back to news March 7, 2022

Understanding body acceptance and community influence in the body positivity movement

Body positivity and anti-diet rebellions are rooted in the fat acceptance movement of the 1960s. Created by advocates in marginalized populations to further the rights of overweight individuals and eliminate the social stigma of being overweight, these ideas gained popularity, morphing into the form known today.

For many, the effects of feeling shame from one’s body can build over time. The Office of Student Life Student Wellness Center has many excellent resources (Ohio State email required to access folder) to help us understand key issues surrounding body image, including information breaking down the sources and impacts of weight stigma and how to combat weight stigma and provide support to individuals.

The Health at Every Size (HAES) model, which focuses on promoting healthy behaviors without emphasizing weight loss, emerged from discussions among health care professionals, consumers and activists who didn’t want weight, size or BMI to be a prominent factor in indicating good health.

“It’s much more helpful to focus on what your body can do and how your body feels rather than what it looks like: ‘Do you feel strong? Do you feel energetic? Do you feel alive?’” said Jennifer Crocker, professor and Ohio Eminent Scholar in the Department of Psychology.

Crocker summarized the core of HAES as well as a newer term that has gained recognition in body-positive spheres: “body neutrality.”

In recent years, there has been increasing discussion online about the complexities and potential drawbacks of the terms “body positivity” and “body neutrality.”

Jessica Altshuler, a senior studying women’s, gender and sexuality studies and psychology, teaches in the student organization Body Sense that body positivity relates more to the broader social movement geared toward body acceptance, while body neutrality speaks to the path individuals take to feel comfortable with their body.

Jordan Helcbergier, wellness coordinator for outreach and programs in the Office of Student Life Student Wellness Center, believes both terms can be personal philosophies for individuals in different stages of the body acceptance journey. If you’re not at the point of loving the skin you’re in, you can choose to view your body in terms of functionality.

“To create a supportive environment for all body types, we need to meet people where they are and provide support where we can rather than pushing them toward a philosophy they don’t agree with,” Helchergier said. “I really like that awareness around body neutrality is taking off because I think it speaks to a greater community of individuals.”

Whether a person can confidently say they feel positive, or even neutral, about their body can boil down to self-esteem, or lack thereof. Crocker has spent the last 15 years researching self-esteem, specifically how people can overcome fluctuations in self-esteem. She defines self-esteem as “an evaluation of the worth and value of the entire self.” 

People can start running into the issue of losing confidence as they gain exposure to the world, Crocker says, as they become influenced by family, friends, teachers and others whose approval they seek. Not everyone will be influenced similarly or feel as strongly about implied rights and wrongs in social contexts, but as people age they continue to be impacted by those around them and the institutions in which they partake.

“It’s really a double-edged sword because when you succeed at those things you feel great,” Crocker said. “If I have to be attractive to have worth and value, and I know I look great tonight, then I am great, right? That gives me worth and value, but the downside of that is when I don’t look good, when I don’t feel attractive or other people tell me I’m not attractive, then I feel worthless.”

So how exactly can people get off this emotional roller coaster? Crocker has studied three ways  to change mindsets to improve self-esteem: having non-contingent self-esteem, having a growth mindset and having a larger-than-self goal. Each method of self-regulation may work better for some people than others depending on the situation and the person’s ability to embrace factors the effectiveness hinges on.

For example, Crocker believes the most powerful way to stop having contingent self-esteem is to put it in perspective related to something a person is passionate about. If people want to produce shopping vlogs and book reviews on YouTube, they must set aside worries about appearance in order to publish that content on the web.

Helcbergier says online communities have had a significant impact on conversations surrounding body acceptance and positivity. The sheer amount of information available on the internet has led to more informed communities than when information was passed via word-of-mouth. 

Countless Facebook groups, virtual workshops and on-demand communication channels exist to support people struggling with body image issues. But elements of virtual connectivity — such as the culture of comparing every aspect of our lives against others — can push people to make drastic lifestyle changes that negatively impact health and well-being.

