When I was younger, I loved watching the televised broadcasts of New York Fashion Week. I grew up in the heyday of heroin chic, which meant that the runway was a seemingly endless parade of vampire-pale, stick-thin waifs. I knew I would never grow up to look like these women, no matter how hard I tried. Even though I was perfectly happy to develop my own unique sense of style, I had an awareness that no one on television looked like me.
Fast forward two decades. The landscape of beauty has changed dramatically. I can’t yet say we’re living in a whole new world, but as a society, we’re making steady progress toward diversifying our expectations of beauty. More colors, shapes, sizes, and sexual identities are being beamed over the airwaves and into our living rooms.
The strides we’ve made toward diversifying our media did not just happen overnight. They occur as part of a larger historical context that has rebelled against normative standards of beauty for decades. The Fat Acceptance Movement, started in the mid 1960’s, is considered to be an offshoot of Second Wave Feminism. In 1967, the group held a 500 person “fat-in” in Central Park, NY wherein people carried signs of pro-fat messages and burned diet books. This was followed in 1969 by the creation of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) which held a yearly summer convention until 2015. More recently, in 1996, the Body Positivity Movement was started by friends Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott. Their goal was to help girls and women foster positive self-images so they could lead more fulfilling lives. Today it exists as an organization known as the Body Positive. Just a few weeks ago, this organization hosted the third annual CurvyCon. This convention was organized by two self-described plus size fashion bloggers to help women “chat curvy, shop curvy and embrace curvy.” All of these organizations and movements undoubtedly have their own platforms, but what they all share is a desire for bodies of all appearances to be accepted into society.
I firmly believe that every body is worth loving, but moreover, that every body is a body worth caring for. I see care as being a balance between the emotional and physical aspects of well-being. While I am hopeful that the shifting tide of acceptance in media translates more broadly to mean that us non-Hollywood folk also find value in ourselves and others no matter our physical appearance, as a health care provider, I am concerned that the Body Positivity Movement may be construed as an acceptance of obesity. If we accept ourselves for who we are, and who we are is unhealthy, then I question whether we are really showing ourselves the love that we claim.
I think what the Body Positivity Movement does well is emphasize self-value on the emotional spectrum of care. Where body positivity endeavors seem to lag, however, is in the promotion of physical health. Physical health can be just as challenging to realize as emotional health, yet it is just as important. Diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia are real diseases whose prevalence strongly correlates with obesity. They do not discriminate between people who love their bodies and those who don’t. They can affect and ultimately kill anyone whose body mass index falls into an unhealthy range. Our government makes the realization of physical health all the more difficult by setting up barriers for people to receive quality health insurance. Financial barriers are only one aspect of this problem. Any policy that allows for the proviso of health barriers, in the form of exclusions, special criteria, and added financial burden for people with pre-existing conditions, is a policy that does not believe all people to be equally worthy of care and is therefore an injustice.
Even though a key focus of the Body Positivity Movement is self-love, this does not mean people have to go it alone. As future physicians, we can partner with our patients and aim to help them strike a balance between their emotional and physical care. To me, this means helping our patients foster emotional self-love while also being conscious of physical health. While monitoring sensitive aspects of our patient’s physical health such as weight, infectious disease, and heritable conditions may be challenging, perhaps in part because they may draw on our own personal insecurities, we can discuss these topics using sensitive, collaborative approaches that are respectful of the patient’s emotional well-being. Ultimately, our goal should be to meet our patients where they’re at in terms of care and be a supportive force to propel them forward.
Photo Credit: Crystal Coleman