THE DANGER OF FALSE BODY POSITIVITY
Editor’s Note: The following contains possible triggers for those suffering or recovering from eating disorders. Please proceed with caution.
After many years of working on it, I have gotten very good at loving my body.*
*That is, as long as I’m getting a whole lot of exercise and eating an extremely healthy diet and my body reflects my very healthy lifestyle by looking a certain way.
When I was younger, I fought a hard battle with anorexia, and in order to not die I had to build a foundation for self-love and well-being in many respects. Of course, this included learning to love my body. But about five years ago, I discovered that I hadn’t yet gotten good at actually, asterisk-less-ly loving my body.
I was 20 and so far into my eating disorder recovery that I almost forgot that I’d ever had an eating disorder to begin with. My mental and emotional health were in a very good place, my daily life was full of choices that supported my well-being. Physically speaking, I ate very healthily (but not restrictively – I finally had a positive relationship with food) and got a good (but not obsessive) amount of exercise. I felt confident in my body and my whole self. But then all of a sudden, for absolutely no clear reason, I gained about 15 lbs as soon as the fall began to approach.
I couldn’t figure out why and it drove me insane. I wasn’t exercising any less and my healthy eating hadn’t changed in content or quantity. I wasn’t more stressed or going through any significant changes…but the weight appeared on my body within the span of just a few days. It stayed on my body for about two months, and then vanished even more quickly than it came: water weight. And even though I suspected that it was water weight from the beginning and I knew that my lifestyle choices were as healthy as ever, it completely changed how I felt about my body. Having the extra weight wasn’t at all unhealthy from a medical perspective (even within the profoundly flawed BMI system, I was still well within the “healthy” zone), but it made me so insecure, ashamed, and miserable that I didn’t want anyone to see me. I felt profoundly uncomfortable in my body, even when just sitting in a room by myself.
To my horror, the weight came back every year, and to some extent still does. Always in the fall, and regardless of where I’m living or what I’m doing or any other factors in my life. It turns out that it’s a hormone issue – my body starts producing way too much estrogen and it throws off my endocrine balance (no idea why it happens specifically in the fall), and one primary symptom is water retention. I now know how to mitigate the imbalance to a certain extent so I don’t gain nearly as much weight, but it still shakes my body image to its core and challenges me every single year. But why did I have such a hard time with it in the first place? I eventually knew that it was just a benign and temporary thing, so why did I feel so not OK about it?
Answer: because my body acceptance was still predicated on some degree of thinness. It was still determined by whether or not I was “doing enough” in terms of exercise and healthy eating, and whether or not my body’s appearance reflected that.
So each fall, I’ve had to really challenge myself to internalize the concept that even with the extra weight, my body is acceptable. It forces me to work towards loving my body unconditionally, and that’s really. damn. hard. But I have made significant progress, to the point where the annual temporary weight gain doesn’t shake me nearly as much as it used to.
I often hear the argument that unconditional body positivity “de-incentivizes” people to make healthy choices. The argument is “If you love your body even when you’re fat, and if you stop characterizing fat as a bad thing, you’ll live a lazy and unhealthy lifestyle because you won’t feel the need to eat well and exercise.” In reality, if someone’s incentives to make healthy choices are rooted in fat-phobia and shame, then it’s not actually a healthy situation at all. Loving my body unconditionally doesn’t mean neglecting my physical wellness in order to prove that I still can feel good about myself. Loving my heavier-than-normal self doesn’t cause me to make fewer healthy choices. It just removes the unnecessary misery about something that isn’t actually wrong.
Very often, there’s nothing medically wrong with people who are classified as “overweight” (arguably sometimes “obese”- just ask fitness superstars like Mirna Valerio) on the BMI scale. There are so many people who are considered fat but are thriving, living incredibly healthy lifestyles – why should they feel anything but love for their bodies? Even in the cases of people who aren’t actively making healthy choices, shame and self-hatred don’t actually bring anyone closer to wellness (and this is statistically proven), even if the shame temporarily motivates some trips to the gym. Carrying around that mental and emotional burden of shame takes people farther away from building the foundation of wellness, which is self-love.
For me, loving my body unconditionally incentivizes me to make healthy choices because I respect my body enough to care for it and to do what genuinely supports its well-being. Living a healthy lifestyle needs to be a result, not a prerequisite, of body love.
In full honesty, I love working out. Exercise helps me sleep better, feels physically and mentally exhilarating, provides catharsis and helps me process thoughts and emotions, helps me connect with my body, nature and/or music etc. But I’ve realized that I need to love my body even when I’m not working out often, because alongside my stupid annual hormone imbalance situation, I am also a person with a disability. My case of anorexia damaged my heart/autonomic nervous system and left me with a particularly severe case of Neurocardiogenic Syndrome (NCS.) My doctors and I still have yet to find a treatment that’s effective for me, so due to cardiac episodes or medication reactions or both, I am sometimes physically unable to function for prolonged periods of time. I’m all about toughing it out and pushing myself even when I don’t feel great, but I’ve learned to recognize when it’s far too dangerous to try. These are not “skip the run but do some planks at home” kind of days – these are “I literally can’t even move my eyeballs without blacking out” days. I’m a tough-ass woman, but I’m not stupid.
So sometimes for up to a week or two, working out is officially, medically, out of the question. As someone who can’t sit still and hates feeling unproductive, this drives me 100% bonkers, but I need to be able to love my body even then. The guilt and shame of not being able to work out only make me more miserable. And when I have to work multiple 98-hour workweeks in a row, and don’t have time/resources to eat or sleep let alone work out, I still need to be able to love my body.
