"You’re perfect just the way you are." This affirming mantra rings out across social media, challenging status-quo beauty ideals. The movement promotes self-acceptance, with influencers proudly flaunting different body types.
But does such unconditional positivity—more specifically of overweight and obese people—improve mental health at the expense of physical health?
Upending Beauty Ideals at What Cost?The origins of body positivity can be traced back to the late 1960s, when several overweight Americans founded the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, claiming size discrimination. Rebranded today as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAFAA), the organization envisions “a culture where all fat people are free, celebrated, and liberated.”
Although the consensus is that society has constructed unrealistic and unhealthy expectations for how people—especially women—should look, some contend that the body positivity movement has gone too far.
The study observed nearly 23,500 participants from 1997 to 2015 and compared their self-perception of their weight with their body mass index. The share of men who underestimated their weight increased to 57.9 percent from 48.4 percent, and the percentage of women who did so rose to 30.6 percent from 24.5 percent.
How ‘Toxic Positivity’ Affects Mental HealthThe body positivity movement aims to improve mental health through greater self-esteem and body image. However, it can sometimes undermine mental health via “toxic positivity,” according to a 2022 study published in the international research journal Body Image.
Toxic body positivity refers to pressuring people to suppress negative emotions and put on a positive front, causing distress. Researchers warned that many women feel that they are obligated to exhibit body confidence and that not doing so is seen as weakness.
Striking a BalanceSome argue that body positivity overemphasizes mental health at the expense of physical health. However, Tiffany M. Stewart, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is an associate professor and director at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said she seeks to balance the two. In a 2018 commentary published in Obesity, she contended that stigma around weight often hinders rather than encourages healthy changes.
“Acceptance of body appearance and healthy behavior are not mutually exclusive,” Ms. Stewart wrote, adding that we’re at a crossroads in using behavior change to improve health.
“The middle ground to be found here may be a focus on the health behaviors themselves and outcomes not solely based on the amount of weight lost.”