Body Positivity v. Body Neutrality + 5 Ways to Improve Body Image
“I just don’t get the whole ‘body positivity’ thing” I remember thinking to myself as I stared in the full-length mirror in my apartment years ago “I literally hate my body. I’m so fat. Why can’t I just get my shit together?”
This was how I started a typical day way back when. I’d get dressed whilst verbally smacking myself down, cringe when I looked in the mirror in the ladies room at work, curse myself when my pants felt too tight and wrap up with a mental run down of all the ways I’d failed that day as a bedtime ritual.
Skipped the gym (because I was exhausted).
Gave in and had that piece of cake (office birthday party … again).
And eating, wait for it, 14 almonds instead of 6, thinking “you disaster artist.”
Thoughts of food and my body seeped into every waking moment of my life and it was exhausting.
And honestly, the last thing I thought I needed was “better body image.” To me that actually felt like giving up. To accept my body exactly as it was would be admitting failure. Accepting my fate as less than who I really wanted to be. Giving up on the life I really wanted for myself. Because way back when, I really believed that I could hate my way into a body that I loved. That losing the weight was the only way I could scrape and claw my way into a more confident life. And that being thin would be my salvation.
And as far as “body positivity” was concerned? I felt that most of those women were just lying. To the world. To themselves.
Because when we think of improving our body image, body positivity often comes to mind as the answer. We see make-up free selfies including cellulite and stretch marks, and then all the comments pouring in like “you’re so brave” and “here, here” and “gorgeous” or “tiger stripes”, and what-have-you. Sometimes we wonder what’s wrong with us because we just can’t seem to get there ourselves.
But we here at Wellness Lately don’t find body positivity all that helpful for a couple of reasons.
- Body positivity was a social justice movement created for folx in marginalized bodies to demand dignity, respect and representation in the world, not for small or medium-sized white women (like us) to feel better about how they look.
- The way the movement has been co-opted by the mainstream media is not helpful in a practical sense, because it doesn’t provide tangible ways to build positive body image. It just reminds us of another perceived shortcoming. Because now not only are we ashamed of the way we look, but we are ashamed of being ashamed of the way we look, for not being more woke and confident about the whole thing. It’s all very meta and confusing.
But we’d be remiss in teaching intuitive eating without also teaching concrete steps to improve body image. Because poor body image is the massive, underlying trigger for most womens’ fraught relationships with food. It certainly was for mine.
When we believe that our confidence, value, happiness, joy, success, acceptance, love and security all delicately hinge on the way we look (i.e. being the thinnest version of ourselves) as I once did, it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the way that we eat.
Bottom line: to make peace with food, we must also make peace with our bodies.
But if subscribing to the co-opted, mainstream version of body positivity, and posting underpants selfies, isn’t the way to build a positive body image, then what is? Well, we’ll get into that today.
This article is for any woman who’s looked in the mirror with disgust, or been tagged in a picture on Facebook and felt their stomach drop, or left a dressing room on the verge of tears, because these horrific body image moments are what trigger the diet binge cycle that winds up robbing us of our life force.
I’ll be laying out the difference between body positivity and body neutrality and why that distinction is crucial to understand, what a true positive body image looks like, and four key steps to get started healing these issues and building what we call “body image resilience” around here.
But first, let’s discuss a few key terms that are important to understand.
For body positivity, we enjoy Wikipedia’s definition: a social movement initially created to empower and shed light on marginalized bodies not shown in the media, whilst challenging the ways in which society presents and views the physical body. The movement advocates the acceptance of all bodies regardless of physical ability, size, gender, race, or appearance. However emphasis is placed on individuals who are older, non-white, plus size, non-CIS, or have a physical disability to have their voices heard in the mainstream media.
And for body neutrality, we think our colleague, Anushka Rees, nails it when she says:
“The goal of body-neutrality is to dial down the enormous significance that’s being given to physical attractiveness in our society. It goes beyond body-positivity in that it’s not just about pushing back on the specific beauty ideals of our time, but on all aspects of society that continue to promote beauty as essential, consequential and the ultimate accomplishment, and a person’s appearance as indicative of their worth.” (BAM!)
Co-opted body positivity says “Love how you look to feel better about yourself.” Body neutrality says “How you look is the least interesting and important thing about you. You don’t have to love how you look to feel good about yourself.”
