We Must Stop Making These Mistakes About Health & Body Positivity

Two people jogging in colorful clothes while holding weights.

This article by Ragen Chastain originally appeared on Ravishly and has been republished with permission.

In a recent article for Odyssey, Vianka Cotton re-made tons of common mistakes that happen when people try to talk about body positivity and health. It’s no surprise that the article got plenty of traction since fatphobia and healthism are practically national pastimes. There is certainly no shortage of articles like this. But the prevalence of oppression doesn’t make it right, so let’s talk about this.

  • “The body positivity movement founded in 1996, has been one of the best movements to help women. The movement encourages women to accept their bodies while improving health and well-being. The movement, growing in popularity, has become an anthem to the plus-sized community.”

The author’s grasp of the history of the body positive movement is embarrassingly poor. The movement has been going on since well before 1996. It is a co-option of the much more militant Fat Rights movement that started in earnest in the 1960s with groups like The Fat Underground. (For some history lessons, check out Charlotte Cooper’s amazing work.) This piece is offensive in its ignorance of the past and its assertions about body positivity necessarily being about “improving health,” but I definitely appreciate the acknowledgment that fat women (and, indeed, people of all sizes) are sexy and can wear whatever the hell they want. Let’s move on:

  • “People have killed to be thin. Bigger women are embracing their bodies, wearing whatever they want. These attitudes are challenging the traditional standard of beauty. What had started out as radical love for one’s body has been diluted and reduced to shallowness adopting negative attitudes towards exercise. As a fitness advocate, the body positivity movement isn’t fighting for health or equality, it is fighting for the crown of attractiveness.”

People have killed to be thin? How does that work? No, wait, don’t tell me lest others die needlessly. Also, while people are certainly allowed to love their bodies and have negative attitudes towards exercise, I have often been called a leader in this movement and I’ve never heard that considered one of the tenets.

Maybe what she meant to say was that people have died to be thin, and fat people have been killed by the diet industry and a medical system that confuses thinness with health. It’s a whole system that is far too often willing to risk the lives (and quality of life) of fat people in the hopes that they can make us look different.

That happens every day and it is precisely why body positivity must be removed from the idea of the obligation to “health” or “healthy behaviors” that she is suggesting.

  • “What is the end message? Shouldn’t self-love correlate to health? Where is the line between body confidence and obesity? “

I’m glad she asked. Self-love should be completely separate from health — health is not an obligation, a barometer of worthiness, entirely within our control, or guaranteed under any circumstances.

Health is a complicated and multi-faceted concept, and it can change at any time. That’s why it’s important that we have the chance to love and appreciate our bodies regardless of health status. (Understand too that the concept of body positivity can be made vastly more complicated by things like chronic illness because of healthism, as well other marginalized identities because of racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and more.) People of all sizes and health statuses have every right to love and appreciate our bodies, and photograph them in any, or few, or no clothes, and post them to Instagram for whatever our reasons might be.

There is no line between body confidence and obesity because they aren’t related — except that living in a fatphobic culture like the one this article attempts to perpetuate makes it more difficult for fat people to have body confidence. Body confidence is how we feel about our bodies. “Obesity” is the end result of a math equation, wherein weight in pounds times 703 divided by height in inches squared is greater than or equal to 30. I’m “class three Super Obese” or, as I like to call it, fat AF, and I have tremendous body confidence. There is no line, nor should there be.

Since she asked, the end message is that other people’s health is not your business. If people care about your opinions regarding their health or habits, I’m sure they’ll let you know. Suggesting that there is some weight at which we are no longer allowed to love our bodies is fat-shaming and oppressive. Suggesting that you should have to achieve some level of “health” to love yourself is healthist and oppressive.

  • “Normalizing obesity is a problem! Are advocates of this movement in denial? Are they too focused on people’s opinions? The messages we are sending to young women and girls are radical. The pressure to be thin has been replaced with it is okay to be obese. Neither one is correct. When can healthy be sexy? When will we normalize health?”

Size-based oppression is a problem, healthism is a problem (including the idea of making “healthy” by any definition “sexy” or suggesting that people who don’t meet her definition of health are not “normal”), not understanding the difference between correlation and causation is a problem, a world where her piece gets published is a problem.

Normalizing obesity is not a problem.

We are not in denial, we are in empowerment. We are done being lectured at by any “fitness enthusiast” who can type out an article. As I’ve written before, the only outcome of such a culture is that fat people aren’t allowed to do anything with our lives except try to lose weight, and that’s unacceptable. Not just because almost nobody loses weight long term, but because people shouldn’t be required to look a certain way or have a certain level of health as a prerequisite to live our lives and pursue our dreams.

If you see a fat person being happy, achieving something, being talented in public or on television and that makes you uncomfortable/angry/disgusted etc., then you know that you are dealing with size bigotry. If you believe that your feelings of discomfort/anger/disgust are due to this person’s health status, then you know that you are dealing with size bigotry as well as healthism. Regardless, this is your problem.

Her final paragraph comes so close to getting it, but then falls off a cliff.

  • “What I would like to see is the body positive movement be accessible to everyone having a struggle. Diversify the movent to include women of color, men, burned victims, trans women. After all, the goal is intersectionality. I want to see full-figured women wearing bikinis in commercials playing sports. I want to see big women on BuzzFeed being active and eating healthy. I want to see clothing stores have clothes for those who are awkward and in between small and plus-sized. Can we normalize health please! I want to see positive body positive images. Our bodies are strong and healthy. The message is you can achieve confidence while striving for your health.”

I am absolutely behind the fact that we need to do better when it comes to intersectionality. Body Positivity inherited the issues that the Fat Rights movement always had including a lack of inclusion and representation of People of Color, Trans folks, disabled people/people with disabilities, and other intersectional identities. I want to see clothing stores that carry clothes for everyone, including those above a size 26.

The solution to that is to make the movement more inclusive, for each of us to understand our privilege, and relative privilege, and use it to dismantle systems of oppression and demean inclusion.

The solution is not to engage in rampant healthism. The solution is not to suggest that if fat people want to be seen in public, we must be performing health to someone else’s satisfaction. Many people’s bodies are not “strong and healthy” for lots of reasons, and that’s absolutely normal. Using body positivity to marginalize people as this article attempts to do — whether it’s fat people, “unhealthy” people, or anyone else, is a load of bullshit that I will not abide.

It is absolutely OK to be whatever size you are, including hella fat. It is absolutely fine to not be “healthy” or “strong” by whatever definition.

Body positivity/body confidence/loving our bodies is not a requirement, but it is always an option and nobody — “fitness enthusiasts” or otherwise — can take it from us.

[do_widget id=’text-101′]

Ragen Chastain is a professional speaker, writer, and real live fat person.  She has spoken everywhere from friend’s living rooms to Google Headquarters to Cal Tech and Dartmouth.  She will not stop until we live in a world where the full diversity of body sizes is respected, and fat people are able to live in fat bodies without shame, stigma, bullying, and harassment, regardless of why they are fat, what being fat means, and if they could (or even want to) become thin. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner Julianne and their adorable rescue dogs and is training for her first (and hopefully only!) IRONMAN triathlon. If you can’t get enough of her on Ravishly, you can check out her blog www.danceswithfat.org.


More from Ravishly:

Roxane Gay Made Me Realize My Body Image Issues Are Kind Of Bullsh*t 

10 Plus-Size Babes Who Use Fashion To Make Social Change

What Plus-Size Fashion Looks Like For My Queer, Fat Body