When Body Positivity Becomes a Risk

            Social media, the hierarchy of societal opinion. Whether we like it or not, social media channels such as Facebook or Instagram play a heavy hand on what we as a society see as “acceptable” or “normal.” They help us, or deceive us, into structuring our opinions on various topics.

            One such topic as of late revolves around body positivity. An ideology of which has nothing but fantastic intentions. Be who you are, accept who you are, and love who you are no matter what you look like or how you appear to other people - “love thyself” if you will. It’s hard to argue with that concept, isn’t it? Yet, that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

            I’m about to say that body positivity has a limit, and can in fact be harmful to your health. This last sentence likely has some of those reading this blog writhing in fury at how a fitness professional could say such a thing. How I’m being rash or demeaning. But to those of you who do believe that, please make it to the end before bringing out the pitchforks and setting fire to the windmill (cue “Frankenstein” music).

I’m about to say that body positivity has a limit, and can in fact be harmful to your health.

            You see, while body positivity has every bit of a good intention, it could also cause someone to be stuck inside a habitual lifestyle that may or may not be harmful to their long-term health. So for the sake of this blog, and keeping things fluid, we will target two specific aspects of body positivity where a line can be drawn; overweight/obesity and abnormally underweight (think anorexia).

            While accepting and loving who you are is excellent, doing so in a way that leads to ignorance of your health is not. Obesity for example has a laundry list of negative health risks such as[i];

•    High blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and stroke.

•    Type 2 diabetes, poor cholesterol.

•    Osteoarthritis (cartilage & bone begin to breakdown in your body), general body pain, and difficulty moving.

•    Sleep apnea, breathing problems, and general lower quality of life.

•    Higher risks for certain forms of cancer.

            On the other side of the spectrum lies those individuals who are dangerously underweight. This could be due to something complex such as anorexia or simply underfeeding yourself. Either way, some of the health risks for severely underweight individuals include[ii]:

•    Kidney problems.

•    Anemia and various forms of heart complications.

•    Hormonal imbalances causing the absence of a period (females) or low testosterone (males).

•    Bone loss, osteoporosis, and lean tissue loss (muscle).

•    General feelings of fatigue, dizziness, or potential fainting.

            Whether someone is obese or severely underweight, the potential health risks are clearly understood – and they aren’t good. Risking your well-being for the sake of overwhelming body positivity is a risky game. How far is too far? As health professionals, it is our job to draw the line when it becomes clear that new social norms are overriding safety and health.

            This isn’t to say that you can’t both have body positivity and health awareness. The two aren’t exclusive clubs. I can both love who I am and realize that in order to live a healthier, longer life I need to make a lifestyle change. And this isn’t “fat shaming,” or “skinny shaming,” or “shaming” of any kind. It isn’t meant to sound demeaning, or tell you that you shouldn’t be proud of who you are. But it is to say that you should care about your health just as much as you care about being proud to be you. I want you to love who you are, and I want to see that love for decades to come.

            So please: love yourself, but don’t allow that love to cause you to overlook your well-being. Know when it is ok to say, “I need to change.”

[i] Center for Disease Control - “The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity.” (https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects/)

[ii] National Eating Disorder Association - “Health Consequences of Eating Disorders.” (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences-eating-disorders)