Our goal is to help you stop thinking so much about how you look in the first place, because there are much more important and meaningful things to think about. I mean…..
Body acceptance is defined as accepting one’s body regardless of not being completely satisfied with all aspects of it.
Body appreciation is the practice of appreciating your body for its uniqueness and function.
Positive Body Image
Positive body image is a multifaceted construct. The definition proposed by one of our favorite researchers, Dr. Tracy Tylka (yes, we have favorite researchers: nerd alert) is:
An overarching love and respect for the body that allows individuals to (a) appreciate the unique beauty of their body and the functions that it performs for them; (b) accept and even admire their body, including those aspects that are inconsistent with idealized images;(c) feel beautiful, comfortable, confident, and happy with their body, which is often reflected as an outer radiance, or a “glow;” (d) emphasize their body’s assets rather than dwell on their imperfections; and (e) interpret incoming information in a body-protective manner whereby most positive information is internalized and most negative information is rejected or reframed. (Wood-Barcalow et al., 2010, p.112)
It’s worth noting that body acceptance and appreciation were found to be the two core, critical components of a positive body image.
So, now that we’ve discussed these key concepts, let’s talk about how to move toward a more positive body image in our own lives.
5 Ways to Improve Body Image
1. Cultural Criticism
To begin to heal our relationship with our body we have to first understand the origins of our omnipresent quest for thinness.
As Dr. Michelle L. Lelwica, Professor of Religion at Concordia College and author of The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight, says “We live in a culture that encourages women to devote themselves to chasing after an extremely narrow body ideal, one that’s simply not realistic for most of our bodies. Rather than recognize and critique the damaging messages we received from society, we berate and shame ourselves/our bodies for not living up to the ideal. And because the thin ideal has become associated not only with beauty, health, wealth, but virtue, pursuing it becomes a profound source of meaning and value for many women, giving them a sense of purpose that’s lacking in the rest of their lives. So you might say, that from my perspective, just beneath the surface of women’s frantic pursuit of thinness there’s a deeper quest for meaning and connection, for a feeling of acceptance and being loved.”
Our culture, through the myth that thinness equals happiness and virtue, drills it into us from the womb that achieving thinness is our salvation.
And so we have to awaken to this reality and begin to examine the widespread cultural messaging that contributes to the alienation so many of us feel toward our bodies. Dive under the shiny facades of women’s magazines in the checkout line to parse apart what those covers are actually telling us. We tend to underestimate the impact that a lifetime of subconscious programming through the media has done to us.
Dr. Lelwica adds “Cultural criticism involves thinking critically about the images we see, understanding what they are really telling us, and asking who benefits from the messages they convey. Who benefits when we believe we need to do whatever it takes to make our bodies thinner in order to be healthy, beautiful and loved? Cultural criticism also involves noticing the more subtle ways that media and consumer culture encourages us to relate to our bodies, for example, through the combative language used to describe the relationship. A colonial-like paradigm pervades both consumer culture’s approach to weight and a number of other health-related issues. In addition to the rally cry to fight fat, burn calories, and battle the bulge, we were encouraged to defy aging, combat illness, triumph over disability, and so forth. No wonder so many of us learn to see and treat our bodies as if they were enemies. Cultural criticism enables us to look deeply at the images and language of consumer and media culture so we can clearly see – and challenge – the messages we are being encouraged to believe. We can’t challenge what we don’t even see!”
Once we shift our perception of the messaging swirling around us, we can begin to think for ourselves and defend ourselves in the future from these harmful lies. We can begin to excavate our own truth about how we want to relate to our bodies and where we want to derive our self-worth and happiness.
2. Personal Beliefs + Stories
Our subconscious mind is our fundamental operating system. The deeply ingrained beliefs that we hold there dictate our thoughts, which guide our emotions which impact our behavior and create the outcomes in our life. The culture discussed above undoubtedly has an impact on our collective beliefs and stories but, this step is where it gets personal. We each have unique beliefs instilled in us from those who raised us, who we are surrounded by, our own history related to food and body and the unique trauma of all forms that we’ve experienced.
In order to improve our body image, we have to dive in and figure out what these limiting, subconscious beliefs actually are, so that we can challenge and change them.
