The body positivity movement prioritizes loving your body and finding confidence within it—but, put simply, it doesn't work for a great many folks. The idea of feeling net positive about your body can feel inauthentic, as there's no flip that can be switched to simply start loving the body and dismissing any negativity you may hold and may be deeply ingrained and reinforced by society. Forcing oneself to suppress negative feelings in favor of self-love can function as a form of oppression and even erasure. Body neutrality offers an alternative viewpoint, one that focuses on appreciation and acceptance—no values or judgments included.
In the most recent episode of The Well+Good Podcast, I discuss with host Taylor Camille the ways in which body neutrality can support us in this journey of acceptance and appreciation. Body neutrality, a newer term that started showing up online around 2015, aims to decenter any focus on appearance and instead emphasize function without attaching any positive or negative value to it. The concept holds that we neither need to love nor hate our body, but rather acknowledge it for what it enables us to do.
The need for a shift away from body positivity and the scrutiny on one's body it can support comes amid criticism for the concept being divorced from its historical roots. It began in the 1960s with fat, Black, and queer women resisting against discrimination in public and professional spaces.
Now, searches for #bodypositivity on various social media platforms often generate images of women-presenting folks who fit into mainstream beauty standards and, thus, have not experienced social exclusion for their size, skin color, or other physical components that might be associated with marginalization or exclusion.
Furthermore, body neutral or liberation-focused approach provides space for people who might not aspire to positivity, and can feel like a more accessible and realistic route toward self-acceptance. Below, I outline how you can work toward adopting a body neutral perspective.
5 practices to help you embrace the concept of body neutrality
1. Acknowledge why accepting your body has been so hard
Many of us have learned to approach our bodies like entities that require management. For some, that means trying to tame them through deprivation of their wants. For others it might mean trying to manage them with exercise that encourages them to stay within a mold instead of taking up space outside of these restrictive lines.
When we think about what we are eating or not eating and how we look in our bathing suits, we aren’t thinking about the oppressive sources that have made us question ourselves so that we continue to buy products and programs to fix ourselves. In these self-critical moments, we are raging against ourselves instead of the systems that have told us that being small and pleasing to others gains us social acceptance and safety. (It's a concept that fitness coach Chrissy King explores in her new book, Body Liberation:How Understanding Racism and Diet Culture Helps Cultivate Joy and Build Collective Freedom.)
2. Differentiate between accepting your body and liking your body
Acceptance is the recognition of what is. It is about sticking to the facts. While body positivity may encourage judgments like “I love my curves” and body shaming may include statements like “I look gross,” body neutrality is about observing without making any value statements.
For example, you might say “my lips are round” or “my nipples are pink.” Alternatively, you may choose to focus more on what your body parts enable you to do, like “my legs helped me walk to work,” “my hands created this delicious meal,” “my butt allows me to sit for hours reading my favorite book,” "my stomach carried my baby." These are facts without any inclusion of value—positive or negative.
3. Identify body neutral statements that feel true and right for you
Body neutrality is about avoiding “one size fits all” approaches to acceptance and instead figuring out what is uniquely true to you. To do this, create personalized statements like “my body has helped me…” or “I can honor my body by…” or “I accept these body parts today….” Identifying such mantras can help you begin to shift the way you’re accustomed to being in your body.
4. Remember that this is an evolving practice
With body neutrality, there is no pinnacle reached. It’s about acknowledging yourself without judging yourself. This may take time and energy to shift how you relate to your body, and it is an ongoing practice as you go through life.
5. Expect and plan for struggle
When you notice the critical thoughts arise, instead of focusing inward and following the typical trajectory of scrutiny, look outward and ask yourself “What or who is working me over right now? Do these critical thoughts come from an oppressive institution, a family member, a doctor I went to? Are these my ideas about myself or someone else’s that I’ve internalized?"
It can also be helpful to rely on your community, members of which may share values with you. These folks can help you acknowledge that voice—without believing it or giving it credence—by sharing their supportive voices.
To hear more about the value of embracing body neutrality and liberation, listen to the full podcast episode here.
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