Body-Positive Movement Causes People to Think They Aren't Obese, Study Says

This combination photo shows overweight and obese people in July 2003 in Los Angeles, May 2013 in Mexico City and October 2006 in Manchester, England. Researchers blame the body positive movement for normalizing unhealthy behaviors that promote obesity. (Photos by Robyn Beck, Ronald Schemidt, Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

The body-positive movement has prompted an advent of self-love and improved body satisfaction among women and men of all sizes, but new research suggests that what feeds the soul may endanger the body.

Wider plus-size acceptance might prevent overweight adults from recognizing the extent of their weight gain and promote unhealthy habits, says a study published Friday in the journal Obesity.

Researchers surveyed more than 23,000 British overweight or obese adults and gauged their perception of their weight against how much they actually weigh. Men were more likely to underestimate their weight—almost 60 percent—compared to 30 percent of women.

Fighting the plus-size stigma hasn't halted physical health declines: people who misperceived how much they weighed were 85 percent less likely to attempt to lose weight than those who recognized their weight status.

People of lower levels of education and income, two primary determinants of health, were more likely to underestimate their weight and less likely to lose weight as a result. Minority groups were also more likely to underestimate their size.

These inequalities reflect socioeconomic indicators of obesity, lead author Raya Muttarak wrote. Working conditions, health literacy and adequate access to healthcare are all tied to health outcomes, and unequal access reinforces health disparities among those demographics.

Though body image is traditionally considered and studied as a gendered issue, men and women are both plagued by body image woes: studies found up to 84 percent of American women and 43 percent of men are unhappy with their bodies, which lends itself to greater risk of eating disorders, depression and poor self-esteem. The average American woman wears a size 16, but models in nearly every clothing campaign wear between a double-zero and zero.

The body positivity movement is proven to significantly improve women's self-image: as women see increased representation in average- and plus-size models, they feel deeper satisfaction with their own bodies and stopped comparing themselves to thinner women.

Mental and physical health are growing in opposite directions, though: the Centers for Disease Control said more than 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, though it's the 18th most obese country in the world.

Critics of the body positive movement have shredded the "unrealistic expectations" it creates, like the idea weight and health aren't correlated. At worst, it's been called an "excuse" for overweight people to stay complacent about the extra pounds. The "wrong" kind of body positivity blinds followers from recognizing the health consequences of being overweight, Kelly deVos wrote in the New York Times.

"Many people in the body positivity movement—which I'd like to count myself a member of—believe that the desire to lose weight is never legitimate, because it is an expression of the psychological toll of fat shaming," she wrote.