Body Negativity: What’s wrong with Body Positivity?

Body positive campaigns have their hearts in the right place. Their messages are good and – you guessed it – positive:

Be resilient. Be confident. Love your body. You are beautiful. All bodies are beautiful.

These campaigns work for some. Some respond well and do feel more confident. If they work for you, go for it, fantastic and I’m all for it. I am not suggesting we shouldn’t teach resilience, we should. But we should not see it as the answer, we should recognise it is limited. Resilience can be counter-productive. If resilience is something you should do then you feel bad if you can’t quite manage it. What if you are not body confident, what if you don’t feel positive about your body?

It is hard to be resilient in the face of a dominant and powerful beauty ideal. In a visual and virtual culture, our bodies are ourselves. Feeling ashamed of our bodies really is being ashamed of our selves. If we are feeling shame, telling us we shouldn’t feel like we do can make it worse. It can make us more guilty.

If you already feel bad because you feel you don’t make the appearance grade, then being told you shouldn’t feel bad and you should be confident can make it worse. You feel ashamed of your body – your self – and more ashamed because you have the wrong attitude. This is silencing. You have to hide the pain and shame you feel and pretend to be positive. It’s bad enough feeling unhappy with some aspect of our bodies, without having to lie about feeling bad.

For body positive campaigns to really be positive we need to be sure they don’t just put another demand on top of the already strong demands to look a certain way. We also need to be sure that they really are celebrating all bodies. There is a risk that while body positive campaigns often claim to celebrate all bodies, in fact they only celebrate some. Often they only challenge one feature of the beauty ideal. If they do this, then they are not really challenging the beauty ideal – though they think they are – but further embedding it.  

There are four features of the beauty ideal – as I define them in Perfect Me – thinness in some form (and often with curves), smoothness, firmness and youth. Very often body positivity campaigns only challenge one of these features at a time.

Remember the Januhairy campaign? This was a campaign started by students at Exeter University. It challenged women to grow their body hair for the month of January. It aimed to convince women to 'love and accept' their body hair while raising money for charity. It received a ton of press, and took off around the world.

This campaign was very likely liberating for those engaged. It also made an important point – that the hairless ideal is neither normal nor natural. But was it really celebrating all bodies? Did it really help all women to ‘love and accept’ their body hair? If you google the campaign, the newsworthy students were beautiful and conforming apart from their underarm hair.


Only the smooth feature of the beauty ideal is challenged. The Januhairy girls are thin, firm and young. While the intention is good, the image the campaign promotes conforms to nearly all of the features of the beauty ideal. For more about what I thought of the Januhairy campaign see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/perfect-me/201901/januhairy-liberation-within-limits

Similarly fat acceptance campaigns often conform to all but the thin feature of the ideal. Apart from being plus size, the bodies are firm, smooth, and young. In fact they are perfect examples of the thin with curves ideal: large buttocks and breasts and thin waists. Think Paloma Elsesser, Ashley Graham and Felicity Hayward. Or the most controversial, Tess Holliday, who graced the cover of Cosmopolitan in October 2018. All of these women are firm, young and smooth, and in very many ways highly conforming: with beautiful features, made up faces and provocative poses. These campaigns promote and support the dominant beauty ideal much more than they think they do.

What if you are old and hairy and fat? Should you still have body confidence? Is your body lovable too? Is this what these campaigns really say in their imagery? I don’t think it is. Even if it were and these campaigns really did celebrate all bodies would it work? If you loved your body more would people stop judging you on appearance, would the negative comments stop? Being confident is not enough to change how people respond when we don’t fit the ideal. Real change is not about how individuals feel, but about how society treats bodies.  

Telling girls that appearance doesn’t matter isn’t good enough – they know it does. Telling girls they should have more confidence, they should be resilient, puts the pressure all on them. It requires that they as individuals stand up to the beauty myth. It makes it their fault if they don’t have confidence. This isn’t fair. It’s too much to ask.

We cannot and should not expect individuals on their own to challenge and resist the overwhelming dominance of the beauty ideal. More is needed than telling girls that ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’. They know this isn’t true. More is needed than telling them if they have the right attitude, are body confident, and love their bodies it will come good. They know it won’t.

We can do better, for our girls and for all of us.

So what can we do? One thing we can do is take it seriously, recognise that our bodies are ourselves in a visual and virtual culture, and we struggle with the increasing demands of beauty. If we take the demands seriously, it is easy to see why body shaming is serious. When you shame bodies you shame people. Body-shaming – whether fat shaming, a nasty comment about hair colour or a body part – can make you ashamed, can stay with you and make you insecure. 

Body shaming is not OK, we should not do it, and we should call it out when we do. With our #everydaylookism campaign, we have been highlighting just how damaging lookism is, by sharing our body shaming - lookist - stories.










If you would like to join the campaign and share your story, upload anonymously at
bit.ly/everydaylookism

Heather Widdows is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, and author of Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal.

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