Wherever I go, the message is clear: my body is too much for this world to bear. And it’s reinforced by the people around me. Strangers take it upon themselves to tell me what I already know: that I won’t fit and I’m not welcome. Many openly roll their eyes when I step onto public transit, often glaring at me or placing their bags and jackets on the seat next to them. When I walk into department stores, the staff greets me immediately and tells me that Lane Bryant is four doors down. Strangers sometimes feel moved to shout at bodies like mine, simply proclaiming my shameful fatness or issuing directives about what to eat, how to move or how my fatness will hasten my death. In all these places, my body is a catalyst for panic and resentment…” - Aubrey Gordon, author of What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat It would be no surprise to you if we were to propose to you that there is a beauty standard in Western culture, a standard in which we are all simultaneously complicit and measured by. Where we land on that scale, ultimately determines how we are treated by the people around us. It determines whether we are affirmed or mocked. Whether we are viewed with apathy or eyes of desire. Or whether we are praised or criticized, sometimes even by those closest to us. Gordon’s words are devastating, revealing to the outside world what life is like for those who “weigh 342 pounds and wear a women’s size 26.” Tragically enough, her experience bears some similarities to what it was like living as a black person in the 1950s. That is to be treated as less-than-human. Her experience, in addition to countless others who have larger bodies, was a catalyst in the birth of the body positivity movement. One organization defines body positivity as, "a way of living that gives you permission to love, care for, and take pleasure in your body throughout your lifespan." Chelsea Kronengold of the National Eating Disorders Association adds, “body positivity urges people to love their bodies no matter what they look like.” Depending on where you live and who comprises your social circles, the term “body positivity” may be completely new to you. To others, like the media company Refinery29, body positivity represents a thing of the past and is a term hi-jacked by brands. “These days, body positivity is mostly dismissed as a buzzword thrown around by brands, or — when used by an influencer or in a magazine — as something synonymous with “self-love.” To truly understand this conversation, we must first understand the deeper nuances of why it started in the first place. For those who have socially-rejected bodies, the body positivity movement is intrinsically connected to body image and self-worth. But as we will discover, this movement isn’t simply about how people see themselves, but how we as a culture see other people. As you can see from Gordon’s experience, there are very real justice-related issues at hand as an entire people group has been marginalized. So let’s jump in.



Surprisingly enough, the body positivity movement isn't a recent Instagram phenomenon or byproduct of social media, though both have had an impact in how the movement has evolved. Origins can actually be traced back to the 1960s, where the Fat Acceptance Movement aimed to help those who were overweight feel more accepted by society. Proponents of the movement aimed to show people that being fat didn't equate to laziness or an unhealthy lifestyle. They argued that being deemed "fat" could be due to genetics, or simply due to society's unrealistic standards of fitness. The movement grew and morphed throughout the years leading up to the social media age, which has made the movement ubiquitous. Body Positive influencers (such as plus-size model Tess Holliday) began to challenge beauty standards and took to Instagram to voice their displeasure. In 2013, Holliday started the #effyourbeautystandards hashtag to tell people to love their body regardless and reject beauty standards put out by society, social media, and large corporations. “When it first rose to popularity, body positivity appeared to me as a shining city on a hill,” says Gordon. As the movement gained steam, brands and corporations certainly saw the dollar signs. They began to shift their marketing tactics to cater to those with bigger body sizes. For example, Sports Illustrated controversially featured plus-size model Ashley Graham on their swimsuit edition cover. Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign began featuring a more diverse cast of models, both in race, size, and appearance. One blog published by mental health professionals suggests the goals of the Body Positivity Movement are as follows:
    1. Challenge how society views the body
    2. Promote the acceptance of all bodies
    3. Help people build confidence and acceptance of their own bodies
    4. Address unrealistic body standards
 One of the biggest challengers to how society views bodies has been singer and pop star Lizzo, a black woman who has been applauded for confidently flaunting her bigger body, skin color, and sexuality. "I love creating shapes with my body, and I love normalizing the dimples in my butt or the lumps in my thighs or my back fat or my stretch marks. I love normalizing my Black-ass elbows. I think it's beautiful," she said to Essence. With the rise of social-media platform TikTok, many Body Positive activists have started posting raw, unfiltered videos of themselves as a response to the seemingly "idealized body" stereotype that often gets flaunted on the platform. TikTok Influencer Carolina Guardian, speaking to BuzzFeed, described the positive feedback she received after posting a video of herself dancing with her natural, untoned belly out: "The majority of the comments were girls saying, 'This makes me feel normal,' 'You look beautiful and I see myself,' and 'I have the same body and I want to get to the point where I accept myself.'" Though the movement has many layers, the important point is that for body positive people, the goal is to feel accepted, comfortable, and confident in their bodies. As Holliday summed it up in an interview on The Today Show: “It’s all about accepting yourself the way you are. If you want to work towards a better you in whatever regards… do it. But you’re okay just the way you are today."


