Your body is an incredible, complex machine. But if you’re like many people, you may often find yourself thinking about your body in a negative light. From magazines to social media, the public is constantly bombarded with images of “body goals” and “fitspo” — and unfortunately, this means that some folks subscribe to unrealistic beauty standards and feel pressured to force their bodies into shapes that are not attainable.
This negative phenomenon has given rise to two different schools of thought that attempt to completely reframe how people think about their bodies: body positivity and body neutrality. Let’s talk about these two social movements and how they can reshape your relationship with your body and your understanding of what it really means to be healthy.
“Body positivity” is a social movement that promotes the acceptance of bodies of all sizes. One of its main goals is to challenge society’s beauty standards, which tend to favor thin, able bodies over overweight and obese bodies.
The history of the body positivity movement
The modern body positivity movement has its roots in the Fat Acceptance Movement of the 1960s, which began as a means of ending fat-shaming and creating space for marginalized bodies. The Fat Acceptance Movement gave rise to many key moments in the quest to end body-shaming. For example, the National Association To Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded in 1969 by Bill Fabrey as an activist group that aimed to end body discrimination on a systemic scale. Later, the Internet Age of the early 2000s allowed fat activists to increase their visibility and promote body positivity on a much more widespread and intersectional scale. These efforts were often spearheaded by marginalized communities, including POC and queer folx.
These days, you can find a lot of body positivity on social media, through trending hashtags like #BodyPositivity and #BoPo that are intent on celebrating bodies of all different sizes, shapes, and colors.
How body positivity can help you
First and foremost, the body positivity movement has been instrumental in making many people feel seen, valued, and worthy even if they aren’t as thin and/or able-bodied as the current beauty standards dictate.
One of its more powerful effects has been to increase society’s exposure to different kinds of bodies through various media. As it turns out, this increased exposure actually helps to normalize different kinds of bodies, which goes on to have a large ripple effect on societal standards at large. This point was illustrated by a 2021 study that found that people’s perception of the “ideal body type” depended on the bodies that they were looking at. Participants in the study were exposed to images of various bodies and instructed to pick the bodies closest to their “ideal body.” When participants were presented with larger body arrays, they were more likely to select an average weight as their ideal body than those who viewed the arrays consisting of smaller bodies.
The key takeaway here: the ideal body size is not set in stone and can be changed with increased exposure to more diverse body types.
On an individual level, the body positivity movement may help people improve their own self-perception, which could potentially help combat low self-esteem and issues like disordered eating. Social media, especially image-based platforms like Instagram, has an obvious and well-researched effect on how people understand beauty standards and view their own body image, and body-positive content is one of the only social media trends that can skew consumers’ perceptions of body image for the better.
Criticisms of the body positivity movement
Even though the body positivity school of thought sounds wholesome on the surface, critics say it does come with its share of downsides.
First and foremost, one common issue is that the modern-day interpretation of the movement has changed so much over the years that it is no longer as inclusive as it could be. Even though Black, queer, and disabled people played pivotal roles in bringing the Fat Acceptance movement into the digital age and creating the body positivity movement as it’s known today, these marginalized communities aren’t always represented in its current manifestations on social media. While hashtags like #BodyPositivity and #BoPo have skyrocketed in popularity, they don’t showcase as much diversity and intersectionality as the original founders of the movement intended, which can leave many marginalized folks feeling largely excluded from a movement that was supposed to benefit them.
In addition, there are also concerns that marketers have “hijacked” the body positivity movement as a means to advertise their products, some of which are markedly problematic and contrary to the movement’s original beliefs. One key example of this is the position that the reality television family the Kardashians has taken on body positivity. Kim Kardashian and her family are often seen touting body-positive ideas on social media, such as encouraging their followers to embrace their curves. Unfortunately, they also promote products like appetite-suppressing supplements and shapewear, which seem to contradict those “love yourself as you are” posts and instead promote unrealistic beauty standards.
There’s also the issue of how body positivity can spur “toxic positivity,” leaving many people battling with their negative emotions and feelings of low self-worth on a quieter scale. Because body positivity advocates for loving your body no matter what, it can cause some people to bury their negative feelings about themselves, rather than dealing with them in a healthy way. Unfortunately, suppressing your emotions isn’t always a helpful behavior: in fact, one study found that it can actively hurt your health. Case in point: a different study found that positive self-statements really helped people who already had high self-esteem and actually believed those statements, but made people with lower self-esteem feel worse since they didn’t actually believe in what they were saying.
In other words, the pressure to stay positive still places a huge amount of pressure on your body image, and repressing your negative emotions in an effort to love yourself at all times is not only unrealistic but harmful, in some cases.
Finally, the fine line between body positivity and health deserves a mention. While body positivity can have a beneficial effect on how people view themselves, it can also leave medical professionals struggling to address the real issues that may result from some dietary and lifestyle choices. Some critics of the body positivity movement fear that the increasing acceptance and normalization of bigger bodies may mask the potential health consequences that can come with higher body weights.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that having a larger body type than societal beauty standards dictate is automatically going to be a detriment to your health. Your risk of health issues and comorbidities is highly individualized. They can change depending on whether you’re classified as moderately overweight or obese on the Body Mass Index (BMI) scale, with your risks generally increasing as your BMI does. Interestingly, there’s also evidence that excess weight can affect people of different ethnicities differently. For example, one study found that Black women lost fewer years of life with increasing BMI than white women did, highlighting the importance of viewing health through a bigger lens than body weight alone.
