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The Negatives of ‘Body Positivity’

By Owen Su (SAS ’24)

NYT Editorial Honorable Mention Article

For the last few years, #fat-acceptance, #body-positivity, and #self-love have been trending on Instagram, often paired with selfies of those who are overweight. As someone who has suffered from obesity, someone who had difficulty running, climbing stairs, and playing sports, someone who feigned confidence out the outside but felt lethargic and weak inside, I could understand.

At first, I, too, took comfort in its inclusive message and considered stopping losing weight. However, I realized that although acceptance, positivity, and love are non-negotiable, the fat needed to go. Physical health, and ultimately mental health, still relied on biological health. In the end, I achieved a healthy weight and became more confident, energetic, and, most importantly, healthy in all senses.

Obesity is a real medical condition with very real health consequences, and glorifying it in the name of self love can be dangerous. For example, according to the CDC, obesity leads to lower quality of life, depression, and higher mortality rates. It also leads to lower productivity and more medical costs.

In combating the negative side of fat acceptance, there is a danger that people would perceive it as fat shaming. Fat shaming does lead to increased weight gain and mental health deterioration, which is counterproductive. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish between “encouraging weight lost” and “fat shaming”, as even genuine advice for weight lost can be perceived as offensive. Therefore, in combating obesity, we can focus establishing healthy social norms. For example, by defining the “good” body as having a normal BMI, or by making exercise equipment widely available. I remember, when I was losing weight, the free and accessible school gym allowed me to be consistent with exercising. And, when we want to encourage weight lost, do it in a compassionate and caring way, rather than a contemptuous way.

A good alternative to fat acceptance is body neutrality. In body neutrality, the value of the body is defined in utilitarian terms. For example, “being at a normal weight is healthy” rather than “being underweight/overweight is pretty.” Under body neutrality, we would pursuit the healthiest, most functional body possible, rather than to conform to a beauty standard. Body neutrality, with its utilitarian term, would prevent extreme body movements like diet culture or fat acceptance. At the same time, it takes off the psychological burden of beauty standards.

Ultimately, extreme beauty standards, such as diet culture and fat acceptance, are not healthy nor sustainable. There is nothing wrong with self love or the desire to become more attractive, but it shouldn’t be done at the cost of health. It is high time for us to define healthy as the new attractive.

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