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Move over body positivity, body neutrality is the new realistic movement


TextSara Radin

The new term recognises that it’s OK to not always feel positive about yourself, but it’s not a perfect antidote to the body positive mindset’s shortcomings

‘Body positivity’ is old news according to the Guardian. What once was meant to encourage women to celebrate their bodies, has been completely co-opted by brands, and now there’s a new term taking over: ‘body neutrality’. It’s a mindset some, like Taylor Swift, credit Jameela Jamil, actor and founder of the @i_weigh movement, for where people celebrate radical inclusion and the things that society makes them feel ashamed of – everything from having acne to being bisexual. 

In fact, the nuanced term was not created by Jamil according to the outlet. It has been spoken of since around 2015, becoming popular circa 2017 thanks to fitness coach Anne Poirier who started running programs about body positivity based out of Vermont. While the self-proclaimed “feminist in progress” and The Good Place actor’s efforts have been laudatory at times, she’s also faced her fair share of criticism. Still, it is thanks in part to Jamil’s @i_weigh account, which launched in 2018, and her personal efforts that the term has entered the public consciousness as she has used her platform to speak publicly about the distinction

So what’s the difference? Body positivity, an offshoot of the fat acceptance movement, was supposed to celebrate larger, marginalised fat bodies and provide a safe space for people to discuss their experiences and perspectives with existing in their fat bodies says influencer Steph Yeboah. While the key themes of the body positivity movement were to encourage self-love and increased self-esteem, the movement has since been commodified and rehashed to lift up and prioritise smaller, privileged bodies instead of the larger bodies it was created to protect. These failings, which Yeboah says stem from the media and brands who still fail to recognise larger plus-sized and non-white people within the movement, have caused the rise of body neutrality, a movement that recognises it’s OK to not always feel positive about yourself.

“While the key themes of the body positivity movement were to encourage self-love and increased self-esteem, the movement has since been commodified and rehashed to lift up and prioritise smaller, privileged bodies instead of the larger bodies it was created to protect”

Bethany C. Meyers, a fitness instructor and body neutrality advocate, says they noticed from a young age that so much of the fitness world was wired to make people think they needed to fix something about themselves, almost as if they were punishing their bodies for not doing enough. “The fitness industry tends to capitalise on our insecurities,” they share. After dealing with an eating disorder, they set off on their own personal mission to reshape the way they approached movement and food. But for them, the body positivity approach felt overwhelming as “It's pretty impossible to feel positive about something 100 per cent of the time.”

In the midst of launching The Become Project – an “I-can-do-it, go-on-and-love-yourself” mentality applied to fitness where Meyers curates a new routine meant to be practiced repetitively over the course of seven days – the influencer came across the ‘body neutrality’ term. “Some days we feel good about our bodies and some days we feel bad about our bodies, but every single day we respect our body,” they say, feeling seen by the approach. “It takes the pressure away from having to be perfect all the time.” 

“There are definitely positives and negatives associated with both sides,” says Elizabeth Beecroft, LMSW, a therapist based in New York. According to her, the social movement that is “body positivity” is rooted in the belief that all human beings should have a positive body image, while also challenging the ways in which society presents and views the physical body. The positive side of this is that this definitely could play a role in boosting self-esteem and confidence, as well as widening the mainstream media’s views on what is considered “worthy.” 

However, there are aspects of this mentality the therapist is cautious about. This includes the ways the term “body positivity” could be used as a mask to avoid aspects of wellness that are necessary for one’s everyday life. “The reality is that there are health conditions associated with our bodies. At the end of the day, as much as the mindset behind how we view ourselves is important, it’s also important to be realistic and give our bodies what they need.”

Marketers and publications still need to sell the idea of ‘sex’ in order to get the views or the purchases, according to Yeboah. So how do they do that while trying to capitalise on a movement that celebrated the very antithesis (according to society) of sex? “Find bigger bodies, but bodies that still adhere to the Westernised standard of beauty,” they say. “This means white, hourglass shape or smaller, big bum, big boobs, small waist, and visible cheekbones.” They believe the death of the original body positivity movement started when brands started prioritising fat bodies that were seen as being more acceptable than others.

Still, the “body neutrality” movement seems to come from a more realistic place. “We don’t always feel great about ourselves and our bodies, our self-esteem and confidence may fluctuate from time to time due to various circumstances,” says Beecroft. In this way, forcing a mindset to always feel positive about our bodies is not at all realistic. “There are times where those who normally have high self-esteem may not love their body. This movement covers those shades of grey and doesn’t necessarily make you feel like you need to choose one side of the spectrum.” Beecroft believes we are all entitled to our own opinions and feelings about our own bodies and that a more neutral mindset can help us cultivate deeper self-acceptance.

“There are times where those who normally have high self-esteem may not love their body. The body neutrality movement covers those shades of grey and doesn’t necessarily make you feel like you need to choose one side of the spectrum” – Elizabeth Beescroft, therapist 

Yeboah advocates for the fat acceptance/radical fat liberation movement in her work. “While I understand how body neutrality could work in theory, I don't think it is an ideology that'll ever work in real life, as long as fatphobia exists.” The influencer says this is because the body neutrality approach gives those who exist in a "normal" body the privilege of not having to think or 'constantly be positive' about their bodies. Ignoring the fact that they do not face the same harassment, abuse, policing and persecution over their bodies as fat people do. 

“As people who exist in larger bodies, we are constantly made to be hyper-aware of how much we take up space and are made aware of how much society hates our bodies, therefore it's imperative that we are able to be positive about our bodies.” Still, Yeboah admits that if we lived in a world where fatphobia did not exist, perhaps she would have benefitted from body neutrality. “In an ideal world, we would all have an impartial view on our bodies but unfortunately, due to aesthetic visual standards, hyper-policing of bodies, and the patriarchy, I think it's highly unlikely that we will ever get to that point.”

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