Stop for a moment. Are you aware of your body right now? If so, are you thinking about the sensations you’re currently experiencing and the amazing things that it is allowing you to do? Or has the title of this article brought up other feelings, feelings about the way your body looks, or how you think it should look?
We live in an age of media – both social and traditional – and portrayals of what someone else has decided is a “perfect” body have been messing with us as a society for decades now. These portrayals have gotten into our collective heads and have led us a long way from appreciating the functions of our bodies to worrying about the forms of them. So is there a way to move past the negativity many of us feel when we contemplate our bodies? And does the path lie in stressing body positivity or in calling a truce with our bodies through body neutrality?
Our Broken Body Image
If you have ever spent time critiquing your own body or wishing it were different, you are certainly not alone. According to a recent Ipsos poll, 79% of Americans report feeling unhappy with how their body looks at times (versus only 21% who said “never, I am always satisfied with how my body looks”). For women, that number was 83%, while other studies put the number for women who are dissatisfied with their bodies at at least a whopping 91%, with 97% having an “I hate my body” moment at least once a day.
Are you surprised by those statistics? Maybe not: it seems pretty clear that we have a problem with body image as a society. What might surprise you a little more, though, is that 10% of participants said that they would do anything that did not kill them to have what they thought was the “perfect” or “ideal” body.
Is Body Positivity Problematic?
That’s a pretty extreme view for 10% of us to have. It’s no surprise that something had to give with all of this negativity towards our own bodies. So, drawing on the “fat acceptance” movement of the 1960s and further body positive movements in the 1990s, users of social media began the “body positivity” movement in the early 2010s, and it quickly took off.
The body positivity movement started as a radical, and even political, movement that sought to challenge the ways that society presents and views the physical body. While it initially focused on challenging unrealistic feminine beauty standards, the movement has morphed in a more commercialized version, with the simple message that “all bodies are beautiful.”
Talking about our bodies in a positive way has become the mainstream norm, and that’s definitely a good thing. It’s also a good thing that many brands are featuring more diverse bodies in their ads, and are trying to spread an inclusive message. But the body positivity movement, especially this more commercialized version, may not actually be right for everyone. For one thing, many people who helped create the movement, especially women of color and transgender women, have begun to feel pushed out and excluded as body positivity seems to become more about women who are featured in mainstream ads.
For others, the problem with body positivity is that it is completely focused on appearance, which might end up being unhelpful, and could even make people feel more stressed. This commercialized version of the movement might actually lead to more body scrutiny (as in, “are my curves in the right proportion?”), and the constant talk about body positivity might actually make you more anxious if you don’t love your body every second. In fact, research shows that when you regularly repeat positive affirmations that you don’t actually believe – or at least don’t believe every single day – they can backfire.
So if body positivity isn’t working for you, there is another movement out there that is trying to help people make peace with their bodies. It’s called “body neutrality.” The difference? Instead of thinking, “I love my body,” or, “I feel happy with how my body looks,” a person practicing body neutrality might think, “How I feel has nothing to do with how I look” or “My body does amazing things for me.”
Should We Forget About Positivity and Embrace Neutrality?
So, with the body positivity movement, we’re left with a lot of contradictions. Commercials try to sell us beauty and fitness products while also telling us we’re all beautiful the way we are. Social media is full of manipulated and filtered images of what we should strive to look like, as well as endless daily mantras about how we should love the way we look no matter what. Enter body neutrality.
This term began popping up in 2015, and it is definitely gaining in popularity. The main idea behind it is basically all about acknowledging what your body does, not how it appears. Your body allows you to experience the world, to hold hands with or hug someone you love. Your body gets you from point A to point B, allows you to move and exercise and breathe and be.
Those who practice it realize that it’s not always realistic to love your body, and that it’s ok to call a truce with your body and simply be neutral about it. In its most successful form, body neutrality becomes a safe, peaceful space away from all the chaotic criticism of body hatred.
The goal is to see your body as a vehicle that allows you to move through the world in a way that brings you joy. It is about taking the focus off how you look and shifting it to how you feel. And, according to many psychologists, it can decrease anxiety, stress, and lead to better moods.
So is body neutrality the way to go, then? That’s hard to say. For those who are just completely burnt out on stressing about their appearance and feeling uncomfortable in their own skin, it might be an easier – and healthier – option than body positivity. Take a look at the following steps you can take toward body neutrality, and see if they speak to you. And, as always, if you are experiencing extreme distress or think you may have an eating disorder or other disorder such as body dysmorphia, please speak to your doctor.
Steps to Body Neutrality
- Call a truce in the war on your body – Hating yourself will never bring you closer to any of your goals. Instead of focusing on how you feel about your body, focus on how your body feels. Bobbi Wegner, a Boston-based clinical health psychologist who specializes in stress management, suggests the following practice to begin your journey to body neutrality: “Notice the physical feelings in the body, like the pressure of a waistband. Notice the emotions without judging them. [Next] focus on the strength of the legs, the consistent and determined work of the heart and lungs, the power of the arms, the thoughtfulness of the brain. Notice and focus on all the work the body does every day of every minute. Show gratitude and say it.”
- Start a daily body appreciation practice – Your body is amazing – and we’re talking in ways that have nothing to do with how it looks. Give it some love by writing down 5 things you appreciate about it everyday.
- Try to counteract negative talk with neutral talk – We all have that annoying, critical voice in our heads, and some people’s inner bullies are meaner and louder than others. But everyone can try to neutralize the negativity with neutral phrases like:
- My arms allow me to hug the ones I love
- My thighs just carried me where I wanted to go
- My body is where I live and how I am able to do everything I do
- Thank you, belly, for holding my organs (or for having carried my children)
- Practice mindfulness – Focus on mindfulness for a few minutes every day to promote a mind-body connection. Take brief pauses throughout your day to ask yourself, “What is my body telling me right now?” Maybe you’ll realize you’re thirsty and need a drink of water, or that you’re hunching over your computer and would be more comfortable in an upright position. Over time, you’ll become more in tune with your body, and it will be easier to live at peace with it.
- Use your body in ways you enjoy and make you feel healthy – Body neutrality is not a license to give up on your physical health. It’s also ok to want to change your body while practicing body neutrality. According to Joan Chrisler, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Connecticut College in New London, “It doesn’t mean suddenly stopping things like being physically active or choosing nutritious foods. Just focus on what feels good: dancing, bike rides, going on a walk, eating more vegetables, meditating, taking a bubble bath, getting a massage. Sometimes you’ll lose weight without trying. The important part is not delaying your happiness until then and remind yourself not to be so demanding.”
- Do a social media tune-up – If there are people or sites that make you feel bad about yourself, or that you compare yourself with, simple: stop following them!
Our relationships with our bodies are nothing if not complicated, and they might always be. Unfortunately, there’s no one solution to being comfortable in our skin. But if trying out body neutrality might help you find peace within yourself, or at least relieve a little stress and give your mental health a boost, then it is definitely worth a try!