On
from
pinterest
Please Stop Telling Me to Love My Body

Embracing body neutrality

03.10.17
3_bodyneutrality

My friend recently stumbled upon some profound wisdom in a bathroom stall. Printed on a bumper sticker on the door was a maxim that I hear more and more from magazine covers, fashion campaigns, friends, family and Instagram yogis: “Love your body!” Underneath it, scribbled in Sharpie, was a slightly more accessible message: “But it’s okay if you find that hard too.”

That Sharpie vandal may just be my soul sister.

I’m a wholehearted supporter of the self-image revolution underway. Celebrating more diverse bodies is unequivocally a good thing, one that’s leading us (if not quickly or drastically enough) toward a more inclusive, empowering definition of beauty.

But while it sounds delightful to ooze self-confidence at any size and shape and look, it’s also unrealistic to expect that of ourselves 100% of the time — and the “love your body” rhetoric doesn’t always account for that. Sometimes I look in the mirror and DON’T like what I see. And in those moments, the mandate to worship the skin I’m in feels almost as prescriptive as the imagery suggesting I lose ten pounds. It seems like a bait-and-switch: I may feel less shame for having cellulite, but instead I feel shame for not liking my cellulite. Are we simply replacing our dos and don’ts and shoulds with others?

“I hear that a lot from my clients, and that’s why I practice body neutrality over body positivity,” says Anastasia Amour, a self-love coach. “You’re not required to love your body as an antidote to loathing it.”

Amour is describing an idea that’s been percolating among psychologists and body activists. A more moderate approach to self-image, body neutrality aims for self-acceptance over self-love, attempting to move beyond the reflex to constantly judge our own appearances, positively or negatively. Where body positivity’s motto might be “love yourself,” body neutrality’s would probably be “underthink it.” “If we aim for nothing but total body bliss, when we inevitably fall short of that, it can leave us feeling like failures,” Amour says. “In shifting our focus from ‘I must love my body!’ to ‘This is my body, and I’m okay with it,’ we can learn to neutralize disordered thinking.”

1_bodyneutrality

According to Bryan Karazsia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the College of Wooster, body neutrality is actually a much more radical concept than body positivity or acceptance. “Neutrality goes a step further to ask an important question: Why all the fuss about the body?” he says. “The sentiment is, ‘Let’s get over bodies already and focus on more important matters.’” That statement may seem flip in the current landscape of body imagery, but actually represents a fundamental paradigm shift he thinks we’re inching toward. Body image coach Sarah Vance agrees. “Right now, body positivity is very body-centric. We want to get to a place where our worth is outside of our bodies.”

That’s not to say that body positivity — which helps to normalize diverse body imagery — isn’t a valuable movement in Karazsia’s eyes. In fact, he says, it’s a step toward body neutrality. “We stop obsessing over something when we’re exposed to more variations of it,” he says. “True neutrality will come from diversity — seeing and accepting people of all shapes, sizes and colors.”

But many body activists don’t subscribe to Karaszia’s idea of post-body-image society. “Our bodies are important,” says Connie Sobczak, founder of The Body Positive. “They need love and attention and care, and they have so much wisdom if we learn how to listen to them.” Sobczak considers body neutrality an essential part of body positivity. “The body positivity movement is not about being positive all the time,” says Sobczak, whose organization runs educational self-love workshops. “We have bad days. But on those days, I have the tools to come back and remember who I am.”

One of those tools is body neutrality, which Halle Tate, an activist who shares posts about her struggle with anorexia and bulimia on Instagram, relied on as a sort of halfway home along the road to body positivity while she was in recovery. “You can’t go straight from hating yourself to loving yourself. Body neutrality is the stage where you learn to notice the feelings that come up,” she says. “That negative voice is always there, but I’m able to turn the volume down now.”

