By: Kayla Romo, Clinical Intern
As we near the holiday season we tend to get excited about visiting family, beautiful decorations, and the delicious food that we will get to share with our loved ones. However, for some people, that excitement may turn to discomfort when they begin to think about how they can indulge without feeling negative about their bodies or facing criticism from friends or family.
These thoughts are common. Many people often have feelings of guilt surrounding the food that they eat due to the societal expectations that are placed on them. It is no secret that our society praises thin bodies and shames plus-size bodies. Thinness is often associated with health, beauty, and desire while plus-size bodies are often associated with unhealthy lifestyles, homeliness, and even a lack of moral character. Our society continues to push the idea that one’s looks should be tied to one’s self-worth. You are not worthy unless you are considered attractive. This narrative of connecting our self-worth and esteem with our appearance is extremely harmful and has led to negative mental health outcomes for many people.
But recently, the body positivity movement has attempted to challenge these unrealistic and less inclusive beauty standards. Body positivity refers to having a positive view of your physical body, regardless of its size, shape, or any other physical aspects. It asks you to love your body for what it is even if it is not considered perfect by society’s standards. When I first heard about body positivity, I was extremely relieved. I was grateful that people wanted to finally move past the idea that there was an “ideal” body. However, while I appreciate the body positivity movement’s efforts to change people’s ideas about what is beautiful, I understand that this perspective may not work for everyone.
Those who align themselves with body positivity often tell their audience to look in the mirror and say my body, with all its imperfections, is beautiful. However, to me, this is still an appraisal of the body. While I understand that it is trying to expand our society’s concept of beauty, it continues to focus on what we had a problem with in the first place—appearance. This, to me, implies that a person’s value is still based on their appearance. The message is still connecting how we feel about our bodies to our self-worth. If we are all attempting to feel better about our bodies, why continue to focus on our physical attributes? In addition, I feel that body positivity can sometimes ask too much of its participants. Can an individual feel good about their bodies all the time? Is it a realistic goal for us who live in a society where we are bombarded with messages about all the things wrong with our bodies? Can we always stifle those negative thoughts about our bodies and replace them with positive ones?
This is where I feel the philosophy of body neutrality can be useful. Body neutrality simply refers to prioritizing the body’s function and what it can do, rather than its appearance. It is not about always loving your body but being more accepting of it and what it can do for you. Body neutrality rejects the idea that bodies are to be judged aesthetically. Bodies are neither beautiful nor ugly, they simply are. Body positivity conveys the message that everyone is beautiful, so everyone has value. But a body does not have to be perceived as attractive to have value. We are more than just our bodies; we are complex human beings with a variety of elements.
So how do we practice body neutrality? First, be patient with yourself. It is not easy to unlearn all the messages that we have received over the years about health and our bodies. This mindset will take time to adopt and use within our daily lives. Second, practice changing the way that you communicate with yourself about your body. Acknowledge what your body does for you. An example of this would be saying to yourself, “My arms allow me to engage with hobbies like cooking and writing,” or, “My body allows me to play with my children.” Acknowledge and state what your body does not do well for you and take the emotional response away from those statements. Learning to accept these things about your body can help with feelings of shame or guilt. When it comes to exercise, diet, and clothing, again, practice better communication with yourself. Instead of saying, “I need to exercise to burn off that burger I had for lunch,” say “I’m going to exercise because it makes me feel good.” Instead of shopping for “good” foods versus “bad” foods, attempt to focus on choosing foods that you digest well, taste good, and give you energy throughout the day. The same goes for clothing, when shopping, do not focus on what’s “flattering” for your body or what can hide your body. Focus on what pieces you like aesthetically, or what fabrics feel good on your body. Third, practice self-care activities when they feel uplifting, not when they feel like a chore. And fourth, practice creating goals that are health-based rather than appearance-based.
So, who can this perspective benefit? Many people can often feel intimidated by celebrating their bodies. Having a positive body image and feeling good about how you look all the time simply is not realistic for most people, especially those within marginalized bodies. Some individuals may even feel like failures because even after all their positive affirmations, they still do not like what they see in the mirror. Sometimes, being body positive may feel like too big a step or even flat-out dishonest. But body neutrality can help by shifting the focus away from appearance and toward function. We can move past the value of beauty within society altogether and instead of focusing on what we look like in the mirror or ruminating on our appearance we can reject these notions and become more present in other aspects of our lives!
Books for more information on body neutrality:
More Than a Body: Your Body is an Instrument, Not an Ornament by Lexie and Lindsay Kite
Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield
Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphamor