The relationship we have with our bodies can be one of the most important relationships in our lives. It’s certainly the longest-lasting. Unfortunately, many of us have uncomfortable or even confrontational feelings about our bodies and the way we look.
Even those of us who practice “body positivity” can find ourselves struggling. Body neutrality is a newer movement trying to help us develop a healthier relationship with our bodies.
We’re going to look at exactly what body neutrality is, how it can help, and how to start on your body neutral journey.
What is body neutrality?
Body neutrality is designed to build upon body positivity and overcome limitations in the movement. It challenges the importance we typically place on physical appearance and beauty and emphasizes that our bodies are only one part of ourselves. Bodies are seen as functional rather than aesthetic.
Most of us have strong feelings about our bodies, and many of these are surprisingly negative. We might feel guilty for not exercising, shame about our weight, or pressure to carry out time-consuming and expensive beauty practices. Those feelings often stem from assigning a moral judgment about our worth to our physical appearance.
The body neutrality movement aims to remove those value judgments from our relationship to our bodies. Our bodies don’t have to say anything about our character, and they certainly don’t impact our value as a person. Removing the emotional charge from the way we think about and experience our bodies can be freeing and empowering.
How can I practice body neutrality?
Trying to practice body neutrality can be difficult, especially at first. Body neutrality isn’t a quick fix, and it runs counter to how most of us are typically taught to think about ourselves and our bodies.
Here are some of the best tips to help you practice body neutrality. When you try these ideas out, remember that you’re trying to do something deeply challenging. Take your time, don’t expect things to change overnight, and be kind to yourself as you’re working on it.
1. Understand that you are more than your body
One of the first steps towards body neutrality is to address the way you think about who you are and what role your body plays in that.
Society, culture, and the media all send us the message that our worth depends to a large extent on our physical attractiveness. This typically depends on being thin, white, able-bodied, and young.
Undoing this cultural conditioning is a challenge. Start by reminding yourself that you are more than your body. This isn’t the same as trying to distance yourself from your body. Instead, you’re reminding yourself that your thoughts, emotions, memories, beliefs, and actions are all at least as important as your physical self.
2. Use honest affirmations
Affirmations and mantras are sometimes offered as a way to convince yourself of something you think you should believe, rather than reminding yourself of something you do believe. Research shows that affirmations you don’t believe can actually make you feel worse rather than better.
Instead, try to find something important to remind yourself about every day. If you feel unattractive, don’t make yourself stand in front of the mirror every day repeating “I’m gorgeous.” Instead, try something you can believe, such as, “My body is the least interesting thing about me,” and then list some of the things that you actually do like about yourself, such as your sense of humor or that you make a good friend.
3. Take stock of how your body functions
One of the most important aspects of body neutrality is the focus on what your body can do for you rather than how it looks. For many people, this can be a completely alien way of looking at themselves. In a world where even Olympic athletes are often evaluated on their appearance, focusing on your body as a tool can be a radical perspective.
We tend to talk more about how women are judged on their appearance rather than on what they can do, but it really does happen to all of us. Body neutrality helps to move our focus onto what we can do with our bodies.
Try to think about all of the things you have achieved with your body today. You might have used your legs to walk to the shops. You might have used your arms to hug a loved one. It’s also helpful to understand any ways that your body didn’t function as you would have liked as well. Maybe you missed a bus because you couldn’t run, or you were too exhausted to clean the house.
It can be hard to look at those things compassionately but do your best. Noticing where your body isn’t functioning the way you’d like doesn’t say anything about your worth as a person. Instead, you’re trying to have an accurate understanding of what your body can and can’t do.
4. Be honest about how you feel about your body
This is one of the big differences between body neutrality and body positivity. When you’re trying to practice body neutrality, it’s OK to be unhappy about your body. Obviously, we’d all rather like our bodies, but you’re not “failing” at body neutrality if you don’t.
Being honest about how you feel about your body can help to counteract some of the toxic positivity we see around us. Some days you might find that your clothes don’t fit quite as well as usual, or you might feel weaker or more tired than normal. On those days, allow yourself to recognize the frustration or disappointment that you feel without trying to push yourself to be more positive.
This can be especially valuable if you are living with a disability. Many people with disabilities feel excluded from ideas of body positivity. Pushing yourself to be permanently positive about your body when you have a lot of pain or when it can’t perform as you would like isn’t just frustrating. It can be actively harmful.
If you’re struggling for ideas, try this worksheet. It isn’t directly aimed at body neutrality, but it does have some exercises that can be useful.
5. Re-frame body-hating thoughts where you can
Whether it’s because of our appearance, a disability, or how far we conform to social norms, body-hating thoughts are not unusual. Although these thoughts are “normal” in so far as many people have them, they are also painful and present an obstacle to building a good relationship with your body.
