In 1996, Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott founded the Body Positive Movement to help encourage people of all weights, genders and ethnicicities to be accepting of themselves. Over the past 21 years, this movement’s mission has shifted from one’s total acceptance of self to focus primarily on accepting one’s own weight, similar to the Fat Acceptance Movement of the 1960s.
The Fat Acceptance Movement was created to battle anti-fat discrimination, such as a lack of larger clothing sizes in mainstream stores, in order to help minimize the difference between those who maintain a standard weight and those who are perceived as plus-sized. Although this movement encouraged others to be accepting of people struggling with weight, it did not necessarily encourage the people who were already overweight to view themselves in a positive light. This was the reason why Sobczak and Scott began their movement 30 years later.
In the years since, much progress has been made. However, this acceptance of people of all different sizes has been accused by critics of helping create a culture that ignores major health issues.
According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more than one in three adults and one in five school-aged children are considered to be obese in the United States today. This percentage has been continuously on the rise over the past century, which caused many people to take notice. Because of this shift of public interest along with the increase of social media use, the basic knowledge of The Body Positive Movement has changed and sparked a debate.
The Body Positive debate has two main sides: those who are accepting of themselves as they are, no matter their weight, and those who believe everyone can improve themselves with a healthy diet and exercise.
Supporters of The Body Positive Movement tend to have one shared belief: Everyone is beautiful as they are. Although this might sound naive, they are really just promoting the mental health of a person. This positive relationship with one’s self image “helps to develop a more joyful, and fulfilling life,” according to the movement’s website.
Buzzfeed staff member Nora Whelan stated in her article “An Imperfect Human’s Guide To Body Positivity,” that the acceptance of oneself does not make a person immune to “pressures society places on your body.” Meaning that although people can love the skin they are in, they will still have days when they are unhappy when they look in the mirror.
Throughout her article, Whelan emphasizes that The Body Positive Movement is for everyone. She states that the stigma around body positivity is causing the world to view it as something for just plus-sized women. Whelan explained that it is geared toward anyone who may view themselves in a negative light.
The stigma around who can participate in the movement might be misconstrued by the image of public supporters. Celebrities such as plus-sized model Ashley Graham, actress Mindy Kaling and singer Adele, along with many other curvy women have all publicly supported the movement. Most of these women are plus-sized, causing an outsider to possibly perceive the movement as for a specific demographic of people.
This viewpoint strays away from the Body Positive Movement’s original mission.
The media is also contributing to the miscommunication of the movement’s mission. If one were to Google image search “The Body Positive Movement,” they would be bombarded with photos of plus-sized women, mostly in their underwear to emphasize how comfortable they are in their own skin, hugging and laughing with one another. Most of the women would be white, and there might be one skinnier woman nestled into the shot as well. These images are not necessarily created to showcase the movement but rather use it to sell or promote a product.
Campaigns such as Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, have used the movement to help promote products. Although Dove’s campaign does feature a variety of different body types, it is only showcasing women and a small handful of each size. One also must decide whether the use of the Body Positive Movement in this light is used for empowerment or if its popularity simply entertwines with advertising sales.
Aerie, an extension of the clothing store American Eagle, is another company that made a public pledge to stop retouching their models, and be more inclusive of different body types in their ads. While they saw a 20 percent increase in their sales after doing so, their ads still consisted of mainly thin white models. This begs the question of whether or not they just used surface-level reference from the movement to help build profit.
Because this movement has been brought into the public eye so much recently with the increase of promotional use, it has developed some backlash.
Many of the people who argue against the movement say it is promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. With the average size of an American woman now increasing to a size 16, and with other weight-related health issues such as obesity on the rise, many people are blaming the over-acceptance of overweight people on movements such as the Body Positive Movement.
In an article written for a college blog called Study Breaks, Sophie Hurlock from Xavier University expressed her dislike of how the movement is displayed in the public eye.
“If we no longer portray cigarette smoking as cool because we know it causes lung cancer, why are we trying to make obesity look healthy when we know the health risks associated with it?” Hurlock wrote.
The dislike for this movement is seen throughout the internet with numerous other bloggers sharing similar views to those of Hurlock. They often accuse the supporters of The Body Positive Movement of laziness and being unwilling to change their unhealthy lifestyles, pushing the United States farther into its already cripping obesity problem.
