3 Scientific Reasons Why Body Positivity Does NOT Promote Overweight or Obesity

Anger. Vitriol. Rage. This is what happened to the Twittersphere this past week when Gillette Venus used a plus size model to promote their new marketing campaign.  

Here are just a few angry tweets:

"Wow, this is so unhealthy! Obesity causes cardiovascular diseases, type 2 Diabetes, sleep apnea, depression & certain types of cancer and death. Why would you show younger girls a picture like this? Another reason not to purchase your products! @lovinbeauty

"Please stop. Promoting this is dangerous. Being unhealthy is not a good thing," @BrennaSpencer

"There's no reason to be rude or unkind to someone who is obese and there is no reason @GilletteVenus should be encouraging life threatening obesity. This would also be true if they used an anorexic model. I wish the model they used well but Gillette should know better," @robbystarbuck

Gillette actually is not alone. Cosmopolitan Magazine, Dove, and Nike are just a few major companies that have come under fire by the general public for displaying and/or utilizing plus size bodies in their campaigns.

The primary argument: These companies are promoting obesity. Over and over and over again. The same exact argument.

Is it though? By simply displaying plus size bodies--a population of people who make up 67% of the american population--are these companies really telling the world that obesity is okay? Furthermore, is the entire body positivity movement that has been on the rise in the past years doing irreparable damage to an already overweight country that is under an obesity crisis?

I can answer that now: No. I mean, if you want to keep reading, feel free. But as a person with a PhD and over twenty years in the health, fitness, and wellness industry, you can take me at my word when I say: no. It absolutely does not.

In fact, there are about a thousand extraordinarily decent social arguments I can make here to explain why the above arguments against body positivity are sexist, ableist, elitist, anti-feminist, dated, antiquated, unfounded, and morally bankrupt. I’m confident you can find those blogs with just a cursory Google search.

But a logical, sound and scientific response I feel is the best course of action here. As the entire world feels that they have science and medicine on their side of right, I feel body positivity needs the same big guns. So here it is. A scientific response. For anyone who thinks body positivity is the causation and promotion of obesity, go ahead and send them this article with my regards.

First and Foremost: What is Body Positivity?

When Googled, this is the answer that comes up.

Body Positivity is a social movement rooted in the belief that all human beings should have a positive body image, in doing so it challenges the ways in which society presents and views the physical body. The movement advocates the acceptance of all bodies no matter the form, size, or appearance.

I personally like the 4 Principles of Body Positivity conceptualized by Body Positivity Activist and my Podcast Co-host Cathleen Meredith:

  1. ACCEPTANCE OF WHAT IS: Our bodies as is (healthy, sick, skinny, fat, missing a leg, cancer survivors, and black, white, purple, blue and everything else,) deserve respect, visibility, acceptance and have intrinsic value.
  2. REJECTION OF “BEAUTY” STANDARDS: Body-shaming of all types has been shown to yield detrimental long-term psychological effects such as negative body image, depression, anxiety, and a multitude of eating disorders. It serves no benefits, so we reject it entirely.
  3. ACCEPTANCE OF CHANGE: Changes to our bodies—sickness, ailments, aging, pregnancy, surgery, accidents/trauma, putting on weight, losing weight, ALL of it—should be accepted, and should not diminish the value, respect, visibility of our bodies.
  4. TOTAL INCLUSIVITY: Body positivity is inclusive of all bodies, not just those considered to be “fat” or obese,considering most humans are socialized to have negative perceptions of their bodies.

In short, body positivity and its principles are about acceptance, inclusivity, and respect. First aspect to notice: these are all social ideas, not medical ones. Why naysayers of body positivity consistently bring up the promotion of obesity when fat bodies are displayed is a mystery to me.

The second aspect of its definition one must notice: body positivity does not “promote” any body type. It is simply stating that all body types have intrinsic value. We certainly agree with this as a society. If you intentionally hurt someone’s body--again, regardless of the look, age, or state of that body--we consider that a crime. Body positivity simply concurs with this logic.

Lastly, body positivity by definition does not purport that evolution, change, and/or a healthy lifestyle is unacceptable. You can be body positive and be healthy. In fact, body positivity promotes taking care of yourself.

How? Let’s unpack that science I promised.

Fact #1: Negative Body Image DOES Promote Obesity. And Anorexia. And A Lot of Other Bad Stuff. 

So if body positivity is such a threat to an already dangerous national health crisis, what is the alternative? Body negativity. Or rather, negative body image. Is there a possibility that a consistent negative body image could be the savior women need?

Highly unlikely.

Negative body image has been around for decades, and it hasn’t done a single woman any favors.

Luckily, we have a LOT of science to back this up, as 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies.  Yeah. That high. Interesting sidebar: only 20 - 40% of men have negative body image issues, though obesity runs equal in America for men and women. See why I say this is a feminist issue? But I digress.

