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Op Eds

The Practice of Body Positivity Requires More

By Gabrielle C. McClellan, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gabrielle C. McClellan ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House.

When I first got to college in the fall of 2020, I, like most of my classmates, had a few concerns about how the year would unfold in the middle of a pandemic. Would we ever receive hot food? Would I ever learn the heights of my professors? Would I ever see the inside of one of Harvard’s many libraries? In addition to these universal questions, I was also worried about health: How would I exercise in quarantine? Would mental health services be readily available for students should they need them?

Worrying about staying in shape, mentally and physically, made me think about the body positivity movement. The more I worried, however, the more I started scrutinizing the movement. Feeling confident and comfortable is a struggle for many people of all ages, shapes, and sizes. As a college student, I’ve heard many stories about the so-calledFreshman Fifteen,” and arriving on campus for the first time only exacerbated my concerns.

The body positivity movement may seem a relatively recent social phenomenon, but its roots extend further back than some think: In 1969, a man named Bill Farbey grew angry over the way strangers treated his overweight wife. Farbey would go on to create the National Association to Aid Fat Americans — which, now the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, is the oldest fat-rights organization.

Over the past few years, however, the body positivity movement has gained tremendous momentum — in a sense, the movement has been reborn. With plus-sized models and people of every shape and size being celebrated on magazine covers and across many media platforms, it seems we have made some progress in promoting body positivity.

It is refreshing and encouraging to see mental and emotional health so openly discussed. But the body positivity movement is lacking in one critical respect: physical health.

For many, body positivity may elicit a strong response. What do you think of when you hear the words “body positivity?” The movement is a critical, necessary means to ensure every person feels comfortable and confident in their skin. No one deserves to be shamed, excluded, or discriminated against for their size. But, for many people, the movement elicits strong negative reactions due to its failure to also encourage physical health. In doing so, it fails to highlight the tragic and preventable physiological effects of obesity.

These strong views, however, are not necessarily in conflict with one another. I believe it is incredibly important to love and be kind to oneself. I also believe that body positivity is an action. Managing stress and anxiety, getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating a healthy diet are all part of body positivity that require active participation. Physical and mental health should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Mental and physical health, together, should be considered the fundamental pillars of body positivity-oriented action.

With the direction of Americans’ diets and health, in particular, we must capitalize on a heightened focus on body positivity that encourages healthy living. Between 2017 and 2018 in the United States alone, the adult obesity prevalence was 42.4 percent in adults. In 2008, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion, and it has only continued to rise. Diseases caused by obesity, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, are among the leading causes of preventable and premature deaths in the United States.

An estimated 2.8 million adults die each year from preventable, obesity-caused illnesses. Ultimately, it is important to bear in mind that obesity is a comorbidity for a long list of chronic, degenerative illnesses. Understanding the consequences of our physical care is not fatphobia; it is the necessary recognition of a health crisis that will only worsen if we dismiss promotions of healthy habits immediately as fatphobia.

On the whole, we have failed to consider body positivity as both a mental and physical action-related mindset. The media has long promoted bodies that are too thin, and as we reshape our own attitude toward our own health, we must consider all angles and components of a movement that first began as a husband’s mission to help his wife.

We still have a long way to go in Bill Farbey’s mission. While the movement has been critical to dispelling the toxic culture that has promoted eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and unhealthy mental habits, according to Deloitte’s report on the social and economic cost of eating disorders, approximately 21 million Americans between 2018 and 2019 had eating disorders at some point in their lifetimes.

The body positivity movement has done important work encouraging mental health and self-love and that must continue — but it is utterly failing to remind us that physical health, too, is just as important. As we reconsider the body positivity movement, we must work to promote healthy lifestyles.

Gabrielle C. McClellan ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House.

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