The rise of the body neutrality movement: If youre fat, you dont have to hate yourself

Instead of emphasising the need to love how you look, concepts such as body neutrality, fat acceptance and body respect are allowing women to make peace with their bodies

When Stephanie Yeboah was 12 years old, she was put on a diet and began restricting herself to 300 calories a day. People told her she would be so pretty, if only she could lose weight. By her early 20s, a preoccupation with counting calories had led to a devastating pattern of disordered eating. She was bulimic, but, she says, she did not recognise it because her body shape hadnt changed and society had made it clear: Fat people dont have eating disorders; if they did they wouldnt be fat.

It wasnt until she discovered body positivity in 2014 that Yeboah found an alternative to self-loathing and depression. Body positivity first emerged in the US in the 60s to raise awareness of the barriers faced by fat people (and as a result, the word fat was reclaimed as a descriptor rather than insult). Advocates eschewed diets and weight-loss surgery and highlighted the need for human rights for bigger bodies.

In the social media era, it was reignited by women of colour bloggers such as Gabi Gregg posted images of fat women in bikinis that were soon picked up by feminist sites, and the movement spread to the UK. For Yeboah, it changed her life. She became an influential writer and plus-size blogger. This year, for the first time, she wore a bikini on holiday. When she posted photos of herself by the pool, she received vicious abuse, but the freedom was revelatory, and the memory of it continues to make her smile.

Yet, as body positivity grew in popularity, women of colour, women with disabilities and transwomen, were pushed from the spotlight by a more conventional beauty ideal. White women, with hour-glass figures, often no bigger than a size 16, were described as radical role models. Clothing brand Everlane even launched an underwear range featuring a plus-size model, despite not yet selling any larger sizes. Meanwhile, on Instagram, fitness instructors with tiny, sculpted waists hashtagged their workout posts #bodypositivity. Made in Chelseas Louise Thompson even published a diet and exercise book, called Body Positive, essentially advocating against what the movement stands for.

Many former followers now feel the movement has been co-opted. Yeboah is one. It has become a buzzword, it has alienated the very people who created it. Now, in order to be body positive, you have to be acceptably fat size 16 and under, or white or very pretty. Its not a movement that I feel represents me any more.

New ideas began to circulate, including an interest in body neutrality a concept pitched at those who find loving their bodies a step too far, and instead seek simply to find peace with them. For writer Rebekah Taussig, the appeal is understandable. The body positive movement doesnt put people with disabilities and other marginalised bodies into the foreground. Body neutrality, I think, has the power to be really useful in particular to people with disabilities, especially those with chronic pain or people with diagnoses that are progressive. Those people are pretty frustrated with the demand to love their bodies when they feel betrayed by them. Being neutral could feel like a relief.

Yeboah has now embraced a new approach: fat acceptance. If this movement had been called fat acceptance in the first place, none of these people would have jumped on it because its got the word fat in it. Fat is still associated with ugly, she says. Its very easy to say we shouldnt concentrate on our bodies, but for some of us we have no choice, because everyone else is. Growing up, there werent fat black people on film, you never saw them being the object of desire, or playing the lead role. The one time I saw that was Gabourey Sidibe in Empire it was the first time Id ever seen a fat woman in a sex scene. The uproar was disgusting. It broke my heart.

One of the biggest criticisms that Yeboah and others face is health. She says it is a tool to legitimise fat phobia, rather than a genuine concern about bigger bodies and health. The only time Ive been admitted to hospital because of my weight was because I was beaten up for being fat, she says, referring to an assault for which the perpetrators were convicted. Were not promoting obesity, or telling people to be fat, were just saying, if youre fat you dont have to hate yourself.

Megan Jayne Crabbe: Body positivity and body confidence are not the same. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Dr Laura Thomas is a nutritionist who became a certified intuitive eating counsellor an approach that rejects restricted eating in favour of recognising the bodys own signs for hunger and satiety after seeing clients turn up to sessions with disordered eating patterns. She, too, prefers the term body neutrality. I work with a lot of women who cant relate to the idea of body positivity, it feels too far a reach for them. So, we talk about body neutrality, or some people call it body respect. It is: I might not love every single patch of cellulite and belly roll, but Im not going to punish myself.

Last month, Thomas called for Jamie Oliver to rethink his childhood obesity campaign to focus on health improvement instead of weight loss. We know that diets have an incredibly high failure rate some evidence suggests its between 75-80%. If all our public health messages are geared towards dieting, which we know is ineffective, that brings a lot of shame. We know when people feel good in their bodies, they are more likely to take care of them. When children experience weight-related stigma and bullying at school, they do worse academically. We should leave weight out of the conversation. This Girl Can is the perfect example of a weight-inclusive health campaign its not about weight loss, its about feeling good in your body.

Body positivity has often been interpreted as simply body confidence in campaigns such as Radhika Sanghanis #sideprofileselfie celebrating big noses. But Megan Jayne Crabbe, a leading advocate of body positivity, is keen to nudge her 1 million followers back to the movements political origins. Her phenomenally successful Instagram account @BodyPosiPanda famously shared her recovery from anorexia. Yet her before and after photos thin and unhappy before, bigger and happy after were recently switched by a diet pill company cynically wanting to use the before photo to promote its products.

Im someone who has played a part in the misconception [of body positivity]. I hold my hands up, I should have been more political from the start, and made more of a distinction between body positivity and body confidence, because they are not the same. If were only having conversations about body image and not about body politics then were not fighting for all bodies just our own bodies, she says. The things Im saying, people in fatter bodies have been saying for decades. Its just that, coming out of my mouth, its more palatable to the masses.

Hollie Grant, who owns a pilates gym, started the hashtag #athleticsnotaesthetics, encouraging women to enjoy the feeling of their bodies and stop focusing on how they look. She says there has been a sea change in attitudes. Eight years ago, none of this would even have been discussed. Only slim people came to class. I imagine anyone in a bigger body didnt feel included at all. And diet talk was constant. Ive noticed the requests now are changing and women are saying they want to feel at peace with their body. Weve got a really long way to go, but its lovely that people are finally taking weight loss off the pedestal.

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