The relationship we have with our bodies can be one of the most important relationships in our lives, but too often it's a negative rather than positive: Many people are uncomfortable or conflicted about their appearance.
Even those of us who try to be body positive can sometimes fall into harmful patterns with our bodies. Body neutrality is a new way of thinking about the relationship we have with ourselves and our body as a whole.
We’ll investigate the nature and benefits of body neutrality, as well as tips for cultivating it in yourself.
What is body neutrality?
Body neutrality is a concept that builds upon body positivity and emphasizes the importance we typically place on physical appearance by emphasizing that bodies are only one part of ourselves—they're functional rather than aesthetic.
Most of us have strong feelings about our bodies, and many of those are surprisingly negative. We might feel guilty for not exercising or shame about a certain amount of weight; other people may focus on the pressure to carry out expensive beauty practices such as facials or getting nails done. Those feelings often stem from assigning judgment about worthiness based on physical appearance.
Check out these books on body neutrality for deeper reading.
The body neutrality movement aims to remove the judgments we place on our bodies. Our bodies don’t have to say anything about our character, and they certainly aren't what make us valuable as people; this can empower you to feel less guilt and shame about your body.
How is practicing body neutrality helpful?
Body neutrality is a difficult concept to put into practice, especially at first. This way of thinking—that we are our bodies and nothing more—runs counter to how most people learn about themselves and others from an early age.
You may find that these strategies are useful in your quest to become more body neutral. Remember, it’s a long process and not something you should expect to achieve overnight. Be kind and patient with yourself as you're working on it!
- Recognize that you are more than your physical self/physical appearance.
- To become body-neutral, you must address the way you think about your body and its role in defining who you are.
- Society, culture, and the media all send us the message that our worth depends on physical attractiveness—that we should be thin, white-skinned (if possible), able-bodied (ideally without disabilities) and young.
- Recognizing that your body is not who you are doesn't mean disregarding it.
- Instead, try to see your physical form as simply one—and not necessarily the most important or interesting—part of yourself.
- Instead of believing that your physical body is more important than any other part of yourself, remind yourself that all aspects of you—including thoughts and emotions as well as actions—are significant.
Use realistic affirmations that feel genuine
Affirmations and mantras are sometimes offered as a way to convince yourself of something you think you should believe—rather than reminding yourself of what is already true. Research shows that affirmations that don't ring true can actually make people feel worse rather than better.
- Find something important to remind yourself about every day.
- If you feel unattractive in the morning, don’t make yourself stand in front of the mirror repeating “I’m gorgeous.” Flip the script and think about what your body has done for you lately.
- Try something that feels empowering rather than depressing—like “My body is just one aspect of who I am” or “I'm more than my looks.”
- List five things about yourself, besides your appearance, that make you special. For example: My friends think I'm funny; I am a great sister to my siblings…
Explore the ways in which your body works
While body neutrality can seem like an odd concept to many people, focusing on what your body is capable of rather than how it looks can be a great life-changing experience.
Everyone is judged on physical appearance, but it's especially true of women. Body neutrality helps us focus instead on what we can do with our bodies.
Think about all the ways you used your body today—did you walk to the shops? Did you hug someone who made your day better? Were there times when your body didn’t work as well as it usually does, and if so what happened then? If you missed a bus because of your knee pain, or were too exhausted to clean the house because of a chronic or mental illness, it's ok – think of what you could do within your current state.
It can be hard to view your body with compassion, but doing so is essential. Noticing where you’re having difficulty—and what might trigger those difficulties—
Remember body neutrality doesn't mean anything about how valuable or worthwhile you are as a person; instead it's an attempt at understanding what your physical capabilities and limitations actually are.
Be honest with yourself about your feelings toward your body.
Body neutrality, unlike body positivity, is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It's okay to feel unhappy about your body when you're practicing body neutrality — it's not a success or failure issue from within the framework of this practice.
Talking about how we really feel about ourselves can help us to resist the messages of perfection we're bombarded by every day.
It might feel frustrating or disappointing on some days to notice that your clothes aren't fitting quite as well as usual, or you don’t seem to have the energy that you normally do. It's okay to have those feelings—recognize them and accept them. Just don't try too hard to push yourself toward greater positivity when these kinds of things happen: it can be more helpful just to acknowledge what is happening than trying extra-hard not let sense any negativity at all
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Many people with disabilities feel excluded from ideas of body positivity. Many struggle to view their bodies in a permanently positive light when they experience pain and limitations every day—and yet are expected to do so by society as a whole.
It can be harmful by trying to create an artificial environment of positive thinking for yourself, where you always feel that you're coming up short.
