When you aren’t accepting of your body, it can lead to more negative emotions and could even contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Two approaches for being more accepting of your body—imperfections and all—are body positivity and body neutrality.
Here we explore what these approaches mean, as well as how they came about (the body positivity and body neutrality movements). While each has its own value, adopting both practices can help lead to greater acceptance of your body and what it can do.
One survey found that 83% of women and 74% of men are dissatisfied with their physical appearance at one time or another, with this dissatisfaction occurring most often when looking in a mirror, in a bathing suit, or when clothes shopping.
What Is Body Positivity?
Body positivity refers to having a positive view of your physical body, regardless of its shape, size, or other appearance-related attributes. It involves loving your body for what it is, even if it isn’t “perfect” according to society’s standards.
An example of body positivity is to look in the mirror and say out loud all of the things you like about your physique. You might say, “I love the way my arms look in this shirt,” or, “While my tummy isn’t flat, it is still beautiful.”
What Is Body Neutrality?
Body neutrality is different from body positivity in that it doesn’t involve always loving your body but is more about being accepting of it. Also, instead of concentrating on your physical appearance, with body neutrality, the focus is more on the body’s abilities and non-physical characteristics.
An example of body neutrality is saying to yourself, “My body is great in that it enables me to engage in activities I enjoy,” or, “My body is amazing in that it gave me two wonderful children.” Body neutrality is about appreciating what your body can do as opposed to concentrating on how it looks.
Origins of the body positivity movement
“In a larger context, body positivity is a social movement that advocates for the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender or physical abilities,” says Dr. Albers. She adds that this movement challenges unrealistic beauty standards and ideals. “The central concept is the idea that beauty is constructed by society and it should not determine someone’s self-worth or value.”
Many say that the fat rights movement of the 1960s gave way to body positivity. After reading an article about anti-fatness and diet culture in the United States called “More People Should Be FAT!”, Bill Fabrey reached out to its author, Lew Louderback. Both men were tired of seeing people who were fat mistreated, so they worked together to organize a small group of like-minded people. This group became known as the National Association to Aid Fat Americans and they worked to improve life for the fat community through education and advocacy. Today, the group is called the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA).
While the movement was off to a solid start, The Fat Underground, a feminist group out of California, wanted to see even more change. The group wanted equal rights for fat people and saw diet culture as an enemy of the community. Their Fat Liberation Manifesto motivated others to work with them and demand more inclusion. Their efforts ended up making a substantial impact in the United States and around the world.
The current body positivity movement
As more people started interacting online between the late 1990s and early 2000s, cyberbullying and body shaming became the norm. To block out the negativity, fat activists and their allies became more vocal — and visible. While society might have wanted them to hide in the real world, the fat community wasn’t hiding on the internet. As they celebrated their bodies and style, this empowered others to take part and embrace who they were.
Criticism of the body positivity movement
While its overall intention was good, the body positivity movement has gained some criticism over the years. Some have pointed out that the movement often leaves people of color, people living with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ community out of the conversation. These groups were very instrumental in helping the fat acceptance and fat liberation movements gain momentum.
Another criticism is that body positivity can be very unrealistic at times.
“Body positivity is a subset of toxic positivity,” notes Dr. Albers. “Some feel that it blames people for how they feel based on their mindset. It can also push people into trying to feel something that they don’t.”
According to Dr. Albers, while body positivity’s intentions are admirable, unconditionally loving one’s body and appearance can seem unrealistic to a lot of people, particularly because so many report being unhappy about them.
“Body positivity wouldn’t even be needed if we appreciated and found all bodies inherently beautiful. Society is reflective of what our culture and environments teach us to believe — to dislike our bodies for so many reasons,” explains Dr. Albers.
How did the body neutrality movement start?
Body neutrality doesn’t mean that you feel meh about your body 24/7. It also isn’t centered on appearance.
“Body neutrality is a middle-of-the-road approach between body positivity and body negativity,” says Dr. Albers. “As the term suggests, it is neither loving nor hating your body. It’s based on the notions of acceptance and having respect for one’s body rather than love.”
