Body Positivity? Body Neutrality? How to Feel More Comfortable in Your Skin

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?

a caucasian perspn's shirt lifted to expose their belly with a hand pinching the side
Millions of people critique their body everyday, and almost 80% are unhappy.

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. back of a thin woman with a reflection in the mirror of a bigger body.

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. silhouette of two bodies facing each other with a hand up to one another and many little words of positivity within the body and symbols.

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.”

    opened notebook with a pen writing a little heart in the middle of the page.
    Begin writing down positive things about your body and what it does for you.
  • 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.”the word unfollow with a computer mouse over it
  • 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!

Improve Childhood Social Behaviors and Brain Function With Mindfulness

Many new parents worry about raising their children. Will they be kind? Creative? Smart? 

As parents, we only want to do the best for our children, but there’s no guidebook for nurturing their best qualities. Psychologists, spiritual leaders, and early childhood educators agree that mindfulness is one way to support the positive development of growing minds. Mindfulness is a way to unwind and find peace, while still honoring the whole spectrum of emotions that you feel. Over 35 million adults in America have a regular mindfulness practice, and it can be just as effective for children as it is for adults. 

The Benefits of Mindfulness

young girl smiling holding a dandelion

The American Psychological Association recently published a meta-analysis combining data from over 40 studies on the effects of a mindfulness practice for adults. The research concluded that mindfulness has the following effects on participants: 

  • A reduction in stress levels
  • Increased emotional awareness
  • Decreased emotional reactivity
  • Improved memory function
  • Increased focus
  • A greater sense of satisfaction with relationships 
  • A more positive sense of self

Research also points to the numerous health benefits of mindfulness. People who have a mindfulness practice experience a reduction in high-risk behaviors like smoking and excessive drinking, and an increase in positive health behaviors like getting regular check-ups, using seat belts, and being physically active. There are also physical effects, like a stronger immune system, decreased blood pressure, reduction of chronic pain, and lessening of gastrointestinal distress symptoms.

All of these benefits are important for children, as well, since the habits and skills they build now will last throughout their lifetimes. There are also additional benefits associated with mindfulness for children, as reported in many studies from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology. 

  • Cognitive flexibility, which allows children to disengage from conflict and calm down more quickly after being provoked or upset.
  • Prosocial behaviors in the classroom, like sharing, patience, and decreased reactivity to conflict.
  • Improved executive function, which controls things like focus, memory, and organization. 

How To Support Mindfulness in Children

Many adults picture mindfulness as a form of meditation: sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed, taking deep breaths, and emptying their mind. Mindfulness is less about sitting in the perfect posture and clearing the mind, and more about staying in the present moment, and paying attention to what you’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing, without judgement.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness with children in your daily life. You can be mindful while eating, drawing, or playing in the sand. An easy way to start is by drawing attention to you and your child’s actions. You can say things like, “I am noticing how crunchy and cold this carrot is” or, “I love the way this marker feels in my hand”. You can also name emotions as they come up for you and your child: “I feel so happy to be spending time with you”, or “You seem frustrated”. By naming emotions in a calm and even tone you are allowing your child to do the same. Acknowledge big feelings, then let them go without judgement. 

mom and daughter bending down touching their toes

There are also many ways to practice mindfulness more intentionally. As a preschool teacher, I would often have my three and four year old students participate in a guided meditation before naptime. Sometimes we would listen to a recording (there are many great mindfulness for children channels on YouTube!), other times I would ad-lib. They are young, so it doesn’t have to be perfect! 

Starting with the kids laying down in a comfortable position, ask them to close their eyes and listen to your words. You can describe in detail your favorite place: the sounds, smells, and colors. The more detail, the better! This practice encourages children to focus on the full-body details of a moment – the way the sun feels on their skin, the sound of wind in trees, the smell of grass – and supports an attentive, but calm, state of mind. 

Loving Kindness Meditation

Another form of mindfulness that works beautifully for children is the “Loving Kindness” modality. Metta Bhavana, which translates from the Pali language to “cultivation of loving-kindness”, is a Buddhist tradition, and is adaptable for all ages and abilities. This practice focuses on unconditional caring for ourselves, our friends, our enemies, and everyone, and serves as a reminder for children to approach everyone with kindness and compassion. When guiding kids through this three-part meditation, you can give them the option of repeating the mantra out loud with you or picturing an image, such as shining a light from their heart to the other person’s, or handing them a flower – anything that conveys love and care. You can do this any time, anywhere. 

  1. First, encourage your kiddo to feel “metta” or loving, caring, compassion for themselves. Help them think of all of the things they caucasian girl sitting on a couch with her eyes closedlove about being them – they’re a great friend, a helpful son or daughter, an amazing artist. They can picture themselves being flooded with warmth and light, or say “may I be well and happy” or “may I be filled with joy”. You can customize the mantra to fit whatever goals you have for your child. 
  2. Second, focus on a friend or family member. Encourage your child to picture their friend in their mind and think of all of the things they love about them. Then, repeat the mantra: “may they be well and happy” or whatever you have decided to use. 
  3. Next, ask your child to picture someone they don’t particularly like. It can be someone they feel neutrally about, or someone they dislike – traditionally it’s an “enemy” that is pictured. As they picture this person, have them use the mantra again – “may they be well and happy”. 
  4. Finally, have your child picture all of those people together: your child, their friend or family member, and their enemy or neutral person. Picture them all smiling, enjoying one another’s company. Then add more people to the image – your neighbors, your town, and the whole world. End with the mantra “may all people be well and happy”. 

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be an intense, silent meditation. It’s about cultivating a sense of peace and presence even when things get crazy – which is a valuable skill for kiddos and adults. There are so many benefits for both the body and the mind when practicing mindfulness, so see if you can work it into your daily life. You might find that it helps your whole family navigate stressful days with resilience and compassion.