Being a woman trying to live up to today’s unrealistic beauty standards is exhausting. It’s a never-ending struggle to look and be our best (aka better than how we look now) while also trying to be comfortable in our skin (aka we’re perfect the way we are). If it seems like an impossible task to achieve both of those things at once, that’s because it is. How you can both focus son self-improvement and simultaneously be happy how you are? On top of that, the idea of what is “best” or “beautiful” is constantly changing and shifting in one direction or another. One day being curvy and comfortable in your own skin is the ultimate form of self-love. The next day people are being praised for flaunting how they look, despite their flaws (inherently implying that those features are flawed if you aren’t the traditional body type). The next day someone is being applauded for getting in shape or losing weight. It seems like we honestly can’t win.
Or maybe we can.
A new “body neutrality” movement aims to take the focus away from our bodies — shape, size, figure, flaws and all — and instead place focus on how our bodies are used as instruments to propel us forward in life. Imagine that. A movement on how we should feel about our bodies that has nothing to do with thinking about our bodies. We’re officially intrigued.
According to Melissa A. Fabello, body acceptance activist and Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, “body neutrality is freedom from the obsession with our bodies entirely. This new body image movement doesn’t really have anything to do with appearance at all, and it just might be the answer for women struggling with self-acceptance and searching desperately for a way to focus on their inner and outer well-being, rather than the size of their clothes or the number on a scale.
It’s a lot to process, and it’s not a topic to be taken lightly. We all know that self-love and society’s obsession with how women look is not going anywhere any time soon. So let’s unpack the concept of body neutrality and see if it’s the self-love movement we’ve been waiting for.
Breaking Down the Body Positivity Movement
Body positivity is a fairly new movement that gained popularity and attention in recent years, as a way to encourage women and people of all shapes and sizes to accept who they are and how they look, and feel entitled to self-love. Previously, self-love was reserved for women who looked like the stereotypical model (thin, white, fit, not overly curvy, young etc.) It was created out of a need to help people of all body types feel self-confident, accepted and valued. Over time the movement has evolved, but at its core it still means exactly what it says — it’s the idea that women should love their bodies unconditionally beyond how they look on the outside. It’s about appreciating your beauty despite (or perhaps because of) your flaws.
While there is clearly merit in encouraging self-love and empowering women to accept their bodies and appreciate what their bodies are capable of, there are also potential flaws in this movement. Yes, we love the idea of loving yourself for who you are rather than focusing on how you wish you looked or comparing yourself to others, but it’s not always as simple as that.
Sometimes the body positivity movement can backfire. Because if your mantra becomes “I love me for me, no matter what my size is or how I look,” then what happens on the days when your confidence dips and you don’t feel quite so body positive? You might start to feel guilty or anxious for not accepting your body, and the movement will have the exact opposite effect originally intended. Instead of feeling beautiful and empowered, you’ll feel shame and you’ll end up scrutinizing your body, and the whole cycle will begin again.
Another potential side effect of body positivity is that it might go too far, to the point where instead of simply practicing self-love, you begin to neglect your body’s health, deciding that you are fine the way you are, so you don’t need to practice regular physical activity or maintain a balanced diet. While body positivity in no way is the cause of obesity, it’s still important to always pay attention to what your body needs to be healthy.
Fat Shaming vs. Thin Praising
It’s important to note that it is possible to oppose fat shaming, but still discourage heavier weight and fatness in a more indirect way. Instead of shaming fat people, there is a prevalence of “thin praising” that has a very similar effect, and it is helping the unrealistic notion of beauty to persist.
You’ve probably seen thin praising before. Perhaps you’ve even been a part of it, either intentionally or without realizing it.
A friend of yours who was always an average size decides to get fit, practice a more balanced diet, and they lose weight. So you compliment them. They look great. They seem happy. They are working really hard to take care of their bodies, and naturally they deserve some recognition and praise for what they have accomplished and how healthy and confident they seem. And so that friend associates the praise with being thin. Or think about a celebrity who loses a significant amount of weight, such as Jonah Hill or Melisa McCarthy. Or what about when Khloe Kardashian unveiled her “revenge body” after her very public breakup with Lamar Odom, a new thinner figure that even earned her a TV show about getting fit and losing weight as a source of revenge against an ex.
You get the point. People are praised for losing weight all the time. And it’s not that they don’t deserve praise. If someone is working hard and dedicating themselves to getting healthier, to focusing on themselves, to working through emotional stress, or protecting their longevity by taking control of their size and their overall health, then we’re all for it. That transformation is worthy of all the praise in the world. The issue lies in exactly why someone is being praised, and if it is blind praise favoring a thin frame over a fat frame, or if there is something more going on.
