Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat, and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful and healthy.
We’ve all had those moments when we look in the mirror and we don’t exactly like everything we see. That’s when the super judgey voice can creep in, tearing you apart and poking at all the things you want to change about your body: your skin, your hair, your tummy, whatever it may be.
Perhaps this puts you in a momentary funk — or maybe it’s an ongoing internal battle that continuously drags you down. Regardless, this negative inner dialogue can influence how you go about your day. It can affect your mood, what you decide to wear, how you interact with people, even whether or not you want anyone to see you at all. It may encourage you to spend too much time and money on “fixing” yourself, or fuel harmful habits like over-exercising or disordered eating. Sometimes we think so much about our looks and what’s wrong with them that we can’t really live our lives or be there for the people we love.
So, when that disparaging voice is whispering in your ear, how do you handle it?
For someone who prefers a more body positive approach, they may try to meet it with affirmations like: “I love my body” or “I am beautiful.”
But others, like The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil, find solace in divesting from internal body convos altogether. “I don’t think about my body ever,” Jamil told Glamour in 2019. “Imagine just not thinking about your body. You’re not hating it. You’re not loving it. You’re just a floating head. I’m a floating head wandering through the world.”
As odd as that imagery is, when negative self-talk is running the show and body positive affirmations aren’t cutting it, this sort of mindset can be enormously liberating. Inclusive health practitioners call this approach “body neutrality.”
What is body neutrality?
Body neutrality is about accepting your body as it is, according to experts.
That’s it. You’re not trying to change and fight your body and you’re not engaging with the nagging voice that’s telling you to do so. As Katie Sturino, the author of Body Talk, said on Pinterest, “You accept what your body is, you see what it is and you just move on.”
In other words, practicing body neutrality gives you a chance to take a break from any body conversation (whether self-loving or not), freeing up energy and brain space to focus on what you really care about — like starting a project you’ve been dreaming of or taking care of a loved one.
Many of us try to replace self-criticism with positive affirmations (“My fat body is beautiful!”), and that works for some. But others find it inauthentic if they don’t really feel that way, and that’s valid too. Body neutrality grants you the opportunity to accept difficult emotions instead of denying them, suggests Joy Cox, Ph.D., a social justice advocate and co-founder of the Jabbie Fitness Community App. In doing so, she says, you save yourself the double burden of feeling bad about how you’re feeling, like “I know I shouldn’t hate my body, but…” Being body neutral means you don’t need to judge yourself for not being “body positive” enough in the first place.
That’s important, in light of recent research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which shows that judging yourself for your so-called negative emotions can perpetuate ongoing cycles of shame and guilt. Acceptance, on the other hand, can help you to put your foot on the break. The researchers discovered that when people allowed themselves to feel unwanted emotions without judgement, their mental health improved — the feelings tended to run their course without getting unnecessarily exacerbated.
Releasing the resistance you have against those negative feelings can create more space for self-compassion and curiosity, too, according to a Chrissy King, wellness diversity and inclusion expert and the creator of the Body Liberation Project. “Body neutrality to me is like this middle ground where if I don’t like something about how my body looks, I can at least not meet myself with more harsh and disparaging comments,” she says.
For example, if you don’t like your stomach for whatever reason, you don’t have to run with the awful bully in your head that’s telling you that you’re gross or unworthy. When you start to hear that voice, pause. Simply accept that you just don’t like that part of your body, and ask, “‘How can I treat myself with tenderness?'” suggests King. “‘How can I give my body what it needs, regardless of the image I see in the mirror?’ Because we are all deserving of kindness regardless of our body.”
In general, body neutrality is a reminder that your self-worth is not centered on your body’s appearance — that looking (and feeling) beautiful is not necessary for respecting yourself and feeling peaceful inside.
How is body neutrality different than body positivity?
When #BodyPositivity began trending on social media, it was all about loving yourself and embracing your unique allure, regardless of what the mainstream beauty industry said was sexy. In other words, “You’re beautiful because you’re you.”
Gradually, more and more people of different body types not typically seen or celebrated in mainstream media — fat, Black, Brown, queer, trans and disabled — found their body-positive spotlight on Instagram. Pop stars like Lizzo rose to fame with powerful (and catchy) self-love anthems like “Soulmate” and “Juice“, while plus-sized models like Tess Holiday made covers of magazines, opening the door for increased visibility of fat bodies in the fashion industry. All good.
With all the media hype, though, some people felt that that to be body positive you had to love the skin you’re in 24/7 — to constantly see your body (and its flaws) in a positive light no matter how you actually felt.
As transformative as self-love can be, trying to stay positive in this way is often easier said on an Instagram meme than done IRL, according to King. “I feel like when we lean into that we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” says King. “When you’re in a place of really bad body image, to try to jump to a space of body love is a huge leap. Most people can’t make it,” she adds. This can be especially true for people who suffer from eating disorders, gender dysphoria, depression, anxiety or have experienced trauma.
