Gen Z and Body Positivity: What Should Brands Know?

When it comes to Gen Z and Body Positivity, a lot has changed. Your brand needs to be in the know.
Fanbytes | Gen Z and Body Positivity

In 30 seconds:

  • What is the body positivity movement and where does it come from? We’ll take you through its evolution one step at a time.
  • Gen Z calls out fat-shaming 5x more than Millenials. How do these activists view the body positivity movement and what’s changed?
  • Body neutrality is the way forward. Let’s go through what that means and how brands can get involved.

The Body Positivity movement (#BOPO) has been around since the ’60s. But it’s only now that we are truly beginning to understand the depth, societal impact and real meaning of it at its core. The angles it now presents have changed and it is a complex and deeply personal subject. Especially for Gen Z. 

Zoomers have grown up in a world dominated by images. Their lives are influenced more by social media and online information than any other generation before them. They are fuelled by new discoveries at their fingertips and are the most sceptical generation yet, with 30% of them having zero trust in traditional media. 

Gen Z speaks out about what they believe in, and investigates brand campaigns with a internet research-enabled magnifying glass. 75% of them said being politically or socially engaged is very important to their identity – but many also express themselves through brand alignment. Channelling the right message is vital for brands winning this group over.

So, how do the most switched-on generation view body positivity? It’s a changing social landscape and Gen Z has a shifting perspective. Your brand needs to be in the know, so let’s go through it one step at a time.  

The evolution of body positivity

The body positive movement began over 50 years ago. The seeds were sown during the Fat Rights Movement in 1969, which was begun by Bill Fabrey because he didn’t like how people treated his “fat” wife. He gathered a group of people who all felt larger people were marginalised and created the National Association to Aid Fat Americans. It is known today as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance or NAAFA and is the world’s longest-running fat rights organisation. 

In the same decade, a group of feminists formed the “Fat Underground” in California. This organisation focused on “fat liberation” instead of “fat acceptance” and so the idea of celebrating positive body image and acceptance of all bodies was born. However, despite this campaign being based on inclusivity, people of colour were shut out of it. These movements refused to take on more than one issue for fear it would dilute their message. 

At the birth of the internet, activists suddenly had a platform to shout about what they believed in. This gave black communities and black women especially a chance to be heard, and so they carved out the beginnings of what we now know as “body positivity”. The intentions were for plus-sized women to have a voice and to inspire others who felt marginalised by attitudes towards their bodies. 

The early foundations of body positivity were created to make people feel included and listened to. 

But since then some things have changed. 

Is the body positivity movement toxic?

Body positivity shouldn’t be toxic. The body positivity movement was intended to be, well… positive. But commercial use of the term and the boom in social media saw the movement tweaked and sometimes abused. The term “body positivity” has begun to marginalise the very people it was built to liberate. 

The rise in plus-size models shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing. Gen Z views this change in a positive light, with 76% saying they feel diversity and inclusion is an important topic for brands to address. But the way in which brands are inclusive matters. 

The Dove “campaign for body confidence” is perhaps one of the most famous “body positivity” commercial campaigns of all time. You might remember the campaign ad, representing women of different sizes, skin colours and ethnicities. The campaign sought to help women feel more confident in their own bodies and championed body “flaws”. Positive, right? 

It was at the time. But the world has moved on since 2004, and brands should seek to build on this messsage, rather than simply replicate it. The problem with replicating the campaign today is that the representation is specific. The models all fit an hourglass frame and show conventional beauty standards. Not the varying range of bodies we see in everyday life.

Whereas Dove has continued to push forward with its campaigns around promoting positive self-image in young people, many other brands are getting left behind. Brands everywhere still show “plus-size” models who fit into certain shapes and aesthetics that just don’t represent the diversity of bodies in the world. The industry’s representation of plus-size is generally skewed from reality. Plus-size models are seen as UK size 12 or up whereas plus-size clothes are usually sold from size 16+. On top of this, “mid-sized” people feel unrepresented within the fashion industry. 

Stephanie Yeboah, blogger and fat activist tweeted on the matter.

Fat activist Stephanie Yeboa’s tweet criticising body positivity.

Regarding the phrase “body positivity”, she told the Guardian “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. It’s not a movement that I feel represents me anymore.”

And she’s not alone. Many people have started speaking out against the body positivity movement and how it’s started to twist the intentions it was first made for. 