Negative body image is extraordinarily powerful, influential, more contagious than the flu, and certainly more dangerous. Its body count is way higher than body positivity. It is linked to numerous physical and mental issues with women, girls, and teens, including obesity, anorexia, bulimia, depression, increased stress, heart issues, anxiety, and even suicide.  A recent study has also found that girls with negative body image are more likely to skip meals, avoid seeing friends and family, and even avoid seeing a doctor.

According to a study by researchers at Bradley Hospital, Butler Hospital and Brown Medical School, adolescents with negative body image concerns are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and suicidal than those without intense dissatisfaction over their appearance, even when compared to adolescents with other psychiatric illnesses.

Mind blown.

So basically, If I had two teenage daughters, one mentally ill and the other with body image issues, I need to be more concerned with the one who hates her body. At least in terms of suicide.

What we are teaching very young people is that physical appearance is not only paramount, we are better off dead without it. That is a LOT of power.

So how much power does a plus-size woman in a bikini on Twitter have? Certainly not the power to destroy the lives of millions of women, like negative body image is currently doing. But maybe the power to stop a young girl from literally pulling the trigger on a really bad idea.

If body positivity is combating negative body image that is far more pervasive than this country’s obesity epidemic, than it is not  “promoting an unhealthy lifestyle.” It is quite literally saving lives.

Concerned that you may be at risk for negative body image? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you weigh yourself more than once a week?
  • Do you think about how you look more than five times a day?
  • Have you ever skipped socializing because you didn’t feel good about your body?
  • Do you feel more deserving when you are a certain weight or fit into a certain pair of pants?
  • What do you do when someone gives you a compliment on how you look? Do you usually deflect or sincerely accept?
  • Do you avoid wearing certain clothes because they make you feel fat?
  • It is difficult for you to look at your body in a full length mirror?

If you’ve answered yes to more than 4 of these you may have a body image issue. The most telling answer  is the one given to this question:

  • When you stand naked in front of the mirror your first thoughts are…?

Fact #2: Obesity Bias Adversely Affects A Person’s Likelihood to Get Help.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity“ than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and HIV put together.

And the medical community’s primary response to this shift has been to blame fat people for being fat.

Nearly half of girls between the ages of 3-6 years old either consider themselves fat or are in FEAR of becoming fat.

Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call “the lean unhealthy.” A 2016 study that followed participants for an average of 19 years found that unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit fat people. Habits, no matter your size, are what really matter. Dozens of indicators, from vegetable consumption to regular exercise to grip strength, provide a better snapshot of someone’s health than looking at her from across a room.

But this is not what is truly terrifying. What’s really scary: these biases are fairly pervasive in the medical community itself and preventative of people getting help.

In a study of 5,400 white medical trainees, Dr. Sean Phelan of the Mayo Clinic found that explicit bias against perceived obese patients was twice as high as the highest rated bias, which was bias against transgender people.

In addition to noting that people with perceived obesity (again, not medically diagnosed, just perceived) will experience microaggression, bullying, discrimination in housing, employment, education, and healthcare, Phelan notes that their interactions with healthcare professionals is directly affected by size bias.

In these studies by the Mayo Clinic, primary care physicians reported spending less time with obese patients, less communication, and open belief in stereotypes: this patient is lazy, undisciplined, and less likely to adhere to medical advice.

These negative interactions statistically raise a patient’s chances to: delay cancer screenings and routine care, avoid routine check ups, and are more likely to have unreported diagnostic errors.

This isn’t healthy.  This isn’t saving or changing any lives. This is having the opposite effect, and it is happening precisely in the places where we are suppose to be receiving “help.”

Being treated poorly for the state of your body is directly affecting your health negatively. Still not convinced? Let’s talk about what negative self perception does to your body on a biochemical level.

Fact #3: Your Body Works Better When She’s Thinking Happy Thoughts About Herself

So most of us are thinking: so what I hate my body and maybe I hate myself too. We all do. What’s the big deal?

It IS a big deal. Cooking our cells in steaming pots of institutionalized shame and hate has done NOTHING to improve our health. In fact, it has had the opposite effect.

Psychoneuroimmunology. This is the science behind body positivity. By definition, it is the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease; the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body.

Basically, our bodies are listening (and reacting) to everything we think about our bodies.

It works like this:

  • In a day a human will think 60-70 THOUSAND thoughts per day.
  • 90% are the same thoughts we had the day before
  • Same thoughts lead to the same choices
  • Same choices lead to the same behavior
  • Same behavior will produce the same experiences
  • Same experiences will always create the same emotions
  • Same emotions will drive the same thoughts
  • The same thoughts lead to VERY well-defined neuro-pathways in the brain that keep us on auto-pilot. Especially in regards to daily tasks (what we eat, how we speak to ourselves and others, whether we exercise or not.)
  • Now we are in the loop: thinking/feeling, feeling/thinking
  • Interrupting this loop is KEY to shifting behavior.

