What Is Body Positivity?
Body positivity is the idea that all bodies are beautiful, regardless of their shape or size. It claims to abolish physical standards of beauty, instead celebrating all bodies as deserving of love and appreciation
Body positivity emerged as a response to unrealistic, idealized standards of beauty that have become pervasive in our society. Individuals whose bodies don’t meet those standards may feel excluded or marginalized, or they may be subject to discrimination based on their weight or appearance.
As a movement, it has grown considerably over the last decade or so. This is due in part to the increasingly widespread use of social media—both as a forum for “body-shaming” and as a platform for body positivity.
Today, body positivity means different things to different people. For some, it’s a social dictum: a call to appreciate and love all bodies, rather than denigrate, shame, or find flaws with them. For others, it’s more inwardly focused: a need to love one’s own body, to appreciate it and find beauty in every curve, fold, wrinkle, blemish or unique characteristic.
Why Body Positivity?
There’s a strong link between the way you feel about yourself physically and how you feel about yourself emotionally—your self-worth or self-value. When you feel dissatisfied with your body, it can negatively impact your self-esteem, confidence, and overall mental health.
At the same time, the widespread acceptance of often-unrealistic standards of beauty, especially for women, has contributed to many people feeling self-conscious about their bodies. In addition to being acutely distressing, this insecurity can evolve into harmful mental health issues, such as body dysmorphia, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, and alcoholism or substance abuse.
The goal of the body positivity movement was to reverse this trend by encouraging people to accept and appreciate all different kinds of bodies. The hope was that, in loving their own bodies and encountering acceptance from others, women and men would be freed from body dissatisfaction and the ills that come with it.
Criticism of the Body Positivity Movement
However, like all movements, body positivity has its share of critics and shortcomings.
Body Positivity and Obesity Culture
The first of these is medical. Some critics claim that body positivity has made it easier for people to maintain physically unhealthy levels of body fat.
And it’s true that being “overweight” or physically unfit increases your risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems. At least one study found that the “normalization of obesity” has led people to underestimate their own weight and, as a result, their risks for disease.
Likewise, being “underweight,” or having very low levels of body fat, increases your risks of osteoporosis, anemia, problems with skin, hair and teeth, and, for women, irregular periods and premature birth.
In light of this, authors like Ketrell L. McWhorter, PhD have argued that “the body positivity and fat activism communities must reconcile with medical and public health professionals to equally address both the mental health benefits of self-acceptance and positive body image, while also bearing in mind the short- and long-term health advantages of preventing or treating obesity.”
Lack of inclusivity
Many people feel that the body positivity movement has been co-opted by (or else was always owned by) a particular group of people. For example, body positivity has historically failed to include women of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Additionally, the mainstream portrayal of body positivity still excludes much larger individuals. Recently, American singer, rapper, songwriter, and flutist Lizzo remarked that "Fat people are still getting the short end of this movement. We're still getting talked about, memed, shamed. [But] no one cares anymore.”
Body positivity was intended to be inclusive. But it still struggles with traditional standards of beauty, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and race.
Too Much Focus on Appearance
Finally, body positivity is criticized for (still) placing too much emphasis on appearance. It promotes love and acceptance of physical attributes, but the emphasis is still on the appearance of those attributes.
Many people struggle with this message. Loving your body can be hard, especially when you’re faced with what seems like an endless stream of slender, picture-perfect women and men in the media. Failing to be positive about your body, when you feel like you should love everything about it, can be just as distressing.
Body positivity does nothing to blur the lines between idealized and realistic beauty standards. It simply demands that you feel good about yourself, regardless. And that can be a tall order on the best of days.
The Body Neutrality Movement
Body neutrality is a recent ideology. The phrase was coined sometime around 2010, and it’s since gained a small but passionate following. It takes an entirely different view on the human body, shifting focus from how your body looks and the way you feel about its appearance. Instead, body neutrality adopts a neutral, even utilitarian view of the body.
