We know it’s good to love our bodies as they are, but some days, that’s just not happening. It turns out we’re all in good company—a 2012 study showed that 91% of American women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Despite the body positivity movement’s best efforts, the focus on looks and the idea that we should love our bodies and celebrate every inch of them can feel inauthentic and maybe even unrealistic.
Enter: body neutrality, a more approachable goal that focuses on appreciation and acceptance of the body. It takes the spotlight off of appearance and, instead, emphasizes function without any pressure of attaching value to it, whether positive or negative. To help us wrap our heads around what body neutrality is, how it differs from body positivity, and the best ways to practice it, I asked the experts. Ahead, they break it all down. Spoiler: You don’t have to love how your body looks to feel better body confidence.
In this article
What Is Body Neutrality?
Many of us dislike our bodies and wish we could love our bodies. Body love is a great goal, but the problem is that it can feel out of reach. We think we’ll love our bodies when we lose 10 pounds, tone our stomach, get rid of cellulite, work out more, eat better, etc. But even if you did lose 10 pounds or got a 6-pack, you’d still focus on the next 10 pounds or another flaw to fixate on.
Body neutrality allows you the space and free rein to feel neutral about your body. “With a body-neutral approach, you observe the body without judgment, don’t take out any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ indications, or attach any emotional responses, no matter whether you like or dislike something about it,” explained Veronica Hlivnenko, a psychologist and holistic health counselor at InPulse. “A neutral perspective provides a quiet middle stance between body hate and body love, meaning you don’t experience any of these feelings. It doesn’t mean you don’t care. It means you choose to re-steer from how the body looks to how it feels and prioritize the practical value it provides, carrying you through life and serving your everyday needs.”
In other words, body neutrality is about reframing how you perceive your body, seeing it as a vehicle for executing everything you love to do. “A body-neutral approach focuses on respecting the body’s functional capabilities and appreciating the great job it does for you on a daily basis rather than the physical shape it takes or its size, flaws, and possible limitations,” Hlivnenko conveyed.
Dr. Jessica Singh, an eating disorder specialist and licensed clinical social worker agreed: “Body neutrality is acknowledging that your body is just a vessel that carries you through life and that it does not define your worth as a person,” she stated. “Instead of focusing on how your body looks, body neutrality encourages you to focus on what your body can do for you.” After all, we’re each made up of so many unique layers that add up to so much more than our appearance and whether we fit the mold of what mainstream beauty standards dictate as “beautiful.”
Body Neutrality vs. Body Positivity
While both body positivity and body neutrality advocate for appreciating your body, the differences lie in their approaches. “Body positivity emphasizes embracing and celebrating all body types, shapes, and sizes, focusing on the beauty and uniqueness of each individual’s physical appearance,” expressed Jennifer Pallian, a registered dietitian. “On the other hand, body neutrality shifts the focus away from appearance altogether, encouraging individuals to appreciate their bodies for their abilities and functionality, rather than their looks.”
Simply put, the body-neutral camp accepts and respects their bodies for what they do, whereas the body-positive stance considers bodies—flaws and all—beautiful no matter what. Hlivnenko pointed out the distinction in the core mission of the two movements: “Body positivity aims to expand the definition of beauty and diversify beauty standards,” she cited. “Body neutrality seeks to change the value of physical attractiveness in society and untie people’s self-worth from how they look.”
Tips for Practicing Body Neutrality
Recognize and reframe body-bullying thoughts
The first step to working toward a body-neutral mindset is nixing the negative self-talk while keeping in mind you can’t get rid of it all overnight. “Body neutrality is not a destination but a process and it requires constant mindful moderation,” Hlivnenko attested. “Each time a body-criticizing thought invades your head, it needs to be approached as just a thought, not a fact, and refocused on the body’s strengths and the way it’s beneficial to you right now.”
Hlivnenko recommended keeping a set of neutralizing affirmations in your arsenal to help counteract intrusive thoughts as soon as they come up. For example, if you find yourself nit-picking your stomach or wishing your legs looked different, acknowledge the thought, and try replacing it with phrases like, “My body is a vessel for my identity, and I honor the ways it helps me in life,” “I’m lucky to have legs to visit my favorite places,” or “I’m grateful for my stomach for working hard to digest the foods I enjoy and provide the energy I need.”
Practice intuitive eating
Tapping into and following your body’s cues—hunger, fullness, cravings—and unlearning the restrictive rhetoric of diet culture (AKA intuitive eating) goes hand-in-hand with a body-neutral outlook. Intuitive eating is a framework that makes nutrition behavior-focused and individualized instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” cutting out certain food groups, and feeling guilty about satisfying a craving. “With an intuitive approach to eating, you entrust your body to make food choices that feel more suitable and better tolerated at this particular time, eat when you feel physically hungry, and stop eating when you’re full,” Hlivnenko described. “The main thing is to remove any guilt or shame related to food consumption, including food cravings.” Bottom line: Tune out the engrained food rules diet culture has taught us and listen to, honor, and fuel your body based on how you feel. What you eat does not define you!
Write down the ways your body serves you
We often take our bodies for granted and don’t acknowledge the body’s role in carrying out our everyday activities; the body is so much more than how it looks to other people, and it’s time we start acknowledging that. “Taking time to list what the body does for us so we can experience and enjoy life is a great start to developing a body-neutral approach,” Hlivnenko advised. “We all know that the body is the key constituent of our being but hardly focus on cause-and-effect connections, like stomach and digestion or legs and walking. In the same vein, Pallian suggested acknowledging your body for its capabilities, such as laughing, breathing, or healing from injuries, and cultivating gratitude for it by developing a daily gratitude practice that expresses appreciation for your body’s functions, like strong legs that carry you throughout the day or lungs that enable you to breathe.
Reconsider your workout motivation
PSA: Exercising should be a form of movement that makes you feel good, a celebration of what the body can do, and a positive influence on your physical and mental health—not punishment for what you ate last night, the reason you can treat yourself to a “cheat” meal, or solely for the purpose of changing your appearance. “Engage in mindful movement that feels good to your body, rather than obsessing over how it looks,” Dr. Singh advocated. “Remember, the goal is to feel good, not to burn calories.” Just like you pay attention to your body’s hunger cues, heed your body’s signals to determine when to challenge yourself, and when to slow it down with a low-impact activity like walking or resting.
“A significant percentage of body dissatisfaction comes from comparing ourselves to others,” Hlivnenko affirmed. That goes for both online and offline interactions. If social media is a source that makes you feel bad about yourself, limit your exposure to it and unfollow any triggering accounts. Hlivnenko noted that comparing your present self to your past self can also be a trigger. “Instead of being frustrated with the body you have now, remember how hard it worked to carry you through the years and that it deserves kindness and respect for the skills and talents you developed, the meaningful relationships you built, and the goals you achieved.” Pro tip: Don’t hesitate to shut down body image-oriented conversations if they make you feel uncomfortable, even with your closest friends, Hlivnenko mentioned. Instead, she proposed either setting boundaries or redirecting the discussion to body-neutral topics.
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