And in more cases than you might realize, thin praising is actually a form of positive reinforcement, further perpetuating unhealthy beauty ideals that prioritize thinness over everything else. You might not be ridiculing someone for being overweight, and you’re not criticizing someone for being fat, but you’re certainly implying the same attitude towards size by praising someone losing weight.
According to Afshan Jafar, associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College and co-editor for Bodies Without Borders, “both punishment (shaming) and positive reinforcement (praising) reinforce beauty norms that value thin, flawless, usually white or light-skinned bodies, with straight, usually blonde, hair.”
While being body positive is a good thing, and celebrating health is not bad, praising thinness just might be as damaging as vilifying fatness.
What Exactly is Body Neutrality?
So where does this all leave us? If body positivity isn’t always a good thing for all women, but fat shaming and thin praising are also problems, then what is the solution? Experts are suggesting that a new movement called body neutrality might be the answer.
What exactly is body neutrality? It’s exactly what you think.
According to Cassie Mendoza-Jones, author of You Are Enough, body neutrality is “a feeling of acceptance of where you are in your body journey today, a way to feel comfortable in your skin without feeling as though you’re investing all your waking time and energy into eating well, exercising and thinking about your body.”
Think of body neutrality as a détente, a state of peace where you aren’t thinking about your body in a good way or a bad way, you’re simply in a neutral place.
In a piece for Mind Body Green, Anne Marie Rooney explains that body neutrality is “not an absence of caring about your body—it’s simply about letting it be as it is, with no (or as little as possible) emotional association with its appearance. Think of it as the middle ground between body shaming and body positivity—or, as I prefer to think of it, kind of like Buddhism for your body image.”
This movement has been around for several years, but it seems to be gaining more attention and picking up steam thanks to Anne Poirier, director of the Body Neutrality workshop at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a wellness retreat in Vermont. At her retreat women are encouraged to find peace in a neutral place, somewhere in between hating themselves and loving themselves. She argues that because sometimes getting to a place of self-love is a really lofty goal and an unachievable standard, finding peace in the middle is healthy and a more realistic path to success.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, agrees with this notion. “My problem with body love, beside the fact that it’s a high standard, is its asking women to regulate their emotions, not just their bodies.” And at the end of the day, sometimes happiness is not about our bodies at all. “Body love keeps the focus on the body. The times I’m happiest are when I’m not thinking about my body at all,” Whitefield-Madrano said in The Cut.
The Health Hazards of Obsessing Over Body Image
It should come as no surprise that obsessing over how you look, how much you weigh, what shape your body is or what flaws you may have can be seriously damaging to your health. Body image issues, eating disorders, low self-esteem, unhealthy and drastic dieting, plastic surgery and more are all potential hazards of unrealistic body images and the pressure to look a certain way. And those risks aren’t just limited to the societal pressure to be thin. Hollywood isn’t just thin-obsessed. Celebrities also illustrate unhealthy images of curvy women with luscious lips, perky, large breasts and round bottoms that are virtually impossible to naturally possess. We’re looking at you Kardashians. It’s not all about being thin, but it is about trying to find a way that is unhealthy, unnatural and quite frankly, unattainable without drastic measures to alter your features. Did you know that butt implants are a thing? #themoreyouknow
So here we are, dealing with unrealistic beauty standards on both ends of the scale — skinnier and waif-like and also curvy and voluptuous. So no matter how you look, you’re never quite attractive enough. And the hazards of that perpetually negative self-image can be damaging and lasting.
On one side of the spectrum, being overly obsessed with thinness or constantly trying to achieve unhealthy and unrealistic weight of body shape could result in a body image issue, or worse, an eating disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association notes that some of the risk factors for developing an eating disorder include cultural promotion of the thin ideal, size and weight prejudice and emphasis on dieting. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also suggests that “girls and women with negative thoughts and feelings about their bodies are more likely to develop certain mental health conditions, such as eating disorders and depression.”
On the flip side, a unilateral decision to not worry about your body type and accept yourself regardless of your weight, size or shape could result in risks to your health, including obesity, heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes. This is not to say that body positivity and self-acceptance are the cause of obesity, but they can certainly contribute to health risks that are related to being overweight or in poor shape.
So, is body neutrality the answer? Time will tell, and there is still a lot of work to be done in the world of self-esteem, self-love, and the never-ending pressure on women to look and feel a certain way. But it seems like for those women who struggle with body positivity or who feel like the body positivity movement isn’t completely for them, then a more neutral mindset of self-acceptance and joy might be just right.