Most of us have felt insecure about our bodies at one time or another. After all, it’s difficult to feel good 100 percent of the time when we live in a culture that perpetuates beauty standards that are often impossible to achieve. Most media images feature young, able-bodied, tall, thin cis-gendered white men and women. Those who don’t fit the mainstream beauty ideal can feel marginalized and invisible.
Different philosophies have surfaced to help people combat their body insecurities and instead practice self-love and acceptance. If the body positivity movement doesn’t work for you, consider trying body neutrality instead, which is a whole new approach to loving yourself. We’re here to give you the lowdown on what body neutrality is and how to practice it in your everyday life.
What is the body neutrality movement?
Body neutrality is an emerging movement that aims to help you accept your body, not based on looks, but based on how it functions and acts as a vehicle that gets you through life. Accepting your body as it is can be a monumental achievement, especially if you feel particularly insecure about how you appear.
Deemphasizing the importance of beauty, and instead appreciating how your body allows you to move, walk, sit, and be in the world, can help you find happiness and fulfillment within yourself, no matter how you look. For example, you may not love the way your legs look, but you might instead love your legs for getting you from one location to the next. You might appreciate your eyes, not because you think they are beautiful, but because they allow you to see.
Chelsea Kronengold, the associate director of communications at the National Eating Disorders Association, told USA Today that it is also important to note that focusing on how your body functions versus how it looks does come with some amount of “able-bodied privilege.” That said, you can still appreciate any part of your body for a myriad of reasons even beyond conventional functionality or look. For example, if you aren’t able to use your hands to pick things up, you can still appreciate them for the way they can be held by another person.
Body neutrality also implores you to see yourself as more than just a body, and to form a foundation of a positive self-image based on your other qualities, such as your passions, skills, personality, intelligence, and kindness.
How did the body neutrality movement start?
The body neutrality movement began in 2015 when Colby-Sawyer fitness instructor Anne Poirier started holding body neutrality workshops in Vermont. She had participants talk about how they felt about their bodies at various stages in their lives and found that most people harbored negative feelings that weren’t easily eliminated.
Poirier told The Cut, “There’s a whole movement talking about loving our bodies. But it’s kind of a long jump to move there from dissatisfaction. Some people are just going to land in body neutrality, which is the term we utilize here for somewhere in the middle.” It’s a kind of détente, a white flag, a way station between hating oneself and loving oneself.
What’s the difference between body neutrality and body positivity?
Both body positivity and body neutrality aim to combat our culturally-induced shame in different ways. The body positive movement teaches us that we should love how our bodies look, even if they don’t fit conventional beauty standards, while the body neutrality movement asks us to shift focus away from appearance altogether, and to love how our bodies function and to appreciate what they do for us.
Body positive activists on social media promote acceptance of diverse body types by displaying a range of often marginalized bodies, using tags like #fatspiration, #bodyacceptance, #effyourbeautystandards. Looking at Instagram body-positive posts normalizes wrinkles, cellulite, stomach rolls, stretch marks, and that little extra junk in the trunk that most of us have. All bodies are different and beautiful in their own unique way, and each is worthy of respect, compassion, celebration, and love. According to plus-size supermodel Ashley Graham, “There is not one standard definition of beauty or one perfect size”.
One criticism of the body positive movement, however, is that it is still about how you look. Not everybody finds it easy to love their imperfections. For some of us, reciting affirmations we don’t believe feels phony and compounds our problem by making us feel guilty about our real emotions. Body positivity can be difficult to achieve in our toxic body-shaming world. According to psychiatrist Elizabeth Wassenaar, “... we live in an environment that does not necessarily encourage women [to] feel positive about their bodies. Neutrality feels more attainable and sustainable.”
Why body neutrality can be good for your mental health
There are some real mental health benefits of body neutrality. For one, it can help a person to stop focusing on how they look and instead shift their attention to other aspects of themselves as a person. This could allow a person to expand in many other areas of their life. As body neutral psychotherapist Alison Stone puts it, “When we spend less time thinking about our bodies, it affords us room to focus on other things.” Those other things could include anything from developing our talents, our personalities, or our character.
Body neutrality may also be a healthier route for someone who finds body positivity difficult to achieve. Body positivity is great if you’re able to truly accept your body as it is. But it’s not so great if you're trying to make yourself believe something you don’t think is true — especially if you feel guilty for not believing it. You may want to love your curves, for example, but not everyone is able to achieve genuine acceptance. Not being able to accept how your body looks, but feeling like it's the right thing to do, can be painful. Body neutrality is a good workaround in that it allows a person to have compassion for themselves, even when they can’t love the way they outwardly appear.
Finally, body neutrality may be especially important for nonbinary or trans persons who are unable to love or accept a body they feel doesn’t fit them. That doesn’t mean that they can’t love themselves for other reasons. According to trans activist Sam Dylan Finch, body-positive mantras sometimes don’t resonate with people who are trans. He gives an example of the mantra “All bodies are good bodies” as one that might not reflect the reality of trans individuals. He recommends changing the mantra to something more body neutral such as, “All bodies have value. All bodies deserve care.”
How to Practice Body Neutrality
If you think you might benefit from body neutrality, there are ways to practice it in your everyday life. Here are just a few tips to get started.
1. Use mindfulness
When self-critical thoughts inevitably pop up, take a deep breath and notice them, don’t judge them, or try to make them go away. Just realize that they are thoughts. Nothing more. They are mental events that your brain is creating and aren’t necessarily true. When these thoughts are about the appearance of a body part you don’t like, refocus on what that body part does for you and practice gratitude instead. Be mindful of the ways your body is working, and that it is doing the best it can to help you move through your day. Be mindful of the ways your body is keeping you strong and healthy to the best of its ability.
2. Practice self-care
Your body is your vehicle in this life. Just as you don’t want to trash your car; you shouldn’t trash your body either. Body neutral self-care isn’t about trying to look better. Instead, it’s about feeling better and living better while choosing foods and activities that are nourishing and that you enjoy. For example, instead of spending endless hours on the treadmill trying to lose weight, you might choose to do yoga because you find it relaxing and enjoyable. If following social media accounts that promote restrictive dieting or unrealistic body images isn’t serving you, unfollow them. Consider following body neutral accounts, such as healthybunhead and thebodywithinofficial.
3. Stop talking critically about your body or any other body
When you catch yourself putting your body down, shift the dialogue to what your body does every day. For example, when you're fretting over your thick thighs, stop for a minute and think about how they allow you to pick up your child, dance, or carry heavy groceries. Think about the ways you are strong and how wonderful it is to have a body that allows you to do all that you do. Try not to judge other people’s bodies, either. There are many reasons why someone is a certain size or looks a certain way. Celebrating every body type for simply being able to carry a person through their lives will help you celebrate your own body for those same reasons.
4. Try body neutral mantras
Body neutral activist Miranda Park has some wonderful mantras on the One Woman Project blog. For example: “I am more than my appearance. The way I look is just one of many facets that make me, me.” She also suggests the mantra, “My appearance is going to shapeshift a million times throughout my life. Sometimes, I’ll find myself more attractive, and sometimes less so. And that’s okay.”
The bottom line
Feeling good about yourself in a culture that fosters body shame is no easy task. Body positivity and body neutrality are both equally important and effective for feeling good about yourself. But body neutrality is especially helpful if you're struggling to find compassion for the way you appear. Body neutrality is all about self-acceptance and self-love, and the more we can do this for others and ourselves, the more happiness we can find overall.