The main idea is that when you place too much emphasis on your appearance, even in a positive way, it can distract from other, arguably more important attributes.
What is Body Neutrality?
There are two main principles of body neutrality.
First, your relationship with your physical appearance doesn’t need to be defined by love—or any other emotion. If you like the way your body looks, that’s wonderful. But you can also choose to accept your body, without assigning an emotion to it.
“Body neutrality feels like a white flag amidst the warzone of thoughts going on in my mind,” says Becky Wright of Happiful.com. “I don’t have to hate or love my body, I just have to accept it as my body.”
Relinquishing the emotional aspects of your relationship with your body can be liberating in the extreme, especially if you have struggled with finding ways to love it.
Second, your body’s worth extends beyond its appearance. It is functional; it does things for you. You can touch with your hands, move with your legs or arms, see with your eyes, hear with your ears, smile with your mouth.
Maybe you can do all of these things; maybe you can only do some of them. But the appearance of these parts of your body has no impact on their functionality. They serve a purpose that has nothing to do with aesthetics.
How to Practice Body Neutrality
For those who find beauty in their body, there is value for body positivity. However, if you’re looking for a different way to experience and appreciate your body, body neutrality might be for you. Here are some ways you can practice body neutrality.
Think neutral thoughts
Developing a neutral perspective about your body takes practice. You’re probably used to thinking about your body based on its appearance, and these thoughts probably carry a lot of emotional weight. You might feel happy, excited, relieved, grateful, sad, anxious, angry, or disappointed.
Instead, try to simply acknowledge and accept your body, without engaging your emotions. Think about the way your body functions with statements like, “My hands can reach for anything I need” or “My legs will carry me where I need to go.”
Some of your body parts might seem more useful than others. Some might work better than others. Maybe you have trouble sitting for long periods of time or you’re not as flexible as other people. Practice recognizing these facts as well, acknowledging and accepting them, and letting go of any negative emotions you have associated with them.
Eat and exercise for your body
Concentrate on foods and physical activities that will support your body, provide you with the nutrients and fuel you need, and be enjoyable for you. You don’t need to deprive yourself of anything, and you don’t need to become overly concerned with what you’re putting into your body.
Intuitive eating is one way to approach eating for body neutrality. The goal here is to listen to your body and eat foods based on what you need. Just like neutral thoughts, it can take time to become (re)acquainted with your body’s signals. The goal of intuitive eating is to eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, focus on foods that you enjoy, and avoid emotional eating, like when you’re sad, anxious, bored, or angry.
Find ways to exercise that make you and your body feel good. If you don’t like lifting weights—don’t! Try walking or hiking, swimming, tennis, or dancing. When you exercise, focus on the good it’s doing for your body: your joints, muscles, heart, and lungs. Try to let go of any thoughts of changing its appearance. But if you’re unable to, that’s okay. Simply practice your neutral thinking and return your focus to the activity at hand.
Be thoughtful about social media
Social media can be a potent tool or a dangerous trap. If you find that you frequently draw physical comparisons between yourself and people on social media, it may be time to take a break. Or, even better, seek out individuals to follow whose social media feed doesn’t trigger these kinds of comparisons or the feelings that come with them.
Get the support of those around you
When interacting with friends and family, if you feel comfortable doing so, it can be helpful to speak to them about your journey towards body neutrality. If you explain to them what neutrality means to you, they may be able to help you practice it more effectively. Of course, this is entirely optional and depends on your relationships. Body neutrality is deeply personal. But an ally can be a powerful aid as you navigate your new relationship to your body.
Body positivity and body neutrality both have merit. The way you feel about your body can have a big impact on your mental health. There are many resources available to help you, including several online therapy services with therapists specializing in body image, self-esteem, and learning how to reclaim your relationship with your body. With body neutrality, you’ll have one more option for relating to your body in a way that works for you.