 14, 929–943.