Lizzo, who is notorious for her body confidence said in an interview with British Vogue, “Anybody that uses body positivity to sell something is using it for their personal gain. We weren’t selling anything in the beginning. We were just selling ourselves.”

It’s an interesting point and one that Gen Z resonates with. So, what are this powerful generation’s changing views on body positivity – and how do these narratives fit into their lives?

Gen Z demands true representation

Generation Z has lived through a lot of change. They are constantly having to adapt to a rapidly moving social and political world. Luckily, they know how to keep up with it. Body image is no different. The concept of the “ideal body” has evolved significantly since the skinny magazine covers and the “circle of shame” of the 2000s. But there is still a long way to go. 

TikTok is Gen Z’s favourite social media platform, and problematic “body positivity” movements are called out on it regularly. Kim Kardashian’s advert for her shapewear collection Skims went viral in 2021 when one TikToker noticed a photoshop fail. Kim’s finger distorts as she runs it over her figure in the video, clearly showing that her body was edited in the clip.

What does this tell us? Gen Z won’t stand being lied to. They demand authenticity and true inclusivity when it comes to body representation. They themselves are not strangers to negative body image and the struggle for self-acceptance. 32% of Gen Z feel unrepresented in the media, while 26% of them say they are made to feel anxious about the way their bodies ‘should’ look.

In a survey by Youthsight, one Gen Zer said: “I feel like any mention of body positivity is an afterthought. I feel like brands shouldn’t have to mention it.” another stated, “What could brands do to promote body positivity? Involve more trans people and non-binary people.” 

The topic of “body positivity” reaches far beyond hourglass plus-size models now. Gen Z wants to see a shift in thought to the whole movement. They are looking for brands to stay inclusive through blind casting and ultimate diversity. How? Body neutrality.  

The rise of body neutrality

We’ve already discussed the problems with “body positivity”. Now it’s time to look at the new wave of body image conversation.

Body neutrality is the idea of existing and having respect for your body without seeking to label your size or shape. It doesn’t matter what your gender identity, skin colour, body shape, size, height or hair colour is, you should have body acceptance

Inclusive fitness influencer, Lauren Leavell (@laurenleavellfitness) saysBody neutrality can focus more on what your body can do right now, rather than fixating on what needs to be done”. It’s a movement toward acceptance of our bodies as they are. Body neutrality gives agency to our bodies; It’s about celebrating what our bodies do and mean to us, not what “category” they fit into.

Body Neutrality is also seen as a healthier way of tackling body stigmas and low self-esteem. Elizabeth Wassenaar, Medical Director at Eating Recovery Centre, says “For some people, getting to body positivity feels like too much of a challenge for any number of reasons, including history of trauma, internalising weight stigma, and/or feeling restricted because of their body’s limitations. Body neutrality is a place to start to reverse the impact of internalising the trauma of weight bias and stigma.”

Where body positivity now has “fake” connotations, body neutrality helps blow away negative thoughts and body dissatisfaction, and helps us exist as our authentic selves. And there is no generation that cares about authenticity more than Gen Z. 

Body neutrality should be genderless

“Body Positivity” conversations have historically been based around ending body-shaming and fatphobia for female-identifying people. This is partly because women were some of the first activists to champion the movement. But the discussion around body neutrality should involve all genders. 

People who identify as male often struggle with self-esteem and brands need to recognise this. When 18-24-year-olds were asked if they wanted to “change”, 97% of women said yes, but a staggering 100% of men also said the same. Other genders like trans, non-binary, genderqueer, or intersex have little to no representation in the “body positivity” movement and need to become a part of the self-love, self-worth and well-being conversation.

So how can your brand speak to its audience through body neutrality and promote a happier, healthier future for the way they view body image? Here are some practical pointers.

Be inclusive*

*not just to make a point.

Body neutrality should be the epitome of inclusivity. Using images for your brand that are inclusive of all genders, skin colours, skin types, heights and sizes is essential. But it shouldn’t be just for the sake of being inclusive. 

After Dove’s iconic advertising campaign, many other brands followed suit with the best intentions, wanting to show how “body positive” they were and how important it was to showcase different types of bodies. However, many of these brands’ other campaigns still reverted to using slim, white models. The only example of body inclusivity became the exception that proves the rule.