We adopt most subconscious beliefs before we’re grown adults capable of critical thinking on our own terms. We believe our arms are too big because we were told our arms were too big. We believe dieting is what all women do because we saw all women dieting. We believe that thin equals healthy and happy and is the ultimate moral obligation because that’s what we were told. (Insert your own stuff here.) In order to move toward a more positive body image we have to uncover, challenge and change our shitty body beliefs. We have to replace them with empowering beliefs of our own choosing as rational, intelligent adults.
3. Body Appreciation
Building a positive body image is complex and personal but, one of the core components is the practice of body appreciation. Meaning, you focus on appreciating your body for its function regardless of what you believe about how it looks. Your arms allow you to hug people you love. Your eyes allow you to see a beautiful sunset. Your feet carry you all around the world. Your heart beats without you having to ask it. Your body is the only vessel you have to experience your life and for that you can appreciate it and practice gratitude for it.
Sounds cheesy and self-help-y and eye-roll-y, we know. But it works. The more we focus on appreciating our bodies for all that they do for us, the less dissatisfaction we will feel with them.
4. Body Acceptance + Respect
The second definition of the word ‘accept’ in the dictionary is ‘to believe or come to recognize as valid and correct.’ If we want to build a positive body image, we must accept our bodies for how they are today, see them as valid and correct in this moment.
Dr. Lelwica views it through a spiritual lens, “As I see it, your relationship with your body is a reflection of your relationship with life. So respecting your one-of-a-kind body is a way to respect your life and to honor your one-of-a-kind spirit.”
The cool thing about this approach is that you don’t have to think something is beautiful to accept and respect it. You only have to recognize it as valid and meet its basic needs. And sure, accepting and respecting might not sound as sexy as unconditional love or embracing your curves or loving your cellulite but, to us, it’s far more practical. Acceptance and respect bridge the gap between body hate and body love when the distance just seems too far.
At the end of the day, Dr. Lelwica points out “How we treat our bodies has profound implications for our larger sense of well-being, our relationship with others, and what we bring to the world.” It’s our belief here at Wellness Lately that, especially in times like these, the way women treat ourselves and relate to our bodies matters, a lot.
5. Body Neutrality
We firmly believe that adopting body neutrality is the most important piece of the body image puzzle. Research shows us that the more we focus on our appearance, the less satisfied we are with it and vice versa. The less we focus on how we look the less dissatisfaction we feel about our bodies.
Body neutrality is not about striving to love how we look, it’s about shifting the focus away from how we look entirely. It’s adopting the belief that how we look is not as important as we may have been led to believe. And that believing that we are beautiful is not a prerequisite for living a confident, joyful, meaningful life of fun, purpose and connection.
We don’t need help convincing ourselves that we’re beautiful, we need to convince ourselves that being beautiful simply isn’t the most important thing we can be.
Where to Go From Here
Healing a fraught relationship with food requires healing our relationship to our bodies in tandem. The urge to shrink through dieting originates in our collective belief that being thin is our salvation, as insidiously instructed by our culture.
Real change in this area of life can only be sustained when we approach it through this paradigm. We don’t need body positivity as it’s been co-opted by mainstream media. We don’t need more photos of women in their underwear, or of cellulite or of belly rolls. We need to stop analyzing so many photos of women to begin with.
We don’t have to try harder to like how we look. We have to care about how we look less.
We have to examine and criticize our culture, weed out and replace our deeply ingrained, limiting personal beliefs and practice respecting and appreciating our bodies while deemphasizing the importance of conforming to the unrealistic, manufactured standards of beauty that have been set for us.
When we do this, in conjunction with shifting how we relate to food through Intuitive Eating, we heal the damage of diet culture on a deeper level and build lasting resilience to its effects on our well-being in the future.
If you are struggling in your relationship with food and your body and seeking peace in your own skin, we’re here for you. We offer free, Intuitive Eating Breakthrough Sessions to anyone who wants one. In this 45 minute phone session we’ll dive deep into exactly what’s not working for you in terms of food and your body, what you’re missing in order to fix it and a step-by-step plan to start your own healing journey today.
Life’s too short to feel like shit in your own skin and spend your entire day obsessing about food. Book a free Intuitive Eating Breakthrough Session and get going on improving your own body image today.