In the 2004 cult film “Mean Girls,” there’s a famous scene where each girl announces exactly what she hates about her body. “I’ve got man shoulders!” and “My hips are huge!” are a few memorable examples. This moment rang true for so many women, because at the time loving your body wasn’t the norm ― hating it was.
Fast forward 14 years. Now talking about your body in a positive light is more common than talking about it in a negative one, which is far better than the alternative. Models like Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday have become more mainstream than groundbreaking. Brands have started featuring more diverse body types in their ads. Fashion lines are finally becoming more inclusive. And more people have started celebrating their own bodies, both on social media and in real life.
Body positivity transformed from a radical idea to a movement, and with that came some incredible strides for acceptance. But, for some, body positivity can lead to outcomes that are the opposite of its intended effect: There’s an argument that the overly commercialized version of the movement can also lead to more, sometimes accidental, body scrutiny ― “Are my curves the right proportion?” ― or make people feel guilty on days they don’t feel body-positive.
The constant conversation is also making people more anxious. Research shows that when you regularly repeat positive affirmations that you don’t actually believe — or at least don’t believe every single day — they can backfire. In other words, if someone says, “I love every inch of my body!” on a day when they don’t feel that way, the subconscious mind will reject this affirmation and and make the person saying it feel more stressed out and resentful of their body as a result.
There’s no one solution here, but a different form of self-love might help in some ways. Cue body neutrality, a body image movement that’s slowly creeping into people’s vernacular. And it might just help your mental health.
Breaking Down Body Neutrality
In short, body neutrality is rooted in acknowledging what your body does, not how it appears. Your body allows you to exercise, travel the world and experience new cultures. Your body gives you the ability to hold hands or hug someone you love. Your body gets you from point A to point B.
The term “body neutrality” first started popping up in internet searches and blog posts around 2015, but gained more popularity when Anne Poirier of Colby-Sawyer College started started leading programs on it at the Vermont wellness retreat Green Mountain at Fox Run in 2016.
Poirier’s goal is to help participants acknowledge that loving their bodies isn’t always realistic. Sometimes, it’s OK to land somewhere in between ― in a more neutral place. Body neutrality is about seeing your body as a vehicle that, when treated with care, can help you move about the world in a way that brings you joy. That’s it. No thinking about how you look, either good or bad.
“When we spend less time thinking about our bodies, it affords us room to focus on other things.”
– Alison Stone, psychotherapist based in New York
“When we spend less time thinking about our bodies, it affords us room to focus on other things,” explained Alison Stone, a psychotherapist based in New York. “Obsessing, silently judging ourselves, and self-criticism take up a lot of mental energy. More importantly, these types of thoughts prevent us from enjoying experiences and being fully present in our lives.”
The Mental Health Perks Of This Mindset
Stone explained that while self-love regarding our bodies is important, it’s not always all that attainable in a society where we receive so many mixed messages about what the “ideal” body should look like.
“Too often, we fall into the black-or-white trap of either loving or hating our bodies, and I think this movement provides an opportunity for a middle ground. It provides an opportunity for acceptance,” Stone said.
Beyond that, Stone noted that body neutrality encourages mindfulness, which research shows can help reduce stress, rumination and emotional reactivity (just to name a few benefits).
“Body neutrality is simply about being,” she explained. “It’s about being without passing judgment or harboring strong emotions about how we look.”
Bobbi Wegner, a Boston-based clinical health psychologist who specializes in stress management, said that body neutrality can also lead to decreased anxiety and a better mood.
“Oftentimes women and men have an internalized voice in their head that is constantly criticizing their body,” she explained. “This type of negative self-talk can lead to increased anxiety, feelings of lack of control and hopelessness and sadness that can deepen into depression.”
How To Practice Body Neutrality
While anyone can see how body neutrality is beneficial in theory, as with most body-image-related movements, practicing it can be easier said than done. There’s still society’s body-centric commentary to contend with, whether it’s a friend remarking that you’ve lost weight and “look great” or a relative asking if you think they’ve put on pounds.
Stone said that regardless of how the conversation around body image has shifted in recent years, she still has many clients who are struggling to improve their relationships with their bodies.
“I try to emphasize the importance of feeling healthy, as opposed to attachment on outward appearance,” she said. “I encourage curiosity and exploration of what makes your body feel good ― maybe it’s a dance class, a run with your dog, or getting a massage. There are so many ways to nourish our bodies, including the food we eat, but also the daily rituals we engage in.”
“I try to emphasize the importance of feeling healthy, as opposed to attachment on outward appearance.”
Wegner suggested partaking in a short exercise each time you catch yourself thinking negatively about your body.
“Notice the physical feelings in the body, like the pressure of a waistband. Notice the emotions without judging them,” she said.
Once you’ve acknowledged your thoughts, try to shift your thinking back to the neutral mindset. Wegner recommended engaging in body neutrality by acknowledging the strength and power of the your body next, instead of how it looks.
For example, “focus on the strength of the legs, the consistent and determined work of the heart and lungs, the power of the arms, the thoughtfulness of the brain,” she said. “Notice and focus on all the work the body does every day of every minute. Show gratitude and say it.”
The relationship with your body may always be a little complicated. But embracing body neutrality might be an avenue that works for you in order to help repair it, and boost your mental health along the way. Worth a try, right?