Body neutrality shouldn’t be about picking and choosing campaigns. Brands need to use it everywhere, otherwise it defeats the purpose. Saying “hey, look over here at how inclusive we are” is a sure way of getting Gen Z to roll their eyes, especially if you are promoting a more traditional ideal of physical appearance elsewhere. Gen Z sees through brand messaging, so maintain inclusivity across the board. ASOS did it well by hiring a model with a hearing aid. But they didn’t shout about it: they just hired the model for their campaign. Normalising all kinds of bodies, abilities, and skin types and textures is about making it… well… normal. Not putting it on a pedestal. 

Be sensitive

Body neutrality isn’t just about image. It’s about language as well. Brands need to know how to talk about body neutrality in an inclusive and non-condescending way. Not too long ago, there were swathes of adverts focusing on body image, using toxic language. Protein World’s Are You Beach Body Ready” campaign got huge backlash, as did Victoria’s Secret’s ad with the messaging: “The Perfect Body”. Words are powerful and therefore need to be handled with care – especially when they reach young audiences. 

Brands need to be sensitive to how their consumers feel and not use language that sets unrealistic expectations. On top of this, it’s crucial to think about the LGBTQ+ community. Brands should be using inclusive pronouns and gender-inclusive language. 

Be supportive

Gen Z stands for a lot. They are today’s activists and will speak up for their beliefs. That’s why brands need to be supportive around the body neutrality movement, and not just use it for show. 

Zoomers love to research brands – after all, brand alignment is important to them. If a brand that seemingly evinces “body positivity” in one campaign, but promotes diet culture in another, for example, Gen Zers will be able to find out – and, as we discussed in our article on Gen Z activism – are motivated to share their findings with their peers on social media.

Companies need to ensure they are putting their money where their mouth is and not being hypocritical. Aerie partnered with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) as the lead sponsor of the non-profit’s ongoing national walks awareness program, NEDA Walk. It’s actions like these that show Gen Z that you’re not “all talk”.

Promote health

Gen Z wants brands to promote a healthier approach to body image. Wellness and holistic ideas are scattered throughout the way this generation talks about bodies online, and when it comes to body neutrality, feeling well and healthy within your body is the goal. 

Gen Z are against the fad diet movement, with 76% having chosen to avoid fad diets and only 28% trying diets such as Atkins, Keto and the 5:2. Diet drinks are likewise disappearing from supermarket shelves, as PepsiCo Beverages North America’s Chief Marketing Officer, Greg Lyons suggests “younger people just don’t like the word ‘diet’”, adding “No Gen Z wants to be on a diet these days.” This could suggest a trajectory towards worrying less about weight loss and thinking more about health.

Brands should be conscious of this, talking less about ‘shrinking’ body parts or ‘fitting into’ clothes, and instead creating messages around physical and mental health. Promoting body neutrality by pushing self care and awareness of identity is the ticket.

Ideal = real

Throughout existing discourse around body positivity and inclusion, there is a noticeable distinction between the “ideal” body and “real” bodies.

This is the problem.

The truth is, “ideal” should be the same as real. Gen Z are constantly telling us that they want to see more “real” bodies in advertising. For Gen Z, seeing “real” – that is, a wider representation of body typesis already the “ideal” outcome.  

However, distinguishing between “real” and “ideal” in your messaging – and showing them as entirely different body shapes – drives home the opposite message: that bodies that don’t conform to traditional beauty standards are somehow lesser.

Young people especially need to know that there is nothing wrong with their bodies. In fact, their bodies are ideal. The movement to start idealising our own bodies will mean they will come to see themselves as worthy of esteem too. Brands will be the big influence in this movement, so there’s a lot on your shoulders. But with the right steps, inclusive marketing and an adapted mindset, the message will catch on. 

A famous body positivity speech that was shared online recently was from Lili Reinhart: “Be naturally beautiful with acne, scars, cellulite or curves. Let’s celebrate each other and ourselves as we are, as we will be and as we are meant to be: unique, imperfect, beautiful and so incredibly powerful.” It is words like these that will give younger people the power to change their relationship with their bodies for good. 

Need help marketing your brand in a way that resonates with Gen Z, inspires and uplifts them? Understanding Gen Z is our specialism. Get in touch to find out how we can make your brand the one Gen Z are passionate about supporting.

Interested in how Gen Z are discussing mental health, rebelling against perfection, or how you can work with Gen Z activists to encourage young people to spread messages like “love your body” ? Check out the links below:

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