What’s more: What we think affects our nervous system which influences what biochemicals are released which affects our bodies; specifically our immune systems.

Capsar Szulc, President of Innovation Medicine puts it like this:  "Science now proves how tightly coupled the mind and body are. Great strides in fields like psychoneuroimmunology over the last 30 years have shown how states of mind such as anxiety, depression, and anger affect the functioning of immune cells – T-cells, B-cells, Natural Killer cells, and macrophages. It is critical to be conscious of these emotions and your psychological state because they precede physical symptoms and are like the canary in the coal mine that provides you with early detection to something that may lead to serious dysfunction if not addressed. Bottom line - if you're not happy, you're not healthy."

An important example of this is a recent study given by Stanford University, where Dr. Alia Crum studied 84 female hotel-room attendants, who told the researchers that they felt they completed little or no daily exercise, although their work consisted mostly of physical labor. Crum and her colleague explained to half of them that, in fact, they were meeting or exceeding national recommendations for 30 minutes of daily exercise; a month later, when the researchers checked back, the women said they believed they were getting more exercise than before. They had lost weight and body fat and developed lower blood pressure. But in fact, their daily exertions were the same.

In the context of body image disorder, we have a thought, our body detects the thought, and releases biochemicals in line with that thought. So now we begin to feel in a way that reflects the thought. The mind picks up on these biochemicals and continues to think exactly how we are feeling.

At this point, we are biochemically affecting not only the way we feel but the way we turn our genes on and off.

Furthermore, perceiving ourselves negatively affects our biochemistry, which directly affects our nervous system, which affects our efforts at weight loss, and ultimately our overall health. We discussed in my previous blog the function of the  Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Its function: “It supplies the internal organs, including the blood vessels, stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys, bladder, genitals, lungs, pupils, heart, and sweat, salivary, and digestive glands.” We also discussed how stress adversely affects this vital system. This system does not filter for content, meaning that negative self thoughts respond in your body as stress. Even if we have those thoughts a thousand times a day. Our flight or fight response gets low level turned on with the negative self dialogue.

Fight or flight response in the body was never intended to be turned on all day. Imagine a fire alarm that never turns off. This response is only supposed to be utilized when in danger. So all day, our bodies are not functioning properly. They are only operating out of survival. One look in the mirror, and any function of the body not related to survival shuts down or impaired: digestion, repair, metabolism. Why are we working out, eating right, and not losing weight? This is why.

Our bodies cannot hate themselves and expect sustained success on health and wellness goals. Our bodies actually need positive thoughts to thrive, just like drinking water and eating our veggies.

Body positivity has a long way to go in terms of shifting the minds, ideas, and perceptions about our bodies, as well as drawing a clear line between beauty standards and actual medical science.  But if anyone wants to actually do their homework, they will find there is no basis for the bias. Only perception. Only ideas.

It wasn’t too long ago in this country where a black person was considered less than human in actual medical books. When homosexuality was considered a mental illness.  Likewise, with conversation and progress, these ideas changed. Let’s keep talking. Let’s keep working at it. And let’s collectively stop behaving like hating our bodies is a birthright. The best argument I have to those who think body positivity is promoting obesity is to look at the alternative. Negative body image is an actual and well-documented causation of obesity. The only environment our bodies can achieve and sustain physical and mental health is in a positive one.

A good rule of thumb: take care of yourself like you would your own daughter. Eat right. Get exercise. Get sleep. Don’t spend too much time on the internet. Exercise discipline when necessary. Keep a happy and healthy home. Shower yourself with unconditional love every single day. And have fun. This just might include taking your whatever-sized body to the beach in a bikini. And the world might just have to get over it.


For over 20 years Stacy Berman has been teaching people how to get in shape, eat healthy and create balance. Her extensive training in Tae Kwon Doe, Capoeira, kickboxing and bootcamp drills have led her to a deep understanding of the body and its movements. As a student of the world, she has learned to combine an intense physical practice with movement meditation for an elevated state of health.

Soon after her creating Stacy's Boot Camp, the first boot camp in NYC, Stacy realized food was the foundation for creating a sound mind in a sound body. She threw herself into nutrition with a passion,  became a certified nutrition specialist and worked with thousands of busy New Yorkers to figure out what worked and what didn’t. With feet on the ground practice Stacy created The System by Stacy Berman to help herself, her clients, and the world at large achieve a higher, more meaningful level of health and fitness.

Since creating The System, Stacy has gone on to receive a PhD in Natural Medicine and is presently writing a book Love Yourself Naked: The Science of Self Perception, Spirituality and Weight Loss that combines over twenty years in the health and fitness industries with scientific research to reveal how our thoughts affect the way we feel. Stacy is truly a forerunner in the mind - body holistic health movement with tens of thousands of hours of real life experience.