Sobczak understands people’s frustration with the pressure to “love yourself” but attributes that to what happens when any movement goes mainstream: its messaging splinters. The issue is not necessarily with body positivity as a concept, but the fact that “mainstream body positivity still aligns with traditional beauty standards,” says Ashleigh Shackelford, a self-described black fat femme who goes by @ashleighthelion on Instagram. Take plus-size model Ashley Graham’s historic Sports Illustrated cover for example. Graham is breaking fashion industry barriers — but she is also still classically beautiful, white, hourglass-shaped and able-bodied.

2_bodyneutrality

Still, both Sobczak and Shackelford warn against snubbing body positivity altogether just because the term has been diluted. “Body positivity means a million different things,” says Shackelford. “And it’s kind of like how people divest from feminism. Like, what do you think feminism means that you’re ready to give up on it?”

When I ask Shackelford what she wants — to love her body or to stop thinking about it so much — she pauses for a moment and then says, “Both.” We laughed at this together, but I think I’m in the same camp.

It’s sweet to envision a future in which our looks are considered just another quality, like ambition or, say, the ability to juggle. It’s also fun to envision yourself looking in the mirror and thinking, “damn, girl, you look good” 100% of the time. But in reality, we don’t operate within either framework, and as long as that’s true, there’s no one feel-good trick that works every time. What I do like is a term that Shackelford uses in one of her posts: “body autonomy.” Meaning, I get to write my own inner monologue. Mine will probably borrow from Shackelford’s message, which is that it feels great to love the way you look — but you don’t need to in order to value yourself.

This idea clicked for me a few months back when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror while wearing shorts. I realized that I didn’t like the way my thighs looked. To my surprise, though, the thought ended there. I didn’t grimace, change my outfit or launch into self-criticism. I didn’t evaluate myself as a person. Instead, I simply thought about whether I might want to make a change — kind of like how I might consider going to grad school without berating myself for being stupid because I haven’t yet. Then I had a perfectly fine day while wearing shorts.

Should I not want to change anything about my body? I’m not sure that’s really a fair question because we don’t have control over the way we feel — just over the way we speak to ourselves. I do like the idea of not valuing myself based on the way I look. I also like the idea of not needing to like everything about myself at all times in order to be kind to myself. The problem for me is the “should” bit. The fewer of those there are, the fewer opportunities there are to feel like I’m doing it wrong. Right?

Romy Oltuski is a writer and editor living in New York City. Say hi on Instagram or Twitter. Illustrations by Irene Servillo.

Get more Brain Massage ?
  • Thank you for this. Very much so.

  • Roza

    I’ve often thought about this and it can go hand in hand with the whole “you’re beautiful even if you’re not beautiful in a conventional way! Claim your beauty!” idea. Now, I’m a fan of finding beauty in everyone and diversifying the idea of what is beautiful. BUT it still puts the emphasis on “beauty” as a trait that women should aspire to or find in themselves.

    Why do we have to be beautiful? Why do we assume women can’t be confident or feel good about themselves if they don’t feel pretty? I hope that we can reach a point where women feel comfortable in their own skin regardless of how attractive they perceive themselves to be.

  • Ania

    I think that MR reads my mind. Just yesterday I told my boyfriend that I don’t love myself and my body and imediately felt regret and shame for saying this out loud. But than I thought to myself: do I really have to love my body? Isn’t it enough to just like it? There are some parts like my bum or my eyes, lips and eyelashes that I really like and there are some parts like my small boobs or general petite frame that I accept and am ok with. Overall I like my body and I never felt really pressured by society to look certain way, I have just never really focused on my body that much to feel bad that it doesn’t look like some ideal body of a model or something. But I will admit that recently I feel sort of bad for not loving my body. Should I love it? I mean, our bodies are vehicules that get us through our lives, and as such we have to respect them, but as long as I eat healthy food, don’t drink much alcohol, don’t smoke, go to gym etc. I believe I am showing my body that respect. Anyway, cool article and a good topic to think about

  • Catherine Elizabeth

    I love this! Sometimes I feel like the “You have to love your body” idea still puts too much emphasis on women’s bodies in general. So much of how we’re seen in the world is based on the physical and this mindset, while rooted in trying to be helpful, doesn’t remove any of that pressure and focus. There’s still a lot of pressure to constantly be thinking about your body and its prominence in your life.

