The ever-present struggle to stop hating your own body in a world that constantly makes you feel inferior is an internal problem, but an insidious one. It can seize control of your mind manifest with serious physical consequences.
Body positivity, which started as a movement designed to encourage people to take joy in their current body, no matter what society has to say about it, has come to mean forcing or faking positivity in spite of your true feelings.
Try as we may, that’s not always possible — or healthy. Where body positivity fails, body neutrality comes into play.
Body neutrality promotes the radical notion that your body is worthy of acceptance as it is, and that you should value nonphysical characteristics over your appearance. The movement urges people to stop thinking of the body as an object by challenging the idea that the way you look has anything to do with your inherent worth.
Where did body positivity go wrong, and how is it different from body neutrality?
Though one might assume that the massive popularity of the body positivity movement is a good thing, its mainstream adoption has caused the movement to lose some of its power for people with marginalized bodies who are fat, disabled and/or non-white.
It’s a particularly unfortunate transition, considering the body positivity was born out of the 1960s movement for fat liberation, which was led by fat and LGBTQIA+ Black women and femmes — the very people that are now pushed to the sidelines of the movement.
Taylor Chilton, a TikTok user who has educated thousands of young people about body neutrality, told In The Know that the movement has a lot in common with the original message of body positivity — we should accept our bodies and remove “physical appearance” as a marker of self-worth.
“They were creating a radical space for anyone who didn’t fall into the conventional beauty standards of that time period, which was — as it usually is — thin, cisgender white women,” she explained. “It is really important to note that the body positivity movement [has become] incredibly white-washed and non-intersectional, which I’m sure has also contributed to the desire to create a new term that is free from the colorism that has taken over the body positive movement.”
As Jay Polish described for Bustle in June, “mainstream body positivity has a kind of ‘I am unconditionally thrilled with my body at all times’ vibe, body neutrality is more ‘I have a body, and so does everyone else.’”
A TikTok user named Maddy, who went viral in April with a post about body neutrality, told In The Know that body positivity is “great for a lot of people,” but it can lead to “obsessing with the superficial under a veil of empowerment.” The new term body neutrality, for her, has made all the difference.
“Everything changed for me when I stopped trying to force ‘I love my body’ and started affirming ‘my body is the least interesting thing about me,’” she wrote in a post that garnered 1.4 million views.
People who embrace body neutrality say the movement has helped them with eating disorder recovery.
Chilton said she realized in quarantine just how dramatically her eating disorder had been affecting her. After growing up with an interest in theater, she was submerged in a culture of fatphobia.
“I took that lockdown time to confront that and work on beginning my recovery,” she explained. “Recovery isn’t linear, and I am certainly still working hard every day, but when I look at how far I’ve come in the last year, I really am shocked and proud of myself.”
She said in a viral TikTok in March that “any act of … body neutrality is a direct rebellion against a culture that wants us to hate ourselves.”
“Your body is a miracle. Food is just food. There are so many things in life to be afraid of, food isn’t one of them. Fat isn’t bad,” she told In The Know, reflecting on some of the mantras she shares with her followers. “And your weight has nothing to do with your worthiness as a person.”
Maddy admitted that she hadn’t even heard of “body neutrality” until she read the comments of her own viral TikTok that unknowingly embraced the movement’s principles.
She said she has struggled with her body image for her entire life.
“When I was 13, I fell into anorexia and became even skinnier than I was already … and I was always complimented for how thin I was,” she said. “I was completely obsessed with my appearance and incredibly insecure.”
As she became more familiar with social media, she began seeing posts online about common insecurities like hip dips and bloating. She said she hadn’t even noticed those things about her own body until she saw those posts.
“I kind of started collecting a list of new ‘flaws’ I had discovered as a result of the constant online discussion about loving and accepting them,” Maddy explained. “Why does it matter if [those flaws] are beautiful or not?”
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She admitted that she was tired of the superficiality, and through body neutrality, found a way to focus on other aspects of herself.
