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From Body Positivity to Body Neutrality

How to improve your relationship with your body

body positivity

‘Love your body’ may not always be the best advice for people struggling with body image issues. A healthier approach for some is to adopt a body-neutral attitude toward themselves and others.

If you’re on a social media platform of any kind, the image of plus-size influencers flaunting their curves in skimpy swimwear under hashtags like #allbodiesarebeautiful, #bodylove and #effyourbeautystandards will be familiar to you. Welcome to the body positivity movement. The term gained popularity in the 2010s and promotes unconditional love and positive regard for one’s body regardless of appearance. 

The fashion industry has jumped on the body-positive bandwagon with luxury labels like Dolce & Gabbana and Versace including diverse body types in their advertising campaigns and on their runways. Mainstream retail brands have expanded their size ranges in a bid to be more inclusive and plus-size models are now gracing the covers of glossy magazines like ELLE and Glamour. And while these developments undoubtedly signify a step forward, body positivity is not always the best approach to a healthy self-image.

The forced positivity that the movement promotes may cause women to suppress their true feelings about their bodies and feel guilty about their inability to accept themselves the way they are. A lifetime of exposure to unattainable beauty standards has left many women feeling inadequate and anxious about the appearance of their bodies; telling them to now love the very features they were shamed for is counterproductive. Jessi Kneeland, author of Body Neutral: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Body Image Issues, explains, “Rejecting our feelings about our bodies isnt all that different from rejecting our bodies themselves.” 

Body positivity, moreover, reinforces the idea of appearance as a source of confidence and self-esteem and perpetuates the culture of objectification surrounding women’s bodies. Its main impact has been to expand the range of female bodies being objectified.

Enter body neutrality, an idea first made popular by fitness & health coach Anne Poirier who authored the book The Body Joyful. Body neutrality tells us that our emotions toward our bodies don’t have to be negative or positive; in fact we don’t need to have any feelings toward our bodies. The concept encourages us to untangle body image from complex social and cultural conditioning and messaging. Our bodies are not subject to evaluation; they are not aesthetic objects or ornaments, they just are

Lindsay and Lexie Kite, co-authors of the book More Than A Body and founders of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping women improve their relationship with their bodies, advocate for a shift in attitude toward our bodies, saying, “Positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good; it is knowing your body is good, regardless of how it looks.” With the focus moved from appearance to function, we are able to appreciate all that our body does for us.

So how can you foster a more body-neutral mindset in your everyday life?

I like to move it, move it

The best antidote to self-objectification is to experience your body from the inside out. Physical activity allows us to appreciate the skill and power of our bodies and to set attainable and empowering health goals, like improved endurance and stronger muscles for example. Experts agree that more accurate indicators of good health than weight and BMI are measures like heart rate, blood pressure, and cardiorespiratory fitness. Contrary to what popular TikTok fitspiration tells you, healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes; so ditch that scale and stop counting calories! Find a type of exercise that makes you feel good — be it yoga, swimming, dancing or even just walking — and make it part of your weekly routine.

You’re a great listener

We all find ourselves commenting on the appearance of women’s bodies; maybe we admire the way an acquaintance looked in her evening dress the previous night, praise a Hollywood actress’s hourglass figure, or compliment a friend on her weight loss. As harmless and even well-intentioned as these observations feel, they perpetuate a culture of female objectification. Instead, we can focus the conversation on the performance of an artist or the myriad interesting pursuits of our acquaintances. Instead of complimenting a friend on her figure, we can praise her for all the unique traits and behaviors that make her a wonderful friend.

I am more than my body

Relentless external messaging about our bodies can turn into a harsh inner critic that shames and criticizes us every time we look in the mirror. It is hard to beat an enemy that has an outpost in your mind. This is where mindfulness and self-compassion come in. Mindfulness allows you to be more in contact with your feelings, noticing when you are caught up in body shame or embarrassment. From this place of awareness, you are in a position to acknowledge the pain, self-soothe and replace your critical thoughts with kinder ones. 

Kneeland suggests this helpful exercise:  List to yourself (out loud or in your head) the things you don’t like about your body and follow them up with the phrase “and that’s not a problem” or “and that’s okay”. An example would look like this: There is cellulite on my thighs, and that’s not a problem. The skin beneath my upper arms is saggy, and that’s okay.

Wherever you find yourself on your journey of body acceptance is okay. We all struggle and it’s natural to sometimes feel insecure about your appearance. Some days we feel good about our body, some days we don’t, but let’s try to always appreciate it for keeping us alive and moving, for allowing us to hug our friends, carry our children, climb up stairs and shake our booties to some feel-good music. 

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