Science Says Body Positivity Is “Unhealthy,” But Here’s What The Research Is Missing

by Julia Guerra

The body positivity movement has been an unstoppable force lately: Brands like Aerie have kickstarted campaigns that feature un-retouched women of all shapes and sizes; plus-size model Tess Holliday was the cover star of SELF magazine’s first digital issue; and celebrities like Demi Lovato are posting photos of their stretch marks to encourage women everywhere to feel good in the skin they’re in. The message behind this movement is undeniably positive (I mean, obviously, the word "positive" is in its name), but a recent study has some people questioning if body positivity is "unhealthy," or if, at the very least, the movement is lacking in some major way.

The study, which has been published in the journal Obesity, analyzed the results of a national health survey in England that focused on participants with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher, and how these individuals described their weight. According to Refinery29, the results showed that many of those surveyed thought they were either “about the right weight” or “too light.” The results are interesting, sure, but the study authors concluded that the "upward trend in underassessment of overweight and obesity status" is potentially "a result of the normalization of overweight and obesity." In other words, the researchers basically assumed that people's "inaccurate" self-reports about their own weight translated to a larger cultural issue in which obesity is "normalized" or not taken seriously enough.

Though the authors suggest body positivity could have something to do with their results, the study itself didn't actually explore body positivity as a factor.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a BMI (which, BTW, isn't really a reliable measure of health, but that's another article for another day) between 25 and 29 is considered "overweight," while a BMI of 30 or higher is considered "obese." With that said, based on the reported misperception in their answers, it seems like a lot of the participants in this study were indeed confused about what it actually means to be at a “healthy” weight. But again, BMI alone doesn't tell you much about your health and well-being, and perhaps more importantly, where does the body positivity movement actually factor into this study's results?

From what I understand, at no point during this study was the body positivity movement a legit factor: No research was done on the so-called “dangers” of the body positivity movement (or even of the effects of the movement in general on the people involved in the research, or on how they thought about their health), and as far as I can tell, the study itself was pretty cut-and-dry. The researchers analyzed the results of the aforementioned health survey, and their main finding was that the percentage of people who misunderstood what it means to be at a healthy weight significantly “increased over time between 1997 and 2015.” But it doesn't seem like the researchers looked any further into each individual’s lifestyle or health habits beyond the details related to their weight, and the perception of their own weight. The reason why the body positivity movement was even alluded to at all, it seems, was because of the timeframe of the study: The study authors literally introduced the paper by talking about positive advancements in plus-size fashion in 2018, but by the end of that first paragraph, they suggested that the body positivity movement "can potentially undermine the recognition of being overweight and its health consequences."

Now, is that a valid concern? It could be, but there certainly isn't enough evidence in this one study to support the claim.

That, and it undermines everything that's genuinely good about the body positivity movement.

The concept behind the body positivity movement isn’t to encourage people to completely disregard health in the name of self-love; it’s all about finding realistic ways to encourage that sense of self-love, period. Jessica Castaneda, a fitness and body positivity blogger and creator of the FitLife Planner, explains it best when she says the body positive movement addresses the fact that you can be comfortable in the skin you’re in and still work on yourself, whatever that means for you. “[Loving yourself and working on yourself] aren't mutually exclusive,” Castaneda tells Elite Daily. “You can be a masterpiece and also be a work in progress. You can love yourself every step of the way on your health journey.”

Being body-positive means accepting who you are and learning to love every part of yourself — even the parts you'd otherwise see as "imperfections." According to Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, a doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, the reason why the body positivity movement is so effective is because it's everywhere. It's not just your mom reminding you how beautiful you are, or your best friends telling you how good you look. It's posts on social media that make you think and really consider your thoughts; it's a visual reminder to pay attention to your self-talk and, Dr. Forshee Elite Daily, "to make a purposeful effort to [make your thoughts] positive."

Practicing body positivity can be difficult at first, but there are so many ways to go about learning how to unconditionally love the skin you're in.

According to Katie Willcox, a model, author, creator of the social movement Healthy Is The New Skinny, and CEO of Natural Model Management, body-positive dialogue has to start early, but it can't be just words; you have to practice what you preach. "When it comes to body image, I have heard so many women tell their daughters they are perfect the way they are, and then speak poorly about their own physical appearance in front of their daughters," Willcox tells Elite Daily. "We need to be showing our girls that their bodies are wonderful and healthy by communicating that belief about our own bodies, as well as other women's bodies of various shapes and sizes."

To that point, Sarah Sapora, a self-love mentor, wellness advocate, and the founder of the Body + Love Workshop, suggests paying close attention to your self-talk: "Keep [self-talk] as neutral as possible," she tells Elite Daily. "Know that you do not have to edit your body or lose weight to be a valuable being!" It might even be helpful to physically write down some of these thoughts, Forshee adds, because once you make these things tangible, you can see just how harmful (or helpful) they truly are.

Last but not least, Castaneda says it might be good to consider a social media detox. This can seem counterintuitive, as the bulk of the body positivity movement happens on social media, but let's say you're following accounts that provoke you to compare yourself to others on a constant basis, or that generally make you feel bad about yourself. If that sums up your current experience on social media these days, then the temporary detox may not be such a bad idea.

"Open your eyes and look around you, not on your phone and not on your computer," Castaneda tells Elite Daily. "You will see what is truly normal. You will see more people like you and that's the norm."