Toxic body positivity – how to recognise and handle it

Have you ever experienced toxic body positivity?

Like many people, you may never have considered that body positivity could be toxic.

So, in this post I explore:

  • What toxic body positivity is
  • Its impact on body image
  • How to recognise toxic body positivity
  • 3 tips to help you deal with it

Listen or read below:

What is toxic (body) positivity?

So, I want to warn you, this post is a bit ‘ranty’. That’s because, for some time, I’ve noticed a theme of toxic body positivity in the world of body positivity and body confidence coaching.

But before I get into my rant, let’s look at what toxic positivity means.

According to Wikipedia, toxic positivity is defined as:

“…a pressure to stay upbeat no matter how dire one’s circumstance is, which may prevent emotional coping by feeling otherwise natural emotions. Toxic positivity happens when people believe that negative thoughts about anything should be avoided.”

So, what does toxic positivity look like in practical terms? It might mean:

  • Feeling guilt or shame for experiencing sadness or anger.
  • Using affirmations in opposition to negative thoughts e.g., saying, “Just stay positive” when you’ve experienced some kind of loss.
  • Hiding your painful emotions and feeling.
  • Minimising other peoples’ difficult feelings, “You don’t feel shame about your body!”

Toxic positivity is harmful because it only allows for positive vibes, dismissing, ignoring, and invalidating genuine human emotion.

No matter how difficult or uncomfortable some emotions may be, denying them doesn’t help you.

When it comes to healing the relationship with your body, you’re not going to feel comfortable in it by pushing down difficult feelings and telling yourself that you should love your body instead.

This is toxic body positivity.

Body positivity versus toxic positivity

When the body positivity movement started in the late 1960’s, it was never about positivity.

It began as a fat acceptance movement (with particular emphasis on the acceptance of fat black bodies), that has now been appropriated by the mainstream.

Today it’s common on social media to see body positive posts claiming that the way to move past body hate is to ‘just love our bodies as they are’.

Now, while most of know this is a lot easier said than done, that messaging is a form of toxic positivity.

If it was easy to love our bodies, we’d all be doing it!

Healing comes from acknowledging the grief and discomfort we have about our bodies and then finding new ways of relating to it. There is no healing without moving through body grief.

I talk more about body grief in Body grief – how to let go of the ‘perfect’ body, How to navigate the 5 stages of body grief and How to move through body grief.

Coaching and toxic body positivity

As a coach, I best serve clients by validating how they feel and allowing a safe space to share those feelings. It’s only when she is fully able to grieve the body she once had or dreamed of, that she can move towards acceptance.

I see clients beating themselves up for having any negative thoughts or emotions about their body, feeling that once that start working on their body image, they should only ever experience positivity about their body.

This is toxic positivity, and it’s just not realistic – that’s not how the human experience works!

Unfortunately, I think the modern-day version of body positivity reinforces this belief.

How to handle toxic body positivity

So how can you deal with toxic body positivity? Here are three tips to help:

Be realistic about what you feel

If you feel shame about your body, acknowledge that without beating yourself up. Shame is a natural part of years of body hate, and you won’t magically stop hating your body.

Be wary of ‘positive affirmations’ that encourage you to think positively about your body if you don’t.

Telling yourself that you “love your body” when you really don’t will feel fake.

Instead find statements that feel true for you right now like, “Right now, I feel a lot of shame about my body and I’m open to learning ways to feel more tolerant or neutral about it.”

Evaluate your social feeds

If you’re following body positive social accounts but experience shame or guilt rather than being inspired by them, it may be that toxic positivity is to blame.

Be sure to unfollow any account that implies you shouldn’t experience any negative thoughts or feelings about your body.

Don’t be afraid to challenge toxically positive people

People engaging in toxic positivity are probably not aware of the harm they’re causing.

Because we live in a toxically positive world, it’s easy to get sucked into it. Hey, I’ve done it, especially in my very early days as a coach. We’ve become conditioned to toxic positivity, so it’s important to notice it when it comes up, and point it out to others.

If someone invalidates how you feel by saying something like, “You shouldn’t feel shame about your body” or “Just love the body you’re in” you can politely point out how invalidating that is and say something like, “While I don’t like feeling shame, this is how I feel right now. When you say I shouldn’t feel this way, I don’t feel seen or heard. I’d love it if you could acknowledge my feelings and listen to what that’s like for me.”

While these conversations don’t feel easy, it’s a great opportunity for both of you to learn and grow and prevent more toxic positivity in the world.

So that’s it, three things you can do to cope with toxic positivity.

I’d love to know what your experience is of toxic body positivity, so please leave me a comment below.

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