Most people assigned female at birth (AFAB) and many people assigned male at birth (AMAB) have struggled with negative thoughts or feelings about their bodies at some point in their lives. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), about 62% of teen girls and almost 30% of teen boys actively try to change their weight through dieting or “clean eating.” Girls as young as six years old report being concerned about getting fat. Though AFAB people are more likely to have eating disorders than AMAB people, the rates of subclinical eating disorder behaviors – like excessive exercise, strict dieting, fasting, and laxative abuse – are equal for AFAB and AMAB people.
Why are body image issues so prevalent? Extensive research has been done on the link between the idealization of thinness in mass media and negative body image, and the connection is clear. From a very young age, we’re exposed to ultra-thin bodies, and taught that they are the pinnacle of attractiveness. On top of that, there’s the multi-billion dollar dieting industry, creating diet culture. Per NPR, diet culture is the “collective set of social expectations” about what constitutes an attractive and healthy body. In our culture, the pervasive agreement, spoken and unspoken, is that thin bodies are healthy and beautiful and fat bodies are unhealthy and ugly. The diet industry capitalizes on this cultural expectation of thinness by promising us that we can all be thin if we just try hard enough.
Unfortunately, this promise is a bold-faced lie. According to NEDA 95% of people who diet gain all the weight back within five years. Tracy Mann, a social psychologist who specializes in eating habits, explained in an article for the American Psychological Association that it’s almost impossible to maintain a diet that will lead to long term weight loss. Our bodies have complex mechanisms that override our willpower when it comes to food. When we deprive ourselves of calories, our bodies demand more, which almost always leads to weight gain.
The bottom line is that people don’t fail at weight loss. Diets aren’t effective or sustainable long term. And since that’s true, it’s not actually possible for everyone to be thin, no matter how hard they try.
When people learn that hard lesson for the first time, they’re often faced with a difficult question: how can they make peace with their bodies, exactly as they are, when they’ve been taught to dislike, or even hate, their bodies for most of their lives?
One proposed, and popular, solution is “body positivity.” The body positivity movement started in the 1960’s with the fat activism movement, per the BBC. Organizations like the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, which is now called the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance or NAAFA, and the Fat Underground started protesting the way fat people were treated in the workplace, at doctor’s offices, and in society at large. They organized people to fight for fat acceptance and fat liberation.
In the 1980s and 90s these movements grew larger and started getting more attention. Fat activists wrote articles for mainstream publications and appeared on talk shows explaining why the diet industry was harmful and how people can be happy, healthy, and even fit in bodies of all sizes.
In the early 2000s, when the world went online en masse, the principles of the fat liberation and acceptance movements were picked up by bloggers who coined the term “body positivity.” Though body positivity was born out of the radical fat activism of earlier decades, the message of body positivity was a little softer and a little less radical. Body positivity was all about learning to accept and love your body, regardless of its size or shape. The body positivity movement – led mostly by fat, queer, Black and Brown femmes – centered largely on using fashion as an unapologetic statement about being fat. Bloggers posted pictures of themselves in tight clothes, short shorts and dresses, and bikinis, along with powerful statements about how they learned to love their fat bodies.
The body positivity movement, and the concept itself, gained a lot of traction online, especially after the launch of social media. As body positivity grew on social media, the radical message of its fat activism roots got watered down, and the concept was largely co-opted by thin, white femmes on personal journeys to accept their bodies. Body positivity became simply about making peace with and loving our bodies, not examining the experiences of marginalized bodies and fighting for equity for marginalized bodies
Additionally, body positivity became solely focused on loving your body. Online body positivity spaces were filled with saccharine dissertations on body love, without a lot of acknowledgement of the work it takes to achieve body love. In some body positivity spaces, people who still struggled to accept their bodies or struggled with their insecurities were alienated because they didn’t love their bodies all the time. And since none of us really love our bodies all the time, the body positivity movement lost much of its authenticity in its attempt to project perpetual positivity.
In response to the almost toxic positivity of the body positivity movement, Anne Poirier popularized the idea of “body neutrality” in her book The Body Joyful. Poirier asserted that body image exists along a continuum, with body hatred at one end and body love on the other end, and that our journeys to make peace with our bodies progress along this continuum. She argued that expecting people to jump from one end of the continuum to the other, from body hatred to body love, was unreasonable. Poirier proposed a more reasonable goal – the center of the continuum, body neutrality.
For people who have hated their bodies for years, maybe even decades, loving their bodies can seem downright impossible. Many of us have never even entertained doing anything other than hating our bodies, so loving our bodies seems like a completely unreasonable goal. However, not hating our bodies seems possible. So, working toward body neutrality feels like a much more attainable goal than working toward body positivity.
The goal of body neutrality is to get to a place where we don’t hate our bodies but we don’t have to love them, or even like them, either. In body neutrality, our bodies are neither good nor bad and our feelings toward them are neither positive or negative. This perspective can provide a lot of relief for people who’ve always hated their bodies. Viewing your body in a neutral way can take some of the power out of the negative messages about bodies we all get from society, and it takes away the pressure to love your body when you’re not ready to do that yet.
Body neutrality is a great way to move away from your body being your enemy without feeling like you need to make it your best friend. Your body can just be like that neighbor you wave to every day or the nice guy who works at your favorite bagel shop.
A lot of the actual work of practicing body neutrality is about countering the negative messages about bodies we get from our internal voices, society, and people in our lives. So, when your brain says something like “You’re so fat,” you can respond by saying “My body is the size it needs to be to keep me healthy and functioning. And there’s nothing wrong with being fat.” The same strategy can be applied when you’re feeling like your body is not worthy or valuable. You can tell yourself that “all bodies are worthy and valuable regardless of what they look like” or “I have inherent worth and value that has nothing to do with my body.” You’re simply responding to a negative thought with neutral statements of fact, free from any negative or positive judgment. By doing so, you’re slowly reprogramming your brain to have a neutral perspective on your body.
For some people, body neutrality is a step along the path to loving their bodies. They start by working toward neutrality, and when they’re ready, they start to practice accepting their bodies, then liking their bodies, then loving their bodies. For others, body neutrality is the end goal. For those who struggle with eating disorders, gender dysphoria, or trauma centered on their bodies, reaching body neutrality is as far as they can make it on the body image continuum, and that’s okay. Body neutrality is vastly better than body hatred, and body neutrality offers people a way to end the constant battle with their bodies.
If you’ve struggled with your body image your whole life, and the body positivity you see all over Instagram seems like a stretch, give body neutrality a try. It might be the tool you need to begin your journey out of body hatred.