Five Questions to Ask Instead of “Is This Really Body Positive?”

Instead of asking whether something is “really body positive,” ask who it harms

Photo by Fernand De Canne on Unsplash

That isn’t very body positive.

It’s one of the statements I’ve come to dread most, and on social media, it’s a constant.

The body positivity movement has largely found its home online, where its boundaries are hotly contested. Many openly wonder if a desire to lose weight is really body positive. Some insist it is. Others are certain it isn’t. Celebrities like Lizzo are at once praised for being a “body positive style icon” and criticized for using rhetoric that polices fat people’s behavior. Many of us describe ourselves as body positive, but few of us can agree on a shared definition of the term, much less a rubric for what qualifies as really body positive.

It’s a debate I shy away from — not for fear of controversy or ruffling feathers, but because frankly, it feels thoroughly useless. Body positivity has a complex and contested history, one that has evolved over decades, but remains difficult to pin down. With all that murkiness, those who identify with body positivity struggle to find the rulebooks and referees to which we’ve become so accustomed. The desire for clarity is understandable, but those impulses to find structure often lead us astray.

I step out of those conversations because, for me, there is no one-size-fits-all rulebook. (As a fat woman, I’ve long known that “one size fits all” is a cruel joke anyway.) Rulebooks become dogmas; dogmas need leaders; those leaders become gatekeepers; and ultimately, we recreate the siloed rhetoric that brought us here. And those rulebooks are often shortcuts through the messy, vital, transformative work of building relationships with people whose experiences look different than ours, asking those people how they are impacted by our behavior, and adjusting that behavior to more fully respect their experience.

My fat activism is about building a world that considers and values fat folks’ experiences just as much as thin folks’. No caveats. No weight limits. No restrictions on ability. No as long as you’re healthy. I want a movement — and a world — where fat folks’ experiences and needs are held tenderly, with love and curiosity. And the only way to get there, really get there, isn’t through an abstract set of rules, but through the risky, essential work of building meaningful, reciprocal relationships that respect the differences in our experiences.

A rulebook may give us a false sense of safety without actually requiring any of us to build those crucial relationships. I do not need judges, juries and executioners — I’ve had enough of those. Instead, I long for the accountability and transformation that are best brought to bear by vulnerable, reciprocal relationships.

So, when I catch myself wondering if something is really body positive, I ask myself a few key questions instead.

  • Have I asked for feedback? Has someone told me this behavior or activity harms them? Have I asked people with different identities and life experiences how they’re impacted by it — disabled people, fat people, people of color, and more? Have I adapted based on their feedback?
  • Who does this harm? Who is materially harmed by this behavior or activity? How are they harmed? Where are they on the down side of power, and where do they hold power and privilege? (Note that harm here is distinct from offense. Harmful activities could do things like trigger eating disorder relapses, lift up the virtue of thin bodies at the expense of fat ones, or exploit fear of marginalized bodies to reinforce diet culture.)
  • Who benefits from this activity, and how? Does this activity generate profits for an individual, organization or company? Does it continue to lift up groups of people who already benefit from social or economic privilege? Or does it adjust the balance of power to lift up those who have been historically marginalized or sidelined?
  • Who does this exclude? Who is excluded by this behavior/activity, either because they’re structurally excluded, or because they regularly opt out/don’t participate? Is this accessible to and respectful of disabled people, trans people, fat people, people with eating disorders, and more? If it isn’t, have I asked them how that exclusion impacts them, and what I can do to make it right?
  • At whose expense does this come? Does this behavior/activity rely on lifting up some bodies’ virtue by contrast to other bodies’ perceived failure to meet a standard of beauty, health or ability? How are those standards radicalized and gendered? Does this further marginalize a community that’s already on the down side of power?

These are the questions I long to see asked more broadly in body positive spaces. It’s an approach that’s less tidy, and for some will feel less satisfying. But our experiences of our own bodies and body-based oppression are rarely tidy, either.

I long for a movement, and a world, in which more of us have the courage to tangle with complex, nuanced, messy questions to build practices and approaches that seek to include and lift up more and more of us — not just those of us who need the clarity, or those of us who are accustomed to providing it. I yearn to see more of us tangle with these complex, nuanced, messy questions, so that we can better show up for ourselves, and for each other.

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