    I sometimes feel like the “Love your body no matter what” can be really sexual, especially for plus-sized women. Like, you can love your plus-sized body if your curves are in the right place and you’re still seen as hot and sexy and I don’t know. It still feels super voyeuristic and like my body doesn’t belong to ME.

    I just want my body to be a tool that allows me to accomplish other things, not for my body itself to BE the accomplishment.

  • The worst part is being told its not OK to feel how you feel. Like HELLO I wake up with this body, I shower it ( almost daily) and I have a right to be dissatisfied. I think once you tackle whats bothering or hurting you about your self image, you can finally free yourself from that little demon. (Coming strickly from a place up of yoyo dieting and loathing Instagram accounts filled with smoothies and size small yoga pants thingys). Find whats bothering you and make a change or not. -X

  • Molly

    I have a pretty serious weight problem and this really speaks to me. I think though, as far as “love your body”…it’s not a noun, it’s a verb. You have to love and CARE for your body. Of course I’m not going to look in the mirror and admire my flab, but I can love the blood pumping through my veins. I can love the strength of my muscles and the value of my nervous system. I can appreciate the beautiful machinery. I can love it enough to take better care of it and heal it. I think too many focus too much on “beauty”…that’s not love, that’s beauty. I don’t have to love what I see, but I think you DO have to find a way to love your body and it’s infinite potential, especially if you’re struggling with self-loathing.

    • kay

      i totally agree with you about pointing at an objective beauty- in our culture beauty is so well defined that we all know who is beautiful and who is not, we all know if we are beautiful or not, and we can probably numerically rate the beauty of each of our features according to how well they conform to the standard. we are supposed to know this bc we are supposed to know how to judge who is of worth. i think it is more subversive to say i am ugly but still of worth than it is to say i am not ugly i am just differently beautiful. but then I’m not sure living a good life requires being subversive.

      • I have earned 104000 bucks in last twelve months by doing an on-line job from my house and I did it by work­ing part time for 3+ hrs each day. I used a money making model I came across from company that i found online and I am thrilled that I was able to earn so much money. It’s really beginner friendly a­­n­­d I’m so grateful that I found out about this. This is what i did… http://s.id/2hh

  • Grace B

    This is excellent. I feel similarly about my ability to manage my day to day life. I used to wake up, feel like crap, roll over and call out of work regularly. I’ve since had to teach myself that just because I wake up hungover/with a headache/in a bad mood I cannot just ditch my job or my responsibilities. Just like I don’t have to go into a shame-filled spiral of miserableness whenever I look in the mirror, shop for clothes, shop for bras, or get dressed. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and being uncomfortable in our bodies (I think) does not mean that we are depressed or fucked up or not healthy in some way. Once you say adios to the constant self improvement train (I’ve found) it is then you realize that working towards goals is part of life but it is not the only thing. Just like thinking about our bodies all day, every day is actually not very sustainable or fun.

    • Ania

      I know that problem of managing day to day life too well. I am struggling to keep up with my grown up responsibilities on days when my face is covered in pimples or some rash or I have a hungover or a really bad migraine or cramps, pms etc. Then I tend to consider my day ruined anyway and I just want to stay in bed for the whole day, not do anything productive and so on. It’s sometimes very hard for me to seperate my life and my mood from the condition of my body. I would love to be one of those women who just bravely power through their days no matter what. Would be grayeful for some tips 🙂

