How to practice body neutrality
As the fitness-obsessed, diet culture beast continues its rampage through our social feeds and consumer products, a debate is once again stirring in comment sections: More or less body talk? Is self-love the route we should take, or should we avoid talking about our appearance altogether?
Amid this conversation, many are turning toward a new philosophy called “body neutrality” that places much less importance on positive body-talk and appearance, focusing instead on accepting your body for what it is.
You’ll probably come across the phrase while scrolling through health content online, often paired along with the age-old #bodypositivity tag. On TikTok alone, videos with #bodyneutrality have more than 355 million accumulated views. It’s a new, often preferred, phrase among influencers and activists alike.
Chelsea Kronengold, associate director of communications for the National Eating Disorder Association, explains that both of these phrases, and their online movements, are part of a long history of body acceptance. “Body positivity urges people to love their bodies, no matter what they look like. Whereas body neutrality focuses on what your body can do, rather than what it looks like,” Kronengold says. “In body positivity, there’s this message of ‘I love my body, period.’ And this often isn’t attainable, especially for people who have experience with body image and eating disorder issues … It’s possible that they will never get to the point where they love their body. And that doesn’t mean that they’re not in full recovery.”
The phrase “body positivity” emerged from the needs of marginalized people — initially fat-positive advocates and radical fat feminists of the 1960s and 1970s. Using the model of Civil Rights-era leadership, the (primarily white) movement protested for “equal rights for fat people in all areas of life” and an end to diet industries, according to the 1973 Fat Manifesto. It was inherently anti-capitalist, a response to media giants and corporations selling insecurities back to (mainly) women. In true internet fashion, the wellness industry eventually co-opted the phrase, and it became commonplace on the feeds of traditionally thin, mainly white influencers and celebrities. It some corners, it had lost its original intention of subverting normative beauty standards and uplifting the beauty of all kinds of bodies. Instead, it’s now a catch-all for anyone who supports messages of self love, and often feeds into the internet’s new brand of “toxic positivity” beauty posts.
In body positivity, there’s this message of ‘I love my body, period.’ And this often isn’t attainable.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, explains Amanda Cooper, press relations director for nonprofit fat advocacy group National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). “This is how we know we’re winning, because some ideas that used to seem extremely radical are getting mainstream. And that’s actually progress,” she says.
But the phrase is unclear and often misused, especially in the eyes of fat-positive activists. Now, you’ll find videos of traditionally thin people sticking out their abdomens or forming stomach rolls with #bodypositive in the caption, to the dismay of many. Even celebrities, like musician (and incidental TikTok star) Lizzo, have started to move away from the term.
Body neutrality has since arisen as an alternative to this phrase, often incorporated into conversations about inclusive, intersectional health — ones that emphasize fitness programs that don’t use appearance or diet-related goals, and instead promote fun, positive movement and emotional health. Body neutrality places no emphasis on physical appearances, beauty, or desire. It doesn’t assign moral worth to appearance (no “good” or “bad” body parts), or strive for beauty as an end goal, and it urges people to reject the thought that not loving yourself makes you a failure.
Instead, body neutral thinking encourages people to find respect for their body, to live with, rather than love, their appearance. It’s popularity is linked to the work of Anne Poirier, an intuitive eating counselor, eating disorder specialist, and author of The Body Joyful. In Poirier’s work, body neutrality is defined as “not supporting the hatred of our vessel (our physical structure) or the love and adoration of our vessel.” To practice this, according to Poirier, start with body neutral phrases that hone in on functions. Things like “My thighs are strong and help me walk” or “Thank you, body, for taking care of me today.” Try focusing on unique traits or talents while practicing daily affirmations, or the emotional, non-physical aspects of your identity.
Tigress Osborn, chair of NAAFA, explains that the body neutral framework can be especially helpful for fat activists who are looking for alternative ways to talk about their bodies. “One of the things that fat activists have tried to assert over many decades of history is that we are people just like everybody else. Everybody has bodies. All the bodies are different. There’s a wide diversity of them. And we don’t have to be focused on that,” she says.
There’s a lot of power in downplaying your appearance and devaluing conventional, social beauty norms in favor of neutrality, Obsorn and Kronengold agree. “Part of what body neutrality does in a really positive way, is give permission to not celebrate if you don’t feel celebratory, and I think that that’s important,” Osborn says. Instead of falling into a cycle of shame or guilt when you aren’t loving your appearance, body neutrality suggests reframing that into acceptance: “My body just exists. My appearance is the least interesting thing about me. That’s all that matters.”