At this point, body positivity may sound like a beautiful movement, one that frees us of the need to conform to the cultural standards of beauty. One where we can accept ourselves and be accepted (dare we say loved), just as we are. But multiple camps, operating at polar opposite ends of the spectrum, have come out with heavy criticism of the movement. Stephanie Yeboah, author of Fattily Ever After: A Black Fat Girl's Guide to Living Life Unapologetically, says: “Once brands started to notice that plus-size influencers were marketable, they started to incorporate influencers and models into their campaigns under the guise of body positivity. So we saw a huge body positivity boom in response to advertising campaigns and articles.” Sounds like a positive development, right? Not so fast. Gordon, the aforementioned author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, outlines the problem: “The body positivity movement…stopped short of full-throated inclusion for all of us - especially those of us who are very fat… over time, body positivity has made its constituency clear. It has widened the warm and fickle embrace of beauty standards ever so slightly. Now it showers its affections not only on beautiful, able-bodied, fair-skinned women under size 4, but on beautiful, able-bodied, fair-skinned women under a size 12.” It only takes a moment of scrolling through Victoria’s Secret’s Instagram feed to recognize the truth in Gordon’s words. Brands have curated who they want to feature, those who still fit the standard of beauty, just a little bit thicker than before. “Sure, it might be progressive to include a slightly larger spectrum of bodies in [campaigns] like this, but it’s hard to forget that this type of inclusivity is also valued because of its new ability to turn a profit,” adds Refinery29. Similar to with Pride Month and the LGBTQ+ community, brands have come out in full-force with dollar signs in their eyes. Across the board, leveraging the messaging of “inclusivity” has become a cash cow in the 2020s. But do they actually care? Or is this just a very-profitable form of virtue signaling? “Dove was just the one of the first brands to explicitly use body positivity in its messaging, but it was soon joined by others, as well as media outlets (including our own) and influencers, who all used the language of body positivity without truly championing the message behind the term. In doing so, they marginalized the very communities the movement was meant to uplift.” Going further, Refinery29 questions if the movement is really about empowering others or just another way for people to draw attention to themselves. "When these influencers focused on the parts of their bodies that they deemed “flaws” — hip dips, love handles, stomach rolls, cellulite — and preached self-love and self-acceptance, it became clear that things had gone off-track...these influencers were promoting general self-love — and, ultimately, themselves." Ironically, you could make a case that body positivity has simply become another avenue for people to achieve a beauty standard – just with a different set of guidelines. As we draw attention to ourselves, our self-esteem ultimately then rests upon the accepting and validating comments on social media. The following comments are in response to scantily clad images from both Too Hot To Handle cast members AND body positivity influencers. “That body girl 🔥🔥🔥”“Stunning babe ❤️❤️”“I am obsessed 🥵”“perfection! 🖤😍”“You are freaking fabulous 🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼”“Queen.❤️😘”“BREATHTAKING”“Gorgeous 💗💗💗”“Wow ok😍”“Perfect goddess body”“You're sexy 😍😍😍😍”“What an actual goddess of beauty 🔥 🔥❤️❤️” In case you haven’t noticed, they’re virtually interchangeable. While the beauty standard is different, they yield the same types of affirmation. Criticism of the body positivity movement isn’t just limited to advocates, though. On the other side, you have those who have voiced displeasure for the "fat acceptance" aspects of the movement. Joe Rogan, never shy to speak his mind, boldly remarks: "Don't lie to me about the physical reality of what you've done to your body if you reach 400 pounds. That's not healthy. You're saying it's healthy. You're saying it's okay. No, you're just not dead yet. If you lost 200 pounds you'd feel wonderful. That would be healthier. To just go on about this fat acceptance movement, you know 'big, beautiful this and that.' No, you're obese." Joe Rogan's words are sure to spark some flames, but to one segment of the population, his comments raise valid questions. What are the consequences of obesity? Is the body positivity movement promoting or enabling obesity? Or is it simply offering a refuge for those struggling with body image? Obesity is rising in the United States and can pose serious health issues, per the CDC. Conditions like high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and even stroke are some of the many issues associated. It may surprise you to hear that body-positive advocates actually acknowledge the health realities of obesity. But at the same time, they criticize the oversimplification of obesity. “These defensive assertions about our health aren’t wrong, but they don’t reflect every fat person’s reality. Some of us aren’t healthy or able-bodied. Some of us struggle with chronic illness, mental health issues, eating disorders, disabilities, abuse. Some of us have hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease,” says Gordon. Many proponents of body positivity assert that obesity is not always linked to a lack of care or a careless lifestyle. Compromising health conditions, genetics, and lack of access to healthy food can each play a factor in someone's overall weight and size. Gordon adds, “Many of us have wildly over-simplified understanding of fatness. Obesity is culturally understood as one condition with two causes – eating too much and moving too little… [but] as of 2016, researchers at OMNI have cataloged fifty-nine different types of obesity - each with their own causes, contributing factors, unknowns and possible treatments.”