“Social media gives everyone a platform and gives them the space to share information they have no expertise or training in — specifically examples on TikTok with anyone giving nutrition advice when they do not have the proper education to do so,” Helcbergier said. “If we teach individuals to think critically at content like this, they will be more informed to make decisions as it relates to their mental and physical health rather than believing a heavily Photoshopped influencer about some diet tea that ‘changed their life.’”

When pinpointing the loudest voices who celebrate their bodies and receive support, it can be easy to see how often members of marginalized groups — including people with non-white race or ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identities and differently abled bodies  — are left out. Altshuler said that thin, cisgender white women “who want to show they don’t follow society’s standards” unintentionally force themselves into the spotlight when they co-opt online spaces for body positivity.

“Everyone has the right to be body positive and feel confident in their body, but it is also important to have representation and lift up the voices we don’t often hear from,” Helcbergier said.

There is renewed effort to counsel these smaller-bodied allies and recenter the movement around those it is intended for. One way Altshuler works to spread a message of inclusivity is through her work as president of Body Sense, a student organization that explores “the intersectionality of identity and our relationships with our bodies.” 

She enjoys seeing the turnout to the club’s biweekly meetings because members are always discussing varying topics — medical racism and fatphobia, body image and disability, LGBTQ identities, body image and disordered eating concerns — to understand how different systems affect specific identities and cause people in those communities to struggle. Members also brainstorm practical solutions during the meetings.

“People generally have said that they joined the club or like it because it gives them a space to talk about these issues in a way they aren’t able to in class or with their friends,” Altshuler siad. “They meet a group of people who also want to talk about those things and also have experiences and can relate to what they’re saying in a way that other people in their life might not be able to.”

The pandemic has made it difficult to extend the club’s activist efforts to more of the Ohio State community. But their social activities in that time have included chalking positive affirmations on sidewalks around campus and decorating pumpkins with encouraging words. Luckily, Altshuler looks forward to the Columbus National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Walk held in April for the first time since 2019. That year, Body Sense helped the association raise more than $30,000 for research and treatment of eating disorders.

More and more a sustaining culture of promoting body acceptance and positivity can be seen on Ohio State’s campus through initiatives such as Love Your Body Week, during which Body Sense participated in a panel on body positivity in group fitness spaces. The weeklong university collaboration took place in February.

“It’s a great place to start and a great opportunity for organizations to spread the message they want to people who are willing to listen,” Altshuler said. “Even if one person listens and gets something out of it, then that means something.”

Love Your Body Week, which celebrated its third year, featured a hybrid schedule for this year’s 34 events as COVID-19 restrictions have eased. Each year has brought more involvement from campus partners, with more student organizations hosting events for the 2022 iteration than ever before.

While these organized efforts are necessary in this era, many people struggle with hanging onto a positive body image when they aren’t immersed in a community devoted to these causes that can support them.

“This type of initiative is important for college students because this is a very vulnerable time for the traditional-aged college student population,” Helcbergier said. “The idea behind Love Your Body Week is to provide the tools and resources to help combat some of these negative influences, create a positive campus community and give students the tools to thrive within their bodies.”

Helcbergier emphasizes many small ways people can take control of their mindset and change it toward healthier thinking:

  • Shifting from being “body focused” to “value focused.”
  • Changing their relationship with their scale, actively combating negative body talk and exercising. 
  • Creating a wardrobe that makes them feel nice by donating clothes that don’t fit and buying items that fit comfortably.
  • Remembering that everyone is on their own journey and surrounding themselves with support instead of making comparisons. 

Check out some of the resources on Ohio State’s campus:

Student Wellness Center – Nutrition CoachingBody Project Workshops
Counseling and Consultation Service – Eating Concerns Consultation TeamJourneys to Eating Disorder Recovery, etc. 
Wilce Student Health Center – Nutrition Therapy

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