      • Grace B

        Hi Ania! I highly benefitted from two books: Fuck Feelings and a DBT workbook. I spent time with these two books for about 1 -2 months each and then I felt like the ideas had marinated enough in my mind. The basic premise of each (mostly) being that letting your emotions control you/run the show day to day can be super detrimental. I know in college if i woke up feeling crappy I had no guilty skipping classes. In the real world? I’ve put my reputation, self respect, and job performance many times just because I wasn’t “feeling it” or I was feeling SO much that there was no time for stupid work! I finally had to give myself a pep talk and started pushing through. Tomorrow is a personal milestone for me – I will have gone to work on time every day for 3 months (we get bonus days for this) and it feels freaking amazing. So, that stuff really helped me. Also I stopped seeing work and self management and taking care of life as such an inconvenience 🙂

        • Ania

          Wow! Thanks so much for your help and recommendations! I should find and start reading these books ASAP. I am still at university now and I feel that when I don’t go to classes for those personal reasons it is not that big of a deal (at my university attending classes is not mandatory, although helpful for educational and social reasons, and you mostly study at home and prepare for the exams), but in few months I will be hopefully finishing my studies and obtaining my master degree in law and starting my first job. So I better get my shit together fast haha. It also doesn’t help that I’m quite a rebel, don’t like social norms, don’t like being told what to do etc. (but at the same time I like law and want to be a lawyer lol). Anyway, I should definitely change my attitude and thank you for this inspiration! Also, congratulations on your personal milestone! And btw, sorry for any possible mistakes in my posts. I’m from Europe and english isn’t my first language

  • The Fluffy Owl

    Thank you!!! I ended up loosing 100lbs (slowly) once I discovered the art of body neutrality. I decided I didn’t need to “love” my body, but I didn’t need to “hate” it either. I knew what I wanted to change, but I also knew that if I looked at like “work” or some sort of “challange” (the way we’re taught it’s supposed to be) I’d never improve on anything. So I flat out stopped caring, my only rule was that I was only going to eat when I was genuinely hungry, not out of boredom or other emotions. I stopped shaming myself over everything, and started practicing mindfulness. It was hard, and sometimes I still fall into it, but when I catch myself I remind myself that this is completely unimportant and I get over it much faster.

  • meme

    I love this SO much. I don’t know if I’ll ever love my body, but not thinking about it so much has been liberating.

  • Georgina

    Completely agree with Amour and the idea of body neutrality! It’s something I was thinking a lot about a few months ago too so really glad to see you’ve written about it. It’s asking a lot of us to love ourselves all the time, and I so agree that it’s much more important to accept/be fine with/not overthink how we look. There’s so much contradiction in terms of phrases used to spread body positivity. You’re told that everyone is beautiful and you should love yourself and believe you’re beautiful but at the same time told that physical beauty doesn’t matter and it’s what’s inside that counts. I much prefer the latter because the first just isn’t true! We aren’t all perfect, most of us have flaws, some more than others, and (as you said) it makes you feel somewhat of a failure if you can’t love your flaws. It’s so much better to bring girls (and boys) up with emphasis on inner beauty and the idea of body neutrality and acceptance, because telling people that they’re all beautiful and insisting they love every part of their physical selves places too much importance on physical beauty when it’s just not that important! We should be encouraging others to be fine with how they look/not overthink/not worry because insisting people love how they look just reinforces the idea that how you look is a big deal in life, when it shouldn’t be so important! Who you are as a person and how you treat others etc should define you, not your looks, so it’s much better to put emphasis on not worrying how you look rather than believing you’re beautiful and loving every inch of yourself.

  • This speaks to me so much. I find the idea of loving my body so hard because I have such bad body image, but I’ve never thought about body neutrality. Such an interesting concept

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • Veronica

    I think about this a lot! I prefer body neutrality to positivity for the reasons detailed beautifully in the article, and becasue it feels like it’s a way to integrate my body into my view of myself, rather than viewing it as an external entity that can be judged negatively or positively, which always hold the possibility of failure or an extreme negative swing on a bad day.

