Over the course of the last decade, the popularity of body positivity has exploded. More and more people are working to heal their own relationships with their own bodies, wading through years of toxic biases we’ve leveled at ourselves and those around us. And many are finding a new kind of freedom in simply letting their bodies be, without comment or change.
But when we do that healing in public, it stops being an internal, individual act and starts being a social one—and we end up using frameworks that empower us, but may unintentionally perpetuate oppression. Paradoxically, the way we take on our own healing can make healing harder for other people—or even re-injure them—if we’re not thoughtful about how we do it. And in body positivity, some of the most evident ways this manifests are the undercurrents of ableism that, often unintentionally, further the marginalization of disabled, disfigured, and chronically ill people.
As a person with a chronic illness, I’ve long felt some discomfort with what felt like facile slogans like “love your body!” As if people with thin, abled, and white bodies experience the same barriers to self-love as fat people, disabled people, Black people, indigenous people, or people of color. So recently, I took to Instagram to ask disabled, disfigured, and chronically ill followers how body-positive maxims landed with them. Most echoed my own discomfort; many chafed at the ways in which disabled people so reliably seem pushed to the side in the most popular, mainstream iterations of body positivity. If disabled people and other marginalized communities don’t feel at home in body positivity, who exactly is it for? And what can body-positive people with more privilege do to lift up those with less?
Ultimately, there’s no guidebook that will save us from this work, no shortcuts to spare us the hard work of examining our own actions, and addressing the ways they impact those around us. But we can start by looking at some of the more common—and insidious—“body-positive” phrases that help some folks, but also carry some harmful implications for disabled, disfigured, and chronically ill people.
1. “I don’t care what size you are, as long as you’re happy and healthy.”
For many of us, happy and healthy are simply out of reach. For people with mental illnesses, happiness can be more a battle than a point of arrival. And for chronically ill people, “health” may feel forever out of reach, all stick and no carrot. And for any of us, regardless of ability or mental health, happiness and health are never static states. All of us fall ill, all of us experience emotions beyond some point of arrival called “happiness.” And when those things happen—when we fall ill, when we get sad—that shouldn’t impinge on our perceived right to embrace and care for our own bodies.
Ultimately, “as long as you’re happy and healthy” just moves the goalposts from a beauty standard to equally finicky and unattainable standards of health and happiness. All of us deserve peaceful relationships with our own bodies, regardless of whether or not others perceive us as happy or healthy.
2. “Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.”
This popular phrase defines body positivity very literally in terms of ability. If your body is an instrument, defined more by its utility than its beauty, what message should disabled people take away from that? Like as long as you’re healthy, defining your body as an instrument, not an ornament cuts out people whose relationships to their body are shaped, even just in part, by their disabilities.
3. “I’m body positive as long as you’re not obese” or “I’m body positive, but…”
If, as many contend, body positivity is a populist movement, then our willingness to embrace different bodies—even when they don’t look or operate the way we think they should—shouldn’t come with caveats or exceptions. But when we carve out disabled people and very fat people as not “qualifying” for body positivity we’re very clearly stating that only some bodies are worth accepting and that that acceptance is contingent on the accident and privilege of appearing healthy and abled.
It’s worth noting, too, that to many fat people, “obese” is far from a neutral term. In its Latin roots, “obesity” literally translates to “having eaten oneself fat.” The phrase is used in the Body Mass Index—a tool with racist roots that was never designed to assess individual health. A growing number of fat people do not consider “obese” to be a neutral term, and some consider it a slur. “Obese” is the world that was used to declare war on fat bodies in our national “war on obesity,” and to declare our bodies pathological in the rhetoric of the “obesity epidemic,” which themselves spawned countless public policies that further and legitimate anti-fat stigma. It is used freely and loosely to separate “acceptably” fat people from unacceptably fat people—those whose bodies we simply find repulsive, then decide to medicalize to justify our disgust. For some fat people, it is hurled at us in threats and moments of violence. And it hails us into a medical system that, for many, has caused profound trauma and denial of even the most basic health care.
4. “We celebrate ALL bodies” or “All bodies are good bodies.”
These phrases, rallying cries for fat activism and body positivity alike, are often paired with images. Those images rarely include any indication that they feature disabled people. If you truly “celebrate all bodies,” make sure you’re showing all bodies: people with mobility aids, people with visible disabilities, disfigured people, trans people, nonbinary people, dark-skinned people, very fat people. Claiming to stand up for “all bodies” is great! But it’s on us to use images that underscore that point—rather than quietly erasing the bodies that are most frequently forgotten or demonized.
5. “My bloodwork is perfect. I’m probably healthier than you!”
As a fat person, I get it. We’re constantly on the receiving end of anti-fat bias that is thinly veiled in “concern” for our health. But as many fat people know, concern-trolling about fat people’s health is hurtful, harmful, and often disingenuous. Telling fat people you’re “concerned about our health” isn’t anything we haven’t heard before, nor is it anything we haven’t worried about for ourselves. Someone claiming they’re “just concerned for our health” has often found a socially acceptable way of voicing their bias and disgust at the sight of bodies like ours.
But when we, as fat people, assert that our health is the reason we should be treated with basic respect, we’re implying that those who aren’t healthy (or those who don’t appear to be healthy) are less worthy of respect—as if anti-fatness would be justified if it were focused on people who don’t “look” healthy. That’s something few of us would say out loud, but many of us readily imply. In our defense of ourselves, we reach for an easy argument—and one that perpetuates both healthism and ableism.
6. “I’m not trying to lose weight, I’m just trying to get healthy.”
In recent years, more and more people have stopped referring to “losing weight” or “getting thin,” and started instead using the insidious euphemism of “getting healthy.” This is often, simply put, a search-and-replace for weight loss. When many of us refer to “getting healthy,” we expect the size and shape of our bodies to change. We expect to be seen as healthy, without thinking of the ways in which we are very directly seeking to benefit from the oppression of people who aren’t seen as healthy. Yes, care for your body. Yes, look after your own health, whatever that looks like for you. But remember that the applause you get as a result of “getting healthy” is a direct result of anti-fat bias and ableism.
7. “It’s not like I’m on a motorized scooter or something.”
When I hear or see this phrase, it’s often from abled fat people. But what if they were on a motorized scooter? Does using a mobility aid make someone else less worthy of respect, dignity, or access? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 40 million Americans have “any physical functioning difficulty.” That is, any disability that isn’t primarily sensory or intellectual. And the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent records on the subject show that 18.4 million American adults use canes, walkers, wheelchairs, or scooters. The many, many people who use mobility aids deserve dignity, love, and access to body-positive spaces.
Ultimately, phrases like this one proudly draw a new, bigoted boundary around who is worthy of respect. It treats people who use mobility aids as worthy of ridicule, a cartoonish example of unchecked fatness—the point at which fatness becomes an impairment.
We’re all learning about how to engage more kindly with our bodies. In the process, many of us are healing deep wounds in our relationships with our own size, shape, skin. But in the process of that healing, we’re responsible for not compounding harm, foisting it off onto those around us, or causing new wounds for someone else to heal. When it comes to body positivity and fat activism, we’ve made significant missteps here. It’s on us to heal ourselves in a way that doesn’t harm anyone else. So let’s get to it.