Let’s Talk: Why does body positivity give rise to guilt?

By Hoe I Yune, Aug 27, 2020

I hesitated broaching the subject of body positivity, knowing full well that as an able-bodied cisgender female, who can’t claim to be bigger than a UK size 8, I’m hardly a marginalised individual. Yet as someone who isn’t satisfied with how my body looks, I’ve been trying to grapple with what it means to be positive about one’s body. 

Body positivity has without a doubt made the world a better place since emerging as a tenet of the fat acceptance movement in 1967. In promoting fair treatment for all shapes and sizes over the years, it has broadened what it means to be beautiful and empowers us to love ourselves as we are.

Last year, American model Ashley Graham posted an unfiltered nude photo of her pregnant body on Instagram, displaying stretch marks in all their glory, while lingerie company Aerie from American Eagle Outfitters continues to champion diversity in its campaign casting, without airbrushing. When the brand featured models with disabilities and illnesses, it was a mark of progress. A Northeastern University-led study* found that the portrayal of greater body diversity could reduce harmful appearance pressures and disordered eating among young women. 

On my social media feed are the once elusive, now sporadic, self-affirming “love your body” quotes and women celebrating their soft, squishy stomachs and facial acne. Yet something that has been weighing on my mind is how I’ve developed a sense of guilt when talking about aspirational goals surrounding fitness and beauty. Namely when it concerns losing weight and wanting to look like someone else. Body positivity should be a case of your body, your choice. But for all the good the movement continues to do, I can’t help feel that in some way, it has inadvertently narrowed what we can say about our bodies. I wonder why. 

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“Your body is perfect just the way it is” is a quote that I come across while scrolling through the plethora of pictures hashtagged #bodypositivity on Instagram. It’s one of 5.3million posts created to help women of all sizes overcome body dissatisfaction and body image anxiety.

Another says “Those small details that you call imperfections make you unique”, accompanied by an illustration featuring stomach rolls and cellulite-streaked thighs. The mental mantra is encouraging and a far cry from fat-shaming. Hashtag attached, jiggly and wobbly body parts appear across the social media grid, alongside conventionally attractive thin, toned, and taut figures. The body positivity movement has done a lot of good in championing inclusivity.

Yet a nagging feeling of guilt creeps into my head: Can we say we want to lose weight while still championing body positivity?

The guilt partly stems from knowing that body positivity has some way to go before becoming a success story. We have yet to eradicate fatphobia – not in Asia, not worldwide. There are still those among us who mistake body positivity for being synonymous with promoting obesity; “brave” is used to describe American singer Lizzo for being confident in her body.

I know it’s ridiculous to feel guilty that the movement hasn’t achieved complete change overnight, but the guilt is exacerbated when I think about how not every body positivity message resonates with me. I start questioning whether I’m a fraud. Loving your body sounds great in theory but I have to admit that there are moments when I feel discontent with my body. On most days, there’s no one particular thing that I dislike about it, but on certain days I imagine I would look better if I had a flatter stomach and toned arms.

As the body positivity movement grows, it’s hard to deny the significance of self-love in it. If I say I believe in “self-love at every size”, does it mean that I cannot admit to wanting to drop a size without sounding like a hypocrite? 

When British singer Adele posted an Instagram picture on her birthday, thanking first responders and essential workers in this time of COVID-19, she didn’t say anything about losing three stones but the visible change in her appearance was enough for her weight to become a trending topic on Twitter. 

Apparently, everyone else felt compelled to comment on it. Most voiced support, but what stood out to me were the critics who came for her, calling her out for no longer being a body positive role model, as if she had betrayed the movement simply by trying to lead a different lifestyle for her son. It made me think that for all the progress body positivity has made, why is it that we still feel the need to judge what someone else is doing with their body.

I realised that a bulk of my guilt stemmed from trying to define self-love and body positivity in a way that would please everyone, including the harshest critics. 

It’s pretty ironic in hindsight, considering that it should be based on paying more attention to my inner compass than external voices. We should have the freedom and autonomy to do and say what we want about our bodies.

Yet it’s hard to ignore the noise sometimes. Because body positivity stems from a wider movement beyond my personal sense of self, I’ve tried to listen to what others have to say about it. Within this lies a bit of a dilemma — when there are so many different voices demanding to be heard in the movement, especially on social media, the message sometimes gets muddled.

When fitness influencer behind Blogilates Cassey Ho was candid about her weight loss goal, diet, and exercise routine last year, it drew mixed responses. Some cheered her on for having goals, but there were also the critics who accused her of focusing too much on the weighing scale. Some extrapolated that she was battling an eating disorder. Eventually, she made a statement explaining her belief that weight loss and body positivity can go hand in hand, as long as you love your body and are grateful for your body every step of the way. 

I realised that It’s not the movement that is problematic but the way in which individuals in society have responded to it. Myself included. 

Body positivity and how it relates to self-love and self-esteem is such a personal subject. To be at peace with the movement and personal values, I ought to be reconciling the purpose of the wider movement and what self-love means to me. Ultimately what I want is to be fitter and leaner, and that is okay. I just need to be wary that the pursuit of self-improvement risks becoming a slippery slope. 

I asked NUS clinical psychologist Dr Oliver Suendermann how to draw the line between self-improvement and self-punishment. He said it’s a matter of figuring out if the motivation comes from a place of self-love or shame, disgust and fear of rejection. Sticking to an exercise routine in this pandemic so that I feel more energised would be an example of self-love, but not if I’m doing it out of fear that my boyfriend will leave me should I stop.

