Body Neutrality

by Suzanne Manser, PhD

Body image is how you see your body, and how you feel and think about what you see. You may see your body differently than others do. This happens because body image is not based only on your physical body; it is influenced by a number of factors, including childhood experiences, time spent looking at particular media, mood, and stress level. People with negative body images have distorted views of their bodies and don’t like what they see. They judge their bodies as “bad” in some way. Positive body image, on the other hand, generally includes having an objectively clear view of one’s body, being able to appreciate one’s body, and having no connection between one’s body and one’s worth.

Having no connection between one’s body and one’s worth. That is a tall order. How many of us can say that zero of our self-esteem comes from how we see our bodies? Not me, unfortunately (I’m working on it). Millions of us have attached our worth, to varying degrees, to how we think we look. Society is crystal clear about which body shapes and sizes are “acceptable” and which are not. And if our thighs or bellies or our whole bodies do not meet society’s standards, we actually feel as if we are inferior human beings to someone with a flat stomach and a thigh gap.

In our society, having a flat stomach and a thigh gap means something if you identify as a female. It means you are better than other people, somehow. You are more desirable. And if you have bought into this myth, you feel bad about yourself if you don’t fit this mold. You feel undesirable, perhaps unworthy. You might even feel shame. This is the legacy of unacceptability. This is the epitome of negative body image.

Thanks to the dedication of many, the societal pendulum is starting to swing. The body positivity movement, started in the 60s, encourages us to accept all bodies and divorce our worth from them. Word is getting out that you can be Healthy At Any Size (HAES ®). Organizations like Be Nourished are teaching people how to trust their bodies. We are finally starting to validate the spectrum of body sizes, though there is still a very long way to go.

People are starting to get the message that bodies should not be objects of judgment. Those of us who struggle with negative body image are trying to let go of the notion that there is an “ideal” body and accept ours. This can be a fairly enormous challenge. It can easily take months or years of work.

Many of us also hear the message from body positivity proponents that not only can you accept your body at any size, but you should also love and celebrate it. On the surface, this sounds wonderful (and surely is wonderful for some). Who doesn’t want to love their body?

Here is how I’ve seen this play out in my patients’ lives. These folks are on a journey of self-acceptance. They are struggling to not judge their imperfections, visible and invisible. It is often an all-day, exhausting struggle. Then they hear that there is a much more advanced goal that they should achieve – not just to accept, but to love their jiggly bits. Imagine asking someone who has just carried 200 lbs for 10 miles to add another 200 lbs and carry it another 25 miles. I have had patients in tears, feeling like a failure for not being “good” women/feminists/humans because they can’t figure out how to love their bellies.

I am here to say: it’s ok. It’s ok not to love your body or any part of it. It’s even ok not to have “love my body” as a goal on your to-do list. (This is by no means the same as saying, “It’s ok to hate your body,” just in case that needs to be said.) Not loving your body is not a failure.

Loving your body is not the only way to have a healthy relationship to your body. Body neutrality is another option. Body neutrality is exactly what it sounds like. You get to feel neutrally toward your body. There is no importance placed on the aesthetics of your body, bad or good. There is no focus on your body or on how you feel about your body beyond perhaps an appreciation that it allows you to be alive.

In other words, it’s not about whether you like how your thighs look or not. That question isn’t even on the table. Body neutrality is about accepting your body as it is in terms of size, shape, and ability, and moving on with your day. It is making the choice to focus on what is fulfilling in your life rather than on something that does not fulfill you.

One of the most important pieces of wisdom I’ve learned is that you get to define your life, and figuring out what is worth struggling with and fighting for is a key element. You have to know what makes the hard things worth doing in order to have the motivation to do them consistently over time. You also need to know what is not worth doing, for you, so you don’t waste your energy.

What is worth your time and energy and focus? For some, the energy and focus needed to work toward loving their body is worth it. For others, the gain they might get from loving their body is not worth the cost of that energy and focus. It is up to you to decide for yourself which path you want to go down. I just want to make sure you are aware of both paths.

Body neutrality is a good option to consider for those who don’t want to have their body images influence their days or their sense of self. For those who feel that loving their body is unattainable right now or ever. For those who experience loving their bodies as pressure. For those who feel excluded or marginalized by the body positive movement. For those who have other things they want to focus on.

For some, body neutrality is their final destination. For others, it is a waystation on the way to loving and celebrating their body. Both are ok.