When Tess Holliday’s Cosmopolitan UK cover hit stands, people had a lot to say. Piers Morgan, a British journalist, took to Instagram to say that Holliday, a plus-size model, being on the cover “is just as dangerous and misguided as celebrating size zero models,” and that the idea that this was body positive is “a load of old baloney” (gotta love those Brits). Many came back to say that a plus-size person’s existence does not celebrate obesity, as Morgan implied. Holliday herself responded saying, “My message isn’t, ‘Let’s all be fat!’ My message is, ‘Let’s love yourself, regardless of how you look in your current body.’”
What is the relationship between body positivity and weight? Does body positivity have anything to do with weight at all? Body positivity is a social movement that promotes loving and accepting every body type, regardless of size or shape. It started about 20 years ago but has gained significant traction in recent years. In the past, many body positive activists have been accused of skinny-shaming, or implying that being skinny makes people less womanly or less valuable. It carries the implication that people under a certain weight cannot support or do not need body positivity. Most people who believe in body positivity would agree that the movement is supposed to be inclusive of all body types and all sizes. Skinny-shaming has no place in the body positive movement, the same as fat-shaming. But there’s another, more insidious way that the movement can exclude people.
If you look at supporters of Holliday, they say things like, “just let her live,” and “beauty comes in many different shapes and sizes.” Some say, “she’s beautiful just the way she is.” Sometimes, you’ll even hear, “she doesn’t need to lose a single pound.” It’s the last comment that scares me. It sounds really encouraging, and it’s true, she doesn’t need to do anything. But those are the comments that can lead to exclusion.
She doesn’t need to lose a single pound. But what if she wants to? Does that suddenly not make her a body positive role model? Does she become less valuable if she has decided that weight loss is her goal? Some fans would say yes. We have seen the comments on Twitter and Instagram and YouTube that seem to imply that if a larger person is trying to lose weight, then they must have succumbed to the blood-sucking machine of societal standards and betrayed us true body positive people. If Holliday goes from a size 24 to a size 22? Betrayal! When plus-size model Ashley Graham seemed to have lost weight, people accused her of being “changed by fame,” being “fake,” and “selling out.”
But news flash, getting mad at someone for the size of their body is still body shaming. I understand that it can be hard to feel like the one role model you can relate to is changing. But people can be body positive and still want to lose weight. Body positivity comes in two parts: self-love and acceptance of others. Self-love can only be individually determined. The idea that we should reduce our desire to look a certain way and accept our bodies as they are is a huge component of body positivity. But nobody can know how you think about your body except you, so you are the only one who really knows if you practice self-love.
Having a goal of weight loss isn’t inherently dangerous. What body positivity preaches is loving your body how it currently is, but that doesn’t mean you cannot love it and simultaneously strive to improve it. Weight loss to meet an externally imposed image or to try to feel better about yourself is what body positivity discourages, because the people who do that tend to find that they don’t love their body even after losing the weight. But there are still positive ways to try to improve your physical health, and even to try to lose weight, and nobody else can know your mindset when you embark on that journey.
People may say: “Well, why is weight loss the goal if you are trying to be healthy? Just make exercise and a healthy diet the goal.” But weight can be a component of physical health. It is not necessarily an indicator of health, but it is important to recognize that being overweight comes with different health risks and concerns. While focusing on the process and making sustainable changes to live a healthier lifestyle is the best method, thinking of weight loss as the goal with a realistic and positive mindset can be useful.
Trying to lose weight to improve your physical health doesn’t suddenly make you against body positivity. Self-love and selfacceptance have a lot to do with mental health, which is just as important as and can sometimes take priority over our physical health. But that doesn’t mean that physical health isn’t also important. Sometimes, in the valiant effort to get the much-needed recognition of the significance of mental health, physical health gets pushed aside as if the two are mutually exclusive. Yet exercise can be a really important part of self-care for some people, and eating healthily can do wonders for mental health as well as physical. Our bodies are a system, so just because from the outside it looks like a person is focusing on their physical health, that doesn’t equate to them abandoning their mental health.
Tess Holliday commented that a lot of her fans aren’t even plus size. And that’s because body positivity isn’t about size, it’s about how you think about your body. Acceptance isn’t a number on a tag, it’s a mindset. And I can love my body and still recognize that there are things about it that could be better. I can know that I should probably stop binge-eating Oreos when I’m sad and still love my body. I can keep trying to push myself to go to the gym and still love my body. I can admit that I have other health issues because I am overweight and still love my body. My acknowledgment of the fact that I could have healthier habits doesn’t automatically fill me with self-hatred.
The second pillar of body positivity is acceptance of others. Body positivity is not only about changing how we think about our own bodies, but how we look at other people’s. This is why magazines like Cosmo are putting more diverse body types on the covers of their magazines — to promote acceptance of various bodies. When we adjudicate the worth of other people’s self-acceptance, we break this pillar.
Nobody knows an individual’s body and their habits the way that they themselves do, so someone else might think that they are “too thin” or “too fat” while they are perfectly healthy. An individual (maybe with a trusted medical professional) gets to be the arbiter of their own health, and they get to decide what they do to maintain that. People who shame celebrities for wanting to lose weight for their own reasons are doing the same thing as people who shame those same celebrities for being “unhealthy” because of the size of their body. Body positivity says that from the outside, we don’t get to judge either way. We should accept people no matter what their body looks like.
Neither pillar of body positivity, self-love nor acceptance of others, promotes shaming those who want to lose weight. If the body positivity movement truly prides itself on inclusivity, then everyone of every size along with their goals should be included. Body positivity is about a mindset, so until we evolve to be mindreaders, there’s no reason to exclude people from the movement.