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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

body positive

(2000’s | therapese | “secure,” “self-confident”)

An expression with quite a prehistory. Before 1980, LexisNexis returns zero results for the exact phrase “body positive.” In the eighties and nineties, it turns up capitalized as the name of an English organization that helped people who had been exposed to the HIV virus. Back then, gay men wrestled with the decision of whether to take the test to determine if they were harboring antibodies. If you were “antibody-positive,” you had been in contact with someone who had the virus; you might not develop full-blown AIDS, but you could pass HIV on to others. The name of the organization seems to have evolved from the medical term. During the nineties, a U.S. group called The Body Positive, which seeks to help girls and women struggling with eating disorders, formed and has continued to grow since. Possibly an echo of “the body beautiful”?

By 2000, you could find the phrase used as an attributive adjective to mean “healthful.” A trainer or therapist might advise you to engage in “body-positive behaviors,” like going for a walk (if you need exercise) or relaxing with some comfortable music (if you’re wired). It was about corporeal soundness, but also warding off nervous and emotional strain — the two go together, after all.

By 2010, “body positive” had started to show up in the way we use it today, but it doesn’t seem to have taken off until the new decade. The phrase is widespread now, used to mean free of shame or guilt over one’s size and shape, particularly if larger than average — the phrase often appears near “plus-size.” We are told to separate moral judgments about ourselves from how we look, accepting our appearance below the neck proudly. The body in question, as far as I can tell, is always one’s own — and always a girl’s or woman’s — though one might refer to a body-positive group, which would be understood to consist of people who aren’t going to judge anyone else on how fat they are. While we are all expected not to mistreat others on account of their size and shape, being body positive requires you above all to accept your own form confidently, without falling prey to anyone else’s stereotype of how you should look. Once you’ve done that, it will be easier to avoid dismissing others on similar grounds.

Most often used as a predicate adjective following “to be,” the phrase may be a hyphenated adjective as well. “Body positivity” is the noun (I have also seen “body pos” for noun and adjective). The new vocabulary betokens the striking rise of a movement that has spawned minor celebrities and driven people all over America to argue over what it means or ought to mean. (Here is a recent discussion of the state of the movement.) The expression has come far in the last ten years, and it has a strong affinity with surging social trends; it is still hitting its stride. In another ten years it may be even more ubiquitous, but it may not mean then exactly what it means now.

Another entry dropped from the lips of Lovely Liz from Queens, always an informed and intelligent voice in discussing these matters or any other.

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