The Impact of the Body Positivity Movement on Physical, Mental Health

Emerging research suggests unintended consequences, sparking debate around the movement’s role in well-being.
The Impact of the Body Positivity Movement on Physical, Mental Health
A neon sign that reads "Size doesn't matter" outside the entrance to The Little Museum of Dublin. (Derick P. Hudson/Shutterstock)
Vance Voetberg

"You’re perfect just the way you are." This affirming mantra rings out across social media, challenging status-quo beauty ideals. The movement promotes self-acceptance, with influencers proudly flaunting different body types.

But does such unconditional positivity—more specifically of overweight and obese people—improve mental health at the expense of physical health?

Although it seeks to counter body shaming, some experts argue the trend glorifies obesity despite its health risks. Emerging research suggests that unconditional body positivity has unintended consequences, sparking debate about the movement’s role in well-being.

Upending Beauty Ideals at What Cost?

The origins of body positivity can be traced back to the late 1960s, when several overweight Americans founded the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, claiming size discrimination. Rebranded today as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAFAA), the organization envisions “a culture where all fat people are free, celebrated, and liberated.”
“When people say they are concerned for fat people’s health, they almost always neglect to look at how anti-fatness contributes to poor health,” the group told The Epoch Times. “Size discrimination causes misdiagnosis in medical settings, economic disparity, and psychological stress that takes its toll on mental and physical health.”

Although the consensus is that society has constructed unrealistic and unhealthy expectations for how people—especially women—should look, some contend that the body positivity movement has gone too far.

Plus-size fashion normalizes obesity acceptance, a 2018 study published in the research journal Obesity suggests. Although it reduces stigma, the movement may undermine “the recognition of being overweight and its health consequences.”

The study observed nearly 23,500 participants from 1997 to 2015 and compared their self-perception of their weight with their body mass index. The share of men who underestimated their weight increased to 57.9 percent from 48.4 percent, and the percentage of women who did so rose to 30.6 percent from 24.5 percent.

The study concluded that the normalization of obesity had become “widespread” and argued that body positivity contributed to this issue. However, some academics have asserted that the study lacks sufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate a causal link.

How ‘Toxic Positivity’ Affects Mental Health

The body positivity movement aims to improve mental health through greater self-esteem and body image. However, it can sometimes undermine mental health via “toxic positivity,” according to a 2022 study published in the international research journal Body Image.

Toxic body positivity refers to pressuring people to suppress negative emotions and put on a positive front, causing distress. Researchers warned that many women feel that they are obligated to exhibit body confidence and that not doing so is seen as weakness.

The study tested body acceptance messages crafted to support autonomy, a key factor in self-esteem. Because controlled functioning is linked to poor self-esteem, the researchers "wondered whether the use of control to pressure women to accept their bodies would undercut positive body image.”
Results from 100 college-aged women indicated some forms of body positivity messaging actually increased pressure. “Simply telling women they should or ought to be body positive does not ameliorate body image, and can even be counterproductive by increasing perceived pressure,” the researchers wrote.

Striking a Balance

Some argue that body positivity overemphasizes mental health at the expense of physical health. However, Tiffany M. Stewart, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is an associate professor and director at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said she seeks to balance the two. In a 2018 commentary published in Obesity, she contended that stigma around weight often hinders rather than encourages healthy changes.
An excessive focus on appearance is a superficial health metric and an ineffective motivator, Ms. Stewart said. “Appearance as the driver of health behavior change is usually a failed strategy,” she wrote. Instead, there is some evidence that functional motives such as increased strength or reduced stress work better.

“Acceptance of body appearance and healthy behavior are not mutually exclusive,” Ms. Stewart wrote, adding that we’re at a crossroads in using behavior change to improve health.

“The middle ground to be found here may be a focus on the health behaviors themselves and outcomes not solely based on the amount of weight lost.”

Vance Voetberg is a journalist for The Epoch Times based in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a B.S. in journalism and aims to present truthful, inspiring health-related news. He is the founder of the nutrition blog “Running On Butter.”