It’s also worth noting that many misogynistic and fatphobic people use insincere arguments to mask their hatred of larger people. Saying “I’m just worried about their health!” is often a subtle means of criticizing people who don’t fit the thin ideal, a tactic known as “concern trolling.” Most concern trolls don’t actually care about the health of the people they’re criticizing – they’re merely using this argument as a tool to cloak their discomfort with bigger bodies. Ultimately, it’s simplistic to conclude that being overweight automatically equals being unhealthy, and it’s up to health professionals (and not Internet trolls) to lead discussions about weight and wellbeing.
As opposed to body positivity, which encourages people to feel beautiful and confident at any size, body neutrality advocates for completely eliminating physical appearance as part of a person’s self-worth. It recommends you focus more on how you feel in your body and what your body can do, rather than what your body looks like at any given time.
The origins of body neutrality
The idea of body neutrality is fairly new, especially when compared to the long-standing history of body positivity in all of its various iterations over the years. The concept of “body neutrality” really started to take off around 2016 and is often credited to Anne Poirier, a body image coach who started the Body Neutrality Workshop in 2015. Body neutrality has become a huge part of the body image conversation since, with celebrities like Jameela Jamil and Taylor Swift reportedly celebrating body neutrality rather than body positivity.
Why body neutrality may help you
One of the best perks of practicing body neutrality is that it takes away much of the pressure that many people feel when it comes to their body image. Again, while the idea of feeling positive about your body at any size is generally a good one, it still places a huge amount of attention and focus on physical appearance, and in many ways may still objectify people and relate their feelings of self-worth to their physique (albeit in a different way than conventional beauty standards might). So in some cases, body neutrality, which eliminates your appearance from your self-worth “calculation” completely, might be a better fit for you.
Body neutrality can be especially helpful for people who have historically suffered from poor self-image and low self-esteem. Since it eliminates your looks from the equation, body neutrality gives you space to accept your body without forcing you to immediately adopt a positive view of it, which can be challenging if you were raised with unrealistic beauty ideals, as many Americans were.
Because the body neutrality movement is fairly new, there isn’t much research on its long-term effects yet. However, there is evidence that health interventions that focus on good habits, rather than body image, may be more effective long-term. A great example of this is the Health At Every Size (HAES) Initiative, which focuses on encouraging people to implement healthy lifestyle habits without making dieting and body weight the main point of the conversation. Studies have found that HAES interventions can reduce the psychological distress that comes with more traditional dieting approaches while at the same time increasing participants’ physical fitness levels. There’s also evidence that people who participate in HAES interventions may be able to sustain these positive behavioral changes for longer than people who participate in traditional diet interventions.
Criticisms of body neutrality
Viewing your body through the lens of body neutrality (or in other words, not really thinking about your body at all) can take away some of the pressure that many people feel to be body positive. But body neutrality can still present some of the same issues that the body positivity movement can: specifically, it might lead you to ignore the health implications of being overweight or obese.
Even though moving away from “dieting lifestyles” and using different approaches like Health At Every Size can lead to improved psychological outcomes and long-term good habits versus traditional dieting approaches, the studies also show that it also does not result in significant changes in body mass. Of course, this isn’t the end goal of body neutrality approaches to begin with. But researchers have long established that, for people with higher BMIs, even a modest weight loss of about 5-10% of your body weight is associated with a variety of improvements for chronic health conditions like high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This leaves some critics worried that the body neutrality approach is actually masking proven solutions for chronic health concerns.
There also just isn’t enough high-quality and inclusive research right now surrounding the effects of non-dieting approaches on a larger scale since many of the existing studies use small sample sizes and less-diverse study groups. Ultimately, the research around HAES is still so new that there just is not enough evidence to suggest that HAES, or body neutrality in general, is a superior approach to obesity on a public health scale versus other strategies.
Practicing body positivity vs. practicing body neutrality
So, to sum up the key differences between body positivity and body neutrality: body positivity encourages you to feel beautiful and love your body at any size, while body neutrality focuses more on how your daily habits make you feel rather than on how you look.
To better understand the differences between the two, let’s compare what body positivity vs. body neutrality practices might look like. For example:
- Someone who actively practices body positivity might look in the mirror and give themselves positive affirmations about how their body is beautiful. They might highlight the physical assets that they really like about themselves and actively challenge Eurocentric, heteronormative, able-bodied, upper-class, and thin beauty ideals.
- Meanwhile, someone who practices body neutrality wouldn’t focus on the image in the mirror at all, instead focusing on how they feel from day to day. They might set fitness goals based on performance, not physique changes, and practice intuitive eating rather than counting calories.
The bottom line: Should I practice body positivity or body neutrality?
The short answer: Neither body positivity nor body neutrality is better than the other!
Both schools of thought have their benefits, especially when it comes to fighting objectification, countering today’s beauty standards, and removing the shame and stigma that people who have bodies outside of the thin ideal may feel. So ultimately, choosing between body positivity and body neutrality comes down to what works best for you and how you feel about your body image.
You can also always practice bits of both to get the best of both worlds! For example, you can pull healthy, feelings-centric practices from the body neutrality movement while still remembering to celebrate your unique features with a little bit of body positivity.
No matter which way you choose to view yourself, it’s important to remember that there’s a delicate balance between managing your self-esteem and looking after your health. Both movements take the focus away from dieting and an unhealthy obsession with the scale, but you should still be keeping track of health metrics like body composition and bloodwork on a regular basis to monitor what’s going on beneath the surface, so you can make proactive lifestyle changes when necessary.
Either way, adopting a healthier view of your body, whether in the positive or neutral frame, can help you treat yourself with a little more respect and kindness — something virtually everyone can benefit from.