Brown Chicken Brown Cow Podcast

BCBC - Monday Mumblings - S1E002 - A History of Body Positivity and Body Liberation

Aug. 13, 2018


Body Positivity may seem to be a modern movement as the hashtags and Instagram ready photos and images threaten to take over your feeds on a daily basis.  The fight for the freedom to love our bodies is older than the internet - going back as long as we have had our bodies.  As long as there have been human beings coexisting in groups of 2 or more people there have been ongoing struggles and battles to decide the “best” way or “right way” to be. 

Historically the battles were not always about the same things.  Our ideas of what the perfect body has changed over time.  In earlier days it was about the body type that was most likely to survive being run down by a saber-toothed tiger - lean and fast or strong and bulky.  In areas where food was scarce, it was a display of wealth or success to have a body that was plump.  Long ago in China, it was a symbol of wealth and status to be able to maintain a woman whose feet were bound.  In Japan, foot binding was also a practice, specifically for dancers and courtesans.

What this means is - the ideal body, the idea of beauty, of body perfection is simply that - a picture.  It is not a firm thing, written in stone.  It is an ever-changing image - fluid with the times.  Today’s ideal bodies are described in many terms, including:

  • Gender Identity
  • Race
  • Age
  • Ability
  • Size
  • Hair color


Ideal body types are perpetuated by the media, by our stories, by the books we read and by the nature of our lives.  Around the world, there are vast ranges of what ideal bodies or beauty is defined as. 

Body Positivity versus Body Liberation

There are two semi-parallel, semi opposing movements that can be designated under the body positive movement.  Monkey and Miss Laura discuss these two movements in the first Monday Mumbling of August (this aired on August 6 - so check it out).

The first is the Body Positive Movement. 

The second is the Body Liberation Movement.


A Brief History

I am honestly not sure that anyone could create an accurate timeline of the different cultures globally, and their movement towards body positivity, body liberation, or body acceptance.  We absolutely welcome anyone’s input on actions that we have missed here.  There have been many instances in history where things were done to create and attain an ideal body - that was later determined to be damaging to people in a physical or health or wellbeing manner - or that simply changed for other reasons.

We are going to select just a few instances:

  1. Feudal Japan Foot Binding  -

This practice started in and around 1000 AD and continued through around 1750 AD.   Foot binding originated in the tenth or eleventh century by dancers and courtesans. This was a practice where a young girl’s feet were tightly wrapped. This usually caused the bones to break, thus causing extreme pain.

There are many aspects to foot binding that relate or go back to social influence. Foot binding was first found to be generally accepted among the elite families. However, later this practice became more common and known throughout society. Mothers started the force this painful procedure onto their daughters as a way of enhancing their marriage possibilities and gaining more attention from their husbands. This procedure soon turned and started to become viewed as a right of passage.

There were many health issues with this practice, including infection.  It also served to force women to rely on men for almost everything. 

  1. Foot Binding in China - 

Women in China also suffered through foot binding.  In fact, there are still a few women in their 80’s and 90s today that were subjected to this practice in their childhood.  In China, the practice was directly related to a perceived improvement in pleasure for men during sex.  Crippled feet required one to walk in a certain mincing manner to avoid toppling over; as a result, it was believed, the inner thigh and pelvic muscles became unusually tight. Thus, more lurid thought processes went, the smaller the bound feet, the stronger the vaginal muscles would be during lovemaking. 

Foot binding also demonstrated male economic power. At a time when most Chinese people existed only a few rice bowls away from starvation, being able to keep economically unproductive women whose only practical functions – due to crippled feet – were decorative, sexual and reproductive, was a powerful status marker.

Strident opposition on the part of 19th-century Christian missionaries gradually affected social change and the practice was eventually outlawed.  Nevertheless, decades elapsed between official abolition and the actual end of foot binding. It happened well into the 1930s and elderly women with bound feet can still be found, especially in China’s rural areas.

  1. Corsets in the Victorian Ages

Though it may seem somewhat removed from modern body positivity ideals, the Victorian Dress Reform movement—a campaign fueled largely by middle-class feminists from the 1850s through 1890s—could be considered a precursor to the activism of today.

Granted, dress reform activists didn’t always push back against fat shaming of the era, but they did argue that women shouldn’t be forced to mutilate their bodies with overly-restrictive corsets or bury their legs under mountains of petticoats. Organizations like the Society for Rational Dress argued that a woman’s place was in a pair of pants. And with that shift in sartorial trends, women’s bodies began to get more freedom to exist in their natural state.

  1. Fat Shamers

It was in the mid 20th century that the focus began to shift from fashion to fat shaming. The modern body positivity movement has its roots in the activism of the late 1960s—though at the time, it took a slightly different form. Instead of broadly arguing that all bodies are beautiful, these activists exclusively championed the rights of one particularly denigrated group: fat people. And it wasn’t Instagram likes or fashionable clothes they were after, but tolerance from a medical establishment that tortured and sought to eradicate them.

  1. Fat Acceptance Movement

Kicked off by the 1967 publication of Lew Louderback’s Saturday Evening Post essay “More People Should Be Fat,” fat acceptance quickly coalesced into an organized activist movement. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded in 1969 and has been arguing against our obsession with thinness ever since.

