What to Do When the Body Positivity Movement Leaves You Out
I am all about body positivity. I have spent the majority of my life struggling with my weight due to a number of chronic health disorders, some of which mess with my hormones to a level that I will gain huge amounts of weight without warning. So, once body positivity started to become more mainstream in recent years, beyond just Dove ads and the occasional token casting, I was really pumped.
For too long women have been told to hate their bodies, diet themselves into oblivion, and deprive themselves in order to fit some societally imposed mold. The weight-loss industry is a billion-dollar cash cow. The fashion industry has used models that are typically underweight to subconsciously shame us into trying to fit into the clothes we’re told we should wear, rather than actually making clothes average women can fit into in the first place. And don't get me started on shapewear. Why do we need clothes to help us fit into other clothes? Why don’t we just have clothes that fit and flatter the average woman?
Diets — and body shaming in general — have been used to starve women, make them smaller physically and mentally, and to make us subservient and easily controlled. If we’re too focused on what we look like, if we’re focused on making ourselves attractive typically to straight men, we won’t have as much time to be a threat in the workplace or anywhere else. Think of all the energy, both mental and physical, that has been wasted this way. It’s time this stopped.
"As someone who has been considered overweight to obese for most of my life, yet I’ve always been athletic and active, it’s a breath of fresh air to see that finally the image of an overweight person automatically being seen as out of shape is being kicked to the curb."
I’m grateful we’re finally learning as a society that weight is not always a good arbiter of health or fitness. For instance, Lizzo is often held up in this regard. This woman can sing, dance, and play the flute onstage, with a stamina and level of fitness that many of us can only hope to achieve, all while being a thicker milkshake. As someone who has been considered overweight to obese for most of my life, yet I’ve always been athletic and active, it’s a breath of fresh air to see that finally the image of an overweight person automatically being seen as out of shape is being kicked to the curb. I’m all for this. However, there’s a trend I’ve noticed in today’s body positive movement that actually alienates me and others like me.
As I scroll through social media nowadays, I see a lot of memes: “Girl, eat that cupcake, you deserve it!” “Throw out that scale, who cares what you weigh?” "If you have to struggle to maintain your weight, that's not the weight your body wants to be!" “Diet is a four-letter word” and other such body positive mantras will fill my screen. I love the idea behind them and I appreciate the message they want to extol. But these memes also hurt my feelings for complicated reasons.
I have a condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). I produce too much of the male hormone and as a result, I can gain a lot of weight very quickly. It has also caused me to form a type of prediabetes called insulin resistance. I have to restrict what I eat to foods on the low glycemic index; otherwise, I can become very sick. PCOS can also cause a number of mental health issues, as the hormonal flux can be mentally damaging.
During the time when I decided to throw away my scale, I gained 25 pounds in two months without realizing it. This weight gain ended up being detrimental to my health, kicking off a parade of the symptoms that I listed above.
I’ve also had to endure four abdominal surgeries as a result of issues with my ovaries and hormones. I go to physical therapy at least twice a month; otherwise, I’m unable to live a normal life. My scars and the pain they cause are worsened by inflammatory foods, the worst being sugar and gluten. When I eat either of these foods, or worse yet, a combo of the two, I am in immense pain and can get violently ill. So, it’s not exactly worth it to me to eat that cupcake.
"I agree that diet culture is toxic and a pox on modern womanhood. However, when I followed these instructions, when I took these mantras to heart, they made me violently ill and caused issues I didn’t even know could happen."
When I see messages telling women to eat what they want with abandon and not worry about what they weigh, I feel conflicted. I agree that diet culture is toxic and a pox on modern womanhood. However, when I followed these instructions, when I took these mantras to heart, they made me violently ill and caused issues I didn’t even know could happen. In order to maintain a healthy and happy life, I need to eat a specific diet and maintain a specific weight range. It is a struggle for me to lose weight or even maintain a healthy weight for my size, requiring constant food vigilance and a lot of exercise. If I let my body dictate the weight it wanted to be, I don’t know when the weight gain would stop, or if it would stop. I want to be the best feminist I can be, the best supporter of the body positive movement. But, if I can’t be included in these body positive messages, if I can’t take them to heart and live by these mantras, I don’t quite know where that leaves me.
I shouldn’t be made to feel like a bad feminist, like I’m not fully supporting the body positive movement because of health factors that are out of my control. Yet, here I am, feeling guilty and jealous that I can’t just eat whatever I want with abandon without facing serious health consequences. While I know these mantras are meant to help uplift women and change our mindsets, and of course no message will ever be able to fit every person, I can’t help but feel hurt by my exclusion from them.
At the end of the day, I try to live my life incorporating the spirit behind these messages, even if I can’t follow them to the letter. There are desserts and treats that I can eat in moderation. So, when I need a treat, I try to allow myself to eat without guilt, something that has been hard for me and many other women. I also try not to worry too much if I gain a couple of pounds. When I gained weight in the past, it would send me into an emotional spiral. It is typical for weight to fluctuate. Now, I’ve accepted that it’s normal, though I do have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand and is not a symptom of a bigger medical issue.
It is important to never body shame someone. It is important to not food shame people as well. You cannot tell someone’s health simply from their weight and body type. And, you may not know the mechanics and history behind someone’s food choices. Body positivity is all about being a healthy and happy version of yourself. And that means that no two journeys will necessarily be the same; there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. The best we can do is to follow the example of my favorite sports bra and offer each other as much support as we can.