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How body positivity can exclude trans people

Although some people find hope, acceptance, and empowerment within the body positivity movement, it has also been criticized for excluding trans people, particularly when it comes to some of the common mantras. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to abandon body positivity, but it does mean you will want to be more mindful of your language to make sure it includes transgender and non-binary people.

Last updated on 
March 15, 2023
How body positivity can exclude trans people
In this article

What is body positivity?

The body positivity movement was inspired by the fat acceptance movement from the 1960s, which aimed to end fat-shaming and weight stigma and centered fat, queer, disabled, and Black bodies that have been stigmatized and denied access to clothes, medical care, public spaces, and representation.

However, the current iteration of body positivity has shifted the focus from centering on fat people and combatting body weight stigma to a message that everyone’s body is beautiful. This shift may be due to the fact that the body positivity movement has been co-opted by thin white women, who conform to stereotypical beauty ideals and benefit from many body-based (i.e., physical appearance) privileges while sharing inspirational and body-positive messages.

Body positivity asserts that everyone should love and celebrate their body and accept their body’s size, shape, and appearance. While this messaging is beneficial for many, it can leave transgender and gender-expansive people feeling excluded, especially if they are unable to access needed transition-related care and support or struggle with gender dysphoria. (Gender dysphoria refers to psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.)

Body-positive phrases that exclude trans people

Body-positive phrases that tend to exclude trans people may sound like:

  • “Your body is perfect the way it is”
  • “All bodies are good bodies”
  • “Change your perspective, not your body”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with your body—the problem is with society”

All of these phrases that are meant to encourage a positive body image may actually enhance the negative body image felt in this group. It ignores the lived experience of transgender and non-binary people who may feel severe body dissatisfaction and incongruence between their assigned gender at birth and their actual gender. In this case, there actually is something distressing with their body that cannot be reframed through positive self-talk (and the society that tries to deny them gender-affirming care and views gender as a rigid binary, of course).

Trans people often (but not always) want to change their bodies through gender-affirming care, such as hormone replacement therapy and surgery. This desire should not be at odds with the body positivity movement—the movement should welcome and include people who are actively taking steps to love their body types more, even if that means changing their bodies. In such a case, instead of saying, “change the world, not your body,” you should emphasize that all bodies deserve care.

Body neutrality as an alternative to body positivity

Body neutrality (may also be referred to as body acceptance) is an alternative to body positivity that many people have embraced in recent years. It involves cultivating a relationship with your body that isn’t based on how you feel about your appearance. Rather than celebrating and loving your body, such as with the body-positive movement, individuals who practice body neutrality don’t necessarily see their bodies in a positive light. It doesn't necessarily mean that they have a negative body image, but it acknowledges that loving your body no matter what may be unrealistic for a lot of people, and that’s okay. 

Body neutrality creates space for people to be frustrated or upset and for their feelings to fluctuate greatly from one day to another. It also recognizes that your body is just one facet of who you are, and it shouldn’t be the driving factor in determining how you feel about yourself. For many people, body positivity can feel forced or contrived, whereas body neutrality may feel more authentic and achievable.

However, no matter how you feel, embracing body neutrality means building a practice and mindset of respecting and caring for your body. This framework of care may involve eating nutritious meals, engaging in mindful and joyful movement if wanted and appropriate, meditating, getting sufficient sleep, spending time with loved ones, taking a bath, receiving a massage, and beyond.

How to practice body neutrality as a transgender and or non-binary person

If you feel like body positivity isn’t the right fit for you and you want to try body neutrality, here are some tips on getting started:

  • Invest in a practice of divesting from diet culture
  • Explore finding pleasure in food and moving away from rigid and restrictive food rules
  • Avoid negative body talk about yourself or others
  • Redirect weight– or size-related comments and conversations
  • If moving your body is desired and medically appropriate, find affirming ways to do so
  • Understand how gender dysphoria can contribute to mental health distress, and don’t shame yourself for that distress
  • Acknowledge the source of self-criticism
  • Acknowledge your ever-changing relationship with your body
  • Wear clothes that make you feel euphoric and comfortable
  • Be patient with yourself and your progress
  • Engage in self-care when you want to and not as an obligation
  • Challenge gender body stereotypes
  • Follow body liberation and anti-diet culture accounts on social media

If you have begun medically transitioning, you may notice a shift in your body image and satisfaction. You may begin to love your body and feel that its beauty is worth celebrating—especially now that you are in an empowered position to pursue more gender-affirming physical characteristics. However, on other days, you may find yourself feeling impatient with how slowly the changes are happening. Even desired physical changes can be emotionally complicated, especially for people with a history of eating disorders or trauma. And even if you’ve been transitioning for years, you might still have dysphoric days.

Body neutrality can help you to deal with these ups and downs of body image, the change in body shapes, and the emotional distress that may arise. Knowing that you don’t have to love your body at all times can help take some of the pressure off of you. It makes room for all of your emotions—the good and the bad—and can help build and maintain your body confidence.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

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