The concept of body neutrality might seem impossible to reconcile with typical social media posts, which tend to focus on visually-appealing photos and bodies. But some are finding ways to subvert the culture of toxic positivity.
Many body neutral influencers and authors avoid content that features their physical appearance, frequently sharing non-body-focused affirmations instead. TikTok creators are constantly calling out unhealthy trends that reinforce either toxic positivity or fatphobia.
When you live in a marginalized body, it’s like the literal embodiment of the idea that the personal is political.
Still, while body neutrality can be a great alternative for those struggling in the current landscape, it isn’t perfect, nor is it always an antidote to misuse of body positivity on social media. As both Kronengold and Osborn note, focusing on the functions of a body leaves room for ableist language — what if your your body isn’t capable of keeping you healthy each day, or picking up your children, or walking you from place to place? What kind of affirmations should you use instead?
“In [body neutrality] practice, what we say is ‘think about all the things that your body can do for you’ with an assumption that everybody’s bodies can do the same thing, and are meant to do the same thing,” Osborn says. “But in theory, it should just be neutral. Everybody’s body just is what it is. People are not abled or disabled, bodies just work in a variety of ways.” Body neutrality has to embrace the diversity of human bodies and eschew the traditional standards of both beauty and health, as body positivity has attempted to do. But it also needs to consider how the concept of “neutral” can have biases, too.
It’s also important to remember that body neutrality is an individualized way of thinking that doesn’t account for the institutional effects of a culture obsessed with one standard of beauty and hasn’t prohibited size-based discrimination. There’s privilege in living without considering your appearance — for people of color, those with disabilities, and many fat people, their appearance comes into conversations whether they want it to or not.
As Osborn explains, body neutrality isn’t a solution to general fatphobia, and it doesn’t reflect the lived realities of people who face systemic oppression because of their appearance. “When you live in a marginalized body, it’s like the literal embodiment of the idea that the personal is political,” Osborn adds. “[Neutrality] has the effect of silencing people in marginalized bodies from talking about what their bodies mean, in a political way.” Bringing body neutrality into a fat activist space, Osborn explains, isn’t helpful to the cause, even if it’s essential for your personal recovery.
It might be helpful to imagine it, instead, as one step in a larger body acceptance spectrum, as Kronengold explains. “We wanted to use this body acceptance term as an umbrella, and then highlight a spectrum of types of body acceptance,” she says of the work of professionals in these spaces.
On one side (a starting point, Osborn makes clear) is body positivity — “I am beautiful even with stretch marks” or “I love the hair on my body.” Then there’s body or fat liberation, which is a modern iteration of the radical, queer-aligned fat acceptance movement of the 1960’s. Fat liberation directly addresses the systemic oppression of fat bodies, and their intersectional identities, and activists’ work toward dismantling policies that affect these communities. Body neutrality also exists on this spectrum, advocating for a society that has neutralized the importance of beauty and appearance in everyday life. Outside of a personal philosophy, this can only succeed as a movement once we’ve acknowledged the aforementioned effects of our beauty-obsessed culture.
In day-to-day practice, the spectrum can blur together, and personal body acceptance fluctuates, as well, with people using different philosophies in different settings. There are plenty of terms, like fat acceptance, fat activism, Health At Every Size, and NAAFA’s preferred term, “equality at every size.” These are used in different ways by different people, activists included, from explaining personal ideologies to political goals (“this organization supports equality at every size”).
It’s important to find what works for you, Kronengold says, but be mindful of how you can contribute to the broader body acceptance and fat liberation movements outside of your own personal experiences.
“If you want to appreciate the people who’ve made your body neutrality possible, in a lot of ways, you need to actively make the world better for them. And that can be done in both political and practical ways,” Obsorn urges. Stand up against size discrimination laws in the workplace, push to include size as a protected category in civil rights legislation, and show up for fat creators online.
Osborn suggests those practicing body neutrality follow fat activists. People like Da’Shaun L. Harrison, author of Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness and Anti-Blackness, or Aubrey Gordon, co-host of the podcast Maintenance Phase. Gordon has published her own suggested reading list on the history of body acceptance. And read up on the work of OG fat activists who paved the way for both body positive and body neutral thinking, Osborn says. Visit the works of therapist and activist Charlotte Cooper and political advocacy groups like The Flare Project.
If you’re personally not vibing with the flowery language of body positive mantras and self love, try exploring body neutrality. Just make sure you pay your respects to the fat activists who have made it all possible.
If you feel like you’d like to talk to someone about your eating behavior, call the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline at 800-931-2237. You can also text “NEDA” to 741-741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at the Crisis Text Line or visit the nonprofit’s website for more information.