But to fixate on health as it relates to the body positivity conversation would be to miss the point entirely. It’s not about health, it’s about social inclusion. It’s about eradicating our cultural tendency to treat those that are bigger as second-class citizens.

We stigmatize. We fat-shame. We give tough love. And to Gordon, the message is loud and clear: “If there is a problem, I caused it with my gluttony and sloth. My body is my original sin. No matter the problem, no matter the actions of an aggressor, the fault is mine. Regardless of the politics or life experience of the person I am talking to, the answer comes like clockwork. I guess if you hate it that much, you should just lose weight.”



At this point, you may be asking yourself, what are people hoping to achieve with this movement? Why does it exist? What is the ultimate goal? Perhaps most obviously, body positivity is about reframing how you view yourself. It is about boosting your self-esteem and body image. It’s about loving yourself as you are, which is often a daily struggle for the vast majority of us. Men and women. “Those of us who believe we do not have the “right body” spend decades of our life and dollars trying to shrink, tuck and tame ourselves into the right body all the while forfeiting precious space on the planet because we don’t feel entitled to it,” says Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body Is Not An Apology. And to this end, body positivity has achieved some success. In Breaking Free From Body Shame, Jess Connolly remarks, “the body positivity movement has been a lifeline for millions, an introduction to a wildly hopeful idea that there’s far more than one way to be beautiful.” At the same time, Connolly highlights the challenges of body positivity, because it relies on “your thought repeated over and over again until you believe yourself.”

The question we seemingly can’t stop asking ourselves is, what makes my opinion of myself more valid than culture’s opinion? Then the people around us? At times it seems not only less valid, but far less powerful and persuasive.