It’s believed that the term “body neutrality” started popping up online around 2015. It became even more popular when Anne Poirier, a certified intuitive eating counselor and eating disorder specialist, started using the phrase to help clients build a healthier balance between food and exercise. Poirier defined body neutrality as “prioritizing the body’s function and what it can do rather than its appearance.” According to Poirier, we don’t have to love or hate our bodies. We can feel neutral about them.
“The approach acknowledges that your body is only one part of who you are — not the totality. It also shouldn’t dominate how you feel about yourself,” says Dr. Albers. Another thing to keep in mind is that your body is largely influenced by genetics and that’s all out of your control. “You can’t change or manipulate it and trying to do so can cause harm,” she adds.
How body positivity and body neutrality differ
The key difference between these two movements rests in the idea of value.
“The body-neutral approach leans toward the belief that it doesn’t matter if you think your body is beautiful or not. Your value is not tied to your body nor does your happiness depend on what you look like. A body-positive approach says you are beautiful no matter what. Period,” Dr. Albers explains.
Pros and cons of body positivity and body neutrality
Which movement should you follow? It all comes down to your preference and how you feel about your body. Here, Dr. Albers highlights some pros and cons of body positivity and body neutrality.
Benefits of a Dual Approach
Although body neutrality was designed to help overcome the challenges of the body positivity movement, there are benefits of developing a view of your body that encompasses both approaches. This type of dual approach enables you to enjoy the benefits of each.
These benefits include:
- Body positivity can help boost mood while reducing negative thoughts. It also enables us to be happy with our bodies regardless of what society says about them or in spite of negative messages we might have received during childhood.
- Body neutrality is a good approach for when being positive doesn’t feel genuine or is too big of a step to take. It removes the pressure of loving your body when you might not, only asking that you accept it as it is and appreciate it for what it can do for you.
We are ever-changing human beings, which means that some days we will love our bodies while on other days, self-love may feel like a bit too much to ask. By incorporating both body positivity and body neutrality into our lives, we are able to select the approach most in line with our thinking on any given day.
How to Adopt Body Positivity and Body Neutrality
When you get out of bed each morning, ask yourself which way of thinking aligns with how you feel. Based on your mindset, are you ready to love your physical appearance? Or do you feel like being positive is too much to ask at the moment, so you’d rather focus on being neutral and appreciating what your body can do?
If you’d like to focus on body positivity that day, you can do this by engaging in a few select actions:
- Find things you love about your physical appearance and say them out loud, such as “I love my long legs” or “My shoulders look great in this sleeveless shirt.”
- Repeat positive affirmations throughout the day, like “I am happy the way I am.”
- Stop your mind when it starts to make comparisons between your body and someone else’s as there is no one “perfect” body type.
- Watch online videos focused on promoting body positivity and self-love.
If you decide that body neutrality is best for the day, here are some actions you can take:
- Post notes in your home and workspaces, reminding you to continue to work toward the acceptance of your body—flaws and all.
- Recite statements about the value your body provides, such as “I appreciate my body for making it possible to complete my house and yardwork.”
- Work on your mindfulness, noticing all the ways that your body serves you throughout the day.
6 ways to help kids develop a positive body image
Sometimes, we say things about our bodies and we don’t even realize how our words can affect how our little ones see themselves. Dr. Albers offers these tips for how we can be better examples for our children.
- Stop the diet chit-chat. The drives the issue of feeling bad about your body. Diets give the idea that you have to change your shape or size — and kids often pick up on this.
- Remember your kids are listening to every word you say. They absorb and reflect the way you talk about your body. The more positive and neutral words of acceptance you say out loud, the better.
- Wear clothing that makes you feel good about your body. This acknowledges that you don’t have to decorate your body. You can wear things that help you move, relax and feel at ease. When your child sees this, they’ll follow your lead.
- Teach kids to focus on what the body does rather than what it looks like. You can do this by saying things like, “Wow, your legs run so fast,” or “Your eyes help you to read (vs. ‘they’re so pretty’).”
- Pay attention to what your children are following on social media. Consider if the images and messages they‘re consuming are advocating positive body acceptance or not.
- Don‘t stand by when someone is criticizing their body. Be a good role model and demonstrate how to talk about your body either with positive or neutral words.
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