Let’s start with words and definitions. Cambridge dictionary defines body positivity as “the fact of feeling good about your body and the way it looks”, Collins dictionary – as “the idea that people should feel happy with and proud of their body, whatever shape or size it is.” Nowadays Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday have replaced skinny models of the past on the billboards. Even Victoria Secrets, notoriously known for their ultrathin models, started to hire so-called plus-size girls. So, now we are actively normalizing bigger bodies than we used to, and body positivity is new 90-60-90. But aren’t we promoting morbid obesity?
Ellie Aniulis and her colleagues have described an interesting phenomenon in their article, published in Body Image in March 2021. The scientists showed the North American women the selection of pictures of different size bodies and asked them to select the body closest to their ideal. It was revealed that the participants presented with the larger-bodied selection more often chose normal weight ideal bodies than those who saw the smaller-bodied selections. So, what you see is what you want, and showing the bigger bodies in the advertisements, films, and media can lead to the shift of the ideal body size to L and even XL. Will it make the global obesity pandemic even deeper? Is it ok or is it hazardous?
Theoretically, the recognition of obesity as a disease was for the first time established in 1948. In 1995 World Health Organization revealed that the problem of overweight becomes greater than the problem of underweight. Nevertheless, the majority of people, and even medical workers, still disregard the obesity problem. World Health Organization, World Obesity Federation, American Medical Association, and European Association for the Study of Obesity state that obesity is a disease, moreover, a serious chronic relapsing disease, which can lead to long-term medical complications and shorten life expectancy. Position documents of the World Obesity Federation say that it is crucial to admit that obesity is a disease because in this case the part of obesity stigma like “it’s his own fault” or “she just does not have willpower” sounds stupid. It can’t be completely your fault to catch pneumonia or to suffer from gastric ulcer, and it is the same with obesity, which is a result of a complex interplay of genes, environment, psychology, social influence and so on. And, as in the case of pneumonia or ulcer, it is better not to deal with it yourself – you’d better ask for the help of your doctor, as the concept of obesity as a disease calls for treatment. Dependent on obesity grade and individual level of medical complications risk, it can be treated by lifestyle modification, medications, or even surgery.
Now it’s time to answer the question in the title: where is the borderline between body positivity and promoting morbid obesity? Body positivity, first of all, is a concept of diversity: we must have the possibility to see different body sizes and shapes, bald and hairy heads, white and black faces, etc. The media strategy could be called “morbid obesity promotion” just in case if obese people dominated the runways, screens, and journal covers, as it was with skinny people in the 1990-s. So, today’s situation is not a promotion, it’s legalization of a bigger body. It’s finally time to wake up and leave the Procrustean bed of “thin = ideal” beauty standards.
Taking everything into account, body positivity is a concept that may help you not to be ashamed of your weight. If you are obese, you can wear a short skirt or go to the beach without achieving any unrealistic “bikini body”. But be sure to discuss the weight topic with your general practitioner.
Text: Larysa Strilchuk