Body positivity: should we try to feel neutral instead?
The body positivity movement advocates loving your body, even if it doesn’t conform to beauty standards. But should we encourage young people to stop worrying about their body altogether?
One in five adults in the UK felt shame over their body at some point in the last year. That’s the finding of a new survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation for Mental Health Awareness Week. This year’s theme was body image, and their research confirmed how necessary it was: as many as one in eight people have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings as a result of their body image.
The body positivity movement, bolstered by the emergence of social media, encourages people to push back against the pressures on their body image. The growing trend urges its followers to love their body, regardless of size, shape, age, skin colour or any other aspect of their appearance. People of all genders – not just women – flock to hashtags like #BoPo to celebrate their bodies as they are, even when they fall outside of the ideals pushed by advertising and the media.
As a concept, it is undoubtedly attractive, with over 13 million Instagram posts tagged as #BodyPositivity, #BodyPositive or #BoPo. Celebrities and brands are also picking up on the message, championing campaigns that display a diverse range of models.
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That said, brands that advocate body positivity don’t always follow through. “We sometimes see campaigns which will use body-positive language, but then still don’t represent much diversity in terms of the imagery they’re showing,” says Professor Phillippa Diedrichs at the Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England. “Sometimes they’ll have ‘love your body’ hashtags or slogans, but actually, across the board, you look at a particular brand’s advertisements, that might be limited to a one-off campaign, for example, or it might not be carried through in terms of the types of products they offer.”
Even so, it seems to work: a study led by Rachel Cohen at the University of Technology Sydney found that after viewing a selection of these posts on Instagram, young women reported feeling happier and more satisfied with their bodies. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple: the study also found that the women seemed to objectify themselves more.
Diedrichs notes that the link here may be that a portion of the body-positive content still places the emphasis on appearance. “There’s still a lot of discussion about controlling your body through weight and through exercise,” she explains. “But, importantly, we also know that when people experience body positivity, it can protect them against some of the negative impacts of other types of media imagery.”
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Although self-objectification can affect anyone, it is most commonly found among young women, and the consequences can be severe. The research around the topic highlights the risks over and over again: objectifying yourself leads to drawing your sense of self-worth from your appearance; focussing on your appearance makes you more susceptible to body shame; self-objectification appears to be a cause of depression, particularly among young women and adolescents.
So, does that mean that engaging with body positivity on social media could do more harm than good? “What’s important is thinking about the types of body-positive content as well, rather than just lumping all of that together in one bucket,” says Diedrichs.
When it comes to actively encouraging a healthy body image, Diedrichs says there is no one-size-fits-all approach. “I wouldn’t encourage a blanket statement saying everyone needs to love their bodies to experience the benefits of having positive body image,” she says. “Positive body image is much more about having respect for your body and appreciating your body, which I think is very different from this idea that you have to be confident and love every aspect of it.
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“It’s not to say that appearance should be irrelevant, but it’s just thinking about the role that appearance plays, so that all of your self-worth is not tied up into this outer shell.”
Listen to our full interview with Professor Diedrichs on the Science Focus Podcast.
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