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Do We Need to Love our Bodies in Order to Feel Good?

Learn about body positivity versus body neutrality and how to best think of your body.

How Should I Think of My Body?

The media is awash with messages of body positivity, from nude Instagram photos of Lizzo and Cardi B to workout videos without air-brushing filters.
The main message is clear: it’s a wonderful thing to love your body! But what if you don’t feel like a glamor goddess every single day?

While body positivity is a needed pivot from the body shaming that was the norm for generations, there can be some surprising downsides. A healthier approach might be to not spend as much time focusing on your body — and how it does or doesn’t define you.

The ‘Body Positivity’ Movement

Body positivity promotes the acceptance of all bodies — whatever shape, size, color, gender, sexuality, or ability — and challenges social messaging about ideal body types. It’s about building confidence and self-acceptance. The core message is that, regardless of cultural or societal messaging, everyone deserve to have a positive body image. In response to presentations of unrealistic standards of beauty, body positivity promotes an understanding of how easy it is to internalize that often negative messaging and helps us to gauge how these idealized images contribute to our relationships with our bodies — and with our health, food, fitness, and self-care.

For instance, one study shows that increased concerns about body image can result from minimal exposure to idealized bodies in the media. Even children can be impacted, and poor body image can lead to significant problems like depression and low self-esteem in addition to eating disorders. But while body positivity encourages you to stop internalizing media messaging and to love, accept, and enjoy the body you’re in for the sake of your physical and mental health, there are some downsides.

Body positivity, for all of its good intentions, isn’t always fully inclusive, with non-binary, LGBTQIA+, and disabled people left on the margins. The focus still tends toward traditionally attractive white women, albeit with some extra curves. In many cases, body positive hashtags have come to be associated with the same idealized images of happiness and beauty defined by thinness and fitness.

"But aren’t you more than your body? Aren’t you worth more to the world than what you look like or what size you wear?"

But aren’t you more than your body? Aren’t you worth more to the world than what you look like or what size you wear? Body positivity relies in strong part on positive affirmations, but what if you don’t believe what you’re telling yourself? Research shows that, for people with already low self-esteem, these empty affirmations can bring even more stress and even body resentment.

Body positivity works well for some people, but in my practice I’ve found that it can make some of my clients feel even more stressed and self-conscious. Issues with weight are centered in perfectionism, and the added pressure to love and celebrate themselves can backfire and leave them feeling like this is one more area in which they’ve failed. A better approach might be “body neutrality” — essentially redefining your self-image so that your body isn’t at the core. This different path to self-acceptance might benefit your mental health, too.

What is Body Neutrality?

Body neutrality centers on valuing what your body does for you, rather than whether you’re living up to someone else’s standards of beauty. The intention is to feel at peace. Your body is what lets you experience your life. It is the vehicle that allows you to move through the world and is a channel for joy. Your body deserves respect and gratitude, not judgment.

You don’t have to love everything about your body. It’s okay not to like some things, or even to feel indifferent. While your body image does play a role in how you see yourself, it isn’t the core around which your self-perception is constructed — because in the end, you’ll never find happiness if your self-perception is wrapped up in your physical appearance. Your body is a fluid, adaptable thing that naturally grows and changes through life’s seasons.

"You don’t have to love everything about your body. It’s okay not to like some things, or even to feel indifferent."

Stepping away from being attached to how your body looks is a core principle of body neutrality, encouraging you to invest your time and focus on appreciating other aspects of yourself and on living your life free from fretting over your appearance. Embracing body neutrality begins with cultivating a neutral mindset through your own self-talk. Recognize what your body does well, like holding yoga poes or being able to carry heavy bags of groceries. Express your gratitude to your heart and lungs for getting the job done. It’s also important to acknowledge the things that are harder, but without attaching judgment. For example, you can recognize “my body doesn’t fit comfortably into restaurant chairs” without shame. It might take some time to let go of negative self-talk, but if it’s making you feel anxious, sad, or even hopeless and depressed, it’s not doing you any good.

Another practice that supports body neutrality is intuitive eating — basically paying attention to your body’s hunger and satiety cues, being present with all of your senses as you eat, and honoring what foods appeal to you and support your health. For exercise, the goal in body neutrality is simply to get moving in ways that feel good, instead of a target weight or calorie burning goal. Choose activities that you truly enjoy, instead of what is supposed to burn the most fat. You can go kayaking, play in the park, or do some gardening instead of hitting the gym. If you’re interested in fitness, body neutrality encourages you to listen to your body and can help you from pushing yourself beyond your limits by honoring your body’s need for rest.

Choosing clothing can be a frustrating experience when your primary focus is on being fashionable or fitting into a specific size. But body neutrality gives you the freedom to wear what feels good instead. Choose garments that are comfortable right now, instead of anticipating how a pair of trousers might look on your body after you firm up or trim down. You can purge your wardrobe of anything that doesn’t fit or makes you feel self-conscious, instead of holding onto items that are too big or too small, just in case. If your body does change, you can choose new clothing items that look and feel good in that moment. Best yet, body neutrality give you permission to stop judging other people’s bodies and clothing as well you own, and to invest that energy in activities and interests that fill and enrich your life.

Approaching social media with a neutral mindset can be tricky, because it’s easy to get caught up in idealized and unrealistic presentations of bodies and lifestyles. An easy rule of thumb is to mute or stop following anyone whose feed makes you feel bad, and seek out the feeds that inspire and uplift instead.

Why Bea Promotes Body Neutrality

The Better Eating App uses body neutrality implicitly: BEA simply doesn’t mention your body or your weight. Her straightforward goal instead is to help you to feel good. In the context of a society that places unrelenting emphasis on physical appearance, it can feel strange to embrace a mindset in which you almost don’t think about your body at all. It’s no longer a matter of loving or hating the body you’re living in when you’re finally in a place of peace.

"Body neutrality encourages you to explore your values and the kind of life you want to live, regardless of what society implies you should look like to be successful or happy."

Mindfulness is another cornerstone of body neutrality and brings the benefits of reduced stress and emotional reactivity. By practicing mindfulness for few minutes every day, you can strengthen your mind-body connection. In these moments, ask yourself, “What is my body telling me right now?” and use this prompt to determine if you need water or food, a period of rest, or maybe to get up to stretch and move. Body neutrality encourages you to explore your values and the kind of life you want to live, regardless of what society implies you should look like to be successful or happy. Free from judgement and externally imposed standards of beauty, you’ll have more mental bandwidth to attend to the here and now, to pursue your interests and personal goals, and to nourish the connections that truly enrich your life.

When you choose a neutral mindset about your body, especially in the barrage of media messaging to the contrary, you’re committing an act of rebellion that can be tremendously freeing and promoting better well-being. We have complicated relationships with our bodies, and body neutrality is a big step in a healthier direction that might ultimately give you your life back again.

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Sera Lavelle, is the cofounder of Bea Better Eating and owner of NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy in NYC. To learn more about Bea Better Eating and our mission, please click here.

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