When I have children in the future and my body and lifestyle inevitably look different, or when I age and my body’s appearance and abilities inevitably change, or if my heart condition gets worse and I become one of the many NCS patients who can’t safely exercise – I need to be able to love my body then, too. I don’t ever want to sit in shame and discomfort and misery reminiscing about what my body and lifestyle used to be, as so many people do.
I see you, Internet fitness coach. And at first, I was motivated by your constant posts about relentlessly pushing yourself in your fitness and nutrition every day. Your super-corporate approach, with the pricey meal replacement shakes and programs and workouts all coming from one diet industry giant, was fifty shades of not my thing… but I was inspired by your boldness and tenacity. But “inspiring” turned to “triggering” very quickly. Being pretty far along in my eating disorder recovery, I hadn’t felt triggered in a long time, but it became clear that your approach to self-proclaimed “body positivity” was predicated on obsession. It pulled me to feel like anything less than a full-time fitness and healthy eating obsession in my own life was not enough. I felt myself pulling towards orthorexic tendencies, and Lord, that’s some shit I don’t need in my life.
I unliked/unfollowed all your pages not out of personal spite, but because I could feel the tangible impact of your content within my own psyche. All your gung-ho posts about every workout that almost made you puke, every shrinking body part, every before and after picture where there was nothing in the world wrong with the “before”, every time you did an extreme “21-Day Fix” program when clearly there was not a damn thing wrong with your body that needed fixing, even the time you “busted” your husband for eating a candy bar after you found a tiny piece of the wrapper…all of it was triggering as fuck. I noticed myself getting more obsessive about my eating and workouts and when my life circumstances didn’t allow me to prioritize those things as highly as you did, my inner demons chanted I’m not doing enough.
Let me say right now that I’m not trying to blame you – my struggles here were NOT all your fault by any means and there were definitely other factors re-opening the door for old demons. These struggles started long before I knew you. But you clearly didn’t, and still don’t, have any idea how triggering your content is (or how rabidly classist and ableist, but that’s another story). You think you’re a revolutionary, body-positive wellness warrior. You truly believe in it and you truly do have the absolute best intentions, but that doesn’t make the harm any less real.
A while ago, you sent me a message to invite me to join your “21-Day Fix” challenge group, saying you thought I could “really benefit” from it – I declined – trying to be nice-ish about it, but also explaining clearly and fully why I was, to put it lightly, not about that life.
I don’t care if “strong is the new skinny” for you – we don’t need a “new skinny.” Think of all the toxicity that surrounds thinness in our culture, and all the damage that springs from it. To replace that societal standard with a slightly different-looking but parallel standard is not the way to create a healthier culture around food and bodies. Love must come first – before skinny, before strong, and independent of both. It doesn’t matter how much you believe in your company/product/approach, it doesn’t matter how happy and successful (whatever that means) you are right now with this system; you are contributing to the problem that you set out to oppose.
You love your body now, but if you stopped doing your workouts, if you stopped drinking your shakes, if your body went back to being like it was before all this and no longer fit into the size one jeans… if the obsessive full-time maintenance of physical self were no longer one of the biggest parts of your life, would you still love your body? You deserve for the answer to be yes.
As you can see, this issue really gets to me. I almost died from this shit and I see so many people around me suffer greatly from it every day. My body exists in a permanent state of aftermath and carries the irreversible physical consequences of our society’s fucked up relationships with food, mind, body, emotion and self. I shouldn’t need to point out that the hypercapitalist diet-industrial complex is the number-one driving force of this. Companies like yours exist to profit off of people’s insecurities, and the current industry trend is to do so by trying to convince people (particularly women) that they’re trying to help them build body confidence. They do so by helping them to build “body confidence” that’s predicated on results that their products can help them achieve. Fake, profit-driven body positivity gets to me just as much as outright body-shaming, because a wolf in sheep’s clothing is much more dangerous than a wolf in just its own skin.
On a larger scale, the biggest life lesson I’ve learned lately was realizing that this concept applies not just to my body, but to my whole self. In recovering from anorexia, I had to build self-worth from the ground up. I had to build my entire sense of self, stability, self-esteem and wellness brick by brick. This holistic, foundational wellness work is what saved my life and shaped me into a grounded, strong person who was finally well-equipped to go through life’s challenges. But only recently did I realize that the self-worth I built, much like the body love I built, was also conditional. I felt like I could love, accept and be proud of the person I was, but only so long as I posed and presented myself to the world in certain ways. I felt like I couldn’t let the world see my whole, unedited, unfiltered self, because only certain versions of myself were “enough” and acceptable. Challenging myself to feel like my body and self are “enough” under all circumstances has been one of the most important, empowering endeavors of my adult life; it’s allowed me to thrive.
The qualifications and prerequisites of conditional body and self-love sure as hell can help sell product, but they can’t endure and support a person throughout life’s unpredictable ups, downs and changes. Of course, it’s crucial to recognize our weaknesses and the ways in which we can improve ourselves (from our personalities to our physical health), and to actively work to make those improvements. But the love and acceptance have to be there first as a foundation upon which our best self is built.
I will be the first to admit that I’m not fully there yet – I’m definitely not. But I’m finding that the closer I get, the more I’m able to fulfill my potential to be a happy person, a healthy person, and a force of nature.