The Problem with the Body Acceptance Movement and How to Move Past It
By Erin Simmons
NOTE: Please read this with an open mind and do not immediately jump to the conclusion that this is some sort of “body shaming”. Quite the contrary, the point of this article is to talk about how to LOVE your body with a real, meaningful love that goes beyond words to action. This isn’t hate. This isn’t criticism. It’s a call to health. Please read it as such.
Chances are, you’ve heard at least one of the mantras of the body acceptance movement: “Love your body the way it is”, “Big is beautiful”, “Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes”. I understand the good intention behind the movement, and trust me, I’m all for encouraging self-confidence. It is important for people, especially young girls, to understand that the stick-thin body type promoted by the fashion industry is not the only form of beauty in this world, and that it may not be attainable through healthy practices. That message is great, but not when it swings to the other extreme. My problem with the body acceptance movement is that it celebrates another body type that is just as unhealthy, if not more so.
This isn’t hate. This isn’t criticism. It’s a call to health.
Before I go any further, please let me say that I wholeheartedly believe that real, true beauty is exclusively found on the inside, and that who we are as people is based on the condition of our soul and spirit. Whatever you look like on the outside, whatever body type you may have, does not change what’s on the inside. Your value as a person is unrelated to your appearance. People with beautiful souls do come in different shapes and sizes, but unfortunately that is not the message that the body acceptance movement has pushed.
Your value as a person is unrelated to your appearance.
The message we’ve been getting is that it is okay or even preferable to be overweight, that you should love your body no matter what. My question is this: how can you claim to love something that you do not take care of? Neglect is not a form of love. Disregard for health is not a form of love. Let’s look at it this way: let’s say you tell people – and even yourself – that you love your significant other, but you don’t contribute to the relationship. You don’t check in with them to see how they are doing. You don’t take care of them emotionally or physically. You don’t make any sacrifices or compromises so that they will be better off. You don’t spend money on them or quality time with them. How, then, are you expressing your love? Verbal expression has no true meaning without action to back it up. Chances are, if you acted how I described above, you could profess to all of your friends that you love this other person, but no one would believe you because there is no evidence of this love. You can tell yourself that you love this person, but deep down inside you know it just isn’t true. How is it any different with your own body? If you say you love your body, but you don’t check in with it, you don’t make any sacrifices so that it will be in better shape, you don’t spend any money on quality fuel for it, you don’t spend any time to keep it healthy and physically fit, then what evidence is there of your love for your body? Your words are meaningless; your actions have spoken for you.
My issue with the current body acceptance movement is that it still promotes an unhealthy condition in a nation that already faces many issues associated with a staggering rise in obesity and obesity-related illness and mortality. Overweight has become the new “normal”. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) estimated that 33.9% of adults over the age of 20 are overweight, 35.1% are obese, and 6.4% are extremely obese (2). This is accompanied by a disturbing increase in childhood and adolescent obesity: 20.5% of adolescents (12-19 years), 17.7% of children age 6-11 years, and 8.4% of children age 2-5 years (3). While one might assume that the younger children will “grow into” their weight over the years, the obesity rate in adolescents poses the greatest issue. Unhealthy habits during these years will likely set up a lifetime of poor diet and lack of physical activity. Do we really want to send the message that this is an acceptable, even celebrated, condition? We are not doing young people any favors by pushing aside health in favor of acceptance, as evidenced by the lower life expectancy predicted for the current generation of children compared to that of their parents (6).
Overweight has become the new “normal”.
There is, however, a fraction of the population who are considered “healthy obese”, commonly accepted to constitute about 20% of the human population. Estimates of the percentage of all obese individuals who are considered “metabolically healthy” range from 10-51%, with higher rates in women and younger individuals (7). Essentially, these individuals have a genetic predisposition to have a higher body weight, but typically experience few adverse health effects associated with this additional weight. Unfortunately, it is also likely that many individuals who currently fall into this category are merely in a transitional phase and headed toward an unhealthy status, as long-term studies tend to indicate higher mortality risk in these individuals (5).
Whether lean or overweight, fitness and metabolic health are the key factors determining the risk of adverse events and all-cause mortality (5). However, even healthy obese individuals are less likely to meet physical activity recommendations compared to healthy normal weight individuals, though they are more active than unhealthy obese (1). Even individuals classified as “healthy obese” have a higher risk for heart disease if they have low levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, while those with higher levels of fitness have risks similar to fit, normal weight individuals (4). “Fitness not fatness” thus remains the critical factor for health maintenance.
“Fitness not fatness” thus remains the critical factor for health maintenance.
It is important to remember that carrying extra weight is not the only path to unhealthiness. Those very thin fashion models often engage in unhealthy practices, such as binging and purging, obsessive/compulsive exercise, and starvation. Even fitness competitors and models often have an unhealthy lifestyle despite the “fitness” that they intend to promote. The point that we are all overlooking is the overarching theme of health. You cannot look at a picture of ANYONE and say that they are healthy. Skinny is not automatically healthy, athletic is not automatically healthy, and a larger frame is not automatically unhealthy. Our focus should not be on appearance or shape, our focus should be on how we live our lives, the dedication we have to our health, and the priority that we give our bodies. Instead of looking in the mirror, we should be reflecting on how we are striving to maintain healthy bodies and minds.
You cannot look at a picture of ANYONE and say that they are healthy.
So the bottom line and take home message is this: if you claim that you love your body, ask yourself how you are showing your love. Anyone can say the words, “I love my body”, but just as we have been told our whole lives, actions speak louder than words. Are you doing everything that you can to keep your body healthy? If you can honestly answer, “yes”, then lovingly accept your body at whatever shape and size it is. If the answer is, “no”, then start expressing your love by working toward health. I truly believe you will find such active love infinitely more rewarding than blindly repeating the mantras of body acceptance in an effort to believe them.
- Bell JA, Hamer M, van Hees VT, Singh-Manoux A, Kivimäki M, Sabia S. “Healthy obesity and objective physical activity.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 102, no. 2, 2015, pp. 268-75.
- Fryar CD, Carroll MD, Ogden CL. “Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, 1960–1962 Through 2011–2012.” Center for Disease Control, Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, September 2014. Web. August 7, 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_adult_11_12/obesity_adult_11_12.htm>.
- Fryar CD, Carroll MD, Ogden CL. Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, 1963–1965 Through 2011–2012. Center for Disease Control, Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, September 2014. Web. August 7, 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_child_11_12/obesity_child_11_12.htm>.
- Jae SY, Franklin B, Choi YH, Fernhall B. “Metabolically Healthy Obesity and Carotid Intima-Media Thickness: Effects of Cardiorespiratory Fitness.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, vol. 90, no. 9, 2015, pp. 1217-24.
- Lavie CJ, De Schutter A, Milani RV. “Healthy obese versus unhealthy lean: the obesity paradox.” Nature Reviews, Endocrinology, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 55-62.
- Olshansky SJ, Passaro DJ, Hershow RC, Layden J, Carnes BA, Brody J, Hayflick L, Butler RN, Allison DB, Ludwig DS. “A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century”. N Engl J Med 2005; 352:1138-1145.
- Rey-López JP, de Rezende LF, Pastor-Valero M, Tess BH. “The prevalence of metabolically healthy obesity: a systematic review and critical evaluation of the definitions used.” Obesity Reviews, vol. 15, no. 10, 2014, pp. 781-90. [Note: There is a large variation in definition and estimate of what is considered healthy obese: overall, range of 6-75% prevalence of health obese within obese population, but studies with >=70% response rate estimated 10-51% prevalence.]