The relationship many people have with their body can be summed up in two words: It’s complicated. Some days, you may love how your body looks and feels, and on others, you may be a little more critical.
While body positivity (which promotes a positive view of all bodies) has been a noticeable theme in the wellness world for the past decade or so, you might feel like loving your body all the time—no matter what—is simply not the most genuine approach for you.
This has opened the door for a different approach to body image—body neutrality. This practice borrows some elements from body positivity (think: doing your best not to hate on your body, using affirmations) but spins things in a way that feels more authentic to some people.
Meet the experts: Hillary Ammon, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women’s Emotional Wellness. Kelly Allison, PhD, is director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at Penn Medicine. Janet Lydecker, PhD, is director of Teen POWER and clinical research training at the Yale Program for Obesity, Weight and Eating Research.
Body image terms are constantly evolving, and body neutrality isn’t necessarily a perfect concept. However, the approach has a growing group of followers who say it’s a better pathway toward a more authentic—and realistic—body image.
So, what is body neutrality, how is it different from a body-positive approach, and what does it look like in action? Here's what psychology and body image experts have to say.
What is body neutrality?
At baseline, body neutrality is an approach to body image. “The concept of body neutrality encourages individuals to appreciate the functions of their body and discourages judgment of one’s physical features,” says Hillary Ammon, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women’s Emotional Wellness. Judgments can include things like “I hate my cellulite” and “I love my stretch marks”—and those don’t have a place in body neutrality, Ammon notes.
Body-positive approaches tend to emphasize optimistic feelings toward your body, which isn't always easy (nor realistic). With body neutrality, you’re encouraged to simply respect your body and accept it, even if you’re not 100 percent down with the way it looks or feels, explains Kelly Allison, PhD, director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at Penn Medicine. Instead of emphasizing a consistently positive view, body neutrality prioritizes self-acceptance and focusing on what your physical body can do.
Pros And Cons Of Body Neutrality
Body neutrality has plenty of things going for it. One is that it just removes judgment from your body and those of others. “When we don’t compare, we don’t move into a space of feeling judged or prideful and putting others down,” says Janet Lydecker, PhD, director of Teen POWER and clinical research training at the Yale Program for Obesity, Weight and Eating Research. “It really does help with self-compassion and acceptance.”
When you can achieve body neutrality, “you stop beating yourself up for not achieving an ideal that society puts out there, or that we put on ourselves,” Allison says. Instead, Allison says that body neutrality puts value on what your body can do for you. “That may be being able to walk up and down stairs or being able to run a marathon,” Allison says. “Whatever it is that your body does on a day-to-day basis that you can value is important.”
But body neutrality has its drawbacks, too; asking someone to be "neutral" about their body may not seem particularly authentic given the world's (largely unhelpful) rhetoric about body image. “Some would say that body neutrality ignores the messages that society is putting out,” Lydecker says. “All people, media, and communications still have a weight bias.” Unfortunately, body stigma still exists, so if it's difficult to wrap your mind around the concept of neutrality, you're not alone.
Although there's nothing particularly "wrong" about body neutrality, some people may simply prefer (and benefit from) a body positive approach, Allison says. “People do think about their appearance, and it’s natural to think about presenting ourselves in a way we want to be seen,” she says. In other words, for people who struggle with appreciating and celebrating their bodies, neutrality might not make much of a difference for their self-esteem. “It may be better for somebody to say, ‘I want to work on my body positivity,’” Allison says.
The Difference Between Body Neutrality And Body Positivity
While the terms may seem closely related, these are two different approaches to body image. On a basic level, body positivity involves feelings about your body, while body neutrality is more about acknowledging what your body can do—without making judgments, Lydecker says.
“Through body positivity, individuals are encouraged to embrace and love their physical features,” Ammon adds. That means working to love all of your parts—including ones that you may not be totally cool with. This can certainly be unrealistic for some people, Ammon says, in which case it might be easier to take a more "neutral" approach.
“For many years, the eating disorders field has pushed for body positivity, but sometimes it’s very difficult and unrealistic to go totally in that direction,” Allison adds. “Body neutrality is born from years of trying to achieve body positivity and realizing the challenges that lie therein.”
Essentially, body neutrality is “more of a middle ground” where you’re not picking your appearance apart, but not feeling pressure to say you love every single piece of your body, Allison says. “That just may not ring true for everyone for various reasons,” Allison says. “Maybe you have a disability, health condition, or something else completely that makes it difficult to say, ‘I love my body.’”
How To Work Toward Body Neutrality
Experts stress that achieving body neutrality isn’t an overnight thing. However, there are a few steps you can take to work toward it. Here's how to start:
Pay attention to your thoughts. Allison suggests “pulling out a mental stop sign” if you find yourself picking apart your outfit or criticizing your body. “Remind yourself to be in the moment so you can enjoy whatever experience you’re having and not get caught up in your thoughts,” she says. Mindfulness exercises and even a bit of pleasant distraction (think: watching TV while you're getting ready instead of fixating on the mirror) can help you be more gentle with yourself.
Think about what your body does for you. Instead of focusing on appearance, consider your body's abilities instead. This can be super basic, like appreciating how your legs allow you to walk to your favorite coffee shop or the way your arms help you embrace your S.O. It can take some "retraining" to think about your body in a new way, Lydecker says, but it's possible.
State facts about your body. You can check yourself out in the mirror and just say what you see—not what you feel or are judging, Ammon says. “Acknowledge aspects of [your] body and create short-term goals for change, in the present moment,” she says. “For example, ‘I weigh 205 pounds and I can go for a walk today to move my body.' ”
Practice gratitude. The concept of gratitude can seem overhyped these days, but there’s a reason why the term keeps coming up. “One thing we’ll do for patients who are very fixated on the look or shape of their bodies is to encourage them to think about one thing they’re thankful that their body lets them do,” Lydecker says. Some research suggests that body-focused gratitude exercises might help improve body image and potentially reduce internalized weight bias—so, it could be worth a try.
Although body positivity might work well for many people, you may find that body neutrality is a more realistic, approachable way to tackle body image—especially if you find it hard to be positive all the time (who doesn't?). Instead of only focusing on the positive aspects of your body, the "neutrality" approach encourages you to recognize what your body can do—regardless of how it looks. Only you can determine what option feels most authentic, but if you know your body image could use a boost, consider this approach.
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