What Is Body Positivity?

Diverse group of women

Getty Images / Luis Alvarez

To some generations, the term "body positivity" is brand new. To others, it's a staple of social media feeds and frequently discussed amongst friends. But no matter what an individual's experience with the phrase has been, there's no denying its continued splash on the health scene.

Body positivity was created to empower those with marginalized bodies, and "seeks to challenge dominant societal appearance ideals and promote acceptance and appreciation of all bodies and appearances."

A Brief History of the Body Positive Movement

The Body Positive Movement spawned from the Fat Liberation Movement of the 1960s, and was created by the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, which is now known as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), an organization that advocates for the rights of plus size people.

A barrier to body positivity is weight bias, which is the negative behavior toward a person because of their size. It can be both external and internal. Weight bias is common, and when it is internal, can lead to serious health consequences, such as disordered eating. It is rooted in shame around body appearance and does not promote any positive lifestyle changes.

The Body Positivity Movement that we know today was inspired by the work of NAAFA. As weight bias was explored, diet culture began to be criticized, and body acceptance and self-love became more mainstream.

In 2000, the "fatosphere," a collection of blogs and personal sites provided a safe space for the Fat Acceptance Movement. The body positivity movement began to go "viral" in the mid-2000s thanks to social media, and hashtags like #bodypositivity and #BoPo.

In 2016 it was reported that the average woman wore a size 16 or 18. This statistic showcased how there was a need for greater representation of body types, refuting diet culture's thin-ideal.

In the last two decades, body positivity has continued to grow in popularity, from the advertisement methods retailers lean on to how individuals use social media platforms as advocacy opportunities for a body-positive space.

What the Research Says

Research shows that societies that idolize thinness present higher rates of body dissatisfaction. Studies have concluded that white cultures tend to promote thinness more than in BIPOC communities. Black Americans evaluate their appearance more positively (and even desire larger bodies); white Americans tend to evaluate their bodies more negatively.

Just as racial demographics are seen to impact one's perception of their body, more differences can be noted amongst different genders. It is more likely for women to have body image concerns than men.

"As women’s bodies are culturally objectified, women begin to objectify themselves. Self-objectification may lead women to be overly critical of their bodies, and thus to have poorer appearance evaluation than men."

But demographics aside, body positivity has the ability to be understood thanks to a variety of social shifts. Studies have shown that people exposed to the body positive movement on social media (specifically Instagram) reported higher body satisfaction and improved emotional wellbeing. Additionally, ad campaigns from companies such as Aerie Real and Dove Real Beauty have been seen to positively influence self-esteem and mood.

While an individual's background might impact how they once saw themselves, current tools and social changes have the ability to shift mindsets for the benefit of the body positive movement.

Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality

While body positivity is all about loving the appearance of your body at any shape and size, body neutrality focuses on having a neutral relationship with your body outside of appearance. Neither loving or hating it, but appreciating it for all that it does for you.

Research shows that when appearance is the motivation for weight loss, people usually end up regaining the weight they lost. When there is a focus on health, they were able to maintain their weight loss.

Body positivity has been under fire for adopting an idea of toxic positivity, because of its all-or-nothing approach to body acceptance, and the pressure to have to love your body. We may not all love the appearance of our body all of the time, and this is the space for body neutrality to shine.

What This Means for You

It's important to understand that body size is not an indicator of health. In fact, studies are indicating that body mass index (BMI) is not an accurate indicator of future health risks, and is not the defining characteristic of obesity as a disease.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age. Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

Health is determined by proper nutrition and exercise. Prioritizing 30 minutes of activity a day, eating fruits, vegetables, foods lower in added sugar, whole grains, and lean sources of protein, and making sure your exercise covers endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility, will all help you obtain a healthy lifestyle at any size.

Learning to love and accept your body during your health journey—no matter what stage you're in—can impact your overall quality of life. Working toward health goals while maintaining a mindset of body positivity is a balance that has the ability to serve you well mentally and physically.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to remember that weight is not an indicator of health, but a healthy lifestyle is important for disease prevention. If you are struggling with body image, understanding what a healthy body looks like for you, or an unhealthy relationship with food, see a health care professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the body positive movement harmful?

    The body positivity movement can be harmful without the right outlook, but with a focus on a healthy lifestyle, it can be helpful for a positive body image as long as it does not focus on appearance. There is concern that it may reduce the motivation to create healthy behaviors, though this is different for each individual.

  • How does negative body image affect mental health?

    The connection between negative body image and mental health flows both ways. While having a negative view of your body may contribute to depression, the inverse is also true. People with mental disorders have been found to have a higher incidence of negative body image as well.

  • How can I improve my self-esteem and body image?

    Exercise can be a great way to improve your self-esteem, as exercise boosts your mood. Exercise also helps you to have a healthy relationship with your body and see positive changes while pursuing a fitness routine. Therapy is another option that is beneficial when it comes to improving self-esteem and body image if it stems from a mental health disorder.

16 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Brittany Hammond
Brittany is a Certified Personal Trainer and freelance wellness writer with work in Livestrong, Verywell Fit, and more.

Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. A wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

Learn about our editorial process