'Body positivity’ is one of social media’s most well-worn phrases, but what does it mean, where does it come from, and how exactly does ‘body neutrality’ fit into all of this? This is what you need to know...
Body image is a huge factor in how we interact with and experience the world. Viewing your body in a negative light can affect health and happiness, even leading to eating and mental health disorders.
Looking at our bodies positively isn’t always easy though — many of us struggle — but in recent years there’s been a shift towards ‘self-love’ and positive body image. And two movements that have come to the fore are body positivity and body neutrality.
History of body positivity
If you’ve looked at social media in the last five years, you’ll have heard of body positivity. It’s been impossible to ignore, exploding across Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and the entire social media diaspora.
Body positivity is exactly as it sounds: the movement encourages you to see your body positively, regardless of what you look like. In particular, body positivity encourages those who don’t fit society’s ‘perfect body’ ideal to love and accept themselves. Body positivity teaches you to treat yourself kindly, even if society doesn’t.
The idea of body positivity is much older than most believe. It began in the US in the late 1960s as part of the ‘fat acceptance’ movement and ‘anti-fatness’ activism. This early version of the movement aimed to show the world how plus-sized people were treated by society — such as through discrimination in the workplace and medical professions. Activists believed there shouldn’t be a connection between our worth and our appearance.
Body positivity today
The concept of body positivity died down for a few decades but began to resurrect in the early 2010s. This was when body image began receiving more attention on social media beaming higher expectations for how we should look straight into our hands and homes.
Body positivity acted as a counterbalance against the spread of body shaming (judging or treating ourselves and others badly based on appearance). It isn’t just a phrase, though; we can actively practice body positivity in a number of ways. One such example is through positive affirmations. This may involve looking in the mirror and speaking aloud and kindly about your perceived flaws, for example “My thighs have cellulite, but I love them”. It can even involve leaving notes for yourself, reminding yourself that you are beautiful.
While body positivity originally focused on weight, today’s movement encompasses more, such as physical disabilities, height, weight, shape, and skin colour. Weight continues to be a big focus of the movement though. Celebrities like Lizzo have become a voice and figurehead for larger bodies, helping to tackle society’s preconceptions.
Body positivity isn’t perfect though. In recent years, it has come under fire for a number of reasons.
- Appearance focus: While the aim is to be optimistic, body positivity still puts a lot of emphasis on our appearance. “Although body positivity is typically seen as positive in many ways,” says mindset and movement coach Nadia Murdock, “it still creates damage by forcing people to focus on the external factors of their appearance that they may not entirely be comfortable with.”
- Impossible expectations: Not everyone will love every part of themselves every day, nor should they have to. This expectation can lead to what’s called ‘toxic positivity’, where people feel forced to be happy. “I myself have fallen victim to toxic positivity in the past,” admits Nadia. “Toxic positivity can have you questioning your emotions and feeling guilty for not being happy or positive. This can cause you to shut down, become resentful, or even more negative.”
- Societal control: Body positivity originally fought against society’s demands for what we should look like. However, it has now become so famous that it too has become a demand. Larger celebrities like Adele were publicly shamed and attacked when they chose to lose weight, as if they had betrayed the idea of body positivity.
- Consumerism: As with any online movement, corporations also joined the body positivity bandwagon. This diluted the movement’s aims, with diet companies even claiming to be ‘body positive’.
Change of guard
Despite these drawbacks, body positivity has been an overall force for good. “It had people start to question where certain societal ideals of beauty stem from and how they affect people subconsciously on a daily basis,” agrees Nadia. “It also offered an opportunity for people of all shapes and sizes to be a voice for the cause and create more inclusivity.”
Body positivity has brought plus-sized bodies into the public eye and has increased awareness and acceptance. Representation has also increased, with larger characters leading onscreen and larger actors and models featuring on magazine covers.
“Body positivity was important for many reasons, but I would say most importantly, it made people feel seen and worthy,” says Nadia. “There are so many hidden messages in society that implies there is only one type of beauty, which can make those who don't fit into those parameters feel invisible. Body positivity helped to change that narrative.”
Enter body neutrality
Today, there is a new approach to body image. Body neutrality focuses on what your body can do, not what it looks like. For example, instead of saying you love your thighs regardless of cellulite, you may say “My legs are incredible because they allow me to go hiking and see the world”.
Body neutrality doesn’t demand that you constantly love the way you look. You can feel good or bad about your image from one day to the next, it doesn’t matter. What matters is valuing and appreciating what your body is capable of.
“I like to remind my clients of the fact that we are so much more than our bodies,” says Nadia. “Body neutrality is the ability to accept your body as a physical entity and just a fraction of who you are as a person. Redirecting the focus on who you are instead of what you look like helps you have a greater sense of appreciation.”
Body neutrality is also far easier to implement than body positivity; going from negative to positive is a far larger jump than negative to neutral. This makes body neutrality a more achievable step for those tackling extreme negative body image or eating disorders.
Practicing body neutrality
“I make a conscious effort to pay attention to how I feel when I am doing new or existing activities,” advises Nadia. “This can range from taking a new supplement to my regular workouts. If it doesn’t feel good, instead of ignoring it, I listen to my mind and body. Daily habits can help create a new relationship with your body, and as a result, empower you and help boost your self-esteem.”
Practicing body neutrality may involve retraining your habits, but the idea is simple. Listen to your own body instead of society’s expectations and appreciate what it can do instead of how it looks.