Mind What Matters counsellor Jennifer Chan adds that body positivity and striving for change can coexist if you believe in taking more than one approach to achieve your end goal. “If your end goal is to have increased self-esteem, then the different ways to achieve it should encompass not only exercise, but also other approaches such as forming meaningful relationships and treating strangers with kindness,” she says. Otherwise you risk getting caught up in a narrow tunnel vision.

Similarly, it’s not wrong to want to change the way you look, but there needs to be more than one way to measure attractiveness. I cannot rely solely on the number on a weighing scale. 

Neither can I obsess over sculpting my body like a fitness influencer’s whose exercise routine and meal plan I’m following, nor expect to look exactly the same. To 23-year-old plus-size model and makeup artist Mary Victor, body positivity is a state of mind. “Wanting to lose weight should not mean “I hate my body now but will love it when I lose weight”. It should be that “I like my body now and losing weight is a goal I’d like to achieve. But even if I don’t achieve it, I’ll still love my body”,” she says. Mary started the #thebodywithhin movement on Instagram to advocate body positivity and self-care. 

“No two bodies respond the same way, which is why health and fitness should take precedence over vanity when it comes to motivation,” says 33-year-old founder of body image movement Rock the Naked Truth Cheryl Tay, a nod to how genetics can come into play. Outspoken about her weight struggles, Cheryl shares how at 18, she was obsessed with weighing less, telling herself that skinny is beautiful and punishing herself if she felt hungry by scratching her arms and her face. Her journey towards recovery only began after a friend introduced her to weightlifting. It opened her eyes to what her body could do when well-fed and healthy. Her motivation shifted from wanting to look good to impress others to wanting to feel good and perform in activities such as running and weightlifting.  

I asked if she has ever experienced moments of self-doubt, to which she says she knows that loving your body isn’t always as simple as it sounds. I feel relieved knowing that I’m not alone. 

“Period bloating is real and there are days when you might wish you could fit into a bodycon dress or pair of skinny jeans when you can’t, but you have to remember that there’s more to life than looking good. Like smashing a work meeting or looking after your child,” Cheryl says. Women with postpartum bodies are also bound to see changes over time, as will ageing bodies. 

Even those of us who eat cake every day during birthday week are likely to feel the effects of it afterward. 

Cheryl’s words of wisdom ring crystal clear: It’s only human to feel blue but don’t dwell on self-pity for so long that you are incapable of functioning throughout the day. 

I recently came across the “body neutrality” movement, which is about working towards respecting the body without the pressure of having to love it. In a way, it resonates with me more, although you could also say it depends on how you define words like “love” and “positivity”. Given the fierce force of the body positivity movement, amplified on social media, it can sometimes feel as if there’s a lack of nuance. This can create the misconception that self-love is expected to be linear, but to silence all personal insecurities would just be such a deafening pressure on ourselves. 

It’s one thing to draw mental strength from being positive, it’s another to use positivity like a defense mechanism and deny or repress other feelings. The latter would just result in toxic positivity, because it’s hardly human to feel “happy” all the time. Social media has always been a filtered version of reality, so as great as it is that users are sharing inspirational quotes in the name of body positivity, I think it’s important not to feel pressured to feel exactly like what you’re seeing on screen. 

Sometimes I catch my reflection in the mirror and notice body parts that I think could look better, and perhaps that is okay. Negative feelings are valid. 

I accept my non-happy emotions and am curious about where they come from but I don’t hate myself for having them. Looking back, my relationship with my body is ever evolving. As a child, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the way my thighs look when I sat down, but I’m now at ease by how they rest like blobs. As a teen, I wished away the mole on my chin, but I now can’t imagine my face without it. “Even if you cannot love your body wholeheartedly today, try again tomorrow and it will pay off over time,” says Cheryl. I think there’s truth to that. 

I think what is iffy about saying you want to drop a dress size (even if it’s through a healthy way) is it might sound like inadvertently subscribing to the mainstream norm of what’s accepted as beautiful. It can sound like prizing being a smaller size. But the bottom line is that the intention and perspective matters. If I think that losing weight will make me happier because I’ll be smaller and thereby will be accepted by people around me, then that’s trying to succumb to society’s standards of beauty and it’s not healthy. However if my intention is to be healthy and I realise that losing weight is one of multiple ways to make me feel mentally happy and healthy, then I think it is okay.

28-year-old calligrapher Naomi Anneliese echoes the fact that body positivity and wanting to lose weight can coexist but it boils down to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Naomi embarked on her fitness journey two years ago after having to undergo surgery for sleep apnea. She says: “My surgery was a wakeup call and the doctor advised that I lose weight or I risk dying in my sleep from my airways closing in on me. I know I want to start a family some day, so I strive to lead a healthier lifestyle as a means to make that dream a reality.”

She began documenting her outfits under #naomi_plussizeootd on Instagram and Dayre (@naomianneliese), after receiving messages asking where she bought her clothes from. Pictures of herself help her gain perspective when she doesn’t feel her best. “You don’t need to post them online but they can be a big motivating factor. There are moments when I look in the mirror and am unhappy with how I look but when I look at photos collectively, I can see how far I’ve come in my journey,” says Naomi, 

Body positivity is a continuous journey, not just as a movement but for the individual. And in our pursuit for self-acceptance and inclusivity, I think we can all afford to be a little kinder on not only one another but also ourselves.

* In the 2019 study led by researchers from Northeastern University, 35 women between ages 18-23 years old were shown six advertisements from Aerie. The findings supported the usefulness of increasing body diversity in media and limiting thin-ideal images as means of promoting positive body image.

Writer's Note:

My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I pay tribute to my love for carbs in the form of photographs and document how exercise routines help me weather this pandemic.

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