Thriving Together Series: Body Positivity for Well-Being
by Jamila Johnson with Sherrene DeLong
This edition was written by Jamila Johnson, Love Mila Brand Owner, with Sherrene DeLong, Well-Being Program Coordinator, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.
“It takes courage to be yourself in a world where you are constantly told that who you are isn’t enough. Being yourself is the biggest gift you can offer yourself and others. Be brave enough to show the world who you are without an apology.” – Ash Alves
Body positivity is actively looking for the best in yourself: Finding the positive attributes of your body and honoring that! It’s also recognizing that no one’s body is perfect and we all have something we want to improve. Don’t wait until you reach your goals to start loving yourself. You deserve love through the process of making those improvements.
People sometimes have misconceptions about body positivity, and those are important to address.
One misconception is that body positivity is promoting obesity. That’s false. Actually, loving your body requires caring for your body. When you love someone, you want take care of them. When you love something, you try your best to take good care of it. Body positivity is extending that same type of love to yourself! Keep in mind: People have weight concerns for various reasons. Medical conditions, medications, illnesses, and depression can all be factors. Don’t assume obesity is strictly from an unhealthy lifestyle. But even it is, that person still deserves to love themselves as they transition to a healthier lifestyle.
Another misconception is that body positivity means nudity or minimal clothing. That’s wrong. Flaunting your body does not automatically equate to confidence. This is sometimes a cover-up for other insecurities. All confident people do not flaunt their bodies. In fact, some dress very modestly. Don’t be fooled by the images you see on social media.
What the Research Shows
Body positivity has a direct impact on one’s well-being. Research shows that a negative body image influences mental health and can put people at higher risk of depression. On the flip side, a health body image can promote self-esteem and confidence.
Body positivity is not about ignoring one’s flaws or health concerns. According to Psychology Today, the goal of body positivity is to live comfortably in one’s body and care for the body comprehensively, both inside and outside. Individuals can cultivate a health body positivity by learning what their body needs and taking responsibility for those needs. This includes listening to one’s bodily cues for hunger, safety, and rest, as well as honoring life’s circumstances that make self-care challenging.
Body positivity is also promoted when we evaluate our media consumption and take a critical look at what messages are communicating about beauty standards. It may be helpful to move away from images of airbrushed perfection in order to establish a more realistic mental image of health and beauty.
BIPOC People’s Unique Challenges
BIPOC people face some unique body positivity challenges. Systemic racism can affect the way we view our bodies. BIPOC-identified individuals have a long history of feeling inferior. Most of our insecurities our rooted in racism: the belief that people of color are not equal to the white race. So, our natural features were often seen as unattractive and it was subconsciously passed down generation after generation. In other words, we were taught to hate our natural features. Some people have been directly told that their nose or lips are too big, hips are too wide, skin is too dark, and hair is too nappy while others have received these messages indirectly through the images glamorized in TV, movies, magazines and social media. Some of us were subconsciously taught via the toys given to us as children. For example, I played with primarily white Barbie dolls with a thin frame, European features, and silky straight hair. Can you remember the first time you felt like you weren’t pretty/handsome enough because you don’t look like [fill in the blank]? If you’ve never felt pressured to alter your hair, use makeup to disguise your features, or be a certain weight to fit mainstream beauty standards, consider yourself very privileged.
Societal body standards can serve to perpetuate white dominance, since they are rooted in racism. As a whole, we have been brainwashed to see beauty in certain features and not others. Unfortunately, the features that are glamorized are opposite of our own so we feel pressured to alter ourselves in order to feel beautiful. We perm our hair or buy long silky hair to cover up our own. We contour our faces with makeup to give the illusion of thinner noses, lips, cheeks, and chins. We develop eating disorders by stressing ourselves to lose weight because a smaller frame is more desirable/accepted compared to a fuller frame.
So yes, even in 2021, we perpetuate white dominance by reinforcing that European features are more beautiful than our own. Continuing this cycle only reinforces messages of inferiority to the next generation of BIPOC-identified individuals. Just remember, someone is always watching. Think about the messages you may be indirectly teaching your children, younger siblings, nieces/nephews, cousins, godchildren, etc.
Self-love can be an act of resistance, however. Self-love is an act of rebellion against societal beauty standards. It’s saying “Let me show you how beautiful I am with my natural hair. Even if I need or want to add additional hair, watch how beautifully I rock the texture of my ancestors!” It’s also saying “If I choose to wear makeup, watch how I use it to highlight my naturally beautiful features instead of disguising my features to look more like someone else!” Finally, it’s screaming “I will not allow you to pressure me into altering myself because you deem my body to be imperfect!” Self-love is walking confidently into spaces that weren’t made to include you.
When we figure out how to love and embrace our bodies, affirm ourselves, and find unbreakable confidence, we unlearn comparison (which truly is the thief of joy). We can acknowledge the beauty in others while still honoring our own!
My (Jamila’s) company, Love Mila Brand, encourages people to love their bodies through thick and thin – literally! We use waist beads, apparel, and speaking engagements to spark conversations about body image, self-love, and confidence. I was introduced to waist beads my senior year of college at the University of California and they held me accountable for weight changes when I struggled with my weight the most. My clients continuously express being accountable for their weight and feeling empowered with their waist beads on.
It’s vital for all people to embrace body positivity for well-being. Keep in mind that you have everything you need within yourself to do so. Be mindful of the people you keep in your circle, the things you listen to, and the media you watch. If it isn’t uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring you to be your best self, you may want to reconsider what purpose it has in your life. Protect your energy at all costs! There are also social media pages and podcasts dedicated to the self-love topic. They are only a search bar away. Seek whatever it is you need. Finally, talk to your BIPOC-identified faculty, staff, and students at Mason to discuss and/or read about topics that are relevant to them. As we provide safe spaces for us to have conversations about body positivity, we can help each other thrive together.
Check out these resources for more information on body positivity:
The article “What is Body Positivity?” from Verywellmind.com
The article “How Body Positivity Can Lead to Better Health” from NPR
The article “10 Ways to Practice Body Positivity” from Well-Being Trust
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