The body positive movement has been gaining traction over the past few years. That’s why plus-size models and “real women” have been gracing advertisements lately. The underwear label Dear Kate had shapely women model their products with the text “THE PERFECT BODY” on their 2014 campaign photo.
We’ve also been seeing videos on social media advocating body positivity—that we love and accept our bodies for what they are and what they look like, that our bodies are beautiful regardless of what the fashion industry says, and that a healthy body also comes in different sizes.
But there are those who worry that body positivity can send the wrong message, since it can lead to fat or obesity acceptance. Articles like “Body Positivity Is Great And All But Not When It’s Ignoring Health Concerns” call for loving your body and still overcoming obesity. Medical professionals and fitness persons alike never fail to remind us of obesity’s health risks: diabetes, heart disease, and joint problems, to name a few.
The health conscious have been met with some backlash, though. For instance, an internet user called the writer of the stated article “fatphobic as fuck.”
Now the big question is: Does being fat—or obese—and being confident about it really lead to poor health?
Perhaps the best rebuttal to the belief that an obese person isn’t or can’t be healthy is sumo wrestlers. These obese athletes have a diet that’s rich in vegetables. It’s called “chanko-nabe”—a stew “made with [many] kinds of vegetables and protein.” They eat a balanced meal: meat and fish, safe starches like rice and noodles, and lots and lots of vegetables. Their daily calorie intake is twice the average person’s, though, to keep them big.
And as athletes, sumo wrestlers are active. Their mornings are spent training—grappling, pushing, and shoving each other—for five hours. They do this all year round too.
Sumo wrestlers are then considered “metabolically healthy obese.” They are obese and highly active. They have a balanced diet, very little fat around their organs, and have a lot of muscle.
But for those of us who are fat and aren’t athletes or even active, is the fat acceptance leading us to be unhealthy? Some studies would say so.
Consider the one by Lily Lin and Brent McFerran, from the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. It found that brands that have large women for their campaigns have resulted in women’s greater food consumption and reduced motivation to be healthier. And that’s because such advertisements make women think that big bodies are now acceptable. Programs that aim to combat obesity in effect also had less support, so there’s much less pressure to prevent or beat obesity.
With the study findings, the authors don’t mean to say that being body positive is wrong.
But advertisers are doing us wrong by marketing a specific body shape as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, perfect or imperfect. That’s because body shapes don’t accurately tell us how healthy a person is.
Therefore, the current ads are unsatisfactory for the public, just like the previous ones that promoted being skinny and stigmatized fat. The authors suggest that brands develop marketing strategies that don’t draw attention to body sizes. Unfortunately, this suggestion isn’t at the best interest of brands who profit from jumping into the movement.
Here’s another: Researchers have found that sumo wrestlers, as well as other big athletes, store fat differently from sedentary people. The fat these athletes put on is called subcutaneous fat, which goes directly under the skin. On the other hand, sedentary people store fat—called visceral fat—in their abdomen and around their organs.
Here’s where it gets dangerous: Fat secretes substances. Subcutaneous fat produces less harmful substances and more beneficial molecules, like the hormone leptin that suppresses appetite and burns stored fat, and the hormone adiponectin that helps protect against diabetes. The sumo wrestlers and the like are then safe, until they stop working out entirely.
But visceral fat actively secretes harmful ones: hormones that lead to high blood sugar; the protein angiotensin that constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure; and proteins called cytokines that increase the risk of heart disease. Cytokines also aid in the progression and severity of depression, so the unhealthy obese are more likely to be depressed.
Therefore, those who promote fat or obesity acceptance without emphasizing a healthy lifestyle through proper diet and exercise are better received with some resistance. They might mean well in terms of empowering other women, but it’s shortsighted and harmful.
The fat or obese person who carries lots of visceral fat suffers physically and psychologically for not being mindful of her health.
Fortunately, there are women and personalities out there who advocate being healthy as the way to love one’s body. Model Iskra Lawrence nails it when she said in an Elle video, “I work out because I have this one body. It’s my home and I want it to be fit and healthy for the rest of my life.”
If one takes body positivity to mean focusing on her health regardless of what her body looks like, she’s much better off.
Studies have found that being more body positive in that way results in taking societal ideals on the body with a grain of salt or filtering them, having higher self-esteem by appreciating or admiring one’s body, having less unhealthy eating behaviors, and being more physically active. Other healthy and practical habits include protecting the skin from the sun and having regular checkups. One study says these compose a “holistic body image model,” since it improves physical and psychological health.
At the core of body positivity is loving your body, and as we all know, loving something means not just accepting or liking it on the surface, but taking care of it too. And truly taking care of your body has nothing to do with making it look a certain way; it’s about doing what you can to make your body function well. That’s one of the most important and basic things you can do solely for yourself, so you’ll have the physical and mental capacity to participate in the real world and be your best self in all the days of your life.