Reframe body hating thoughts where you can
Thoughts about hating your body are common, even among people who do not experience distress over their appearance. However, these thoughts can make it difficult to feel good in the skin you’re in and may contribute to eating disorders or other forms of self-harm.
Don’t try to suppress these thoughts—that can only makes them stronger. Instead, learn to remove the value judgments and emotional charges from how you think about your body.
Society expects us to look a certain way in order to earn our right to be out in public. This isn’t true; nobody should feel like they have to conform just so other people will take them seriously. For example, Erin Mckean said that “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying space marked female”(McKean, 2006) —it's something we all deserve irrespective of gender identity!
If you find yourself obsessing over your appearance, or feeling disgusted by it—and think that this is a reflection of how something “wrong” must be happening inside you—ask yourself where these feelings and thoughts are coming from.
To really understand why something happened, it is often necessary to look inward and conduct a thorough analysis.
“This is my body, and while I will not always love it—I am a human being, after all—I will respect its integrity.”– Randi Owsley
Focus: What Does Your Body Need ?
This means paying attention to what your body really wants and needs from you—and work on ignoring the dieting standards that are so prevalent in our society. Maybe leaning into intuitive eating could help on your journey.
Learning how to recognize what your body needs isn't always easy — many people have been trained as children to override their bodies' signals. We've pulled all-nighters at college even when exhausted, gone out for fast food with friends despite feeling horrible after eating it. We push ourselves too hard at the gym, even though our bodies are crying out for rest; we work so much that we don't have time to go on walks—even when our bodies want to move. We socialize with alcohol, aware of a looming hangover.
We often ignore what our bodies are telling us, and when we do pay attention to them it can be difficult to know if the message is real or just a result of habit. For instance, many people think they’re hungry when in fact all their body wants is some water.
With physical needs such as rest, it's important to check in with your body periodically. To help you reconnect with yourself and your health, consider doing a daily check-in—that is, paying attention to how you feel both physically and emotionally each day when you wake up.
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- Some people may find that journaling about their food intake and mood is helpful, while others may prefer to simply check in with themselves throughout the day.
- It’s important to recognize that what your body needs will vary from day to day.
- You don't have to live a perfect lifestyle in order for it be healthy, and actually too much of a good thing can end up doing more harm than good.
- There's no need to obsess over “clean eating,” “gut health” or a keto lifestyle, or any other particular diet.
- If you fixate on any one way of eating without grasping for balance, you’re just swapping your old fixation for a new one.
Some days you'll just want to stay in bed and eat cake, and that's okay.
Be Open To Change
One criticism of the body positivity movement is that it discourages people from making healthier choices and changing their bodies for the better. This accusation isn't entirely fair, but it also contains some truth.
For example, many people want to lose weight because they believe it will make them more attractive. Someone who has a body-neutral attitude would focus on being happy with their appearance regardless of its size or shape.
If you're working towards body neutrality, you might say: “My weight is affecting my health and means I can't play in the park with my kids for as long as I'd like. To be able to do this regularly again, I'm going to lose weight.”
The advantage of body neutrality is that it encourages you to lose weight in a healthy way—without resorting to unhealthy quick fixes such as starvation diets. Instead of trying to alter your body's appearance or fighting against its natural shape and form, focus on respecting how well it functions.
Push conversations away from topics about your body
People often talk about our appearance and bodies when they greet us. “You’re looking well,” “You look thin today.” “Have you lost weight?”
Even when people mean well, and they often don’t—these comments reinforce the idea that your body is central to how other people see you. You can't control what topics others choose bring up in conversation, but you can refuse to talk about it by changing the subject back onto something else.
Depending on how comfortable you are being honest and how much the body conversation becomes a part of your personal boundaries, there are several different ways to change it.
- If you are willing to be completely honest about your body image issues, then it may help for you to tell people explicitly that talking about physical appearance is now off-limits.
- If you would prefer to be more discreet about your body, try moving the conversation along without talking directly about it. This can be helpful with people you don’t know well or trust.
- To stop conversations about your own body, give one-word answers when someone asks questions and then bring up a new topic.
- If someone keeps talking about your body, it’s okay to tell them that you don't like hearing those things. They might feel a little uncomfortable for the moment—but so are you!
And if making someone else squirm is what's necessary in order for us all stop objectifying women as sex objects, then I'm totally down with that.
Ask yourself what is really important to you.
If you're trying to reduce your focus on your body, think about what values you'd like people to associate with you. If you concentrate on these points, it will be easier to focus on something other than your body.
