Body Neutrality

body neutral

Before I became aware of the voices contributing to the body image conversation, most of the information that I took in about my body related to its faults. Because most of the messages promoted by the media and big business are about how women’s bodies are wrong and offensive, and require products and diets and surgeries to correct their crimes. I started this blog as a way to help counteract some of those negative messages, and soon found a community of writers who were also working to stem the tide of negativity. We wanted to show women that they didn’t need to hate their bodies, and help them learn how to do that.

Lately, there has been a lot of thought-provoking rhetoric about the pressure to love your body. The conversation seems to have turned a corner, and now women are pushing back against the idea that they must love their bodies or feel ashamed for their personal shortcomings. I have linked to many of these essays in my roundups because I’ve found them fascinating, and because I want to use that space to explore topics and opinions that are relevant and thought-provoking even if the opinions expressed therein clash with my own. And I definitely respect that point of view. Our culture is rife with judgment, and it makes sense to me that some of the messages coming out of the body love movement could be interpreted to mean, “If you don’t commit to loving yourself just as you are, you’re failing yourself.”

But in mulling this collective response, I’ve realized two important things.

First and foremost, I don’t love my own body truly, completely, at all times, every day. And I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I don’t expect anyone else to do  so, either. I try to think lovingly about my body, be gentle with myself, forgive. I also try to push back against messages that tell me I’m not good enough, thin enough, tan enough, sculpted enough, young enough. For me, the goal is not a constant state of active, positive body love. It is a state of body neutrality. I spent many years actively hating my body so much that walking by mirrors filled me with loathing. It was exhausting and pointless. I am much happier now that I don’t feel that way anymore but I would never say that I’ve moved from active hate to constant, steady, active love. I accept my body. I know that hating it is a poor use of my energy, of which there is relatively little these days. I am content to feel body neutral, and to occasionally reach for something that feels more like body love.

Second, I believe that I may hear and respond to advice differently than many people. I see advice as opinion, no matter how expert or inexpert the person dishing it out may be. Aside from what I consider to be my own fundamental values – don’t lie, cheat, steal, or hurt, but do be kind, open, non-judgmental – I don’t see the world in shoulds and shouldn’ts. So when I am given advice or seek it out myself, I consider it to be just another opinion that I can add to my pool of information. Some advice can get preachy, and some advice-givers can get overbearing, but I very seldom feel like I am being told what I must do. And when I do feel that way, I brush it off. I am in charge of me, and I get to decide what’s best for me. If someone tells me I should eat more greens or get my oil changed every 1,000 miles or grow my hair out or love my body, I consider their input and make up my own mind. I do this even if they’re furiously judging me for doing something that they believe to be fundamentally right or wrong. Which is seldom the case anyway. In my experience, most advice comes from thought patterns like, “this worked for me, so maybe it would for you” or, “my own investigations or experiences have taught me this and I wanted to share my findings.” Not all, but most. Much as I love the famous quote, I don’t believe that feelings of inferiority are entirely contingent upon consent. But I do believe that, in most cases, I can trust myself to choose. Often when I write advice-filled posts, I remind you all to take what applies to you, discard the rest, and assume positive intent. I do those things, too.

Again, I have the utmost respect for the viewpoint that body love rhetoric can get oppressive. Because a flood of ANY rhetoric can get oppressive, because anything that makes you feel like there is one right way to feel about yourself will chafe, and because many people are dealing with lives and bodies that make “body love” virtually impossible. But when I see essays, suggestions, and advice from the body love community the main message I hear is that hating your body is counterproductive, not that loving your body is required. So if any of you have been feeling judged or shamed by the glut of “love your body” messages, I hope you’ll consider body neutrality as an alternative. And if any of you feel oppressed by the glut of advice floating around in the world, try to remember that you are in charge of you, and ONLY YOU get to decide what’s best for you.

Image courtesy summerbl4ck

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33 Responses to “Body Neutrality”

  1. Lucy

    Interesting. I will say that I do get a bit irritated by the assumption that as I am a woman I automatically hate parts of myself. In truth I don’t really think about it. I don’t love my body or hate it – it is what it is and I appreciate that it works. I think I would find scrutinising myself for things to appreciate every day just as exhausting as finding bits to criticise. It would probably be a mental boost to do the former though I guess!

    • meg

      Agreed! What I find most oppressive – or maybe the better word is condescending? – is the idea that we’re all just living in the shadow of our terrible body image. I mean, I understand that some people are and that given our culture we.all probably have moments when we do, but aren’t most of us just.living life, doing our best, and not thinking about it that much?