Scientifically speaking, the odds are stacked against us in this regard. In Captivology, author Ben Parr teaches us about the science of capturing attention, highlighting our tendency to “conform to the crowd because we begin to doubt our own judgment, and we fear the social repercussions of going against the majority.” But the battle to improve our body image and self-worth is only one part of the equation. For more obese folks, “that’s only the start of our body-related challenges,” says Gordon. This leads us to the second goal of the body positivity movement, which is to reframe how fat people are viewed and treated in our society. It’s a social justice movement, calling for the basic dignity and human rights of fat people to be restored. Here’s how Gordon puts it: “Fat people face overwhelming discrimination in employment, healthcare, transit, the treatment of eating disorders, and more…” All one has to do is pick up Gordon’s book and it becomes quite obvious how fat people are marginalized in our society and looked down upon. It is an injustice, conveniently painted as “concern” as we carelessly shift the blame on those who are bigger, telling them it is their fault for being such an “unsightly” part of our society. Our pleas of “concern” for fat people are clearly not coming across as so. We must step back and reconsider our ways. How are we treating fat people? Viewing them? Conversing with them? Including them? Loving them? …but what about health? The third and final goal of the body positivity movement, albeit from the other side, is to deconstruct it altogether on the grounds of health. Before we go any further, we must say that yes, it is important for anyone, regardless of genetic makeup or size, to be educated on the healthiest possible choices for their body. Some folks may even be unaware of the harmful ingredients that makeup their seemingly "healthy" diet. Setting appearance or self-image aside, many would likely heed their doctor's advice if they were told to lose weight or improve their diet due to rising cholesterol or blood pressure levels. Gordon herself says, “I told [my doctor] I was happy to talk about behaviors and I meant it. I would talk about practices and food.. but the answer to nearly every health problem I had faced had come without investigation, without curiosity, without seeing anything but the size of me.” So nutrition conversations are important. But how we have those conversations is equally as important, in addition to how we treat those we’re having nutrition conversations with. Many of us think we’re doing a service to society by handing out “tough love” to fat people with shame tactics and a self-righteous attitude. But not only would we hate to receive the same repulsive commentary we so eagerly hand out, shaming is clinically proven to not work. “As a fat person, I have faced constant judgment, harsh rejection and invasive questions, which always close with the same stale phrase: I’m just concerned for your health…but those conversations rarely bear the hallmarks of concern. Concern is curious, tender, loving. Concern is direct and heartfelt. Concern does its work delicately, with great care. It looks after the people we hold dear. Concern is rooted in love – not as in so many of these conversations, rooted in power, paternalism and open contempt,” says Gordon. All of these variables – self-worth, body image, the cultural beauty standard, fat justice and the health conversation – place the body positivity movement at a complicated intersection. Many are left stranded at a crossroads; a strange middle ground of being pulled in all different directions. Writing in a column for Greatist, columnist Amber Petty summed up how these confusing narratives affect her and many others caught in this struggle: "For some people, like myself, the body-positivity movement only makes things more complicated: Fat people now get the privilege of being judged by others for being too big while simultaneously being preached at that they should just love themselves, muffin-top and all." So what then, is the solution? Is it even possible to satisfy both sides of the body positivity movement with each of their collective goals?


There’s only one movement in human history that can straddle the fine line of restoring our sense of self-worth and fighting for fat justice, while also recognizing the power of food and facilitating healthy dialogue around nutrition. And that would be the way of Jesus. While this idea might sound new to you, let’s set aside any preconditioned notions of religion for a moment. Long before the modern (and sometimes dysfunctional) church became an institution and fixture in society, this organic grassroots movement swept over the ancient world. To outsiders, the original followers of Jesus started developing quite the reputation for love. Alan Kreider, author of The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, writes: "...outsiders looked at [the early followers of Jesus] and saw them energetically feeding poor people and burying them, caring for boys and girls who lacked property and parents, and being attentive to aged slaves and prisoners. They interpreted these actions as a "work of love"..." It was from this place of love that they carried forth the teachings and good news of Jesus, bringing forward a compelling alternative to the body positivity movement. The way of Jesus proposes these five ideas as it relates to our bodies, which are able to collectively satisfy the goals of the body positivity movement, without the drawbacks:

1) Inherent Self-Worth

The way of Jesus says that in the beginning of history, humans were made in the image of God. This means we were born with an inherent sense of worth, that neither had to be earned or is dependent upon the affirmation of others. Nothing could make us more valuable or less valuable than we are right now. And although coming from a different context, Sonya Renee Taylor gets at this same idea in The Body Is Not An Apology: “Radical self-love is indeed our inherent natural state, but social, political and economic systems of oppression have distanced us from that knowing.” In other words, our inherent state is recognizing our value.

