When Did Body Positivity Get Toxic?

Sometimes too much good can go bad.

by Elyssa Goodman
Victoria Warnken/TZR; Getty Images; Stocksy
multiple women's bodies layered that showcase varying body types

“I’ve made my fortune on the ability to perfect women’s bodies with Brooke’s Butt-Buster Workout,” Brooke Windham (played by Ali Larter) says. But she has a secret. “On the day of Hayworth’s murder, I was getting… liposuction. It’s not like normal women could have this ass! If my fans knew I bought it, I would lose everything.”

I love Legally Blonde, but when I think of toxic body positivity, I think of this scene. The idea that you can achieve a look, an experience, a goal for your body that is, in reality, totally unattainable. Brooke tells her clients that if they do these workouts, they can get a body like hers. Toxic body positivity, similarly, is “representing an unattainable goal of just straight loving everything about your body all the time, in a way that is just I don't know that anybody actually feels,” says Zoë Bisbing, licensed clinical social worker and founder of Body-Positive Therapy NYC. Toxic body positivity touts that “with this simple mindset, you too can love your body.” It’s in messaging that doesn’t acknowledge the difficulty of the endeavor to love your body. It’s in only mentioning the good days in the relationship with one’s body and never the bad. It’s in suppressing the negative feelings and pretending they don’t exist. It’s toxic because it’s just not that easy, for anyone, and forcing yourself to repress negative feelings is damaging to your mental health.

What started out in the 1960s as body positivity, a message for the social and self-acceptance of a multitude of bodies, a commendable demand for deviation from the projected ideals of thinness that would never be achievable for everyone, became an idea of all or nothing: either you loved your body all the time or you were a failure for not being able to do so. It became toxic, another place to fall short, largely based on a misunderstanding of body positivity itself, Bisbing says. Because body positivity does not mean “you must love your body all day every day forever.” Rather, Bisbing says, body positivity is a value system: “This is how I define it: if you believe that all [people], regardless of what they look like, deserve to enjoy a positive relationship with their body, then you have body positive values.”

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Body image, on the other hand, lives in your relationship with yourself, she says, in “the way you think and feel about your body.” And yet the use of a hashtag like #bodypositive became used “almost exclusively [to] refer to how I feel about my own body… I'm body positive, I love myself as I am. And if somebody loves their body as they are, this is fine. If they say I'm body positive, nothing terrible is happening there,” Bisbing says. “People are out there using this hashtag to put forth, I think, a false idea of body positivity, which is that it means that you feel radically positive towards your own body.”

In the falseness and the misrepresentation then lies the toxicity. Because there’s no relationship where you’re in a state of bliss and adoration 100% of the time: not with our friends, not with our loved ones, not with ourselves. This idea of body positivity, this false narrative became, like Brooke Windham’s own derrière, implausible and unrealistic. But how did it start?

It’s helpful to look at the body positivity movement’s genesis. The first organization for fat acceptance in America was the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, now National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, established in the 1960s. In New York, engineer Bill Fabrey saw the way the world treated his wife Joyce, a woman of size, and was having none of it. Seeing an article in The Saturday Evening Post by Llewellyn “Lew” Louderback, entitled “More People Should Be Fat,” Fabrey reached out to Louderback, and NAAFA was born.

Shortly after in California, the group Fat Underground, previously a NAAFA chapter, brought a new brand of radicality. As Fat Underground co-founder Sarah Fishman wrote, essential to their ideology was Louderback’s 1970 book Fat Power. “The belief that fat people are just thin people with bad eating habits now could be seen as part of a system of mystified oppression,” Fishman wrote. It’s worth noting, too, that around the time of Fat Underground’s birth, “Mama” Cass Elliot died, in 1974. The famed singer of the 1960s musical group The Mamas & the Papas and a major celebrity of size died after a heart attack, which was likely brought on by years of consistent crash dieting. The fat liberation movement lost a sister in arms, but realized anew the darkness and downfall of diet culture.

There’s also a deep tie to fat-shaming from racism. Within the 19th century’s social Darwinism and early 20th century’s eugenics, there lived an idea that thinness was tied to levels of self-control only white people carried, that fatness was tied to a lack of self-control nascent to Black people. To counteract these deeply racist ideologies, it’s no surprise that the body positivity movement has roots with Black activists. Among them are Johnnie Tillmon, a major welfare advocate of the 1970s, and Margaret K. Bass, author of the essay “On Being a Fat Black Girl in a Fat-Hating Culture.” Indeed, it is also because of writer Audre Lorde, for example, that we even have the expression self-care.