- For example, would you rather be known as a good listener or as physically attractive?
- Do you value honesty over being skinny?
- Focusing on embodying your values can help shift the importance of outer beauty in your life
Don’t let self-care stress you out!
The body neutrality movement recognizes the importance of self-care, but often takes a more nuanced and thoughtful approach to it than other wellness movements.
Self-care has become an industry. We can be left with the impression that self-care is confined to things like affirmations, calming bubble baths, or fancy coloring books—when it should encompass much more.
Other companies offer high-tech self-care solutions. These often take the form of gadgets that give us huge amounts of data about our health and wellbeing—but these are meaningless if we don't know what to do with them or how they'll impact us long term. This is often linked to “gamification,” where we try to reach a set target each day rather than paying attention to whether it's important for our overall well-being
Both of these approaches to self-care are helpful, but they're both something of a distraction from the real meaning of self-care.
True self-care isn’t about treating yourself or creating another target in an already packed day; it's about finding joy and peace within your own skin.
Taking care of yourself is like tending to a loved one in some ways.
You might find it helpful to –
- make an appointment with your doctor for an overdue checkup
- get more sleep
- call a friend for support.
Most importantly, only carry out the self-care tasks that feel genuinely uplifting and empowering.
Be careful not to let social media consume you.
We acknowledge that social media has made body image issues more prevalent in our culture; however, we do not believe it to be primarily responsible for the rise of these issues.
Although we know people tend to present their best selves online, most of us are still tempted to compare ourselves with others' images. People often use social media to showcase how they look and what they are doing, but rarely discuss how well their bodies—or minds—are functioning.
Research suggests that short periods of time spent on social media don't have a big impact on how we view our bodies but that spending long hours scrolling through (Instagram) can make us feel progressively more insecure.
While some people happily delete their social media accounts, others find it necessary to stay connected through social networks. This is often the case for those who use them in their professional lives or have far-flung relatives they want to keep tabs on.
Make an effort to be mindful about how you use social media, and pay attention to how it makes you feel about your body. Consider setting time limits for how long you spend on social media in a day or keeping a journal logging your usage (and the self-talk that goes along with it).
Be mindful of how you use media, and experiment until you can find your own balance. We can't fix the entire world, but we can start with ourselves.
As you begin shifting your perspective, you may find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated by how little our media and culture reinforce body neutrality—and actively oppose it. You’re right that our culture is often promoting harmful beliefs and actions. However, it’s important to remember that you're not responsible for fixing all of society on your own—you can only control yourself.
Do what you can to resist these negative messages. If talking about body neutrality with others inspires you, do it! And by all means avoid advertisers who promote harmful body images if that's an option for you—but don't feel bad if either of those things aren’t achievable options right now. Social and cultural change takes time It is your responsibility to take care of yourself – that is all.
Is there a link between body neutrality and mental health?
Body neutrality can benefit your mental health, especially if you struggle with eating disorders or feel pressured by body positivity. Body neutral people try to remove attention from their bodies and focus on what they can do instead—or even ignore physical appearance altogether!
How did the body neutrality movement start?
In 2015, the body neutrality movement was initiated by counselor Anne Poirier in response to her concerns about how body positivity is commodifying women's bodies.
Is body neutrality ableist?
Because of this, it's unsurprising that ableism has crept into how some people approach body neutrality—often by focusing on what their bodies can do instead of seeing them as more than just a physical object. Body neutrality ideally means valuing the whole person, which is not only non-ableist but also celebrates diversity in all forms across society
What are the differences between body neutrality and body positivity?
Body positivity encourages people to love their bodies, but body neutrality also focuses on what your physical self does—or even away from the focus of talking about a person’s body at all. It allows you to accept that you probably won’t feel great about how you look 100 percent of the time, and makes no apologies for it.
More on that HERE
Is it better to strive for body neutrality or body positivity?
It isn’t a case of body neutrality vs. body positivity — each aims to eliminate the idea of an “acceptable” body, destigmatizing obese and disabled people or people of color. Body neutrality may be accessible to a wider range of people, but you can use both: simply choose which aspects feel right for yourself .
Is there a connection between the idea of body neutrality and fat acceptance?
The fat acceptance movement emerged when larger people and women of color were excluded from the body positivity movement they started. Fat acceptance is about eliminating fat-phobia—the systemic hatred of larger bodies that leads to discrimination, prejudice and stigma—rather than how an individual feels about their own body; so although some might feel offended by the term “fat,” it's more important to advocate for a world where no one feels compelled or made uncomfortable because of their size.
Read about how Lizzo criticized Body Positivity HERE