2) Objective Truth

But as it relates to self-esteem, there’s one fatal flaw of the body positivity movement that author Jess Connelly alluded to above, which is that it’s dependent upon our opinion. And while Taylor rightly acknowledges our inherent worth, this easily becomes dismantled by the crowds. As Ben Parr writes, the cultural current is simply too powerful. While we may win some battles, the odds are not in our favor. Science is betting that we will ultimately succumb to other people’s opinions (and the beauty standard) in the war over our body image. But thankfully, where the body positivity movement loses stream, the way of Jesus succeeds. “Here’s where [the way of Jesus] gets powerful, with more oomph than any cultural norm or expectation: [with the way of Jesus], you are not the one naming your body good; it’s not your thought repeated over and over again until you believe yourself. You’re taking your cues and following the Father who created the universe. We’re no longer lone survivors standing up to a wicked world that’s telling us we’re busted. We’re not in a bad dream, trying to scream, but no sound is coming out,” writes Connelly. The war over our body image isn’t won by mere positive thinking, but acknowledging what is objectively true. When God is in the equation, it changes everything. Like a manufacturer who creates a line of products with a price-tag, our maker places worth upon us. No one else has a say in this. We are worthy, because our Creator says so. “The statement that I love my body, that I feel positively about it, has so much more impact because it’s backed up by the belief that the Creator of the universe made it with intention and creativity,” adds Connelly. As powerful as the cultural current is, God tips the scales of the beauty standard, winning by a landslide. Who else would have more authority than the one who created the cosmos?

3) Focus on the margins

But the way of Jesus doesn’t stop there. Remarkably, the way of Jesus affirms our inherent sense of worth and boosts our body image, while simultaneously refusing to settle for anything less than fat justice in our society. When Jesus walked the Earth himself, he constantly associated himself with marginalized people groups. He went so far as to say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” And this posture also ties into the first two points, as we honor the fact that fat people share the same inherent worth as any other human being. Made in the image of God, fat people are also “fearfully and wonderfully made” as we see in Psalm 139. To treat them as anything less is not only an injustice against humanity, but an injustice against the one who created humanity. Many of the ideas that Gordon proposes at the end of her book – standing up for fat kids, ending anti-fat violence and pushing for equal healthcare for fat people – are actions that echo the earliest followers of Jesus.

4) Honor, humility & love

But Gordon’s list of action-items wasn't the only place we see the work of Jesus. Earlier she said: “Concern is curious, tender, loving. Concern is direct and heartfelt. Concern does its work delicately, with great care. It looks after the people we hold dear. Concern is rooted in love – not as in so many of these conversations, rooted in power, paternalism and open contempt.” This comment bears remarkable similarities to the passage we find in 1 Corinthians 13, written by one of Jesus’s original followers – Paul. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” The way of Jesus calls us to THIS place and THIS posture in our efforts to love fat people. We do not treat fat people as problems, but rather we get into the messy parts of life with them and actually invest in relationships with them. To recognize that being fat is NOT the truest thing about them, nor does it need to be the topic of every conversation. Fat people are actual human beings, with unique and beautiful stories. Jesus doesn’t stop there, though. He calls us to the most humble of postures, which is modeled by Paul when he calls himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). In practice, this means stepping back and considering what we do to ourselves when we’re tempted to judge and condemn someone who may actually have a compulsive eating habit. We might not overeat, but chances are there’s a weak spot somewhere. Maybe this struggle is not publicly on display, but there are certainly things in each of our lives that would bring about a deep sense of shame if anyone else knew. Recognizing this will bring a sense of empathy the next time we feel compelled to judge someone who is fat and will help start our conversations from a place of humility.