Don’t try to suppress these thoughts. The harder we try not to think about something, the more it rebounds, and we’re left feeling worse than we did in the first place.
Instead, try to remove the value judgment and emotional charge from how you think about your body. It’s easy to feel that we need to fulfill social expectations about our appearance to “earn” our space in society and be out in public. This simply isn’t true. Erin McKean made the point that “Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’” (McKean, 2006), but the thought can be generalized.
If you find yourself thinking that you need to change or hide your body, or using words such as “disgusting” about yourself, take a moment to ask yourself why this feels like a moral failing and where those values came from.
This often requires substantial introspection, and you might find that techniques such as The 5 Why’s can help you to really understand what’s going on. There are a few different ways to do The 5 Whys, but the one here is especially effective.
6. Focus on what your body needs
If you could only adopt one of the quotes from the body neutrality movement, we would probably recommend this one:
“This is my body. And while I won’t always feel in love with it, I will always love it enough to take care of it.”
This means paying attention to what your body really wants and needs from you and trying to find ways to fulfill that. In a world where restrictive dieting is seen as the norm, intuitive eating can feel like a radical act.
Learning to notice what your body needs isn’t always easy. Many of us have been trained to override those needs. We’ve pulled all-nighters at college to finish an assignment, even though we’re exhausted. We’ve gone out for fast food with friends, even though we don’t digest it well. We’ve pushed too hard at the gym when our bodies are crying out for rest, or we’ve been working too hard to go out for a walk, even though our bodies want to move. We socialize with alcohol, aware of a looming hangover.
When we’ve spent most of our lives trying to ignore what our bodies are telling us, it’s unsurprising that we often struggle to be sure about what we need. You’re probably familiar with the observation that we often think we’re hungry when we actually need some water. A similar thing can be true of other physical needs, such as our need for rest.
7. Check in with your body regularly
To help you reconnect with your body and your health, consider doing a daily check-in. For some people, this might include journaling about what you did and the food you ate, as well as how you felt both physically and emotionally. Alternatively, you could just spend a few minutes mindfully “checking in” to understand how you feel and possible reasons.
It’s worth highlighting that what your body needs will change from day to day. You’re not aiming for a perfect “clean” lifestyle. In fact, excessive “clean living” is becoming a cause for concern amongst medics and nutritionists. This just reinforces what we already knew deep down. Some days your body will actually need to sit quietly under the duvet with a slice of cake, and that’s great too.
8. Be willing to make changes
One of the criticisms of the body positivity movement is that it discourages people from making healthier choices and changing their bodies for the better. This isn’t an entirely fair accusation, but it isn’t completely inaccurate either.
Body neutrality, on the other hand, is about making the changes you feel you need to help your body do the things you want and need it to do for you.
For example, lots of people want to lose weight. Many of them will be saying to themselves, “I need to lose weight to be more attractive.” Someone who is focusing on their body positivity might say, “I’m not going to lose weight because my body is attractive exactly the way it is.”
If you’re working towards body neutrality, you might say, “My weight is affecting my health and means I can’t play in the park with my kids for as long as I’d like to. I’m going to lose weight because it will help me do things I want to do.”
The advantage of the body neutrality position there is that it encourages you to lose weight in a steady, healthy way. After all, harming your health with a quick-fix starvation diet isn’t going to leave you with the energy you need to play in the park.
Embrace body neutrality by making changes that improve how well your body functions for you.
9. Move conversations away from your body
It can be surprising how often people talk about our appearance and our bodies. Even saying “hi” to a friend in the street often involves comments such as “You’re looking well,” “You’ve lost weight,” or similar.
Even when these are well-meant (and they aren’t always), they reinforce the message that your body is central to how other people see you. You can’t control what topics other people choose to bring up in conversation, but you can refuse to talk about your body and move on to other topics.
How to change the topic of conversation
There are a few different ways you can go about changing the conversation, depending on how honest you are comfortable being and how much body conversations become a part of your personal boundaries.
If you’re comfortable being completely honest, you can tell people explicitly that you’re trying to think less about how your body looks and that talking about your appearance (even positively) is now off-limits.
If you prefer to be more circumspect, you can try to move the conversations on without talking about it directly. This can be helpful with people you don’t know well or don’t trust. To shut down conversations about your body, try giving one-word answers to questions on the topic and not asking any questions in return. You can then introduce a new topic.
If someone keeps talking about your body, it’s OK to make them a little uncomfortable. They’re making you uncomfortable, and you’re under no obligation to protect their feelings at the expense of your own.
