This Body-Image Approach Can Help Reframe the Way You Talk and Think About Yourself
In a society obsessed with appearance, how can any of us maintain a judgment-free relationship with our bodies? Body neutrality just might be the answer.
This past July, pop singer Jax orchestrated a flash mob in front of a Los Angeles Victoria’s Secret store, set to her body-liberation anthem “Victoria’s Secret.” The song — which references Jax’s own struggles with disordered eating — indirectly calls out Les Wexner, the founder and ex-CEO of Victoria’s Secret’s former parent company, L Brands, for “Making money off of girls like me, cashing in on body issues.” She posted a video of the public performance on TikTok, racking up more than 37.7 million views and generating thousands of comments.
The song, the flash mob, and the overwhelming response from fans speak to the presence of toxic body and beauty cultures that are always eager to criticize. (“Can’t have carbs in a hot girl summer,” as Jax’s song satirizes.) You might be judged for not wanting to lose weight or for wanting to lose weight. You might be judged for not loving your body as it is or for loving your body at all. You might be judged by a doctor who makes you believe you’re lazy or undisciplined because of your BMI. (According to experts, BMI is a flawed health standard that has historically discriminated against people of color as well as anyone with high muscle mass.) It seems that no matter what you do when it comes to your body, there is, without fail, someone or some ad claiming there’s an ideal body to aspire to — and yours isn’t it. Talk about exhausting.
In our appearance-obsessed world, is there room for self-acceptance and compassion? Will any of us ever catch a break? Though there’s no cure-all for body-image discontent, body neutrality just might be a much-needed solution for transforming our relationships to our bodies and the world at large.
Body neutrality focuses on the idea that the body is merely the physical structure that moves us through the world. Unlike its predecessor body positivity (which claims that we all should love our bodies no matter what they look like), body neutrality removes appearance from the equation completely and instead encourages you to accept and respect what your body can do functionally. It negates both a “good vibes only” mentality that says you must love your size and shape — every nook and cranny! — and a punitive, self-deprecating mind-set that often results from mainstream media and cultural expectations. Body neutrality means that being impartial is safe territory — you can either regard your body for what it has the capacity to do or not think about it at all and move on with your day.
By shifting our attention from appearance to functionality, we hop off the merry-go-round the beauty and wellness industries use to profit from our fascination with image — the one that insists our worth and value as people is intrinsically tied to the extent that we find our bodies beautiful. “There are many billion-dollar industries out there that rely on body shame to manipulate and control us. If we feel inadequate about our bodies, we are more exploitable consumers, workers and lovers,” says Sonalee Rashatwar, a licensed clinical social worker, sex therapist, and co-founder of West Philly’s Radical Therapy Center.
Body neutrality works to reduce those feelings of shame because it can release people from the “work” of loving a body they’re still in the process of accepting. “For example, when someone with body dysmorphia receives a compliment, their brain has an automated response to reject it and generate an insult,” Rashatwar says. “Body neutrality can be extraordinarily powerful there, because it gives us a place where we can imagine what it could be like if we had more access to brain space without the chatter of guilt and self-contempt.” It’s part of the reason why body neutrality has resonated with folks living with disabilities or chronic pain and those who are marginalized by spaces that center the body through methodical calorie counting, getting “bikini body”-ready, or “earning” (or, conversely, “burning off”) meals.
The concept of body neutrality gained popularity in the mid-2010s when Anne Poirier, an eating disorder specialist (who later wrote The Body Joyful), began using the term with clients to help them find a healthier, more practical approach to food, exercise and self-image. “There’s a whole movement talking about loving our bodies. But it’s kind of a long jump to move there from dissatisfaction,” Poirier said in a 2017 article in New York magazine’s The Cut. “Some people are just going to land in body neutrality, which is the term we utilize here for somewhere in the middle.”
The “movement talking about loving our bodies” Poirier refers to is body positivity, which grew out of the fat rights/acceptance campaign of the 1960s. It featured activism groups like the National Association to Aid Fat Americans — now called the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) — that worked to eradicate fat stigma and prejudice through education and advocacy, and the Fat Underground, which asserted that weight loss was societal oppression. Some people argue that as body positivity evolved, it became further and further removed from these political underpinnings and has been co-opted by corporations and smaller-bodied (often white) social media influencers eager to cash in on “woke” marketing. The result? A watered-down version that doesn’t actually center or uplift communities it originally supported — namely, those who are fat, queer, Black, brown, trans or disabled.
Popular singer and rapper Lizzo put it this way on TikTok last year: “People are finally celebrating medium and small girls and people who occasionally get rolls, [but] fat people are still getting the short end of this movement. We’re still getting shit on — we’re still getting talked about, memed, shamed, and no one cares anymore because it’s like, ‘Body positivity is for everybody.’ … But the people who created this movement — big women, big brown and Black women, queer women — are not benefiting from the mainstream success of it.”
Though body positivity isn’t all that bad — it has helped some people boost their self-esteem and has spotlighted an essential idea about size inclusivity — it hasn’t worked for everyone. For many, achieving and maintaining love for their bodies all the time can sometimes feel like too big a reach. The pressure to be body-positive can generate guilt and imposter syndrome because it can feel forced and disingenuous, especially in a world that’s always telling us we’re not good/thin/toned/beautiful enough. “If you’re in a body that gets culturally ostracized, to have someone telling you to be positive about it can feel condescending,” adds Cristina Hoyt, an integrative clinical nutritionist and body-image coach offering virtual services to area residents. “How do you feel positive about something you’re being told is not good enough at every turn?”
