The Psychology of Body Positivity

190a4c30-4af7-0133-0aa6-0e76e5725d9dI am tired of the body positivity movement. Everyday my in-box is flooded with memes telling me I am perfect, sexy, and strong. I receive countless messages commanding me to love myself from head to toe. I read stories about the hotness of the fatkini, desirability of cellulite, and sizzling sex life of plus size model Tess Holliday. Tess is indeed awesome. I get it. Enough already.


Super famous model Tess Holliday.

Super famous model Tess Holliday.

It’s not the positivity per se that bothers me. Nor is it the idea that fat women can be happy and healthy. I know this to be true. What irks me is the creation and repetition of a new set of rules. You MUST love yourself and your curves. If you do not glory in every part of your body, you are a loser. Body positivity might simply produce another set of regulations, another way for women to fail. At the same time, the focus often remains on physical appearance and seems superficial. Is it really a radical act for me to claim that my body is perfect from the bottom to the top? I don’t think so, but maybe I am not the target audience. I do not hate my body and I never have. Nor do I think it is flawless. I do not believe that I am beautiful. Ever. Is that really a problem? The truth is that I don’t think about my body all that much. I am usually doing something else, like writing, working out, or bending down to pick wooden blocks, ping pong balls, and shit off the floor. And I mean shit literally. This morning began with a Happy New Year diaper blow out.

hateMy real beef with the body positivity movement is that some advocates provide step by step advice about how to love the body you have. The rules usually involve positive self-talk (i.e. looking in the mirror and saying “I am beautiful” and such like), sending love to “hard-to-love” body parts, exuding faked confidence until it becomes real, and so forth. This approach is informed by neo-liberalism, which insists that each person is entirely responsible for their own thoughts, feelings, and lifestyles. We are therefore responsible for loving ourselves and our bodies and have personally failed if we do not. So now you can hate yourself for hating yourself. That’s one of your choices, though it is a lazy and weak one. No wonder corporations like Dove easily embrace the message of body positivity, using it to sell beauty products that will help us to love ourselves better rather than change or improve ourselves. Body positivity bends but does not break dominant cultural practices and beliefs. It can be accommodated with some slight adjustments.

Even worse, however, is the way in which some forms of body positivity–not all, to be sure—promote the psychology of behaviour modification, “a treatment approach, based on the principles of operant conditioning, that replaces undesirable behaviours with more desirable ones through positive or negative reinforcement”  ( Think of training dogs to behave by yanking their leashes when they wander, and giving them treats when they obey. In theory, humans can be similarly trained to think and act correctly, replacing negative patterns with more positive ones. In many ways, body positivity is directly opposed to body negativity, and dishes out praise to those who adhere to its mantra, especially if the converts explain how hard they worked to overcome bad thoughts and feelings. This seems like psychological reprogramming to me rather than a great cultural shift that will change the world and women’s place in it. I don’t want to be trained, corrected, or re-educated. PFO.

Introducing Macchiato, a cat who sits in a scoop and does not bother me while I am writing.

Introducing Macchiato, a cat who sits in a scoop and does not bother me while I am writing.

At the same time, it is clearly a great idea for women to like themselves, enjoy their physicality and recognize diverse forms of embodiment. How can I be against that? I cannot, but there must be a better way, one that does not need to celebrate stretch marks or even notice they exist. In any case, I sure as fuck won’t be talking to myself in the mirror anytime soon.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

5 thoughts on “The Psychology of Body Positivity

  1. YES! I’m beyond bored of messages telling me that a preoccupation with appearance – whether positive or negative – is intrinsic to fulfillment. It’s still a tiresome version of self obsession. Perhaps marketers can tell us to be neurotic and/or obsessed about other things in 2016 – just to keep life interesting.

  2. What an insightful post; you’ve given me a lot to think about. I must agree that a world where stretch marks and cellulite aren’t noticed is a world I would very much like to live it, but that is not our world. I don’t believe there will ever be a future where the physical appearance of ourselves and others is not noticed and criticized.

    In my experience, I haven’t found the body positivity movement to be a strict set of rules but rather a flexible society of people willing to accept themselves and others in the way they wish to be accepted. And, to support others when they need support. Of course, I haven’t experienced every corner of the movement and everything has a dark side.

    For me, the body positivity movement opened my eyes to the idea that you have written about here. The idea that my, and everyone else’s, physical appearance is just not that important, and that it is in fact US who make the value of appearance so high.

    I’ve come to realise that nothing is perfect (we’re told all our lives that nothing and nobody is perfect, and yet still we’re expected to some how achieve perfection) including me, you and the body positivity movement but that doesn’t mean that we’re bad or a waste of time.

    We have made for ourselves a world that highly values the physical appearance, and whether we like it or not personal image is important to many of us. It may seem superficial to some for a person to care about their looks and body, but what brings happiness to someone is subjective.

    I have to agree with you in your point about failing to love your self leading to further self-hate, it’s a dangerous cycle and something to be worked on.

    Thank you for writing such an interesting post! I love reading about different perspectives and this is one I’d never considered before. I look forward to reading much more from you 🙂

    • Hi Sarah. Yes I agree that some aspects of the body positivity movement are indeed worth embracing, especially those which don’t focus on appearance. Encouraging women to appreciate what their bodies can do instead of what they look like is one of them. I don’t agree, however, that a societal emphasis on appearance is inevitable. I did not even know that I had stretch marks or cellulite until I decided to do a figure show in my 40s, as a form of embodied research. Only then did I scrutinize and judge myself, wondering what others would see and how I would look in photos. It is possible to form one’s identity in an entirely different way. Before doing the show, I had been working out for about 20 years but without caring much about my appearance. My original personal trainer can confirm this fact. Now that the figure show is far behind me and basically a distant memory, I have converted back into my former self, almost entirely. I do not look at my body in the mirror at all. I am busy with other things. I think a lot more about my eye bags and ageing face, but that might be related to increasing age rather than to my brief foray into the world of figure competitions. I think we can move almost entirely away from appearance instead of creating a wider definition of beauty, though both are necessary.

    • I am posting your comment and your promotion of this web site so that others can check it out. I do not want to support the for-profit nature of this site however. The authors provide paid lessons teaching women how to see through and move beyond what they consider to be the media controlled beauty myth. I do not endorse any commercial products on this site, though I am often asked to do so, especially lately with offers of “guest posts” to be written by various entrepreneurs.

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