How to Shift from ‘Body Positivity’ to ‘Body Neutrality’ — and Why You Should


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Hard on the heels of every new year comes a wave of resolutions focused on self-improvement.

Some people resolve to break certain habits, like swearing or spending too much time on social media. Others plan to work toward better emotional health by keeping a daily journal or practicing better communication skills.

Many resolutions, however, focus on physical health: get more sleep, drink more water, eat more fruits and vegetables, make time for exercise.

Plenty of people also look into the mirror, feel dissatisfied with their reflection, and decide to make some changes so they can better embrace self-love.

What you see in the mirror is just one aspect of your identity. It’s possible to embrace and accept yourself as you are even if you don’t actually love your body.

In fact, your body doesn’t even have to enter the conversation. The body neutrality movement rests on this exact concept.

So, what’re the basics?

Your body contains all the vital organs that keep you alive and functioning. It also contains your mind, heart, and spirit — aspects that drive personality and self-identity, making you the person you are.

Body neutrality promotes acceptance of your body as it is, encouraging you to recognize its abilities and nonphysical characteristics over your appearance.

This movement aims to decentralize the body as an object by challenging the myth that the way you look drives your worth. It also creates room to step back from body conversations in general.

Taking a neutral perspective toward your body means moving away from the idea that you have to cultivate love for your body or make an effort to love it every day.

It focuses instead on what you do with your body and how you think and feel.

There’s nothing wrong with loving your body. Many people do, even when they consider themselves imperfect or less than beautiful.

Other people might hate their bodies so intensely that they devote most of their energy toward changing their appearance and struggle to feel at peace or enjoy daily life.

Bodies feature all manner of unique characteristics. Your life experiences can further change the way your body looks.

A skin or health condition could affect your appearance. Maybe you’ve experienced an illness or injury that permanently changed your body or limited your movement. Perhaps you simply wish you had different features.

Any of these reasons can keep you from loving your body, even when you make a sincere effort to muster up this love.

Accepting your body and loving it aren’t mutually exclusive ideas, but body neutrality offers a firm middle ground between body hate and body love.

In short, body neutrality says, “You may not always love your body, but you can still live happily and well.”

Where did this term originate?

Various sources agree people began searching online for the term “body neutrality” in 2015.

Bloggers such as Gabi Gregg and Stephanie Yeboah helped shape the movement’s early stages, while numerous celebrities have spoken up to promote body neutrality.

Wellness and intuitive eating coach Anne Poirier furthered the conversation when she created her Body Neutrality workshop, a program designed to help women make peace with their bodies.

Anuschka Rees explores the concept in her 2019 book, “Beyond Beautiful,” which you can buy online.

The movement itself emerged from the margins of the body positivity movement in response to a few key concerns:

  • Conventionally attractive, white, nondisabled people began to take over the concept of body positivity, pushing people of color, people with larger bodies, and people with disabilities to the fringes.
  • People began to point out that body positivity still emphasized physical appearance as a component of self-worth.
  • Experts, along with people who found it difficult to veer sharply from body hate to body love, began to outline some potential negative effects of body positivity.

What makes this different from body positivity?

The body positivity movement encourages you to love and feel good about your body, no matter what it looks like. Body positivity emphasizes the idea that everyone is beautiful.

Body neutrality, on the other hand, simply proclaims that everyone is.

On paper, loving your body sounds like a wonderful goal. Yet with body positivity, your body remains the focus of the conversation — something that doesn’t work for everyone.

You’re more than just your body, after all. Beauty isn’t the only trait worthy of value.

Body neutrality offers what many consider a more realistic mindset.

This movement acknowledges that you may not love your body day in and day out while emphasizing that this is absolutely OK. You can accept your body as it is, even when you don’t exactly love it.

What are some examples of body neutrality?

Body neutrality helps you recognize and prioritize how you feel in your body.

This might mean moving your body because it feels good and you enjoy the movement, not to “burn off” the food you’ve eaten. It also means you listen to your body to know when to stop or take a day off.

Example

After a long day of work, you get up from your desk and stretch. You’ve been sitting for hours, your legs are cramped, and you feel like getting some exercise.

Grabbing a water bottle, you head out for a run at the nearby park. After a couple of laps, you start to feel tired and hungry, so you head back home to make dinner and relax with a good book.

Practicing body neutrality also means you might choose to wear clothes that feel good on your body. You might feel grateful you have a strong, healthy body that lets you do the things you want to do, without spending much time thinking about what you put on that body.

Body neutrality doesn’t mean making unhealthy choices. It means listening to your body and letting it guide you. Mindfulness is an important part of this.

Example

In the morning, you drink coffee with a generous splash of cream, since that’s the way you like it. You drink water throughout the day because it satisfies your thirst.

Sometimes you make your own lunch, sometimes you get a burger and fries from the restaurant down the street.

Your meals usually feature fresh, whole foods, but you also eat intuitively. You don’t say no to pizza, ice cream, or pasta when the mood strikes, or “make up” for a heavy meal by limiting yourself to salad the next day.

What’s the psychology behind it?

At its core, the concept of body neutrality challenges the idea that you need to love your body and appearance in order to feel good about yourself.

