National Eating Disorders Association

Can Diets Ever Be Body-Positive?

Ariel Beccia

The word “diet” isn’t necessarily synonymous with body positivity—quite the opposite, actually. The body-positive movement is rooted in ideals such as self-love and appreciation; it’s a backlash against a diet culture that defines beautiful as slim and encourages us to continually strive for “better” bodies. In that sense, it would be oxymoronic to champion a body-positive attitude while adhering to a prescribed way of eating, right?

There are plenty of news stories to back this up. A few years ago, PETA came under fire for using fat-shaming tactics to promote veganism, associating the diet with thin-idealization. Then there is the plethora of research correlating dieting and societal pressures to look a certain way with the development of restrictive and/or disordered eating patterns. It seems pretty clear-cut: diets are inherently anti-body positive. 

However, I’m starting to wonder if this is always the case. It can be dangerous to assume the characteristics or motivations of individuals who adhere to one diet or another. In fact, it seems pretty backwards to make such judgments based, as always, on food choices. These sentiments are shared by fat-positive vegans who challenge the notion that all vegans are trying to lose weight or otherwise hate their bodies in some way. 

More controversial is the conversation surrounding veganism and eating disorder recovery. There have been arguments that veganism (or any selective diet) is simply a way to camouflage disordered eating for those predisposed to such behaviors. 

However, there are many people who contend that veganism has truly been healing for them. The Green Recovery series on the blog The Full Helping creates a space for these individuals to tell their stories. Gena, the blog’s author, writes:

“It’s true that veganism can prove to be complex, and perhaps counterproductive, to recovery. It is also true that it can teach us about food as nourishment, that it can spark excitement about the culinary process, that it can incite compassion for other living beings and for ourselves, and that it can broaden our awareness, helping us to exit the isolation and obsessiveness of an [eating disorder].”

What concerns me the most is the risk of food shaming. Saying that we can’t adhere to a specified way of eating and be body-positive at the same time implies that our food choices are the primary determinant of our relationship with our bodies. That someone who eats gluten-free must not feel comfortable in his or her own skin, or that plant-based eating is inextricably tied to the desire to lose weight. But isn’t this another way of saying that body positivity looks a certain, pre-defined way? 

It’s important to remember the ultimate goal of the body positive movement: to encourage self-affirmation in the pursuit of individual wellness. Everyone has the right to attain this in his or her own way, because an anything-goes eating philosophy is not inherently more “body positive” than veganism, gluten-free, paleo, etc. Why create artificial divisions? Ultimately, it comes down to mindset and intention. 

I want to stress that using any of these diets as a means of “fixing” your body or controlling your food intake is not self-affirming, nor is it healthy. However, for those who find health and true happiness in a certain way of eating, when diet comes from a place of conscious awareness of what makes you feel like your very best self, then by all means, eat whatever and however you want. 

It is time to broaden the focus of body positivity to encompass more than just the physical body. Even if the emphasis is on a positive body image, it is still an emphasis on image. Full and healthy lives are the result of so much more than how we look. If the ultimate goal of body positivity is to create this rich lifestyle for ourselves, why is there a singular focus on appearance? 

The more we tie food choice to looks and looks to happiness, the more we risk alienating others. Everyone is worthy of finding their own unique path to physical and mental wellness, and there should be no judgments surrounding this. Let’s reframe body positivity as a celebration of what really makes us who we are: our health, our joys and our uniqueness.   

Ariel Beccia majored in neuroscience while at St. Lawrence University and is now researching eating disorder treatments at the National College of Natural Medicine. She loves doing qualitative research because she is passionate about hearing people’s stories. When not studying, she is probably watching really bad TV.