  2. Serene

    A trainer friend of mine would encourage he clients to “let your body just BE. Stop trying to MAKE it into something”. I have really taken that to heart. The body love movement (and the body hate movement too, for that matter) can seem incredibly narcissistic. Our bodies are merely vessels. They aren’t symbols of our worth or beauty. They’re just BODIES. Feed them well. Move them well. And where your body lands after that, is where it’s supposed to be. Good post! Serene

  3. BusyVP

    I agree. I’m 51 and now look at my body and concentrate on what I can improve over what I can’t. I will never be more than 5’2″ (though inside I at least 5’6″) My breasts are moving south – I can’t do anything about that but buy better bras. I have embraced an eating and exercise routine that keeps my body healthy and looking the best it can be for the amount of effort I am willing to expend. That is what makes me happy. Being at peace with my body in the mirror is love enough.

  4. Janice

    Nice article, Sally. I think as we grow older, we do not care so much what people think. I was always heavy and had bad teeth that really played with my self esteem. My Dad always told me, Beauty is as beauty does. I try to be the best me I can be whether it is dressing or whatever. At 66, my main goal is just to be healthy! I do receive lots of compliments as to how I dress and look now. I do love clothes and in the last 4-5 years have been reading blogs to try to find out what is best for my body. I make it my hobby! My teeth are now the store bought variety and I am now pleasingly plump, but considering, not bad. I like me soooo much better!

  5. Em

    I’m just curious, and I think it would be helpful for anyone with this experience to share – what do you say now at the mirror, instead of the hateful things? I mean, what is that brain flip that you’ve done — how did you stop saying awful things? was it by replacing those words with other words? If so, what? I’m especially interested in the words you used when you first started to re-form your habit.

    I for one would love to hear them, as I am experiencing active body…er, loathing…for the first time in my life at 40. At least for the first time regularly. Hearing some other word-strategies would help.

    • Sally

      You know, Em, I’m glad you asked this because I hadn’t really thought about it! I’ve done some in-the-mirror mantras, but more recently. A bit further away from those days when looking in the mirror made me cringe. I think that back then, what I did was try to see myself with curiosity rather than loathing. Removing some of the emotion from the equation helped me, and since I was learning about my body through the medium of style I tried to examine myself and instead of recoiling from things, contemplate them as facts. And figure out how I wanted to dress, react to, and live with them. Does that make sense?

      In terms of the mantras I’ve used since then – and these are mirror things – my favorites are variants of:

      This is you, and you are good.
      My body is strong and capable.
      I accept myself and acknowledge my beauty.
      I am a whole, not parts.

      I’m sorry to hear you are struggling yourself right now, and hope this is somewhat helpful. This post also contain some mantra suggestions:
      https://www.alreadypretty.com/2012/05/body-image-mantras-for-doubters.html

    • stacey k

      how about “DANG GURRRRRRRL! you FINE!” in the sassiest voice you can muster? works for me.

  6. Susan in Boston

    One of the better observations on this subject that I’ve run across:

    The church says: The body is a sin. Science says: The body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The body says: I am a fiesta.

    Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan writer

  7. Amy in Austin

    “I am in charge of me, and I get to decide what’s best for me. If someone tells me I should eat more greens or get my oil changed every 1,000 miles or grow my hair out or love my body, I consider their input and make up my own mind.”

    What a powerful statement! For me playing sport where every body is valued and later learning about fitness and nutrition set me free from most of the media onslaught. I know how to eat and how to move my body to achieve certain goals. I am able to say “I am strong” and “I am well nourished” with confidence. I also know that if I wanted to look like a figure athlete I could do so, but I am also aware of the sacrifices necessary and the likelihood that my endocrine system would not handle such an endeavor well. (Getting away from the gym where nearly all the female trainers were close to 12% body fat helped as well.) I’m still not perfect and look at my parts with disdain at times, but mostly I try to replace that mantra with “I am strong and beautiful” or “I like the balance of training, nutrition, and fun in my life.” Like everything else, though, I fully believe everyone needs to find what works for them.