“I have been taking gentler care of myself and found that when I stop being so cruel to myself I sleep better, laugh more, work harder, worry less and accept other people more wholly,” she concluded.
Summer Morgan, a TikTok creator and influencer, told In The Know that she developed eating disorders after she noticed her body started to change after playing soccer for her entire life.
“I feel like almost my formative years were spent just trying to change my body and never once feeling content and happy with my appearance,” she said.
Morgan has found peace at the intersection of body neutrality and fitness. She said that after quitting soccer, she started to see exercise as a chore that she had to do to get her body to change.
Training to run a marathon got her to see working out as a fun opportunity to see her friends, and she shifted her focus to goals that weren’t based on her appearance, like mileage and mile times.
“Fitness is such a great way to celebrate what your body can do for you if you do it in the right ways with the right intentions,” she said. “I try to explain on my page that exercise and weight loss don’t go hand in hand.”
Critics say that body neutrality alone doesn’t do enough to address oppression.
Like body positivity before it, the conversation surrounding body neutrality often exclusively focuses on how we feel about our own bodies.
“We live in a world that constantly, ruthlessly judges our bodies — particularly if our bodies are anything other than white, thin, abled, free of scars and blemishes or otherwise marked by difference,” Aubrey Gordon wrote for Self’s “Your Fat Friend” column in July 2020. “Those judgments are upheld and deepened by institutional practices and cultural beliefs that keep [those bodies] on the margins — not because of how we feel about our own bodies, but because of how other people treat our bodies.”
She noted that a thin, white, able-bodied person might be in eating disorder recovery, but wouldn’t have to deal with the same kinds of harassment, discrimination or access issues that people with marginalized bodies do.
“To be sure, self-love and body neutrality are powerful things. But they aren’t so powerful that they can divert or erase others’ harmful actions or make unjust systems more just,” Gordon wrote. “While body neutrality can be a useful individual tool, it is not a movement for body-based justice or liberation.”
Tackling oppression means more than just adjusting your mindset. We must examine how we think about and treat others while fighting societal norms to attain justice beyond our own minds.
Experts shared actionable ways to help yourself master body neutrality within yourself and in regard to others.
Therapist Ashlee Bennett, who works with people experiencing body image issues and shares information on Instagram as the “Body Image Therapist,” told Lithium Magazine in February that to achieve body neutrality, you have to “come back to the basics of your body. Do this for yourself and for others.
“[Your body is] made up of cells, flesh, and bone; it feels warm; your lungs breathe; your heart beats,” she said. “Contemplate what you’re left with when you place all the meaning attached to your body aside.”
To Chilton, a key word of advice is that no one should be commenting on anyone else’s body, ever.
“It shouldn’t be important,” she said. “It’s just silly and has nothing to do with anything. There are so many other things to notice in people.”
Going beyond internalized body image, Chilton urged people to call out fatphobic behavior when they see it — and be open about being in eating disorder recovery so they know the effect they may have on you and on others.
Maddy recommended staying away from social media altogether, but Chilton recommended diversifying your social media feeds by unfollowing people who make you feel bad about yourself and actively following people whose bodies are different than yours.
“The only way to normalize bodies is by looking at lots of different ones and viewing them as normal,” she explained.
Chilton said she tries to trace the origins of negative thoughts she has about her body to their root. She said she usually finds the ugly comments did not come from someone who wanted to make her happier and more mentally healthy, so she refuses to validate them.
Morgan encouraged her followers to remind themselves of everything they love about themselves that doesn’t include their physical appearance. Maddy said people should focus on traits like integrity, passion, humor and confidence in themselves and others, and refrain from making judgments on other people in passing — even if those judgments are positive.
“At the end of the day, on our tombstone, no one writes, ‘She had the perfect nose, flattest abs and flawless skin,’” Morgan said. “I have the power to make a positive impact on others, and that’s what I will be remembered for.”
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