  • Katerina Bal

    Thank you! The guilt of not “loving my body” sometimes surpasses the guilt of not fitting into “this totally looked huge on the hanger” at the store. I am glad this is something now talked about.

  • Rheanonn Clarissa Perez

    great read! i feel like i’ve been practicing body neutrality for the past year or so without knowing there was a name for it. even when i go thru my phases where my insecurities are HEAVILY BEATING ON MY MIND & MOOD, it feels exhausting to try so hard to uplift myself. instead of promising myself “one day i’ll love my small boobs!” it feels so much better to just be content or indifferent about them, it feels more naturally accepting.

    can i also add that when i vent about my insecurities or make fun of them, it’s kind of annoying when people try to convince u otherwise??? i know it’s coming from a good place, but sometimes i just wanna vent or laugh at myself!! just listen or laugh with me lol!

    • Rheanonn Clarissa Perez

      ***try to convince me lol

  • Molly D

    Love this article, thank you! “Are we simply replacing our dos and don’ts and shoulds with others?” > Such a great point.

  • lateshift

    excellent piece! Physical “beauty” (I’ve always seen invisible air quotes around the word to begin with) is nice, sure, but it’s not an actual benefit to a human in the same way that running fast or being strong or having a gift for math is. The only actual useful part of it comes from the reaction of other humans, which comes mostly from the…well, from the mating place. And how is it a good thing to promote the idea that any of our worth lies in how desirable we appear to anyone, even ourselves?

    As a society, we can’t get past sexism and ageism until we accept the fact that we can’t all beautiful — and lord knows I’m not, at least on balance — but THAT’S OK because it DOESN’T MATTER, because it shouldn’t be a thing we evaluate ourselves or other people on (or at the very least, it should ideally be an item somewhere low on the list of qualities we look for in a potential partner.) And we can’t foster that attitude in society unless we hold it ourselves. Someone who survives a horrible fire that scars their whole face isn’t “beautiful”…and for goodness sake, why should they have to worry about that at all? why do they have to be “beautiful,” whatever they think that standard is, or waste energy on convincing themselves they are?? they represent something way, way BETTER than beauty.

  • Esmee Phillips
  • jess

    Love this. I think sometimes while the body positivity movement is so great, I’ve sometimes felt that it promotes the idea that women HAVE to feel GREAT about their body because its the most important/valuable thing about them, whereas I’d much rather focus on bettering my brain and have THAT be the thing that I’m proudest of 🙂

  • I agree with you, and think the most important thing is that we ‘normalize’ our perception of our own body, and the million different types of bodies that exists, instead of the normalization we have of ‘the perfect model body’ in society today. Part of that is to accept it as it, and like you did in those short, give less fucks about it – especially on those days when everything feels like shit. I think its ok to want to change some things, the important part is how we behave based on those ‘wants’ – Do we accept that its not top priority right now and move on, or do we continue in a poisonous rant about it without doing anything about it?

  • Peter

    In lieu of loving my body, an outcome which only loads of therapy may one day produce, I try to appreciate it.

  • Leah

    This is a great article. I always thought how stupid it is that I spend hours each day worrying and over-thinking how I look, how much I weigh, what I need to do to stay in shape, whereas my boyfriend worries about his work and his art and barely gives a second thought to the way his body looks.

    All it does is hold you back from spending more time thinking about bigger things that could expand you as a person, progress your career, deepen your knowledge in something else etc!

  • Jillian K

    LOVED this. Can we also really quickly talk about the perfection of a self-love coach whose last name is Amour?

  • BarbieBush

    Nice to see this. I have been a slim 125 lbs and a not great 190. I never reallyyyyyy cared. I care about my health and how i feel and at my heaviest I just felt literally weighed down and could feel how it made basic movement more difficult.

    I have been called a narcissist more than I can count but I always thought I looked good. I always got attention from both sexes and I always felt attractive. I usually look in the mirror and think, “good enough” and on good days “dang thank god I am pretty”. I just don’t think your looks matter AS MUCH as we are told they do.