  8. kjlangford

    I think I first read about body neutrality here on your blog and I immediately connected with it because it’s what I naturally do. Minus some hatred as a teenager for my flat chest, I’ve always just thought “that’s what I look like.” A mirror was just an observation tool. I have friends who get very frustrated when they put on weight or change shape (for really good reasons, like, I don’t know, pregnancy! And of course, if you’re happy and healthy then any reasoning behind changing shape or gaining/losing weight is a good one!) and I told one of them once, “you know, when I put on clothes and look in the mirror, and I don’t like what I see, I usually just decide that I don’t have to wear that. I’ve decided to only wear things that look good to my eye, so noticing that my hips are kind of big is just information for me, and I adapt accordingly.” she stared at me like I had a 3rd eye, and then said “I wish I could think that way.” And that’s when I realized that I arrived into adulthood pretty unscathed on the body image front. But I do think anyone can think this way.

  9. Virginia

    As much as I’m all for loving your body, it sometimes feels like people take that to the extreme. When I decided to go on a diet I got a lot of people encouraging me but I also got people who seemed to think it meant I hated myself. I didn’t hate myself, I just don’t want to wheeze when I run.

    • Annabeth

      ITA. While I welcome the increasing rebellion against harsh, artificial standards for our bodies, I have sometimes felt that some of the voices out there go too far, being negative/fatalistic about things like exercise and eating healthy, and conflating a desire to be strong and fit with conforming to the values of the patriarchy. Sort of feels like the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

  10. Jaya

    you dont HAVE a soul.. you ARE a soul, you HAVE a body.
    repeat this a million times to a million women and men.
    take care of your body, only enough to serve your soul.
    you DONT need to love your body.

    think about a car that you take for a long trip.. you take care of it because you dont want it to break down in the middle of the journey. whether you have a shiny pretty one or a puffing wheezing one, how much you LOVE it does not matter.. how you take care of it, matters more.

  11. Marsha

    I like the idea of body neutrality, and think this is closest to my own beliefs. I’ve pretty much always felt neutral about my body, and much the same about other people’s bodies, too. The body is just the shell that carries around the real person.
    I think body love is like body hate–too much emphasis on the body, whether positive or negative, can be destructive.

  12. malevolent andrea

    I think of loving your body like loving a relative, friend, or spouse. You can love it (them) and treat it (them) with kindness, respect, and gentleness, without *liking* every single facet of it (them) at all times. With that interpretation in mind, the commandment to love my body seems less of an indictment of wanting to lose or gain weight or dissatisfaction with one’s hair or skin or wrinkles than a gentle reminder to treat my own body the way I would treat anyone I care about.

  13. Stephanie

    I often find myself torn when it comes to these concepts. Personally I had to loose weight to feel good about myself or at least I did loose weight and during that process started to feel good about myself. I feel like much of the body love community as well as the fat acceptance community look down on those of us who worked hard to loose weight and continue to work to maintain their size. Its hard bc I don’t think everyone needs to do what I did but I do think loosing weight and becoming someone who is physically fit is what lead me to loving my body. I guess all this babbling is just to say that we all find our way to body love or at least acceptance differently and at least within reason they should all be considered OK.

  14. Coleen

    When it comes to body acceptance and neutrality, I find mental training to be extremely helpful. I’ve gained a fair bit of weight since this time last year, due to a few changes in lifestyle and diet. It’s a struggle a lot of days to accept my body and to be who I am now without wishing I was another me from the past or some imaginary me from the future.

    Yoga is helpful to me in this regard, especially practicing in classes with other people. Alone, I’m not challenged not to self-snark when faced with bodies that are bendier, more toned, and more skinny than my own. In class, I have to focus on the physical aspect and I can challenge myself to focus on body acceptance mentally. If I lose focus, I have an immediate consequence in the physical aspect. I was falling a lot yesterday in the balances because I kept berating myself for not having a stomach like the girl in front of me.

    This could work for people of all sizes and in many types of exercise.

    • E B Snare

      Coleen I know exactly what you mean about yoga! In group class I often find myself looking at other people’s flexibility/inflexibility and passing some silent judgement. It’s counterproductive and yes, just like you it affects my practice! We did a class with blindfolds and now, I close my eyes as much as I can. I forget what it looks like and just feel it.

      Elly

  15. Rena

    Okay, but you “should” change your oil! 🙂

    Everything else sounds good!

  16. E B Snare

    Lovely post Sally and something I’ve been mulling over recently in the shift from body-negativity to body-positivity.

    One of the difficulties I have is that we’ve swung away from ‘size 0/ad babes’ into ‘celebrating normal women’ – that’s great. But often when I read through blogs celebrating curvy women, ‘normal’ women…they’re a lot curvier than me. They have beautiful big thighs, bosom, hips and bottom, luscious long locks and fabulous skin. They aren’t pear-shaped, shaven-headed, glasses-wearing ginger girls.

