Redefining health on Instagram: Women's experiences with body positivity and body neutrality

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Scully, Olivia G.
body positivity , body neutrality , diet culture , health , race , fatness , fat activism , women's health , intersectionality , neoliberalism
This thesis explores women’s experiences with body positivity and body neutrality movements on social media. Body positivity is an umbrella term for a movement that resists diet culture and beauty standards which emphasize thinness and whiteness. Mainstream body positivity focuses on loving one’s body despite one’s flaws, while radical body positivity in the form of body neutrality focuses on dismantling larger discourses surrounding health and body size. In other words, body neutrality encourages a neutral feeling about one’s body. Throughout the study design and data analysis, I used intersectionality to focus on how identities such as gender, race, and class affect experiences with diet culture and body positivity. Through focus groups and journaling with seven cisgender women between the ages of 19-32, I explored three topics with each group. My research sought to answer the following questions: How do individuals take up body positivity, and how do their identities influence their consumption of the content? How does consumption of body positivity content on social media shape constructions of health? And, does body positivity content provide a counter-narrative to diet culture? I used rhizomatic dialogic analysis throughout the data collection and analysis phases, which allowed for a balanced relationship between the researcher and participants. I utilized semiparticipatory ethnography to include my voice in the data. My main findings include identifying healthism and diet culture as influencing participants’ relationships with their bodies, ultimately leading participants to seek counterdiscourses such as body positivity. Participants identified three critiques of body positivity, which I argue qualify body positivity as a postfeminist culture. Participants discussed body neutrality as an alternative to body positivity as it removes the focus from the body and allows for a balanced, mindful relationship with one’s body. Participants agreed that their conceptualizations of health changed after engaging with body positivity and body neutrality content because it taught them to resist healthist discourses and challenge the conflation of thinness with health. I argue that body neutrality may help treat eating disorders by dismantling dominant discourses surrounding health and body size; however, it maintains a neoliberal focus on the self through self-care practices.
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