Episode Three: Becoming Body Neutral
What’s the difference between body neutrality and body positivity?
For people who don’t like what they see in the mirror, the idea of loving one’s body unconditionally can feel like an unattainable goal. Body neutrality supports the idea that unlearning internalized body shame doesn’t have to mean replacing it with unconditional positive regard, and can mean instead that you view your body without judgment of any kind. Body neutrality also makes space for people to work toward fat liberation even when their feelings about their body aren’t entirely positive. “I want to fight for my rights, but I might be doing that on a day when I don't feel that great about my body, or when I just don't feel that much about my body,” says fat activist Tigress Osborn. “I don't have to be in a sort of 'rah rah' spirit about how much I love everything about myself.”
The concept of body neutrality also represents a critique of the body positivity movement, which in recent years has been represented as little more than a trend for thin, white influencers on social media. Body neutrality, on the other hand, re-centers fat bodies in conversations about fat acceptance and emphasizes the role of intersectional identity in the movement toward fat liberation.
- What sources of body-related messaging do you encounter on a given day?
- What kinds of bodies are centered within this messaging?
- What steps might you take to cultivate a neutral relationship with your body, especially if body positivity feels out of reach?
What’s the harm in complimenting someone on their physical appearance?
Nowadays, it’s generally considered unacceptable to make unsolicited critiques of other people’s bodies. However, what’s less known is how positive comments about someone’s appearance can also perpetuate harm. “We know from research that it's not just negative body comments that hurt,” says psychotherapist Zoë Bisbing. “Positive body comments can hurt, too, because it increases our kind of self-objectification muscle, and we think about: Oh, this person's pleased by me because of the way I look.”
Fully embracing body neutrality requires that we see our bodies as neither good nor bad, and that we refocus our compliments to point out internal characteristics rather than external ones. Bisbing says this shift in how we compliment others requires some intentional rewiring on our part. To illustrate, she uses the example of a child who has put together an outfit of cowboy boots, pajamas, and a raincoat. While our instinct might be to comment on the child’s appearance, she suggests that we focus the compliment on the personal traits that led to this “fantastically bizarre” ensemble: Wow, you’re so creative. How did you think to put those things together?
Let's dig deeper:
- How do you comment on other people’s bodies?
- How do you make comments about your own body in the presence of others?
- What comments about your appearance from others have stuck with you…and why?
- What are some strategies for reframing appearance-based compliments to praise internal characteristics?
How can I counter my own negative body talk?
Many people find it helpful to draw upon the tenants of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy when a negative body thought arises, but fostering body neutrality also means replacing the negative thought with a neutral one.
For activist and author Virgie Tovar, stopping negative body talk in its tracks is a matter of teaching her brain not to react, and of developing an understanding of her body as part of the natural world: “Even going outside and seeing a tree or something and remembering like: Oh my god, I share a significant amount of DNA material with this tree, with this flower, with this bumblebee,” she says. “As someone who has been taught to be so apart and alien and to hate my body, I look at a tree and I'm like: I don't see any fault with that tree. I can't see any fault with myself either.”
Let's dig deeper:
- When are you most susceptible to body-critical thoughts?
- What are some neutral statements you could offer in response?
- What aspects of your personality and identity do you cherish that have nothing to do with your body?
- If you felt at peace with your body the way it is right now, what habits and beliefs would shift?
Virgie Tovar is a fat activist and host of the Rebel Eaters Club podcast. She is the author of The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color.
- “Is your workplace culture a threat to your eating disorder recovery?” (article) - Virgie Tovar
- “From New York to Instagram: The history of the body positivity movement” (article) - Tigress Osborn
- Full Bloom Project (podcast) - Zoë Bisbing