Filters, dieting, photoshop, ‘thinspo’: Over the past decade, body image has consistently been a huge topic whenever we talk about social media. The negative effects of visual platforms like Instagram, especially on young female users, have been discussed time and again. So much, in fact, that by now, a lot of people seem to be sick of hearing about it.
But has all this discussion really changed anything?
Looking at the social media platforms themselves, the answer is no. Instagram still does not have a strict policy against body shaming, there are no regulations about marking edited pictures, face-altering filters are available to users in a matter of seconds.
Still, there has been a shift looking at the community on these social media platforms, a shift in what the users themselves post and consume. In the present day, you do not just see skinny models and diet tips on these platforms anymore – but also a multitude of posts celebrating bigger bodies and ‘imperfect’ bodily attributes: Inspirational quotes or illustrations about loving yourself, pictures of stretch marks and cellulite, models slouching in front of the mirror to show what they look like unposed.
All of these examples can be linked to a movement that has been gaining popularity on social media in recent years. A movement supposed to change the way we define beauty: the body positivity movement.
What does Body Positivity even mean?
There are a few terms that appear quite often together with the body positivity movement. Even though some of them are very well-known, it is worth taking a quick glance through them one more time to fully understand the meaning of these definitions as well as the body positivity movement.
Body Image is ‘the mental picture that a person forms of one’s body as a whole, including its physical characteristics and one’s attitudes toward these characteristics.’ So basically, it is how a person sees themselves, how they feel about their body and its shape, and also how one physically feels in their own body.
Body shaming is the act of saying something negative about a person’s body. It can be about your own body or someone else’s. The commentary can be about a person’s size, age, hair, clothes, food, hair, or level of attractiveness. Body shaming can lead to mental health issues including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and body dysmorphia, as well as the general feeling of hating one’s body.
The last term, which is our main topic for this blog post, ‘body positivity’ is a social movement focused on the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities, while challenging present-day beauty standards as an undesirable social construct.
History and purpose of the Body Positivity Movement
So, how did everything start? Why was there a need for such a movement? The body positivity movement mainly exists to combat the diet-obsessed world. Throughout social media, there are constant reminders of harrowing beauty standards to be good enough for society. For example, one might see posts online related to food categorized into good food and bad food, or workout routines as well as photoshopped images of unrealistic bodies. Diet culture has a huge impact in society, and there are few safe spaces in the media to escape from the toxicity of this trend.
To some, diet culture may not seem like such a big deal, because there is nothing wrong with eating or striving to be healthy. But the problem with diet culture is that it considers healthy eating to be some serious actions such as calorie counting and restriction or overexercising oneself to the state of starvation, malnourishment and eating disorders.
There are lots of negative effects that one might have, such as hair loss, bone fatigue, increasing stress, low blood pressure, and more – and no one deserves to suffer because of their appearance. Because of this, society has begun to learn to accept everyone, to remember that all bodies are beautiful, and that is when the body positivity movement was created.
Looking at the history and evolution of the body positivity movement itself; it started in the early 1960s in New York, then continued to grow to the ‘National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance’. In 1996, the word ‘body positive’ came to light, and the website thebodypositive.org was founded. The movement became known to the general public and bloomed around 2012, shifting from only fat acceptance to embracing the natural physical variations of the body.
How does the movement manifest on Social Media?
So how exactly does this movement find its way online? As of today, social media is one of the quickest ways for information, news or trends to transfer from person to person, country to country, all around the world. And being a social movement related to body image itself, platforms like Instagram and TikTok are really the ideal world for the body positivity movement to be the talk of the town.
The hashtag #bodypositivity and #bodypositive on Instagram are both very popular and widely-used. On July 31st, these hashtags got around 10 and 18 million posts with a lot of influencers posting and sharing pictures about their bodies with positive notes towards it. One example is Mik Zazon, a blogger whose main focus is about normalizing body images, who has roughly one million followers on instagram. Here you can see one of her pictures saying “Dear Body I love you”. Another example is Miah Carter, a video creator with hundreds of thousands of followers. Her main focus is lifestyle, fashion, and self-love.
Another channel that is also worth mentioning is TikTok – a social media platform based mainly on videos. The hashtag #bodypositivity on the platform has a tremendous number of 24 billion views around the world.
Body Positivity in Marketing
Being a topic which caught a lot of attention in society, body positivity seemed like the promised land for many brands to advertise their products. Some brands actually did a good job with using it as a marketing tool and they did launch some campaigns that were very influential:
One of them was the campaign #Aeriereal from the brand AERIE, which generated positive feedback from its customers. The campaign motivated the customers to love themselves, to love their ‘real’ body and their ‘real’ person. It was a way not only to get customers engaged but also a way to promote products – coming from the actual customers. Part of their campaign was also the Real Talk series which featured podcasts from empowering and inspiring women. The AerieReal campaign was a huge success and it continues to generate posts on Instagram. By August 2022, it already had more than 360,000 posts using the hashtag.
Another remarkable campaign was My Beauty My Say from Dove, featuring women who voiced the negative things or actions that other people have said or done to them, but in the end, it didn’t matter to those women because they wouldn’t let anyone define who they are. The I’mNoAngel campaign from the fashion brand Lane Bryant is geared towards plus-size women. This was also a successful campaign, with the aim of celebrating women’s sexiness and becoming comfortable in their own skin.
Most of the marketing campaigns channeling the body positivity movement use women as their models. One of the few that embraced male body positivity was the Hanes body positivity campaign, ‘Every Bod’. The inclusive marketing strategy garnered lots of positive responses on social media – because men should also feel confident in their bodies.
