Reflecting on body building vs body positivity.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Since I got deeper into fitness and exercise and started to see real strength gains and the natural changes that my body went through as a result, I’ve grown more interested in the idea of low key ‘body-building’ in the sense of sculpting my shape using weight-lifting and food. A lot of women who are into weight training have shared a similar epiphany – for most of our lives, ‘fitness’ has been about running, forcing yourself through unpleasant workouts and restricting the food you eat in order to get smaller. Weight training offers an empowering alternative (to those of us who are in a good mental place for it); rather than restricting food, you have to eat, you have to focus on strength goals and you don’t have to force yourself to run on a treadmill for hours on end, either. Perhaps most importantly, it allows you to get bigger, to get stronger, and to take up space instead of shrinking and sweating and ultimately wilting under the pressure of the fitness goals you’re ‘supposed’ to have.

After over a year of weight training, I’ve not just seen my body lean out, but I’ve seen myself develop biceps, bigger glutes, back muscles, quads and calves. For a month, I had a brief glimpse of my own abs in the mirror most days! It’s a look that I’ve decided that I like on myself, and it’s made me realise that I want my body to look physically strong.

This is where I start to get into uncomfortable territory, because of the idea that you cannot truly be body confident or practice self-love and personal body positivity if you’re in pursuit of some kind of physical change. I get it, too. It goes against a lot of what I’ve taught myself over the past several years; we shouldn’t be aspiring to arbitrary changes to our bodies, we should be aspiring to love ourselves in our current state, against all odds and the expectations our society places on us.

For me personally, I want to be able to see evidence of my strength and determination when I look in the mirror, not just feel it, in the same way that I enjoy seeing a display of creativity and a different version of myself in the mirror when I wear makeup. I know that I’m already beautiful and that my body is and always will be perfect as is – no change required – but that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t want to tweak bits and pieces of it that are within my control occasionally, either. Neither version of myself is better, neither the before nor after is superior in any way and I like neither more than the other - they're just different, and an alternative way I'd like to present myself.

Does this mean that any desire to change your body is inherently without flaw? Absolutely not. It is well within our rights to want to change our bodies as we see fit, but we fundamentally cannot escape the society in which we live - I've said it before and I'll say it again: our choices regarding our bodies and our appearances don't exist in a vacuum. Sure, we choose to change for ourselves, but there is always a pressure bearing down on us to look a certain way - whether we are aware of it or not - and that shapes our desires. Would we really still want to look skinny if looking skinny wasn't presented as an ideal, an aspiration, a representation of health, wellness, dedication, moral fibre, beauty and fame?

You could argue that being a woman and wanting to look thicker or more muscular is less of an issue, as these traits aren’t put on nearly as high a pedestal (and in the case of muscle in particular are often denigrated as being unfeminine, manly and ultimately, therefore, unattractive) but even desire for these too are heavily influenced by social media and beauty trends - after all, fitspo is the new thinspo and the peach is the new thigh gap. The ‘thicc’ booty builders on Instagram perpetuate just as problematic and impossible an ideal as the super skinny, popular fitspo that preceded them.

It’s an issue that is nuanced and extremely complicated. I don’t believe that we should feel ashamed of our desire to change our physical appearances in some way, especially if we have thought critically about why it is that we want to do it. In the war against body-shaming and fatphobia, it can be easy for those of us who’re working towards an aesthetic change of some kind or another to feel awkward, out of place and part of the problem. And I suppose in a lot of cases we are part of the problem - particularly when it comes to weight-loss or attempting to make your body better fit society’s cookie cutters. There are plenty of people out there who are maybe less educated about body positivity, fatphobia and diet culture and tell themselves until they’re blue in the face that they only want to be skinny for themselves, and are perhaps ignorant to the bigger picture of what our culture makes us want and how thinness won’t really bring happiness or inner peace.

That said, for me personally, I don’t believe it’s any different to why I get body modifications, and as someone who has taken a nine year, painstakingly difficult journey to critically unpack what I want out of exercise, I disagree with the idea that I should feel embarrassed or like I somehow love myself less for wanting to make certain changes to my body’s appearance. Do I secretly hate my body for wanting to get tattoos and piercings too, or is it just my desire to be leaner and more muscular that makes me full of hidden self-loathing?

Even with that being the case though, there are ways to go about pursuing change without aligning yourself with harmful ideas about bodies:

  • recognise that your body was good before as well as after,
  • understand that true confidence and happiness do not come with physical changes,
  • be critical of your reasons for wanting to change and aware of cultural factors that contribute to your desire,
  • never put down the aspects of your physical appearance that you have since altered,
  • never use fatphobic or body-shaming rhetoric when talking about your goals,
  • understand that the work you put into attaining a goal does not elevate you or your body above others,
  • validate all other bodies and remind yourself and others that not everyone has to aspire to your life and goals,
  • be mindful of the space you take up by claiming body positivity, and don’t dilute it into fitspo thinly veiled as self-love.

I think the latter points are perhaps some of the most key – we get into dangerous territory when we co-opt the concept of body positivity with our fitness goals, to the point where body positivity itself has been warped to an unrecognisable degree. ‘Body positivity’ as it used to be was a space created by and for fat and marginalised body types, and it’s only taken a few years for the hashtags and communities to be largely overtaken by more socially acceptable, conventional body types, many of whom are fitness influencers with ‘perfect’ svelte bodies (unintentionally or not) silencing those that need the movement most.

Maybe that’s the conclusion I’ve come to from my reflections and from reading pieces by fat, body positive influencers over the past few months; that provided our hearts and minds are in the right place, it is possible for myself and others to practice self-love, love our bodies and uplift all other body types while working towards certain aesthetic goals. What shouldn’t happen, however, is for our voices to take over communities that our lifestyles and goals don’t really belong in. Society could certainly use more fat women kicking ass and taking names dancing and weight-lifting and running and proving that you can be unapologetically fat, fit and a badass, but the world is already saturated with slim bodies doing those things.

Those of us who are already a part of the socially-acceptable end of the body spectrum however can have self-love, we can have self-confidence, we can have adoration and celebration of our own and of other bodies in any and all states that they’re in, but things like fitness-focused content and progress photos and photo after photo of our perfect intsta-booties or biceps or chiselled abs are perhaps best left to other hashtags and not foisted upon the #bodypositive community. Fit bodies are already celebrated enough and put on a pedestal by the world we live in, they don’t need yet more space.

What are your thoughts? Do you think that you can practice true self love or body positivity while working towards aesthetic fitness goals?


  1. I think this is such a difficult topic. I don't really have any coherent thoughts on it, and I think it's very changeable depending on each person and their mindset. Over the past couple of years I've come to love and accept my body, sure there are still a couple of bits I'm a little less in love with; but I don't hate the way I look or feel not good enough. Personally, I love yoga for the way it makes me feel mentally and physically (love that deep stretch feeling) and the way it changes my body is a bonus really.

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