    The whole world is telling you it does because the whole world is trying to sell you something!!! If you are happy and don’t want anything then you aren’t going to spend money on like eye cream bc you are chillin. I buy clothes and beauty stuff for fun and for self expression and I think everyone falls victim to ads and “collaborations”. But everyone is awesome as they are and body hate/body love are at the end of the day profiting off you caring a lot one way or the other.

  • Nadine

    I think I usually prefer to care for and value my body rather than ‘love it’. I think caring and valuing it is probably more of an act of love than being able to look in the mirror and say “damn you look good!”

    I think public proclamation of body love is something that is difficult to sincerely do, but for me, feeding my fat self good, healthy food, moisturising and doing a bit of exercise is a far more radical act of self love. thoughts?

  • sop27

    I have a real problem with any article that denigrates the term body positivity (which is a term coined from a movement that is still ongoing) and uses it as an afterthought to prove a point. Thin/Average/Normal/Straight – whatever you deign to call the majority of white bodies – women have all the privilege in the world to feel and talk however they’d like about their bodies. Here’s a better article about body positivity: http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/07/body-acceptance-not-for-thin-ppl/

  • If we stop calling attention to it, it might stop being such a big deal. That’s my philosophy on a lot of things. It’s there, always, just accept that it’s there (or that it exists in the way it does, or that so and so’s skin is the way it is, or that he works that job or she works that job)

  • magicalhat

    So that’s what it’s called? I’ve been doing the whole being okay with my body for a while now, and it’s so much easier than always being positive! I even went to the beach for the first time in years. But I was upset to find out that young women with more diverse body types were not there, it was just me and a handful of others in a beach full of people. Older women, grandmas especially, are now my inspiration. I saw a bunch of them enjoying their grandchildren, bathing in the sea and simply not caring about others. But it’s kinda sad to think that you will only achieve that sort of freedom when you’re over 70. So now my mantra is ‘think like a grandma’. Would I care about cellulite or lack of makeup or a bad hair day if I was out and about with my grandchildren, white hair flowing in the wind? The answer is usually a big ‘no’. But I still have a long way to go, but the walk is a lot less exhaustive when you don’y have to smile the whole way.

  • Suzy Lawrence

    The opposite of hate isn’t love, it’s apathy. This is why I have such an issue with “tolerance.” I tolerate a screaming child; I don’t “tolerate” a homosexual relationship, the same way I don’t “tolerate” a heterosexual relationship; I simply don’t care and would rather talk about my new bread recipe. So much emphasis on what we should all love and what we should all hate and what we should all tolerate. It’s my opinion this all just social distraction filling our minds with goop and influencing our priorities to what can be managed and framed most easily by outside influences. Hashtag conspiracy theory.

  • CM

    You actually can go straight from hating your body to loving it – but it does require a change of perspective, which is hard for a lot of people. When I decided to see my body as a vessel for something greater (call it soul, source, whatever the f works for you) i started to love it. We don’t have to love what every aspect of it LOOKS like in order to love it. There is emphasis on bodies because that is what we go through our entire lives in.

  • Brenna Sniatecki

    I love what my body can do. I feel most positive about myself when I’m doing something that showcases my body’s strength.

  • Love this! I get so effing tired of the “if you don’t love your body then there’s something wrong with you” crap. I actually find my body an unwelcome distraction from things I’d rather be focusing on.

    Getting to “Ho-hum” rather than “Wow” is so sane. It’s just a body, for Christ’s sake, not the whole friggin’ galaxy.

    Thanks for being a sane voice in the wilderness.

  • The Keep Collection

    This is excellent. Thank you.

  • Johanna Borger

    As someone currently recovering from anorexia, this speaks volumes to me. At a time when a find it difficult to even accept my body, the idea of loving every inch seems slightly ridiculous.