There are also a few brands that missed the mark when they tried to use the body positivity movement to put themselves on the market. An example for that is Protein World. They used a conventionally good-looking and thin model to be labeled as ‘beach body ready’ on one of their ads, which caused a lot of controversy. The brand Dove took the chance and advertised their product with a more inclusive definition of a ‘beach body’, which was then praised a lot on social media.
Another time that Dove hit the mark with their body positive marketing was when they posted an answer to a Victoria’s Secret ad featuring supermodels with ‘The perfect body’ written on the banner. Dove responded by putting out their own banner with women of different shapes and sizes, regardless of skin colors or age, and stating that these women are actually the examples of ‘The Perfect Real Body’.
Not everything about body positivity is actually positive
While well-intentioned, the body positivity movement is far from perfect – and is facing criticism from within and outside the movement. The issue most frequently brought up is that body positivity promotes unhealthy lifestyles, like unhealthy eating behaviors, or that it ‘glamorizes’ obesity by showcasing bigger bodies and labeling them as beautiful. Another issue is the lack of diversity within the movement. Finally, the movement has come under fire for allegedly creating a stressful atmosphere, making people feel pressured to love their bodies and appearance no matter what. Let us take a closer look at these issues:
Promoting obesity and unhealthy lifestyles
A perfect example for this issue is plus-size model and body positivity advocate Tess Holliday. In 2018, she posed for the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine and sparked a huge debate on social media over the issue of ‘glorifying’ or ‘promoting’ obesity. Critics voiced concerns that Cosmopolitan as a fashion and style magazine was conveying to readers that Holliday’s body type was the new ‘normal’ or a new trend. Others celebrated the magazine for being inclusive and appreciative of different sizes and bodies.
There have been many other instances of this issue being discussed. Some experts have also voiced concerns that normalizing larger bodies could contribute to overweight and obesity being widespread health concerns. But: to date there aren’t any empirical studies to support the claim that body positivity leads to unhealthy behaviors. Nevertheless, this remains a huge – and heated – debate whenever body positivity is discussed.
Just like in many other areas – both online and in real life – diversity is a huge factor in the body positivity movement and becomes an issue when there is little of it to be found in the content created in the name of the movement. Over the years, there has been quite a bit of empirical research on this issue, for instance with researchers analyzing the body positivity hashtags on social media platforms and what kind of people and bodies are being posted and shown.
In one study from 2020, researchers analyzed the body positivity hashtag on Instagram and found that the majority of posts were of young, white women that were conventionally attractive, able-bodied and cisgender. The study showed that the representation of different cultures, different races, gender identities, ages or disabilities was very minimal in the posts found on the movement’s hashtag. Additionally, the study found that most of the women pictured were not plus-size. Most wore from a size 0 to a size 4 in clothing. And while thin people are not meant to be excluded from the movement, it is a fact that the movement was created to represent larger body types. The results of the study show that there has been a clear shift in how body positivity is defined and practiced on social media and that in many instances, the movement is missing its initial goal of being inclusive and for everybody.
Pressure to love your body
This issue with the body positivity movement is about escaping one form of pressure about your body – but replacing it with a new one in the process.
Even with positive messages about bodies, the content in the movement is still very much focused on appearance and therefore reinforces that people think about their bodies and their appearance constantly. Instead of feeling the need to lose weight or look skinnier, people have criticized that they now feel the pressure to love their appearance no matter what – which is not as easy as it might sound. And when they can not do that, when they can not love their body no matter what, 24 hours of the day, they ultimately feel worse than they did in their diet culture mindset.
But there might be a solution…
Body neutrality is a concept that derived from the body positivity idea but turned out to have a very different focus:
While body positivity wants to change what we define as beautiful by promoting acceptance and appreciation of all body shapes and sizes, body neutrality wants to change how highly we value our appearance in general. This means the ultimate goal is to not care so deeply about our appearance anymore and understanding that our appearance is not linked to our value.
This, of course, technically makes the body positivity movement obsolete: There would be no need to change beauty standards if there were no beauty standards in the first place.
Another central idea of practicing body neutrality is focusing on what our bodies do for usrather than how they look. A body positive statement would be ‘I love my legs, they are beautiful’ while a body neutral statement would be ‘I love my legs because they help me run’. Finally the body neutrality movement is also about acknowledging that feeling good about yourself and your body is not always going the case – and that that is okay.
Many supporters of the movement view body neutrality as the ideal middle ground between the opposing messages of diet culture and body positivity.
So what does this mean? Is the body positivity movement ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
Either can be true, for different people with different lives, in different situations. For some,seeing a body positive post on Instagram might be just the thing they need to look at themselves with kinder eyes next time they pass a mirror. For others, going from ‘I hate my body’ to ‘I love my body, no matter what’ seems impossible and brings a lot of pressure. Others might not feel represented enough within the movement to truly identify with it – so addressing issues like the lack of diversity would be vital to truly transform the body positive movement into what it originally stood for.
The body neutrality movement is working to break down beauty standards and the value we place on appearance – but it is unlikely that either body positivity or negativity will disappear soon. One thing is for sure: It is important that we as a society are keeping the conversation about body image and everything that comes with it going – about the good and the bad.
We leave you with one last message to wrap up this blog post: Practice body positivity, neutrality or whatever works for you mindfully – especially when on the internet. Love yourself wisely. 🙂
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