On Monday, Tess Holliday appeared on the first ever digital cover of SELF Magazine, which was an important moment for the health and fitness brand that has a long history of promoting weight loss and diets. "We chose to feature her and give her a platform because she has insightful things to say about thriving in a world that devalues bodies of size," Carolyn Kylstra, editor-in-chief wrote in the editor's letter. Since the story premiered, lots of people have applauded their size representation and have emphasized the importance of having Holiday's message on a platform like SELF. However, there was another story about size acceptance that was also making headlines this week for the opposite reason.
A study published last Friday in the journal Obesity, suggested that the body-positivity movement "can potentially undermine the recognition of being overweight and its health consequences." Some news outlets jumped at this story: "Body Positivity Movement Causes People To Think They Aren't Obese," a headline for Newsweek read, while Yahoo! reported, "Study finds the body-positive movement is probably contributing to the obesity crisis." But, this study got pretty twisted around, and this is so not the case.
In the study, researchers used data from an English health survey to analyze people who had a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher (which, despite the fact that BMI is a flawed measurement, is classified as overweight or obese). The study authors then took note of how many people described themselves as "about the right weight," "too light," and decided that those people had underestimated their weight. The conclusion that they drew was that "normalization of overweight and obesity" has become widespread in England and it's only getting worse because plus-size clothing and images are more common. They believe this is an issue because "awareness of overweight status is a prerequisite for weight‐loss attempts." But, this study didn't look at any "dangers" associated with the body-positivity movement, nor did it take any other factors about the people's health and habits into consideration.
As Health News Review pointed out, the study wasn't designed to measure the relationship between plus-size culture and health, or the body-positivity movement's impact on people's weights. It simply was set up to examine people's perceptions of body weight, says Rebecca Puhl, PhD, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. "It's important to clarify that the questions examined in this study do not allow us to make conclusions about body positivity," she says.
Experts have reacted to the study saying that the way the results were framed was misleading and sloppy, and dragged the author for not having legitimate evidence for any of their claims. "It's [a] striking example of stretching the data to fit a presupposed opinion," Yoni Freedhoff, MD, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute at the University of Ottawa told Health News Review. In other words, this study is just concern-trolling in disguise. And what we do know is that weight bias and stigma can be harmful to people's health.
"Considerable evidence shows that feeling stigmatized and shamed about one’s body weight is linked with psychological distress, unhealthy behaviors, physiological stress, and weight gain," Dr. Puhl says. When people experience weight bias from healthcare providers, they're more likely to put off getting care in the future — and that is dangerous.
The bottom line to remember while all of these conflicting messages swirl around the internet? "Body acceptance (regardless of body size) is not at odds with motivation to engage in healthy behaviors," Dr. Puhl says. In fact, based on the research that demonstrates a link between poor health and weight stigma, we can assume that body positivity is associated with improved health and well-being, she says. As more and more publications like SELF embrace body acceptance, it's time for people in the medical community still clouded by bias to also wake up to the reality that you can't tell anything about a person based on their size.