We’ve all heard of body positivity. Some version of it is everywhere. You can’t log into Instagram or TikTok without seeing someone dancing in their underpants and telling you to hashtag love your body. (Adorable. Not for me. I can’t dance, and I wear cotton granny panties.) More major companies are using people with realistic bodies to model their products, and rebranding to be more inclusive. Society’s beauty standards are still absolute shit, but the modern body positive movement has gained enough traction that it’s starting to creep into the mainstream.
Body positivity aims to help people achieve a positive image of the way their body looks, regardless of societal beauty standards.
There’s a lot of focus on reclaiming things traditionally seen as flaws, such as large body size, stretch marks, and rolls. More inclusive brands, influencers and creators even remember to highlight things like gender expression, disabilities, and limb and craniofacial differences. And that sounds really good. A lot of it is good. The body positivity movement has roots in 1960s fat acceptance, and it’s been around for decades. Over time, as it has evolved, it’s helped a lot of people.
But in today’s internet age, it’s been co-opted. Lizzo recently took to TikTok to state that “the people who created this movement — big women, big brown and Black women, queer women — are not benefiting from the mainstream success of it.” And she is absolutely correct. The body positive movement is often reduced to a hashtag, and thin-ish, white, cis influencers are the first (and sometimes only) images you find when you’re looking for encouragement in social media spaces.
Please use the body positive movement to empower yourself. But we need to protect and uplift the bodies it was created for and by.
There’s another movement that you might not have heard, and learning about its goals could make you a happier person, a better parent, and a kinder human being.
I’m talking about body neutrality.
Body neutrality focuses on disconnecting the look and size of your body from your worth and finding value in what your body can do for you, instead of what it looks like. It rejects the idea that you can determine someone’s health by looking at them, which is important for healthy people in big bodies AND for thin people with invisible illnesses.
Body neutrality deemphasizes loving how your body looks. You’re totally free to love every part of you, but that is not a requirement for becoming body neutral.
It’s a perfect place to start if you currently live in a state of self-hate, body negativity or perpetual body disappointment. It’s also a great way to approach body image with kids.
A body-neutral conversation on self-image would encourage a child to focus on all the things their body can do, accept the things that it cannot do, and understand that every single body deserves kindness and good treatment. The size, shape or appearance of that body has nothing to do with it. Instead of measuring the worthiness or health of their body based on how it looks, they can learn to focus on how they feel, how they are functioning, and the things they hope to do with their body. It puts them in a position to recognize that they are so much more than what they look like.
I’ve been fat forever—never thin, not for a minute.
I struggled through a lot of years of self-hate. I blamed myself for having a body that society told me I shouldn’t be happy to have. For a handful of years now, I have been doing intentional daily work to stop hating my fat body. Somehow, through a slow process of unlearning and relearning, I have found a way to be grateful for this vessel that carries my soul, my memories, and the essence of everything I am.
Like a lot of people who struggle to see the goodness in their body, when I consciously chose to change my self-image, I started out aiming to fall in love with the appearance of my body. I spent a lot of time encouraging others to try to do the same. Showing myself that kind of kindness was possibly beneficial to the overall goal, but as the years have worn on, I have found that a body neutral state of peace feels just as good—and it doesn’t set me up to fail.
Because I don’t always feel ecstatic love for what my body looks like, I don’t feel at home in a lot of proclaimed “body positive” spaces.
When I was aiming for constant body positivity, I kept falling just shy of the goal. I couldn’t quite get to a place where I love my body in photos, or where my stomach didn’t disappoint me when I was trying on clothes. I have a few holdovers from my days of intense insecurity, and those lingering hang-ups felt like failures to me for a while.
Discovering that there is already a defined term for my feeling of resolute acceptance of my body even though I don’t always find every inch of it to be spectacular made me feel seen– like I could stop constantly striving. I have already changed course and stopped tearing myself to shreds. That can be enough.
Body neutrality means that loving how you look doesn’t have to be a goal for you at all.
I think I’m really cute, to be honest, but attempting to love the look of every bit of my body is just as unrealistic and difficult for me as trying to force my fat body to become thin.
Don’t get me wrong. Most days, I feel like the baddest bitch alive. Put me in a red lip and just try to come at me with some fatphobic bullshit. My clapback will cut you deeper than a dagger as sharp as my winged liner. I’ve found a shitload of confidence in my big bod, and when I’m feeling good, I am feeling GOOD.
But sometimes, I just feel next to nothing about my body. The days when I really hate my body are mostly behind me, but I don’t always think it’s beautiful either. Honestly, I’m just grateful I get to exist, and this is the body I get to do it in.
Becoming body neutral means that I am at peace with my body, and that feels so free.
Having a goal of body neutrality instead of forcing yourself into constant positivity means that you can stop seeing yourself as the problem every time you encounter a situation where your body is not welcome.
You can feel very secure in the knowledge that you are allowed to have the body you have, regardless of anyone’s opinion of how it should change.
Body neutrality means you accept that your body can change hundreds of times in hundreds of ways, and your appreciation for it doesn’t depend on feeling like all of those changes are equally beautiful. You can still succeed in loving yourself well even if you keep struggling with the way you look—because your appreciation for yourself isn’t about the appearance of your body. It’s about everything else that you are.
I’ve found that adjusting my self-love goal to maintaining neutrality and peace and an appreciation for how my body is serving me (instead of constant, unattainable and sometimes toxic positivity) feels like exhaling after holding my breath. It’s a goal that comes without pressure or rules.
And I don’t have to dance in my undies on TikTok to demonstrate how much I love myself, which, I have to admit, is a huge relief.