That’s where body neutrality comes in strong. Landing in this neutral space — one where “you don’t have to do something to be in a ‘better’ body because there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bodies,” says Hannah Guy, a clinical social worker and founder of University-City based Revive Therapy Services — feels more realistic (and less tiresome!) than being constantly optimistic and cheery about your shape and size.
In this way, Guy says, body neutrality connects with radical acceptance, a term used in dialectical behavioral therapy for accepting the reality of a situation as it is, rather than dwelling on it or seeking to change it. She says radical acceptance removes the “shoulds” — “I should be this,” “I should do that,” “I should love my body” — that often keep us trapped in a cycle of suffering. That’s crucial in this day and age, when the world and its news can feel increasingly dismal and out of our control. Viewing our bodies in ways that aren’t so emotionally charged is part of that formula of removing the “shoulds,” because we’re focusing on who we actually are and not who we wish we were. Self-acceptance, especially through the lens of body neutrality, can be freeing, says Guy: “It relieves a lot of pressure when you don’t have to be something you’re not.”
So, how can you practice body neutrality in the day-to-day? One first step is to dismantle automatic critical thoughts, according to Hoyt. This means stopping the habit of mentally and verbally judging and evaluating your body and others’ bodies. She suggests replacing negative self-talk with a sentiment like, “My body is just my body.” In addition, Charlotte Markey, a body-image researcher and psychology professor at Rutgers University-Camden, recommends writing gratitude lists of your body’s capabilities, to build self-compassion: “It’s a good way to counter all the negative messaging. And when we write something out, the structure of language forces us to organize our thoughts and to be less emotional.”
Body neutrality can — and should — be implemented by parents, too, as self-image and social comparisons develop in early childhood. Lindsay Kite, body-image expert and co-author of More Than a Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament, offers this useful scenario: “If your child says, ‘I hate my body’ or ‘I look fat,’ they are describing what culture has told them: that being fat is embarrassing or wrong. For a parent to say, ‘You’re not fat, you’re perfect’ inadvertently reinforces that same message. Instead, say, ‘Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes,’” so that all feel and are welcome.
Speaking of which, experts say body neutrality can be effective armor against fat bias, which still permeates all facets of society, including health care, the workplace, social media and social circles. Body neutrality essentially makes size unimportant, or at least de-prioritizes weight. Even though it isn’t a total solution, a body-neutral mantra like, “I’m so much more than my body, and my body doesn’t define me,” can feel useful in putting a buffer between you and fatphobia, Hoyt says.
Additionally, body neutrality can be practiced with social media. While it can be a tool for connection and community, social media has been shown to contribute to body dissatisfaction, negative self-perception, and even disordered eating. When users are inundated with photoshopped bodies and filtered, flashy lifestyles, it can become easy to forget you’re looking at an electronic mirage created to distract the scrolling public from the way people look and feel in real life. It’s why Emily Capelli, a psychotherapist in South Philly, encourages people to detox their social media accounts through “protective filtering” — a.k.a. curating whom you follow and enacting boundaries on your intake. Doing so, Capelli says, can shift your focus away from appearances and help you avoid interacting with content that makes you feel bad.
In fitness spaces, where the body is so often the focal point, having a neutral mind-set can reinforce the concept of joyful movement — engaging in physical activities for the sake of feeling good. It also means that fitness goals don’t have to be weight-oriented — especially because weight and BMI aren’t useful indicators of a person’s health — and instead can be wellness-based, focusing on goals like lowering blood pressure, improving sleep or managing stress. Plus, avoiding movements that are restrictive, painful, or simply difficult for your body to execute can help prevent overexertion, injury and illness.
Lauren Leavell, a Mount Airy-based barre and HIIT instructor, approaches training — for herself and for her clients — this way. “My approach is weight-neutral, with no aesthetic goals in mind,” she tells me, so that “people can be themselves without feeling a pressure to conform to some physical standard.” Leavell focuses “more on how you feel rather than how you look.” Doing so can help people “reframe movement as a lifelong practice,” since the emphasis is now on listening “to your current body, not what you think you should be able to do,” as she said in an interview with the New York Times last February. It’s also a way to put a stop to the learned habit of paying more attention to how we appear to others than to our mental and emotional health. “When we choose not to objectify ourselves, then we can start to exit the endless cycle of maintaining beauty ideals,” Kite adds.
Rashatwar uses a body-neutral approach when supporting those whose body image is interfering with sex and intimacy: “Clients who experience sexual shame and disassociation during sex move out of enjoying the moment and into the headspace of worrying about how their body looks to their partner. So body neutrality is useful and gives you permission to exist — it acts as a reminder of one’s dignity and doesn’t force us to put a toxic positivity spin on everything.” This can be liberating, because it allows us to stay connected and in the moment, rather than splintering our focus or making us sacrifice pleasure.
Judging by the work of therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, body-image coaches and fitness instructors, the collective burden of humans wanting to make peace with their bodies is palpably intense. The good news is that more and more individuals are becoming educated consumers and actively working toward body acceptance in ways that don’t put looks on a pedestal — and body neutrality can be an antidote to perpetuated toxic myths about physical appearance.
As we’re all on personal journeys to discover what works best for our overall wellness, Rashatwar encourages us to remember a simple but powerful message: “All bodies have inherent human dignity. Your body is allowed to exist exactly the way it is — you don’t have to ask for permission for that.”
Published as “Neutral Territory” in the 2023 issue of Be Well Philly.