In reality, you don’t have to hate or love your body. Instead, you can simply accept it for what it is: the vehicle that carries you from place to place and allows you to enjoy all that life has to offer.

Not everyone loves their body all the time, or ever. Body positivity movements often urge you to practice affirmations of self-love, to repeat mantras like “I am beautiful,” “I love myself,” or “I love my body” until they become reality.

These mantras work well for some people. But affirming yourself when you don’t actually believe those statements could potentially end up making you feel worse.

You can’t force yourself to find love that isn’t there. Telling yourself you should love your body can simply create another trap to fall into, compounding your distress by making you feel as if you’ve failed.

Transgender people may not love a physical body that doesn’t match their gender. People living with disabilities may not always love a body that prevents them from moving freely.

These marginalized and often ignored groups deserve something better than “try harder.” So do the many people in recovery from eating disorders, and those with bodies that fall outside what society considers ideal or even acceptable.

Remember, your body belongs to you. It doesn’t exist to be admired or objectified.

When you respect it and care for it by giving it the fuel, rest, and movement it needs, you’ll probably notice improvements in how you feel and function.

Who is it for?

Body neutrality can benefit everyone, but the movement particularly resonates with people who find loving their body something of a challenge.

Body neutrality encourages you to look beyond physical appearance and break the habit of connecting your body to your sense of self-worth.

It empowers you to appreciate the unique abilities of your body and value it for what it does, instead of criticizing flaws others have pointed out or worrying about how other people see you.

Where does fat acceptance come in?

Fat acceptance can tie into body neutrality, but these are two separate movements.

The fat acceptance movement aims to:

  • reclaim the word “fat”
  • challenge fatphobia and fat shaming
  • promote acceptance of fat bodies of all sizes, not just fat bodies that still have an hourglass shape or fit into the smallest plus sizes

In short, fat acceptance normalizes larger bodies and helps promote size inclusivity. It helps people move away from the idea that being fat is bad, makes you ugly, or means you should hate yourself.

Body neutrality highlights the idea that it’s just fine not to love your body or want to spend a lot of time thinking about your appearance. In other words, it’s possible to practice both at the same time.

How does this fit into the Health at Every Size approach?

Health at Every Size (HAES) challenges the idea that thinness is a prerequisite for good health.

Plenty of different factors contribute to the unique size and shape of your body. Thin ideals set forth by the media simply cannot be achieved by everyone, no matter how restricted their diet or how dedicated their exercise regimen.

HAES works to bring other aspects of wellness into the picture, emphasizing choices that promote lasting good health over weight loss.

People have different reasons for disliking their bodies. These reasons don’t always relate to size or weight. Still, HAES and body neutrality share some essential components:

  • Choose foods you want to eat because they nourish you and give you pleasure.
  • Respect your body and the bodies of others, without shaming, judging, or criticizing.
  • Choose exercise you enjoy because it makes you feel good and gives you energy.

How can you start practicing body neutrality?

Ever felt absolutely sick of thinking or talking about your body? These tips can help you become more body neutral.

Drop body talk from your conversations

This includes body talk you have with yourself. For example, instead of berating yourself when your jeans feel a little tight, you might simply choose a pair of pants that feel comfortable and easy to move in.

Redirect conversations

If friends or loved ones bring up weight, size, or express discontent with their bodies, talk about how you (or they) feel, rather than how you look.

Eat the foods you want to eat

Choose whole, fresh foods that provide essential nourishment to your body, but also make sure to enjoy desserts and snacks instead of denying your cravings.

Listen to your body

Opt for fun physical activities, not ones that feel like punishment. When you feel tired and drained, don’t give yourself a hard time for taking it easy.

Acknowledge and reframe body-hating thoughts

When you notice yourself criticizing your body, consider instead what it’s doing for you in the moment. Focus on its strength and ability to heal, to move, to adapt.

Give it time

It takes time to shift from a habit of negativity, or false positivity, to a more neutral midpoint.

Try to have patience as you embrace neutrality. It’s often an uphill battle as media and advertising push you entirely in the opposite direction.

What’s missing from this conversation? 

To fully adopt body neutrality and help it get a foothold in society, it’s worth considering why we need this movement.

It’s one response to negative body image, which often begins as a result of stigma fueled by various media sources that:

  • offer thinness as an ideal everyone can and should achieve
  • center white, thin bodies without visible flaws
  • devalue people with any type of disability or flaw

The people who proclaim body positivity and body neutrality the loudest are sometimes the ones with the most body privilege. Lasting change means challenging these long-standing practices.

Change requires inclusivity. It demands amplification of the voices of people of color, people of size, trans people, and people with disabilities.

Change means all voices are heard, not just the voices of those with more “appealing” bodies — who often repurpose the words and ideas of people with bodies the media deems less worthy of attention.

Where can you learn more?

For more information on body neutrality and some helpful tips, try these resources:

  • Body Positivity Peaked This Year. Here Are the Ups and Downs by Amee Severson for Greatist
  • Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality by Alinaswe Lusengo for Her Campus
  • Having a Better Body Image Won’t End Body-Based Oppression by Aubrey Gordon for Self
  • Practicing Body Neutrality guide from Hilton Head Health ONDEMAND

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.


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