‘Positive Vibes Only!’ Why the Post-Pandemic Surge of Commercialised Positivity is Toxic

Artwork by Agathe Dananaï

As I ventured out into a bookshop for the first time since lockdown, it wasn’t the plethora of choices laid in front of me that amazed me, but instead the overwhelming number of self-proclaimed self-help books, notepads and journals. With the titles ‘Just Be Happy’ ‘See The Good In Everything’ and the unironic ‘#GoodVibesOnly’ plastered across the front, the shop was a jungle of toxic slogans which made me feel on edge, making me instantly feel as if I wasn’t happy enough.

I didn’t understand how I was only just noticing the aggressive influx of brightly coloured slogans and I began to realise that this was perhaps a direct consequence of lockdown. When the world seems to be uprooted into a dysfunctional chaos, its human instinct to cling to any sense of normalcy to ease the suffering brought about by routine change and upheaval. This in itself is ok, but when the mindset of positivity starts to become toxic it can sometimes feel as if we are chasing an unrealistic goal of contentment. During the pandemic, overly positive phrases were thrown about on the daily, whether they were found in the Government's daily briefings, morning radio shows that believed a dose of toxic positivity with your cereal was the best breakfast or through innocent family members who tried to combat anxiety with a single motivational quote. During lockdown it was hard to get away from the army of toxic positivity thinkers. The phrases that instantly spring to mind are 'you'll get over it', ‘failure is not an option’, ‘don’t be so negative’, and arguably the most annoying: ‘think happy thoughts’. If only it was that easy! These phrases do nothing but induce stress, create a sense of panic and contribute pressure to an already pressurised and challenging situation.

While positivity alone can work to create a sense of hope and optimism, it is the ever-growing rise of ‘toxic positivity’ that I have an issue with. Toxic positivity is the idea that we should continuously maintain a positive attitude no matter how difficult a situation is. This mindset is forced down consumer's throats through social media, advertising, and the range of ‘mindfulness self-help books’ that can be found in every bookshop. Although optimism can be a useful tool, problems arise when this overwhelming pressure to remain positive doesn't allow for nuance or complex emotions, both of which are part of the fundamental human experience. Furthermore, toxic positivity can even discourage people from truly expressing how they feel about a situation if the emotion doesn’t fit a certain ideal of ‘happiness’. As with anything done in excess, when positivity is used to conceal or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions. We all know that humans are flawed - the range of emotions we are able to experience is what makes us the complex creatures we are. As much as we like it or not, feelings are a necessary part of the human experience and unfortunately these won’t always be as easy as #goodvibesonly.

During the pandemic the rise of toxic positivity has gradually trickled into all of our lives. The disparities between people struggling during an uncertain time to people flaunting their successes creates a hurricane of varied emotions. Often, we have been encouraged to cover these feelings up with phrases like ‘it could be worse’, forcing us to swallow up our feelings and count ourselves ‘lucky’. This disparity has only been exacerbated by social media and its highlight reel of moments in our life which we wish to share with others. These times are often moments when people feel their best, yet to be scrolling and viewing these posts when we are not feeling our best only enforces a comparison culture and often makes us far more critical of ourselves. Chasing contentment for the sake of others tends only to leave more of an empty void internally.

Sometimes toxic positivity can almost feel like a happiness competition. On social media during the pandemic it could feel like you were automatically deemed as a failure if you hadn’t made adequate use of your time in lockdown, the damaging mindset that ‘you may never get the same chance again’ and ‘we all have the same hours in our day’ created a toxic virtual environment that disregarded the individual experiences of lockdown and the feelings that will have caused confusion, uncertainty and at times a sense of fear. Instead of echoing toxic phrases in your own head, speak kindly to yourself with phrases such as ‘it’s hard but I believe in myself’ ‘it's ok to feel bad sometimes’ and ‘ it can be difficult to see good in this situation, but we’ll make sense out of it when we can’. The slight difference in the way sentences are phrased can often have a huge impact on our mental health. These phrases are useful for remaining positive without feeling pressuring for those struggling.

