Risks of adopting ‘body positivity’ to make a sale

Instagram users who detect self-promotion or corporate marketing in a post embracing the body positivity movement may be turned off by that dual messaging, new research suggests.

In the study, women viewed experimental Instagram posts that borrowed body positive messages from actual users and contained body positive hashtags, such as #bopo. The posts all featured the same initial body positive sentiment, but some posts also asked viewers to either like and follow their profiles and others advertised products or services.

Researchers found that participants who spotted self-promotion or advertising considered the posts less morally appropriate and not altogether sincere in their support of the body positivity movement in comparison to non-promotional posts.

Self-promotion was consistently perceived by study participants to be less negative than corporate advertising, but the viewers did not go so far as to consider any marketing messages offensive or inappropriate, the findings showed.

“If companies are going to use body positive imagery, it’s a balancing act between trying to seem authentic – and hopefully be authentic – with what they’re trying to push,” said Kyla Brathwaite, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in communication at The Ohio State University.

“But seeing so much body positivity content coupled with advertising might make viewers wary about the movement – or see the movement as something that’s appearance-centered.”

Brathwaite conducted the study with co-author David DeAndrea, associate professor of communication at Ohio State. The open-access article is published in the journal Communication Monographs.

Before the “body positive” phrase was coined and body positivity-related hashtags emerged on Instagram, the fat acceptance movement advocated for the rights and dignity of fat people. Now, as then, the body positivity movement decries society’s fixation on young, thin, white bodies and calls for acceptance and appreciation of bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors, appearances and abilities.

After encountering the “fitspiration” and “thinspiration” messages pushing exercise and dieting on social media and more recently observing the growth of the body positivity movement, Brathwaite “started hearing a voice in my head saying people are co-opting the movement and trying to sell me things.”

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