One of the core principles of NAAFA, and fat activism more broadly is that most of the ideas we promote about fatness and health are just plain wrong. Instead of blindly treating fatness as an indicator of poor health, fat activists argue for a Health At Every Size model. Under this framework, it’s not whether you’re fat or what shape your body is that matters—everyone is encouraged to engage in healthy lifestyles and eating habits, and vital signs like blood pressure and cholesterol and general wellness are treated as more important measures of health than weight or BMI.k

  1. The Body Positive Movement (

The Body Positive was found in 1996 by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott. Sobczak lost her sister and struggled with an eating disorder herself in her teen years. The organization has a lengthy mission statement that encompasses professional training and making a better world for women to live in with fewer standards to follow from the media.

The Body Positivity Movement hopes to create “a world in which people are liberated from self-hatred, value their beauty and identity and use their energy and intellect to make positive changes in their own lives and in their communities.”

  1. Our Body, Ourselves - by a women's group in 1969 in Boston. In 1970, they published a 193-page course booklet on stapled newsprint entitled “Women and Their Bodies.” You can read the full text, which is available as a PDF file.  In 1971, they changed the title to “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to emphasize women taking full ownership of their bodies.

There are many people who have different perspectives on the Body Positive Movement:


Changing the Stereotype

America scrapes in at 9th of the top ten most obese countries in the world. With a rise in obesity comes growing obesity discrimination, which pushes the idea that being overweight is a sign of laziness, poor hygiene and lack of self-care. Studies have also found that most Americans link being overweight with these undesirable stereotypes and that employers view obese people undesirable job candidates. However, by inspiring people to focus on health over beauty standards, BoPo uses language that strips away stereotypes, creating a more accepting society. It separates weight from health, body image from self-worth. The movement recognizes the stigma around different body types as weighing us down as a society and tries to alter it for the better.

Holding the Fashion Industry Accountable

BoPo’s success reaches beyond the health world and into fashion. This means that the next generation of women will be raised surrounded by relatable imagery and self-acceptance. It started small, with the emergence of boutique plus-size body-positive brands that cater to the fashion-minded. But BoPo has since seeped its way into the mainstream. There was a loud roar of ‘represent us, we are your people,’ and big names like Nike also began embracing BoPo. We preach that children can be whoever they want to be, but these images now show that we can be exactly who we are.

Happy People are Healthy People are Happy People

For those with weight issues, who never felt confident, comfortable or energetic enough to exercise, the BoPo movement has created a space for exercise that embraces all body types. Take Curvy Yoga, for example. As a philosophy, yoga encourages self-acceptance, and Curvy Yoga practices what it preaches. Inspired by BoPo, yoga teacher and blogger Anna Guest-Jelley started this revolutionary yoga program which embraces and encourages fuller figures. This is just one form of exercise that alleviates symptoms of depression through the exercise that is kind to the mind and body.

A Hijacked Movement

BoPo is the rebranding dream the diet industry was waiting for. In the 90s, Americans spent $30 billion on diet pills and programs. Rather than fixing the weight epidemic, the diet industry developed a reputation for capitalizing on the desperation of overweight consumers. This changed when BoPo hit the mainstream; companies wanting to distance themselves from past diet fads and reconnect with the ‘average American’ rode BoPo’s coattails back into relevance.

However, once in the mainstream, the real bodies celebrated by the original movement were replaced by ‘plus-sized’ models. Nowadays, the ‘ideal body’ is still out of reach for most who are striving for ‘the new perfect’. In a movement that once accompanied all bodies and all colors, the #BoPo hashtag is typically shared alongside a Lululemon outfit. #celebrateallwomen?

Our Health, Our Responsibility

In a society where weight gain is seen as a health issue, for both men and women, it should be treated as such, without clothing companies or BoPo justifying unhealthy sizes. For instance, the average American dress size – 14 – is actually branded in the UK and Australia as 16. By switching the labels, companies are pandering to our ‘beauty standard’ driven egos rather than to our ‘health risk’ reality. In contrast, in Japan, the government implemented a health care system that awards levels of health care depending on waist size. This system recognizes that just like smoking, we are responsible for what we put in our bodies. There is no trend or stigma attached there; it is a health issue plain and simple. If our body is a temple. America’s temples need restoration.

Just Stop Talking About My Body

BoPo is another unwelcome way for our bodies to be at the center of a societal discussion. Our relationship with our bodies should not be public discourse, as it makes it harder for individuals to find their own personal relationship with their self-image and health. The pressure to love our bodies replaces the pressure to perfect our bodies. Do you love yourself enough? Love yourself, eat the donut. Love yourself, don’t eat the donut. Body neutrality is the only way we can change the mindset. As long as our bodies are the center of attention, which BoPo pushes for, we will always feel vulnerable and insecure.

Bottom Line: From celebrating diversity to encouraging physical and mental health, #BoPo inspires many. However, the diet industry capitalizes on this inspiration and distorts our self-image, yet again. Is BoPo the next level of self-love or is it distracting us from personal health goals? neither hosts nor alters podcast files. All content © its respective owners.