Additionally, elements of ‘wellness culture’ - the popularity of which is increasing rapidly - can also support the idea of toxic positivity, even if done so unintentionally. Often people struggling with chronic and undiagnosed illnesses have to deal with an overload of unsolicited advice. The idea that a prescription of yoga, nutritional supplements or even just the pressure to have a ‘positive mindset’ can cure chronic health conditions is insensitive and particularly damaging.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global health and wellness industry is now worth $4.2 trillion. The growing industry capitalises on people’s insecurity, selling a dream which is unattainable and unrealistic. The commercialised aspect of wellness culture is easily spotted in the mass opening of juice bars, mindfulness apps advertised relentlessly on social media and wellness influencers praising the latest cleanse as a miracle cure. These serve as constant reminders of the unrealistic promise that with enough work you can reshape your life or even cure a serious illness. The ‘work’ involves paying endless amounts of money for different practitioners, following numerous supplement protocols, detoxes, diet restrictions, cleanses and fasts, all of which are widely inaccessible. As @thechroniciconic writes on Instagram ‘Toxic positivity often comes in the form of pseudo woke people who think good vibes, veganism, meditation, alkalising(?!) etc will make things easier. It’s gaslighting statements that in effect blame you for your illness and imply you’re not doing enough and you’re the reason you’re ill. It’s ideas that mind over matter changes everything and to be honest it’s toxic, dangerous and totally invalidating.

As the ever-growing trend of ‘wellness culture’ continues to trickle into aspects of our life it is difficult to feel seen or represented by an ideal that often marginalises the communities that it was built for in the first place. The ever growing ‘Body Positive Movement’ was originally created in the 60s to raise awareness of the barriers faced by fat people, bringing awareness to stigmatisation and discrimination they may face in their lives. Instead of self-loathing, many were able to learn to love their bodies due to the rise in body positive activists. The word ‘fat’ was reclaimed as a descriptor rather than an insult. However, as with the rise of wellness culture, ‘body positivity’ grew in popularity and elements of toxicity began to develop. Those with chronic illness are made to feel marginalised by the damaging trend of toxic positivity, particularly due to the idea and perception of how someone who is ill is meant to act and look. As Rebekah Taussig writes “The body positive movement doesn’t put people with disabilities and other marginalised bodies into the foreground. Body neutrality, I think, has the power to be really useful in particular to people with disabilities, especially those with chronic pain or people with diagnoses that are progressive. Those people are pretty frustrated with the demand to love their bodies when they feel betrayed by them. Being neutral could feel like a relief.”

Furthermore, women of colour, women with disabilities and transwomen are being pushed from the spotlight and being replaced by an outdated beauty ideal. The representation within the body positive movement is now mainly white women, with hour-glass figures, often no bigger than a size 16. They are presented as the ‘acceptable fat body’ with society praising them for being ‘brave enough’ to show themselves in a bikini, naming them as ‘radical role models’.

Many mainstream clothing brands often promote body positivity on their websites yet when women try and buy bigger sizes, clothes are unavailable or designs have been altered so much that they end up looking nothing like the original piece. Meanwhile, on Instagram, fitness instructors with tiny, sculpted waists hashtagged their workout posts #bodypositivity. In lockdown a growing trend of fitness influencers bending over to create the illusion of stomach rolls showed that they too were like the rest of us and had ‘fat’. Comments under these posts did nothing but praise and thank the influencers for being relatable. Made in Chelsea’s Louise Thompson even published a diet and exercise book, called ‘Body Positive’, essentially advocating against what the movement stands for. Advocate Stephanie Yeboah writes “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 any more.” Stephanie Yeboah used to follow the body positive movement, however now she believes in ‘fat acceptance’. She continues “If this movement had been called fat acceptance in the first place, none of these people would have jumped on it because it’s got the word ‘fat’ in it. Fat is still associated with ugly.’’

Within the body positive movement there are elements of toxicity that need to be addressed and dealt with. The pressure to be perfect has infiltrated wellness culture and negatively contributes to the marginalisation of many. Embracing negative feelings gives us the space to analyse and accept them in a healthy manner. Acceptance and care for our body - even if it does not always work in our favour or look ‘conventional’ - does the same. Validating and understanding these feelings before attempting positivity and acceptance gives us the ability to be authentically and genuinely content. As Carl Jung writes, ‘I’d rather be whole than good’ and by accepting the wholeness of emotions we may feel encouraged to embrace our entire self. Toxic positivity is enforced by social media and certain elements of wellness culture, and it is important to take a conscious step back from the façade of idealistic happiness and become in tune with our own individual needs.

Although we should all strive to make our lives happy and healthy, this goal should not overshadow our mental and physical wellness as it is meant to support it. To better yourself you need to listen to yourself; don’t feel pressured into constant positivity - it may make you miserable!

Article by Emma Randall