Where Body Positivity Went Wrong

Picture of By Emma C. C.

By Emma C. C.

Our body may be a temple, but it truly is the hardest temple to take care of. Everyday, our physical appearance becomes the topic of criticism and judgment, whether that is by the hands of other people or our own self. Movements of self-love – such as body positivity – have been attempting to stop this madness, and convince us to see the beauty in our body. However, many people criticize this movement, and instead argue in favor of body neutrality. Which one will have the winning formula to teach us how to take care of our temple?

The premise of the body positivity movement is actually great on paper – ‘All bodies are beautiful’. That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? For centuries, society has pushed increasingly stricter beauty standards that people (especially women) must fit at all costs. Your waist should be yay wide, your nose should look like that, your ass should be this big… Basically, everyone had to be cis, white, able-bodied, and skinny to be considered beautiful. And there seemed to be no end to it. From the moment that we come into the world, it is ingrained into our brains that we need to look a certain way to be considered valuable by society, and as we grow up, those pressuring echoes only get louder.

So, one day people had enough and the body positivity movement came into the picture. The movement – also called BoPo – aims for inclusivity of those bodies that are constantly alienated by society’s standards for beauty, i.e. overweight people, disabled people, people of color, and trans people. BoPo saw many falling victims of body dissatisfaction and decided to play the hero of the story, by saying “Fuck beauty standards, we are all beautiful!”.

However, as wonderful as that sentiment sounds, all that shimmers is not gold, and the golden façade of the body positivity movement is getting bleaker by the minute. Several activists, such as actress Jameela Jamil have criticized BoPo, pointing out how it’s not truly inclusive and, more often than not, actually counterproductive.

Breaking vs. changing the mold

First of all, the message of the movement has been completely misunderstood. The initial idea was to dismantle beauty standards, but that intent has somehow morphed into the desire to change those stifling criteria in order to include everyone. But here lies the problem – they will never be able to include everyone.

Beauty standards are still here, they just put on a different costume.

The fact that we seem to be moving away from a conceptualization of beauty as what is considered attractive by Eurocentric criteria is definitely good. No more glorification of skinny-white-blue-eyed-blonde girls, but a love for other features as well – inclusivity for all, or so it seems. However, even that unanimous inclusion is subjected to standards. You can be fat but not too fat, you can be dark but not too dark… Beauty standards are still here, they just put on a different costume. We are trying to change the mold instead of destroying it, and by doing so we are missing the point of what the body positivity movement is actually supposed to be about.

What even is “beautiful”?

Furthermore, this core message of BoPo is actually axiomatically wrong. As I said before, the main idea of being body positive is that you consider all bodies to be beautiful. But that’s exactly the problem – who dictates what is beautiful and what isn’t? The answer is actually pretty simple – beauty standards, which are set by… you guessed it, men! The body positivity movement still places great importance upon the concept of beauty, which is based on the criteria of what is socially acceptable, and was created to cater to the male gaze. And such ideas are so internalized within us that we don’t even notice – we often say that we want to change our appearance for us, to make us feel better… But why is that? Is it just so we could better fit society’s standards? Will that truly make us happy?

The ableism of it all

Thankfully, many people have come to the same conclusions as I have, and decided to change the main message of the movement from one focused on seeing yourself as beautiful to, “Your body is good because it does xyz (e.g. walking, laughing, hugging, etc.) for you”. That sounds way better, right? Well, let me tell you why it is not, and how it’s actually really fucked up. It completely alienates a whole group of people whose bodies do not do ‘xyz’ – i.e., physically disabled people. Not being able to do ‘xyz’ doesn’t diminish your worth, but that’s how a disabled person feels after hearing that. When I read such things, I don’t feel positive about my body at all – I just feel like crap.

Same thing goes for people who say “You should be kind to your body because it is kind to you”… It just completely misses the point, because not everybody’s body is kind to them. My body is by all means not kind to me, but that doesn’t mean I should feel like shit because of it, or that my body isn’t good. Too bad that’s exactly what most body positive people say, even if they don’t necessarily mean to.

The rabbit hole of fake positivity

Finally, the message of the body positivity movement is simply a bit too aspirational and hard to reach for some people. A lot of people, actually. The idea is that you need to love your body and find it beautiful, but for some that’s too difficult to achieve. And then, they beat themselves up for not loving their bodies as they should, and end up just being miserable.

If you already feel bad about your appearance, being told that you shouldn’t feel like that can actually make you feel worse. You end up feeling ashamed of your body, yourself, and your attitude as well. So, you try to put on a brave face and fake your positivity, but lying about feeling bad worsens your mental state, and sends you down a never-ending spiral of negativity. You end up feeling like you’ve failed, and that just creates another trap of distress for you to fall into.

Sometimes loving something you bear so much hatred for is too hard, and that’s okay.

Body neutrality – your body is not your worth!

So, you may be wondering – what’s the alternative? The answer is simple – body neutrality. The core idea of this particular movement is pretty straightforward – “Your body is good because it just is”. Being body neutral means seeing your worth as completely separate from physical appearance, not as something that goes beyond it, like body positivity tries to say.

Your body is just… a part of who you are, but it’s not who you are as a whole.

In BoPo, your body remains the focus of the conversation, and love towards it is presented as the final goal. But that’s just not feasible for some people. Instead, body neutrality says that it’s perfectly fine not to love your body, as the goal is not self-adoration but the realization that you are much more than your physical appearance. Your body is just… a part of who you are, but it’s not who you are as a whole.

Actress Jameela Jamil is a fierce advocate for the body neutrality movement, and has frequently spoken out in favor of it, and against body positivity. For instance, she says: “I’m not trying to spread body positivity. I’m trying to spread body neutrality where I can sit here and not think about what my body is looking like.”

Jameela Jamil on self-love and coming out of lockdown: 'I set a low bar for myself'
Source: @Glamour


And that’s exactly what the movement is trying to do – separating physical appearance from the feelings of self-identity and self-worth. 

But how do you practice body neutrality?

For starters, you have to drop body talk from all your conversation. That means – stop discussing and nitpicking at it, even with yourself. If you feel that you have gained a little weight, for example, don’t obsess over that – just buy looser pants that make you feel more comfortable. And if you feel yourself falling down the rabbit hole of body judgement, consider what it’s doing for you in that moment. Focus on its strengths, not on what you consider “flaws”. Moreover, if your friends bring up aspects of physical appearance in conversations, just redirect them to a different topic – talk about how you feel, rather than how you look

Do what makes you feel good, instead of focusing on how it will make you look.

What’s also extremely important is to simply listen to your body. When you do physical exercise, choose fun activities that bring you joy, not those that feel like punishment. And if you feel tired, take a break and regain strength, and don’t feel bad for giving yourself a breather. In a nutshell – do what makes you feel good, instead of focusing on how it will make you look.

Finally (and most importantly), give it time. It takes a while to rewire your brain and get to a more neutral midpoint, so patience is a key aspect. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and building your self-confidence is an even harder job – give yourself some slack and sooner than later, you’ll get there.


Cover By: Molly Ellis

Edited By: Younes Skalli

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