Hiredesai: Body positivity vs. body confidence, an important distinction

Annika Hiredesai, Columnist

As someone who’s struggled with body image, I have experienced the double-edged nature of social media in relation to how we see ourselves. The prevalence of filtered, aesthetic content in our everyday lives has made us increasingly image-conscious, even beyond the virtual. There’s no doubt that this change has contributed to the staggering increase in the number of people developing disordered relationships with food and exercise.

Within this virtual space, I’ve been fortunate to have found accounts and people that have improved my outlook on wellness. From nutritional myth-busting to unfiltered self-portraits, there is a rich world of positive content to be found on these platforms, and it’s something a lot of people could benefit from. But what I’ve just described is not synonymous with body positivity.

Body positivity is a movement that is built around the idea that all bodies have worth. With the media narrative focusing on a very narrow definition of health and beauty, body positivity serves to challenge the way we view bodies and promote acceptance of all bodies. Body confidence, however, is an individualistic way of seeing our bodies. There’s no doubt that we all struggle at some point to feel at peace with our appearance. In severe cases, a lack of body confidence can lead to debilitating thought patterns and devastating health consequences. To use body confidence and body positivity interchangeably would be to ignore the rich history and societal context of the movement.

Body positivity traces its roots back to the late 1960s. With an initial focus on the liberation of fat bodies, the pioneering activists staged an unapologetic “fat-in” in Central Park. In that same year, Llewellyn Louderback wrote “More people should be FAT,” a passionate defense of fatness in the Saturday Evening Post.

In the decades since its birth, body positivity has grown into a movement meant to highlight all marginalized bodies outside the societal standard: Black and Brown bodies, non-binary and trans bodies, disabled bodies and many others. While I will be focusing on fat discrimination, all noncompliant bodies suffer under our current norms.

Fat discrimination is pervasive in healthcare. Rates of disordered eating behaviors among young adults were nearly double for individuals who were overweight or obese, yet these same patients were half as likely to recieve a clinical eating disorder diagnosis from a health professional. Even beyond eating disorders, symptoms of preventable, treatable conditions are often overlooked and dismissed, simply chalked up to needing to lose weight. The results are immoral, ranging from unnecessary complications to lost lives.

There is plenty of research to suggest this rampant weight bias is present in just about every other aspect of life as well. From the hiring process to the criminal justice system, fat people are routinely and systematically discriminated against as lazy, irresponsible and even guilty. Fat bodies are policed obsessively by everyday encounters, and the consequences are emotionally distressing and life-altering.

This culture of fat shaming is evident in the looming specter of the Freshman 15 for college students and the pressure on pregnant women to focus on “bouncing back” as soon as they’ve given birth. Weight loss is inherently good. Weight gain is shamed, something to “work on.” Fatphobia has woven itself into the very fabric of how we perceive ourselves and others.

For thin women to tack on #bodypositivity to their posts on social media, as opposed to body confidence, is to turn a blind eye to the very real intolerance of fatness in our world. My own feed, even though I actively follow accounts that are marketed under the body positivity movement, is saturated with conventionally attractive women. Most of these creators live in bodies that move through the world with relative ease. What was meant to be a space to highlight marginalized bodies has become, in many senses, visually indistinguishable from the rest of social media.

We can and must do better. Creators and companies need to be mindful of the distinction between confidence and positivity. Using #bodypositive needs to be accompanied by meaningful action. The diversification of our feeds begins with individual commitment to support content featuring marginalized creators and bodies. It may seem like a small shift, but representation goes a long way in combating stigma and transforming culture. Embracing the body positivity movement in its most authentic form is exactly what we need.

Annika Hiredesai is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.