What Is Body Neutrality, Exactly?
Body positivity — the movement encouraging people to love and celebrate their bodies as they are right now — has become decidedly mainstream in recent years. Magazines have banned the term "bikini body"; bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities are now featured in major ad campaigns and on Fashion Week runways; and motivational quotes about eating the damn cupcake continue to pop up seemingly everywhere. But body positivity has one major limitation: It keeps the focus on beauty or feeling beautiful as the primary goal when there is so much more to everyone than the way you, she, they look. By contrast, body neutrality takes a more holistic approach to bodies, which can help you move away from the hyperfocus on body image, and into gratitude for everything your body does for you. (Related: Where the Body-Positivity Movement Stands and Where It Needs to Go)
What Is Body Neutrality?
Today's culture places a huge amount of importance on what bodies look like. When your body doesn't conform to the current "ideal," it can cause you to worry about it excessively, sometimes to the point of disordered eating or compulsive exercising, which in turn negatively impacts both your mental and physical health.
While body positivity keeps you thinking about your appearance, body neutrality makes space for every other aspect of your life. "Body neutrality is exactly what it sounds like: generally feeling neutral about your body most days," says Casey Bonano, R.D., a Dallas-based registered dietitian with a non-diet approach. "It means sometimes you feel positive about your body, you may have some negative thoughts, but often you may just not think about your body much at all." (See also: Racism Needs to Be Part of the Conversation About Dismantling Diet Culture)
But practicing body neutrality does not mean never thinking about your body at all. Instead, it's about reframing how you think about it. "Body neutrality goes beyond what our body looks like and into what the body does, what it has to offer, and how it can be a channel and vehicle to living a full and joyful life," says Maria Sorbara Mora, R.D., a registered dietitian and founder of Integrated Eating in New York City.
Now, if body neutrality is starting to sound familiar, that's likely because you've scrolled past lengthy captions about the concept on Instagram or heard some of Hollywood's biggest names (cough, Taylor Swift) share their thoughts on the topic. From The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil to Body Talk author (and all-around badass influencer) Katie Sturino, a seemingly increasing number of people have been pushing for body neutrality over the past few years, and it's understandable why. Body neutrality emerged to bridge the gaps left by the body positivity movement, which, while generally constructive, has tended to fall short when it comes to fat acceptance, explains Mora. "In 2015, to navigate away from the association between physical appearance and self-worth, the term 'body neutrality' was coined by bloggers, influencers, intuitive eating clinicians, and even celebrities."
How Is Body Neutrality Different from Body Positivity?
By now, you may understand the broad-stroke differences between body positivity and body neutrality — but how, exactly, do they look different in practice? For Mora, both movements encourage appreciation for bodies, but they come at it from a different angle. That means a body-positive comment might sound like, "I love my stomach, stretchmarks and bloat and all. It is beautiful," whereas a body-neutral comment would sound like, "I love and appreciate my stomach. It is my core and the center of my being. My stomach works hard to digest foods and give me energy," she explains. (BTW, self-love and body positivity aren't necessarily the same things, either.)
For Bonano, the distinction lies more in not allowing thoughts about your body to get in the way of pursuing the things you care about, even if you don't love how you look all the time. "I think [body positivity and body neutrality] are actually one and the same, but the body positive movement is often misleading," she says. "The reality is that someone with healthy body image doesn't feel overly positive about their body all the time or even that often. Healthy body image is actually moving through your life without allowing what you or others think about your body to dictate what or when you do something."
Is Body Neutrality for Everyone?
Simply put, integrating the principles of body neutrality into everyday life can benefit anyone because it's akin to practicing gratitude, says Mora — that is, actively and mindfully taking the time to appreciate the good in your life. "Studies show that practicing gratitude supports positive mental health in both well-adjusted folks as well as those struggling with mental health issues." And a huge part of body neutrality is learning to be grateful for your body in non-appearance-related ways. "[This] suggests that practicing body neutrality can aid in better wellbeing for those who already appreciate their bodies as well as those who may struggle with body acceptance," she adds. (See also: Practicing Gratitude Can Change Your Life — Here's How)
Practicing body neutrality may be especially helpful for those struggling with eating disorders because body positivity can be an unrealistic — and sometimes unhelpful — approach. "Body neutrality complements eating disorder recovery in that it creates a larger focus beyond appearance and towards deeper purpose," says Mora. "Body neutrality promotes self-acceptance." Those at risk for or experiencing EDs tend towards perfectionism, body image dissatisfaction, and a need for control, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. It helps to shift away from these tendencies towards more self-acceptance and flexibility.
While the body-neutrality movement involves focusing on, well, the body, it also emphasizes that you, as a person, are so much more than just a body. In other words, practicing body neutrality involves recognizing your value as an overall, multifaceted being: someone with, yes, a body but also a vibrant personality, a buzzy brain, the list of features that make you, you (beyond your shape, size, or aesthetics) goes on. By accepting your body for what it is — the, err, thing that houses you — you can better recognize and embrace your countless other features.
How Can You Start Practicing Body Neutrality?
When put into play, body neutrality will look different for everyone — after all, everyone's relationship with their body is unique. That said, there are plenty of concrete actions you can take to try integrating body neutrality into your own lifestyle.
Channel gratitude. When you wake up in the morning, take a moment to be thankful that you've given your body rest and restoration, recommends Mora. This could be as easy as lying or sitting still and saying "thank you" to yourself.
Be objective. When you look into the mirror, instead of thinking about how a body part looks, consider what it does for you — a mindfulness strategy that's technically called "mirror acceptance" or "mirror exposure." By describing your body in the most factual and descriptive terms, you're working to develop a more unbiased approach to your body, NYC-based clinical psychologist Terri Bacow, Ph.D., previously told Shape.
Make mindfulness a habit. During movement — exercise, sport, dance — cultivate a sense of gratitude for what your body is doing in real-time, suggests Mora. Try mindfully acknowledging each movement and really noticing how the ground feels against your feet, for example. (Related: How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation Anywhere)
Practice compassion. When your body isn't feeling well — maybe you have an aching stomach after eating too fast (hey, it happens; you're busy!) or are experiencing a flare-up of a chronic condition — consider how amazing it is that your body has the strength to heal itself, whether just with time or a little help. But you don't have to always be in awe of your body. You can also practice body neutrality by simply recognizing and accepting facts such as "my stomach is sensitive" or "my joints don't always move easily." Try not to think about these as "bad" or things that need to be fixed but rather they're just realities. (See: Why You Need to Start Practicing Self-Compassion — and How to Do Just That)
Filter your actions and inner dialogue. For Bonano, understanding your values is key to practicing body neutrality. What do you want to spend your time on every day? What do you want to cultivate more of? What are your goals and passions? Questions such as these can help you shift your mindset and stop letting thoughts about your body rule your life. "Catch any negative or judgmental body thoughts and redirect your focus to the function of your body or something you want to spend more of your energy thinking about," she says. "Remind yourself that these thoughts are just thoughts, they don't have to influence your decisions." (Up next: 5 Shape Editors Share How They Really Feel About Their Body)