When I was growing up in the 1990s, diet culture was still the order of the day. I remember the number of diet books my mother had, everything from Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution to The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet to, later, The South Beach Diet. She had Jane Fonda's Original Workout on VHS. Billy Blanks: Tae Bo Classic. She bought Herbalife, SnackWell’s, SlimFast bars. Thinness became something people could be sold, an entire industry built to make promises it couldn’t keep until you found out too late that it was all a lie. Just like Brooke Windham’s liposuction.

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And here we are today, when diet culture has become a facet of “wellness” culture, dotted with mushroom powders, blue algae, crystals, and Instagram pop psychology. On social media, so many bodies are edited, posed, or tweaked to present false shapes and sizes, a new generation of Brooke Windhams promising such a physique with steps X, Y, and Z, never accounting for genetics, Photoshop, body contouring, or even, these days, Ozempic. The initial calls for body acceptance have become skewed as the need for content with limited characters or confined to a square became pervasive. The message lost nuance. “Body positivity” came to mean “loving your body all the time, no matter what.” It became impossible. It became toxic.

“It's [an] unrealistic goal for many people to ever feel positively towards their own body. But that does not mean they can't feel they can't improve their body image, they can't increase body neutrality, they can't become more embodied,” Bisbing says. “It can start to be a little toxic when it feels almost like an oppressive or an unattainable goal.”

And of course, feeling like you’re failing at something is counterintuitive to trying to feel good about yourself. The other problem is that the nature of body positivity only spotlights, well, the body. “I also think that body positivity still keeps the focus on size, shape, and weight. And that's not who you are, you're not just body shape and weight, there are so many dimensions as to who we are as people,” says Paula Edwards-Gayfield, LPCS, CEDS-S, a therapist in private practice and the regional assistant vice president with The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders.

Forcing yourself into a relationship with your body — faking it ‘til you make it, so to speak — is also dangerous to your mental health. “Do you love [your body] because you're trying to, or is the love of it based off of some harmful beauty standard that is not even ideal or possible for you?” asks Edwards-Gayfield. “We want to promote self-acceptance, self-acceptance of you, the whole person, not just size, shape, or weight.” The opposite, she says, can be a rabbit hole or thinking trap of negativity, which creates even more problems. “It definitely impacts our mood, depression, anxiety, those who may struggle with or be susceptible to developing an eating disorder. It reinforces [the] ‘I'm not good enough’ mentality, and then what do I do to try to be good enough? Again, that's where some of the toxicity kicks in.”

When Edwards-Gayfield works with clients, she often asks them to consider how important their physical appearance really is, and how it really affects their values. “I think we say so many things to ourselves, that we beat ourselves up, and then that can become, what is the thing that I can change?” she says, and this can apply not just to the way people consider their appearance, but to how they understand body positivity. It’s important, she says, that people realize “Hey, I can accept me, I can love parts of me at this moment, and maybe not so much the next. But also, I can acknowledge that I like me or I want to like me, and I think that's even part of it, too.”

Psychologist Janis Whitlock is the senior advisor at The JED Foundation (JED), “a nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for our nation’s teens and young adults,” but her thoughts on body positivity and its toxic cousin are meant for people of all ages. Like Edwards-Gayfield, Whitlock believes that when body positivity became toxic was “when there was a reinforcement of the preoccupation with the body in general.” A counterbalance to this is body neutrality, which is the movement to appreciate one's body for what it does for you, the way it lives in the world, as opposed to loving it for its appearance. To remove your sense of worth from the appearance of your body. “It's really a matter of emphasis,” Whitlock says. The trouble arises “when people say that thing that I don't love, or those things I don't love, mean that I'm not going to have a good life… that nobody's going to love me, it means something beyond ‘I don't like the way that part of myself looks.’”

This is not to say, either, that it’s not OK to like or dislike parts of your body; rather, the opposite is true. But it’s important to remain grounded in the fact that there is so much your body does for you that’s more impactful than how it looks. “Just recognize your body as a vehicle for experience and love. As an older woman I can tell you, that really is the place everybody's gonna end up,” Whitlock says. “We all come to realize, I think eventually, that the beauty of one's body is really what it allows you to do and be and feel.” It’s not something that can be put into a hashtag, a wrapper, or a bottle. It only comes from you, and it was there all along.