Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality: What is Right for You?

Published on 1st July, 2022 by Ms. Shar Gupta

Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality: What is Right for You?

Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality: What’s Right for You?

For much of history, certain body types and sizes have been considered most acceptable by society. This usually involves thinness, muscularity, skin colour, or specific body shapes.

These messages of what is considered an attractive or appropriate body type and size can be detrimental for those who do not fit these specific ideals. These expectations can lead to poor mental health, body dissatisfaction and unhealthy behaviours around food and exercise.

The body positivity movement directly challenges these ideas and encourages people to accept their bodies just the way they are.

With society pushing more and more for body positivity, many people are learning to love their bodies more. But is this the right direction we should be going? Let’s look at both sides and explore the concept of body neutrality as perhaps the next step in taking a more balanced approach.

History of Body Positivity

Body Positivity has been a growing movement over recent decades that focuses on equality and acceptance for all body types and sizes. The main goal of this movement has been to challenge unrealistic beauty standards that contribute to low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse and eating disorders.

The framework of body positivity emphasises that all people deserve to have a positive image of their bodies, regardless of how society and popular media represent the “ideal” body shape, size, and appearance.

The body positivity movement has a long history, dating all the way back to the Victorian Era, when as part of the first wave of feminism, “dress reformists” challenged the existing norms of modifying bodies through the use of corsets and tightlacing and fought for more practical and comfortable clothing. This linked with feminist movements to change the position of women in society, allowing for greater social mobility, the ability to work, and physical movement and comfort.

Although these dress reform movements were largely involving middle-class women in Western Europe and the United States, such changes were taking place in Asia as well, for example in Meiji-period Japan. Shimoda Utako, a Japanese educator and activist, advocated for dress reform and opposed Chinese footbinding, as she judged that women were significantly restricted by restrictive garments.

Today

The Fat Acceptance movement in the 1960s and the growing awareness in the 1990s of the dangers of chronic dieting helped the movement along to the point where now, the current form of the body positivity movement exists largely in reaction to the increase in social media culture.

There has been countless research done into the psychological impact of social media representations of beauty on people’s self-worth and self-esteem. Young girls and teens are particularly vulnerable to harmful messages of the unrealistic standards of feminine beauty like smooth skin, body size, and no imperfections.

Social media feeds are filled with people presenting themselves in the best possible light, and Photoshop and photo-enhancing filters are a common way in which photos are edited to fit these unrealistic standards. This creates a distorted sense of reality and perpetuates the cycle of unhealthy body image standards.

An increasing trend in social media is the posting and promoting of body positive content to combat the harmful culture of unrealistic beauty standards. The body positivity movement is on the rise, and this is already having a positive impact, especially on young people.

Pros of Body Positivity

  1. Body positivity offers a challenge to the problematic and harmful beliefs encouraged by social media messaging that perpetuate negative body image.
  2. Body positivity encourages meaningful respect and appreciation for one’s body - it is the act of radical self-love, of fully accepting oneself.
  3. Body positivity reduces the risk of eating disorders, is associated with improved self-care and fewer unhealthy behaviours around food and exercise.
  4. Body positivity overall improves self-esteem.

Criticisms of Body Positivity

  1. Some critics suggest that body positivity encourages unhealthy behaviours, based on the belief that being at a certain weight poses a risk to health and that bodies that are larger than the idealised norm of thin or lean bodies are a result of laziness or some other moral failure.
  2. Another aspect of body positivity that has been criticised is that it can contribute to a toxic positivity mindset - there can be an unrealistic expectation implied in this movement that you should always strive to feel positive about your body and this can lead to guilt and shame when you invariably don’t.
  3. People’s relationships with their bodies are complicated. For example, transgender people may not love their physical bodies when they don’t match their gender. People with disabilities may not love their bodies when they are experiencing restrictions, pain or discomfort from being in their bodies. People recovering from eating disorders are usually on a long journey of building a better relationship with food and their bodies, and it is unrealistic to expect an easy shift to radical self-love.
  4. A key criticism of body positivity is that it continues to place emphasis on physical appearance as a way to define your value as a person.

Body Neutrality

This brings us to the concept of Body Neutrality, which focuses on reducing the link between physical appearance and self-worth and instead promoting focus on what your body can do for you.

Body neutrality encourages:

  • Taking a neutral stance towards your body: you can still accept and respect your body without needing to love your body every single day.
  • Feeling worthwhile and valuable simply by existing, regardless of how you think or feel about your body.
  • Appreciating what your body can do, like climbing stairs, healing from an injury, giving birth, etc.
  • Mindfulness: paying attention to how your body feels rather than how it looks.

Finding a Balance

We all have our own unique relationship with ourselves and with our bodies. This is a lifelong relationship which will have its ups and downs.

For many, body positivity includes important and helpful messages that can help combat years of harmful messages about our bodies. It is important to challenge unrealistic body image standards and to recognize the negative self-beliefs we may hold about our bodies and ourselves due to these external forces.

However, it can be a challenge to go from “I hate my body” to “I love my body” and a body neutral focus can be a much more accessible framework to reducing negative thoughts and feelings as well as increasing acceptance of your body.

How to Incorporate Body Neutrality

Perhaps try incorporating elements from both body positivity and body neutrality when they make the most sense to you. Some suggestions:

  1. Be selective with who you follow on social media. Reduce the amount of curated, photoshopped or filtered portrayals of people that may clutter your feed and lead to negative body image.
  2. Incorporate some affirmations into your daily routines that celebrate your body as well as remind you of non-appearance related positive attributes (e.g. I am thankful for my body because it does so much for me.)
  3. Pay attention to how much you focus on appearance when talking with friends and acquaintances. Notice how much value you may be placing on looks and appearance, and ask yourself if you want to continue this focus.
  4. Consider exploring mindful approaches to eating (focusing on foods that work best for your physical self and your enjoyment), clothing (choosing clothes that feel good on your body) and exercise (having the goal of movement because it feels good and healthy for your body, rather than for the purpose of burning calories or changing the shape of your body).

From dress reformists of the nineteenth century to the Instagram filters of today, body image and body positivity continue to be topics of importance in regard to our mental health and wellbeing. It’s time to include body neutrality to strike a healthy balance in how we think about our value as human beings and our relationship with our bodies and ultimately with ourselves.

Ms. Shar Gupta

About the Author - Ms. Shar Gupta

Shar is a Psychotherapist licensed from the state of New York. She is passionate about social justice, and believes that the therapeutic process is a unique, powerful, collaborative and professional relationship that has the potential to help foster awareness, change, and growth.

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