When Body Positivity Turns Dangerous
A recent spat involving Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift says a lot about how we talk about body image.
It all started with an October interview in Glamour magazine, in which Lovato implied that Taylor Swift and her "squad" were promoting an unrealistic image of what people should look like.
I don't see anybody in any sort of squad that has a normal body. It's kind of this false image of what people should look like.
The result? Lovato, who has been vocal against body shaming, was herself accused of shaming others -- the idea being that Lovato had criticized a group of girls for nothing more than being slim.
Regardless of how fair that criticism was, it does teach a lesson.
Good intentions alone (which it seems like Lovato had during that interview) are not enough to validate the points people make.
This brings us back to the conversation surrounding body image.
At best, the fight to promote positive body image is a well-needed.
That fight prompts us to recognize that there are many different forms of beauty, and lets people know that just because someone fails to meet some magazine's standard of attractiveness, doesn't mean that person ugly.
The fight promotes people being comfortable in their own skin, which is always a good thing.
At worst, though, when the conversation is not carefully managed, the promotion of positive body image runs the risk of perpetuating an already existing problem the country has.
As Americans, we have an alarming amount of work to do in terms of getting in shape and maintaining our health. In other words, everyone is not perfect "just the way they are." And that's a matter of medical fact.
Just consider the numbers.
Seven out of 10 Americans are obese or overweight, according to the Washington Post, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And yet, according to that same report, about half of that 70 percent believe they are not overweight.
Now consider the recently reported evidence that certain body types carry certain risks.
For example, last Tuesday, Fox News reported on a study that found people with a greater circumference around their bellies than their hips are at higher risk for diabetes and heart disease.
Last Friday, CBS reported that, for older women, having abdominal fat and being underweight can be more dangerous than being simply overweight.
Put all these reports together, and you might reach this reasonable conclusion: Not only are a lot of people in our country carrying unhealthy amounts of weight, but many of them are not even aware of their status.
If they're not aware of their status of being overweight, then there's definitely reason to have concern that they won't know the specific of the types of weight or shapes they have, and how they're at risk of certain conditions depending on those shapes.
Promoting body image won't make these problems go away, but we shouldn't resort to the uglier alternative either: subscribing to the idea that being overweight is synonymous with a lack of beauty (as if shaming people for their looks will motivate others to live a healthier lifestyle).
In fact, studies show that body shaming only manages to make things worse.
NYU professor Art Caplan told NBC News,
Many people, from your sister-in-law to ethics professors, think that the road to weight control runs directly through shame and humiliation. Common sense says that this is not likely to be true. Now this important study demonstrates that discriminating and shunning those who are fat does nothing to help them lose weight.
It doesn't work.
So, here's what we should do:
We should divorce the conversation of body image from the conversation of beauty.
We should make everyone feel comfortable in their own skin and should continue acknowledging the different types of beauty that women like Ashley Graham and Hunter McGrady represent. (Especially since we allowed ourselves to pretend those types didn't exist for so long.)
We should also continue to do away with shaming people for how they look.
Then, and this is admittedly just a theory, if we continue to make more people feel comfortable, maybe less of those people will feel self-conscious when talking about their own weight, and more comfortable discussing and learning about what can make them healthier.
It's worth a shot.
After all, no matter how much we promote positive body image, that promotion alone can't help people avoid the real life health risks that they may have.
We can at least be realistic about that.