As someone in 18 years of eating disorder recovery, I have to be extra mindful when bikini season rolls around.
While the narrative around what constitutes a “good body” has shifted since I was 15 years old (cue US Weekly and Star magazine circa 2005), there still is an emphasis on what a “good” body is.
I’ve done a lot of work and therapy around my worth, body image, and loving myself. I’ve tried CBT, DBT, and trauma-informed therapy to help bridge the glaring gap between my mind and body (often, folks with a history of eating disorders and/or trauma experience a disconnection between mind and body).
When I started writing this article, imposter syndrome crept in. I still have tons of thoughts about hating my body. Who am I to offer advice or tools for others to love theirs?
I started doing some research, and started learning about Body Neutrality. I had heard of Body Positivity, and how the movement has been, as Lizzo says, “co-opted by all bodies.”
The more I read, the more I realized how the ways I’ve tried to heal my body image have still been centered in an individualistic, sexist, and misogynistic approach: the focus has still been on how my body looks.
I’m shifting towards Body Neutrality.
Body Neutrality emerged around 2015 as a method of seeing our bodies through the lens of our internal senses (how does it feel?) instead of external (how does it look?).
The key part of Body Neutrality is the effort to neutralize the body; meaning taking out the emotional charge behind our bodies needing to look a certain way.
Neutralizing our bodies doesn’t mean that we’re ignoring our bodies: what we’re ignoring are beauty standards.
Instead of focusing on loving our bodies all the time, we focus on accepting and acknowledging our feelings towards our bodies on a day-to-day basis.
Neutralizing also means removing the charge we have around other bodies, meaning we reduce comparison and insecurity in the presence of bodies that reflect whatever the current beauty standard might be.
How can we do that? By looking beyond the external and paying attention to the person inside the body--both our own, and others. Putting more focus and value on these aspects automatically decreases the charge and value of physical appearance and is also the basis for making genuine connections as human beings.
Body Neutrality is a collective approach to healing negative body image.
Body Neutrality may be a great option for folks with a history of eating disorders, body dysmorphia, trauma, stigma, or gender dysphoria.
“For transgender and non-binary individuals, and people in other marginalized bodies and disabled bodies, body neutrality is a more realistic and inclusive [eating disorder] treatment goal than body positivity.”
Eating Recovery Center regional medical director Elizabeth Wassenaar reminds us that no movement is a one size fits all, and that each individual has autonomy and choice for what resonates on their journey to healing negative body image.
"People can benefit from body neutrality and body positivity at different times in their lives or for different reasons," she notes.
Body Neutrality is, for many, a point on the spectrum of their body image journey, not necessarily an arrival point.
While Body Positivity has been criticized for toxic positivity, the focus on what my body does of Body Neutrality comes with able-bodied privilege.
Though Body Neutrality might not be right for everyone, activist Virgie Tovar notes that it is still a victory in a “culture that currently teaches people to hate their bodies.”
If Body Neutrality doesn’t align, I invite you to investigate Body Acceptance, Body Liberation, and Body Positivity and find an approach that meets you where you’re at. (It is your body after all.)
Practicing this may be hard, as it rejects mainstream culture on multiple levels. The idea is to accept the fact that some days, you might not love your body. And that’s ok. The goal is not total body-love, the goal is to broaden what our framework for being human is, and to put our energy there instead.
Get honest with yourself about your relationship to your body.
How much time every day do you spend thinking about how it looks? How much time do you spend focusing on what your body does for you? What are your feelings about other people’s bodies?
Write gratitude statements for what your body does, rather than how it looks. You can also find gratitude for how it feels or works.
The same goes for affirmations. Try “neutral” affirmations about what your body does, how it feels, and how it supports you. For example: “my body gets me from my bed to the kitchen” or “my stomach digests all the food I eat.”
You can also write what your limits are as acceptance statements, like “I don’t respond well to loud noises” or “I don’t do high intensity exercise because I have a heart condition.” This allows you to meet yourself where you are in acceptance.
Start to re-assess your values and hobbies, and bring in how your body lets you do those things.
What do you like to do? How does your body allow you to do those things? What do you need to do to care for your vessel so you can do what you love?
This takes the focus away from how your body looks, and what it can do for your joy and living.
Mindfulness strengthens our ability to stay in the present moment, which can help if you’re spiraling into those comparison thoughts. Start to pay attention at meal time to what your body is asking you for.
What do you want to eat? How does the food taste, smell, feel? What does your body say to you when you eat?
The more you pay attention to your body’s cues before, during, and after meals, the more you train your mind to see your body and food as being in relationship, instead of conflict.
The same is true for movement. Ask your body how it wants to move.
Does it want a long walk outside? A playful gym session? Recreational sports and connection with other humans? Big stretches to the sun?
The more mindful we can become with movement, the more we start to build a relationship with our bodies that is more about how it works and moves for us, rather than how it looks while it’s moving.
“You *will* feel shame at times about how you look and how your body falls short in terms of abilities, health and expectations. That's the nature of having a body -- especially in a sexist, objectifying culture that places too much value on how women appear. But you don't have to cope with that shame by punishing your body into fitting an arbitrary, unreachable beauty mold you've been prescribed.”
Body Neutrality takes a much more present-moment, mindful, and radical acceptance-based approach to thinking about the vessels that we live in.
For more radical acceptance and body neutrality, check out these humans below:
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