    I feel like, sometimes, rather than saying ‘every body is normal’ we’ve found another stereotype (archetype?) to believe in. I don’t want to BE either stereotype, so body neutrality/occasional love is perfect, but at the same time I don’t want body-normality to be framed in a way that only really fits certain shapes of women (and people).

    Sometimes the body love message is framed around a very tight conception of what is ‘normal’ – or maybe, popular at the time? – and if you don’t fit into that bracket (whether it’s Kate Moss or Christina Hendricks) it can feel as though you’re not doing body love ‘right’.

    Very complex subject but some brilliant comments here!

    Elly

  17. Fiona

    Hi Sally,
    As a person who has struggled with self love over the years, I have really appreciated what you had to say with this message. By all means we do not want the subject to be: not loving self = you’ve failed. The body neutrality idea seems to be a great place to go, and hopefully we could all get to a place of self acceptance!

  18. Veronica

    In reading your blog I’ve realized that I’ve had body neutrality for most of my life. Sure there were aspects of certain parts I didn’t like, but it was the thing happening to my body, not my body itself. Acne, 2 impacted teeth that didn’t get brought down until I was in my 20’s, funky toe nails. I did go through a period of body loathing after my second child was born, because my body didn’t feel like it was ‘me’ anymore. I worked my butt off, literally, and reclaimed my body. Now after 4 children I accept my body while still trying to improve its’ strength and endurance. I love your blog and I’m hoping my girls have body neutrality/love as they get older. (I am working with instilling that in them now)

  19. Marsha Calhoun

    These comments fascinate me – such self-insight is inspiring. As for me, I think part of my body issue, if there is one, is that I only get one – unless I anticipate having an awareness of future (or past) lives, I will never know what it’s like to be conventionally pretty, or short, or a redhead, or a boy, or shaped like you-name-her, and I rather resent this. What would my world be like if I were a tiny blonde, or Asian? It would take a lifetime to find out in any meaningful way, but just for a day, I’d like to be able to try on other bodies and see what they felt like from the inside!

    • E B Snare

      Came back to this post to see the other comments and this is really interesting – would love to know what it’s like to ‘wear’ someone else’s body too. I imagine it would make us appreciate our own even more!

  20. Anne

    Your post made me think of something my uncle in a 12-Step Program sent me, a variation on the Serenity Prayer:

    God, grant me the serenity to accept the person I cannot change,
    Courage to change the person I can,
    And wisdom to know that it’s me!

    I think body acceptance doesn’t have to mean you adore everything about your body or spend time coming up with hollow affirmations. Try accepting those things you cannot change (for me it’s dry skin, fibromyalgia, limited energy). Then courageously work to change those things you can (for me it’s improving my body through yoga and massage or trying new body lotions or laying down when I am tired). Dress the body you have in a way that brings you the most joy and every now and then, look in the mirror and say, “You look adorable!”

  21. Tatiana

    This is interesting.

    I’m not a supporter of body love, in any capacity because I don’t think that loving your body is productive. This is why I enjoyed many of the examples other commenters have about your body as a vessel for your spirit and that your body is a machine that needs tending. Loving your car isn’t what helps it run better or longer – actively taking care of it and not skimping on things it needs does. And you don’t have to love your car – or body – to do those things. It’s an issue of practically. Do you really want your body to be so run down that you can’t perform simple or various tasks because you neglected it?

    It’s not about self – hate (because I don’t love my body, nor is that going to change), but about your long term vision. Does having a functioning body factor into where you want to be in the next 5-10 years? If so, then you need to do what’s necessary to maintain your vessel.

    Additionally, the comment about privilege in body-love I enjoyed (well, it didn’t state it specifically, but body love advocates who are the loudest tend to be white, american, hetero, cis-gendered, able bodied, non-thin women. These are the type of people who worship Christina Hendricks – she’s white and has large breasts which is reminiscent of the population who chatter about body love the most. It’s not really a conversation that includes what it means to be black, queer, small, thin. It’s a conversation inclusive for those who are disabled – and ultimately have “different” bodies and different challenges with their bodies”. It’s not really talked about in any productive or mainstream way and it definitely needs to be!).

    So yeah, great post!

  22. Franca

    This is why I always use the term body acceptance not body love. While I totally appreciate all the amazing things my body can do, I wouldn’t really say I love it, and i don’t see that I should. I dislike a lot of things about it, but I have gained enough perspective to know that doesn’t matter. My aim is to not really think about my body as a thing that I have an opinion on, but to just live in it and make use of it. I feel I’m pretty successful in that.