That’s why some people prefer to go neutral. It means you don’t have to say 100 “I love my body” affirmations to yourself in the mirror if you’re not feeling it; you don’t have to “fake it until you make it”; you don’t have to imagine your stretch marks as the “tiger stripes” you earned post-childbirth or redefine your scars as badges of survival if none of that resonates with you.
“There’s no need to reframe anything about your body or what it’s gone through within a lens of positivity for your body to be acceptable,” says Cox. “It’s okay to acknowledge that our bodies have pain, have seen trauma” or simply don’t look or perform the way we think we want them to. With neutrality, acknowledgement is the key not forcing yourself to feel any sort of way.
How can I practice body neutrality?
Everyone has different ways of approaching body neutrality, and part of embodying the practice is figuring out what works for you. So, if you’re new to this mindset and not sure how to adopt it, here are a few great places to start:
- Understand that your body image (i.e. your thoughts, perceptions and attitudes about your physical appearance) does not exist in a vacuum. “We live within a society that is extremely fat-phobic and diet-culture centered, and so we are constantly getting messages from social media, TV and magazines about why our bodies aren’t enough,” says King. So, if you’re feeling internalized pressure to look a certain way, know it is completely normal and understandable. Once you recognize nothing is wrong with you and that you are not alone, you can be gentler with yourself in those tough moments and find a supportive community with people who have shared experiences.
- Unpack your beliefs about your body where they came from. You may have grown up with people telling you that you were too short, too fat, too dark, etc. Or maybe you heard how harshly other people around you talked about their bodies. This can all contribute to how you see yourself in the world, according to Cox. But when you can take the time to journal or reflect on where your judgements about yourself originated, you can begin to stop thinking of them as concrete fact and instead see them exactly for what they are: ideas. Researching and reading books about the problematic roots behind fatphobia and other beauty ideals can also be eye-opening when it comes to reorienting your self-image. “As you start to go through the process of unpacking your beliefs, you’re tearing down the walls of what you’ve been taught,” says Cox. “Then you’re left with a clean slate to kind of start to make decisions about how you feel about your body.”
- Focus on what your body is doing for you, rather than what it looks like. Throughout the day your body is doing so much in order for you to be alive and connect with others. Maybe you appreciate the fact that your heart beats without you thinking, that your uterus carried your child for nine months, or that your legs are strong enough to help your dad get his groceries up the stairs. Writing down the ways in which your body is supporting you and others can increase your sense of gratitude. “This perspective can give you more of a sense of purpose and self-appreciation,” says Dr. Shenell Myrie, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist at Thriveworks Atlanta.
- Accept and show compassion towards the parts of your body that are struggling. Bodies change with age, childbirth, illness, disability and other life-altering circumstances, says King. Yes, finding things to appreciate about yourself can do a lot lift your mood. But if, for example, you suffer from chronic fatigue or have a major back injury, accepting parts of your body that aren’t functioning as you would like (or as mainstream society says they “should”) can help you to let go of judgement, shame, and denial. Being honest with yourself can also allow you to realize when you need to rest, get help from a friend, or seek the appropriate care.
- Weed your social media garden. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “the more time we spend in the media world, the more we are exposed to body perfect images, and the more vulnerable we are to compare our appearance to unrealistic body standards.” This means if you’re trying to reach a body-neutral space, it’s best to be mindful of what sort of media you’re taking in. Scroll through your feeds. Notice if you see posts that emphasize dieting, #fitspiration, or anything that generally has you feeling down about your body. Don’t hesitate to hit that “unfollow” button when you find something triggering — and if you like, follow inclusive health, wellness, and beauty brands that seek to center marginalized bodies that aren’t typically represented by popularized media.
- Wear whatever clothing is the most comfortable for you. When you’re trying to lessen how much you focus on your body, you probably don’t want to put on clothes that have you feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious, according to experts. Note: This does not mean “dress for your body type” (whatever that means). Instead think more about discovering items that have you feeling most at ease and more yourself.
- Realize that your body is only one part of you. You are a complex, multifaceted human being with many qualities that make you, you. “For me, regardless of what I’m feeling at my essence or core, this body is just the vessel that allows me to have the human experience” says King. “It’s not who I am. Can I lean into that on my most challenging days?”
Overall, your path to neutrality may look different than another person’s, and that’s more than okay. “Body neutrality puts you at a crossroads where you can really look at how you want to show up in your body and how you want to live in your body,” says Cox. “I think that I think that that’s powerful, in and of itself, to give people that choice.”
Discovering body talk that works for you
When you’re trying to establish a new relationship with your body, remember that it can take some time and that there will always be ups and downs in way we feel about ourselves. As challenging as it can be, know that you are not the only one and there are many people showing different ways of embodying acceptance, authentic confidence — and even a sense of freedom.
“When I think about leaning into body liberation, I definitively know that when I take my last breath that nobody is going to be thinking about how great my body looked,” says King. “They are going to be thinking about the experiences and the memories we shared. I would love for us to spend less time obsessing over our bodies and more time creating lives that we love and making more magic in the world.”
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