For example, comedic actress, plus-size designer and body positive activist, Rebel Wilson, has admitted to having an unhealthy relationship with food. She even referred to it as her “drug” in an interview with Hello! Magazine.
Although she acknowledges her unhealthy relationship with food, she has only taken minimum steps towards improving her overall health. She also stated, that in an effort to be healthier, she now drinks more green juices and has tried to go gluten-free in recent years. However, she also said to commit to make her a “maniac.”
This begs the question, can people support this movement and still strive to improve their physical health?
Giselle Sancen-Valero is doing just that.
Sancen-Valero, a junior at Grand View University, has always struggled with her weight. When she was growing up, she was one of the heaviest girls in her class, but that never really bothered her. She was athletic, and played a variety of sports throughout high school. She was even the first plus-sized girl on her high school’s cheer team. She would mask any negative feelings she had about her body with humor — making fun of herself before anyone else could.
This technique worked until she noticed her body shift in the fall of 2015, when she began to attend college. The mix of being away from home, an abnormal eating schedule and an increased amount of stress led Sancen-Valero to gain the infamous “freshman 15.” This was one of the first times she really found herself unhappy with the way she looked.
In an effort to make a change, she joined a gym in town called Elite Edge, where she participated in her first 6-Week Total Body Transformation Challenge. This challenge consisted of a 40-minute workout six times a week and strict diet with the hopes of losing 20 pounds if you follow the plan correctly.
Sancen-Valero ended up losing 25 pounds during this challenge itself and continued to lose weight after. By the end of her freshman year, she was officially down 35 pounds.
“A lot of my friends began to notice,” Sancen-Valero said. “It just boosted me to keep on losing weight.”
Although she was enjoying the weight loss she was seeing, she grew tired of the strict diet and classes. Her weight began to yo-yo and would continue to go up and down over the course of the next year and a half. But unlike the previous year, she was ok with it.
“I am still healthy,” Sancen-Valero said. “Yes, I am still overweight, but I still work out.”
Sancen-Valero is still striving to make changes but isn’t forcing them. She knows that healthy lifestyle changes take time, and when they are rushed, they will not stick.
This inability to fully commit to making lifestyle changes is why, Grand View’s Wellness Director, Mindy Cathcart, sees people fail in their efforts. Not having enough inner strength to complete these changes is why people struggle to stick with them.
“Motivation is what gets you started; discipline is what keeps you going,” Cathcart said. “The first of the year, everyone is super motivated. But motivation is waning. Motivation doesn’t last forever. I can usually get a solid two weeks out of someone where they rely on their motivation, but then it has to kick into discipline and become a part of everyday life.”
Making this change from motivation to discipline does not come easy, according to Cathcart. It often takes a life event or breaking point to push someone to really want to make the effort.
“We know when we are not healthy; we know when we need to lose a little bit of weight,” Cathcart said. “People don’t like to be told that, obviously. People usually have to have some kind of breaking point before they turn things around.”
Cathcart emphasizes that when people are unhappy with how they look and feel, they tend to take more drastic measures in their efforts to change, such as the weight loss challenge that Sancen-Valero participated in. These measures rarely stick, however.
Both Cathcart and Sancen-Valero acknowledged that diets and weight loss pills are quick fixes, but
in order to make lifelong changes, people have to be happy with themselves as they are and motivated to change.
People on either side of the Body Positive debate struggle to find this middle ground.
“What I have found is that there is shaming on both ends,” Cathcart said in regards to the divide between two sides. “There is fitness shaming, and then we have fat shaming, too.”
This judgmental nature, of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ is clouding people’s abilities to fully understand.
According to Cathcart, this shaming has only been heightened by the use of social media and the ability to comment directly to someone who has difference of opinion. This is causing many people to shy away from making changes that they really want or need.
“We should just be saying, ‘Be confident and love yourself’ on both sides,” Cathcart said. “The person who is in the camp of ‘I am going to love myself now’ should still be cheering for that person who is all about fitness. The people in the fitness camp should be totally happy and cheering for those people who have no intention of changing. Why can’t we just be happy with each other? We don’t have to be the same.”