10. Concentrate on your personal values
If body neutrality is about reducing our focus on our bodies, where should we focus instead? It can be helpful to think about how you would like to be thought of and the values you would like to embody. The more you think about these, the easier it is to find something other than your body to concentrate on.
For example, is it more important for you to be thought of as attractive or kind? What about being skinny or honest? Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive, but focusing your attention on how you embody your values can help you decrease the importance of your body in your own mind.
11. Make self-care work for you
Almost all forms of wellness recognize the importance of self-care. The body neutrality movement is no exception, but it does often take a more nuanced and thoughtful approach to self-care practices.
Self-care is a concept that most people are familiar with, but its meaning has shifted over recent years. Increasingly, self-care has become an industry. We can be left with the impression that self-care is confined to self-love affirmations, calming bubble baths, or a fancy coloring book.
Other companies offer high-tech self-care solutions. Often these take the form of gadgets that give us huge amounts of data about our health and (supposed) wellbeing. This is often linked to “gamification,” where we try to reach a set target each day.
Each of these approaches is helpful to some people, but they’re both something of a distraction from the real meaning of self-care. True self-care isn’t about “treating yourself” or creating another target in an already packed day. It’s about taking the time you need to actually care for yourself, similar to the way you would for a close friend or family member.
This might mean making an appointment with your doctor for an overdue check-up, getting more sleep, or calling a friend for a supportive chat. Most importantly, only carry out the self-care tasks that feel genuinely uplifting and empowering to you.
12. Be wary of social media
We’re not going to blame social media for the prevalence of body image issues across society. Social media reflects and magnifies aspects of our culture, but it doesn’t create them. Having said that, spending too much time on social media can make it difficult to work towards body neutrality.
People typically post their best pictures to social media, often using a filter or editing software to give the best possible impression. Even though we know this is the case, most of us still struggle not to compare ourselves to the images we see. Importantly, social media tends to be all about how someone looks and barely touches on how they feel or how well their body is functioning.
Research suggests that short periods of time spent on social media don’t have a big impact on how we view our bodies but that longer periods make us feel progressively more insecure.
Some people are happy to leave social media entirely, but this isn’t possible for everyone. You might need it for work, or find that it helps you to stay in contact with friends and family who live far away.
Try to be mindful about how you use social media, and be aware of how it makes you feel about your body. Consider setting time limits for how long you spend on social media in a day or keeping a journal logging your social media use and how you feel about yourself to understand the relationship for yourself.
At the end of the day, social media isn’t all good or all bad, but it’s usually helpful to be mindful about how you use it. Experiment until you can find your own balance.
13. Remember you can’t fix the world
As you start to move towards body neutrality (and it is a process), you’ll probably find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated with how little our media and culture help to reinforce these messages. Instead, they usually seem to actively oppose them.
It’s OK to feel frustrated about this, and you’re right that our culture is often promoting harmful beliefs and actions. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that you’re not responsible for fixing all of society.
Oppose those messages where you can. Talk to others about body neutrality if you want to, avoid advertisers who promote harmful body images if that’s an option for you. But don’t feel bad if you don’t do any of those things. Social and cultural change takes time. Your biggest responsibility is to yourself.
Can body neutrality help your mental health?
Body neutrality can help your mental health, especially if you struggle with eating disorders or if body positivity is too much pressure. Body neutrality reduces the emphasis on appearance and focuses on what your body can do, or even tries to remove attention from the body entirely.
How did the body neutrality movement start?
The body neutrality movement started around 2015 and was popularized following a workshop created by counselor Anne Poirier, who specializes in intuitive eating. It was a reaction to the commodification of the body positivity movement and aimed to address some concerns around body positivity.
Is body neutrality ableist?
Ableism is widespread, so it’s unsurprising that ableism has crept into how some people approach body neutrality, often by focusing on what their bodies can do. Body neutrality ideally means seeing people as more than just their bodies. It means valuing the whole person, which is not ableist.
How is body neutrality different from body positivity?
Body positivity typically focuses on learning to love the way your body looks. Body neutrality encourages people to think about what their body does or even to move the focus away from their bodies entirely. It also accepts that you probably won’t love your body all the time, and that’s OK.
Is body neutrality better than body positivity?
It isn’t a case of body neutrality vs body positivity. Each aims to eliminate the idea of an “acceptable” body, destigmatizing obese and disabled people or people of color. Body neutrality may be accessible to a wider range of people, but choose which aspects feel right for you. You can use both.
Can fat acceptance fit into the body neutrality movement?
Fat acceptance started when larger people and people of color were excluded from the body positivity movement they started. Fat acceptance is about eliminating fatphobia, rather than how an individual feels about their body, so there’s a distinction between body positivity vs fat acceptance.