Lately, it seems like the concept of body image has become polarized; wanting to slim down is set at odds with wanting to promote body positive feelings. On one end, there are people who are actively trying to lose weight or keep it off; on the other are people who feel adamant about loving their bodies just as they are. Neither group is inherently wrong, although many who belong to one side try to shame the opposition, and it’s understandable that anyone caught in the crossfire might feel compelled to choose one or the other.
The problem remains that almost nothing in our world is so black and white. Arguably, most of us lie somewhere in the hazy grey area between unbridled weight loss and unconditional body positivity. Perhaps there is an ideal middle ground on this issue, but who’s to say what that is? Regardless, folks who find that they don’t fully agree with either side might feel unsure of how to navigate their own journey.
So, on such a strongly divided issue, can someone be a part of both camps? Is it even possible to lose weight while being body positive?
An Unappetizing History of Diet Culture
To answer that question, let’s start by looking at how we got here.
A preoccupation with body image can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece. The ideal body was slender and muscular — and male. Female bodies were at a disadvantage, creating a complicated relationship between women and body image that has withstood the test of time.
In more modern times, people fell under the influence of the cultures they were immersed in. For example, the Western world has been heavily influenced by Christianity, which renounced gluttony; therefore, a fat person would appear to be walking proof of their sin.
Throughout history, dieting has always been a way to combat fatness. William the Conqueror only drank alcohol so he could become thin, while poet Lord Byron lived on vinegar and water. One man even suggested avoiding swamps to stay thin, because he noticed many fat people living in those areas.
Let’s jump to the U.S. in the 1950s. Hollywood is in its prime, television is taking the nation by storm and most middle-class folks are living fruitfully in post-war America. For the first time, a generation of people are able to see the ideal body on-screen; they see the beautiful Audrey Hepburn or the strapping Gene Kelly, or even the kooky, gorgeous Lucille Ball, and think that these are the only desirable bodies in the world.
And now, in the 21st century, our culture is composed of fad and yo-yo dieting, weight-loss reality TV and comedies that make fat people the butt of a poorly-written joke.
Safe to say, fatphobia and body-negative attitudes have pervaded the history of the world.
Enter the body positive movement. Body positivity appears to have taken root only a few years ago, but it’s actually a reality that many people have been living for decades. Pioneered by fat, black and queer women of the ‘60s, the fat positivity movement aimed to combat discrimination in public spaces, such as the workplace or doctor’s office.
The movement we know today came more recently. You might recall Ashley Graham, the first plus-sized model to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or, more recently, Lizzo, the ultra-successful pop singer who takes pride in presenting messages of self-love in the form of absurdly catchy beats.
Self-love takes time and Lizzo is there! "Looking in the mirror and accepting what's in the mirror is very very difficult, and right now I love every time I look into the mirror." 🙌👏 @lizzo opened up to @jameelajamil on her #IWeigh campaign. pic.twitter.com/TTVTxwrUgn
— MAKERS (@MAKERSwomen) September 13, 2019
Icons like these helped to create our current understanding of the body positivity movement, which promotes a model of “health at every size”; basically, this means that you can be healthy, regardless of your body type. Critics argue that this type of rhetoric essentially promotes obesity because it convinces people to remain complacent about being overweight.
Fat or Fatphobic?
The divide is clear, and it’s already been made for us. Either we can choose to love our bodies, refuse to change them and dismantle diet culture, or we can wish to lose weight, actively participate in diet culture and shame fat bodies. According to these extremes, there is no in-between.
This can be extremely confusing for those of us who inevitably don’t fit squarely in one of these two camps. Is there really no way to do both? There are likely to be so many people who want to love their bodies, while simultaneously still wanting to change their appearance.
The relationship between weight loss and body positivity is a complicated one, but there is more overlap than you might think. According to Connie Sobczak of The Body Positive (an educational organization that promotes healthy body image), it’s important to “focus on loving your body first, and you will nourish it with a lifestyle that promotes lifelong health — which, if your body wants it to, might include weight loss.” So, in some cases, weight loss is just a natural derivative of your own self-love.
Another approach might involve reworking your goals; instead of attempting to work toward a smaller waist or lower BMI (what one might call aesthetic goals), focus on what you can gain. Treat exercise like a display of your prowess, rather than as a chore, and reframe what you’re striving to attain. Maybe it’s being able to run a 5K or curl 25 pounds, or perhaps you simply want to be able to get through the day with some energy left to spare. Either way, the focus should be on what your body is capable of, rather than your physical appearance. And in that sense, any weight change that might happen is a byproduct of self-love, instead of scrutiny.
Above all, the body positive movement is all about letting people exist the way they want to. If someone wants to keep their body just as it is, then we should accept that choice, and if another person desires to lose weight, we should also accept their decision without criticism. As a general rule (for both body positivity and life, overall), we need to stop making assumptions about people and allow them autonomy over their own bodies. Whether you want a total body overhaul, or you simply wouldn’t change a thing about yourself, we need to make peace with the fact that everybody is the captain of their own ship, and all choices are valid ones.