5) Recognize the power of food

And lastly, the way of Jesus affirms the natural order in which God made the world. In Psalm 95, it says “In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.” God made everything and he ordered our bodies to need certain nutrients. The way of Jesus recognizes the power of food and the conversation around health is an important one. But only from a place of deeply investing into the first four points proposed by the way of Jesus. From a place of humility, we can start to discover what “healthy” actually means. A common misconception is that thinness automatically equates to health. Channing Tatum, as he prepared his body for Magic Mike 3, remarks: “I don’t think when you’re that lean, it’s actually healthy.” Physiologists would agree. It only takes a bit of digging to realize that our perceptions about fitness and food are quite off, influenced by marketing tactics from the food and wellness industries. The deep concern about the unhealthy eating habits of fat people are sometimes just as present in our own lives. In fact, 60% of the American food diet is ultra-processed food. Deceptive food labels run rampant. The scales may not show it, but the food system is constantly harming our bodies and our planet with pesticides, GMOs, unethical farming conditions, chemicals and artificial preservatives. If we desire holistic health in our lives, educating ourselves on this front is important, so that we can eat according to our design.


So how do we put this into practice? The first step to change starts with simply agreeing. Do you believe in the way of Jesus? Do you agree that it’s the best way? This doesn’t make us immune to the ideologies of our culture. In fact, we are constantly being inundated with images of what's considered sexy, or what gets people's attention. It is inevitable that we would feel negatively about ourselves if we are constantly being exposed to dysfunctional narratives about our bodies without thinking twice. Changing our perspective is a process that starts with making an agreement with the truth. We may long to fit the cultural ideal, but giving up on this pursuit and ultimately accepting ourselves as we are allows the grieving process to begin. This means accepting that we will never look the way culture has wired us to want to look. In her best-selling book Come As You Are, leading sex educator Emily Nagoski puts it this way: “We think if we let go, we’re giving up hope; it feels like a failure… accepting that your healthy body shape doesn’t match the (unhealthy) cultural ideal. It requires a little journey through the pit of despair… sometimes letting go of a particular goal feels like you have to let go of your entire identity.” Expecting that there will be a mourning process ahead of time eases us into the pain we will feel, as it ultimately guides us into the truth. We may mourn, but we don’t have to permanently live in a state of mourning. In time, it will pass. Paul says in Romans 12:2 that we will be “transformed by the renewal of [our] minds.” The latest scientific research has effectively coined this neuroplasticity. When we meditate on the truth and pursue that truth, there is a literal and physical rewiring that happens within our brain. For example, when we meditate on the fact that true affirmation can never come from what society thinks, we start living into this. It's a reminder that worth is not contingent on human approval. Paul also affirms this idea in Galatians 1:10: "Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people?" So instead of indulging in self-criticism and continuing to pursue the cultural ideal in various ways, we instead choose to focus on the unconditional love of God, which cannot be earned. Nothing you do will make you more or less loved by God than you are in this current moment. This may sound ethereal, but it is actually an answer to our soul’s deepest longings. It’s liberating and centering. We so desperately want to be affirmed and so we pursue the cultural ideal, but all we have to do is receive our inherent worth, knowing it can never be taken away. To make this possible, some adjustments might have to happen in our lives. We have to set boundaries and set ourselves up to ingest a healthy dose of truth everyday, while limiting our engagement with mediums that will further set us down a path once again of self-criticism. This is by no means a perfect process, but if we commit ourselves to it, over time we will see how transformative it can be. Overturning the spiritual rock allows us to go from theory to truth. As mentioned, the body positivity movement can feel like we are merely forcing ourselves to adopt a self-soothing perspective about our bodies, out of failure to meet the cultural ideal. But the way of Jesus is rooted in embracing what is actually true. This is far different and ultimately, much more liberating. Our Creator is the only one who has the authority to put a price tag on us and determine our value. And thus, we are beautiful and wonderfully made because our Creator says so. It is fact, not theory. We are made in his image and nothing that culture says can take that away. We can choose to receive that and follow him. As it relates to self-worth and body image, it might take time to start adopting this new narrative in our minds, but advocating for fat injustice can happen immediately. We can recognize where we’ve contributed to the problem. We can start treating fat people with honor and humility today. In the words of Gordon, there are no prerequisites for human dignity. For more on body image, click here to visit our Body Image Hub.


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