Blog, Social Justice

Why Body Positivity Feels a Bridge Too Far

Why Body Positivity Feels a Bridge Too Far - larger woman doing reclined stretches on a yoga mat

The last time I felt happy in my body was eight years ago. I had recently completed a yoga teacher training program. I was leading regular classes at a handful of gyms and yoga studios. I was ably juggling both my nascent yoga business and my writing career. And I was pregnant with the child I’d been dreaming of (and trying to conceive) for years.

And sure, there eventually came a time when I could no longer touch my toes. But I never felt stronger, more flexible, or more grateful for everything my body was capable of than I did when I was pregnant. It was an unexpected delight.

My relationship with my body has always been complicated. And that moment of body positivity was a bright spot. But that level of self-love has always felt unsustainable and, lately, I’ve wished I could get away with never thinking about my body at all.

We Internalize — from a Young Age — the Idea that Our Value Is Tied to Our Weight

I grew up with Hellmann’s Light Mayonnaise and Turkey Hill Light ice cream. Skim milk and margarine. That natural peanut butter with the oil sitting on top, waiting to be stirred in before spreading. We weren’t allowed soda during the week and the cabinet full of sugar cereals was off-limits. I was aware from a young age of weight as a problem to be controlled. Of the body as a problem to be contained.

Though I was slim enough when I was young, I slowly began gaining weight in my early 20s. My mother was visibly disturbed by this. When I got engaged at the age of 24, she convinced me to join Weight Watchers with her in order to prep for the wedding. Later on, after having left good ol’ WW, she cheered me on every time I tried a new diet. (Not that I tried very often. I’ve always hated the thought of denying myself the glories of delicious food.)

Over time, I grew resentful of this. I wanted to complain about the impracticality of crop tops and palazzo pants without being given a dissertation about what I “could do” if I was unhappy with my body. I wanted to get that sweet yoga high — and maintain my sweet bicep muscles — without someone complimenting me on any incidental weight loss. Was I a hideous monster before?

It wasn’t long before the allure of the body positivity movement drew me in.

What Is the Body Positivity Movement?

The body positivity movement grew out of the fat acceptance movement of the ’60s, which was created by and for folks in marginalized bodies, particularly fat, Black, queer, and disabled bodies. The movement’s purpose was to end fat-shaming and discrimination against those who didn’t fit the culturally accepted beauty ideal. Those within the movement decried these unrealistic beauty standards and spread the message that all bodies are different… that belly rolls and cellulite are normal… that all bodies are beautiful.

As someone who had always been told she’d inherited her ancestors’ “thunder thighs,” I loved the idea that I could embrace those thighs as beautiful. Admire my “muffin top.” Be unapologetic about the space I took up. Though it wasn’t always easy to land on love, it felt better than the endless cycle of shame, denial, and self-loathing I usually existed within.

Over the years, the body positivity movement picked up steam and I began seeing it everywhere, even as I was coming to believe that this level of positivity was impossible to maintain. As with most things, its message was also becoming watered down, co-opted by corporations for profit. As a result, the movement’s latest champions were leaving its originators behind. Earlier this year, personal hero Lizzo even took to TikTok to point out that the term had been “co-opted by all bodies” and had become a way to celebrate “medium and small girls and people who occasionally get rolls.”

Enter Body Neutrality

It was at about this time that I began picking up titles like The F*ck It Diet and Health at Every Size (inspired by the Health at Every Size movement). These books shared research that showed how our assumptions about the connection between weight and health were deeply flawed. They promoted the practice of mindful eating and joyful movement and preached that the number on the scale was not inherently tied to our overall health and well-being.

Similarly, the body neutrality movement urges folks to see that our physical appearance is not tied to our self-worth or our health and that, if anything, we should appreciate our bodies for everything they are capable of doing for us.

Learning about the movement reminded me of how I felt reading Gabby Rivera and Celia Moscote’s Juliet Takes a Breath… it reminded me of that desire I had to not expend energy either hating or loving my body. That desire to just be.

Every Movement Has Its Areas of Weakness

Still, while I and everyone else within the body neutrality movement may wish our bodies were not treated as objects to be seen and judged, they are. They continue to be. No amount of magical thinking will change that.

Earlier this summer, grappling with debilitating chronic fatigue, I made an appointment with my primary care physician. She ordered bloodwork and had me go for thyroid and abdominal ultrasounds. She also recommended that I return to therapy and replace my IUD. These things are multi-layered, after all. But when my bloodwork came back showing high cholesterol and abnormal liver levels, I was once again left to untangle my feelings around my body and my feelings around my health.

And I thought I was doing okay with that until I went to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat doctor) to talk about my enlarged thyroid.

He ended up fat-shaming me instead.

After quickly dismissing my concerns about my thyroid, he asked if he could provide me with a referral to a nutritionist, as I clearly had to lose weight. Blindsided, I quipped that I already knew what I had to do. He kept pushing, and I left the appointment feeling like shit. Depressed shit. Later on, the depression shifted to rage. This guy, who had never before met me, hadn’t even asked me about my weight fluctuations. My eating and exercise habits. The impact that a flipping pandemic may have had upon me. Instead of addressing the issue I’d gone in to discuss, he assumed my weight was the problem.

It was the perfect illustration of Aubrey Gordon’s point that even when you are able to achieve body neutrality or, hell, even body positivity, “none of our bodies are received ‘neutrally’ by those around us.” Body-based oppression is just baked into our culture.

Sometimes, I dream about reclaiming that feeling I had eight years ago, when I was kicking yoga butt and growing a baby inside my body and generally winning at life, even as my body expanded.

Some days, I catch glimpses of it.

All I can do is take it day by day.

For Further Reading:

You Have the Right to Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar

NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance)

The Body Is Not an Apology (more than just a book)

The Militant Baker’s Master Body Positive Resource List

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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