A popular TikTok sound goes like this: “Bodies that look like this, also look like this. Bodies that look like this, also look like this.” Many of the accompanying videos feature young, white, conventionally attractive women whose bodies are well within society’s standards of what’s acceptable. They contort their torsos to produce even a single “roll,” as if to say, “Yes, I’m traditionally hot, but with a little awkward posing and unflattering lighting, I too can look less than Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue-ready from time to time.”
This is all done under the guise of body positivity, a movement that, while genuine in its original intentions, has morphed into something more watered-down and toxic (more on that later). Enter body neutrality, a healthier alternative that’s been gaining traction over the past few years.
What Is Body Neutrality?
Though there’s debate on who exactly coined it, the term body neutrality started becoming popular around 2015, notably when Anne Poirier, BS, CSCS, CIEC began running Body Neutrality Workshops in Vermont. It also has roots in the fat acceptance movement, which seeks to change anti-fat bias by raising awareness about the obstacles faced by fat people. (While the two movements are similar in some ways, they’re not the same thing.)
The central concept? Let’s reject the idea of having to love or hate our bodies and instead just accept the fact that they’re there. Rather than celebrating the way our body looks, why don’t we focus on what our bodies can do?
Body neutrality is about accepting your body as it is, with the goal of challenging the idea that the way you look drives your worth. The movement dictates that while you might not always love your body, you can still be happy and healthy.
How Is Body Neutrality Different Than Body Positivity?
Let’s not get it twisted: Body positivity is, in theory, a good thing. In practice, though, it creates a mindset that’s toxically black and white. The opposite of positive is, of course, negative. By that logic, if you’re feeling anything less than body positive, you’re body negative, which just sounds like a bummer. That puts a whole lot of pressure on folks who preach body positivity to feel happy about their bodies every moment of every day. It’s unrealistic and unsustainable. Body neutrality, on the other hand, allows for a middle ground.
The body positivity movement has also strayed further and further from its origins among fat women. As Lizzo pointed out in a recent TikTok, as the body positive movement has trickled down to medium-sized people and skinny people, “Fat people are still getting the short end of this movement. We’re still getting sh*t on, we’re still getting talked about, meme’d, shamed. And no one cares anymore because it’s like, ‘body positivity is for everybody.’ Yes, please be positive about your body, please use our movement to empower yourself. That’s the point. But the people who created this movement—big women, big brown and Black women, queer women—are not benefitting from the mainstream success of it.”
Plus, research has shown that the constant repetition of positive affirmations that you don’t believe can actually be destructive. A study in the Journal of Psychological Science concluded that “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.” Translation: Telling yourself “I love every single part of my body,” when you don’t believe it is going to make you feel the opposite.
It’s also important to note that body neutrality falls into some of the same traps as body positivity. Notably, both movements ignore the difference between self-image and, as Self contributor Your Fat Friend puts it, body-based oppression. Fat people and people with disabilities can choose to feel neutral (or positive) about their bodies, but that doesn’t negate the intrinsic discrimination—in the form of denial of access to medical care, street harassment, etc.—that these groups face.
How Can You Be More Body Neutral?
Issues aside, if you’re considering body neutrality as an alternative to body positivity, here are some ways to become more body neutral:
1. Change the way you talk to yourself
Rather than appearance-based critiques or celebrations, use neutral terms and observations. Ansuchka Rees, author of Beyond Beautiful: A Practical Guide to Being Happy, Confident, and You in a Looks-Obsessed World, has incredible resources on her Instagram and her book’s Instagram for reframing the conversations you have with yourself about your body. For example, instead of looking in the mirror and thinking, “I feel good about myself, because I know I’m beautiful,” think, “How I feel about myself has nothing to do with my appearance.”
2. When body talk comes up, redirect the conversation
It’s one thing to practice body neutrality in your own head; it’s another to be surrounded by a culture that still places oversize importance on physical appearance. That means, not everyone around you is approaching their body—and the bodies of others—the same way that you are. When conversations arise about physical appearance, try to change the focus. Let’s say you’re at brunch and your friend says, “Oh my god, I can only have two mimosas, my favorite jeans are feeling really tight and I have a date tomorrow,” shift focus onto said date: Is she excited? What restaurant are they going to? The goal is to decentralize the physical appearance from the conversation.
3. Listen to your body
Diet-wise, this means leaning into intuitive eating, the idea that instead of relying on complicated calorie counting or labeling entire food groups as off-limits, knowing how your body feels and works in relation to what you’re putting into it. Its goal, instead of weight loss, is for you to stop thinking about food in negative, restrictive terms. When it comes to exercise, a body neutral way to approach working out is to value exercise for how it makes your body feel rather than how it makes your body look. It’s harmful to think, “Oh, I really indulged this weekend, I’m going to go extra hard at the gym this week.” But, if you stand up from a long day of work and feel tight and sluggish, recognize that a quick jog or full-body circuit can make your joints and muscles feel renewed.
4. Give yourself time
Learning to be body neutral takes time and effort. There’s a lot of unlearning to do (thanks, societal expectations and pressures) before you can truly detach your physical appearance from your sense of self-worth. It’s OK if you occasionally slip-up and find yourself thinking negatively about your body. Understand why that thinking is toxic and try to do better next time. You’re hopefully going to be living in this body for a long time; the extra time it takes to recalibrate your relationship with it will be worth it.