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Body neutrality, not body positivity, may be the best way to fight unsustainable beauty ideals. Here's how to channel it.

September 1, 2020
Insider
Dr. Elizabeth Wassenaar defines body neutrality and explains how it's different from body positivity and how it can be useful in recovery.

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"Imagine just not thinking about your body. You're not hating it. You're not loving it. You're just a floating head. I'm a floating head wandering through the world," Jameela Jamil, an actress on NBC's "The Good Place," said during a September 2019 Glamour interview.

The actress, known for calling out the Kardashians for their promotion of diet products, was describing "body neutrality." The concept began in 2015, when former college fitness instructor Anne Poirier created a Body Neutrality Workshop in Vermont.

It's a mindset that challenges the feel-good movement of "body positivity," the concept of loving your body no matter what it looks like. Founders of the fat-acceptance movement of the 1960s coined the term "body positivity" to promote the idea that all bodies, not just ones that fit a slim and Euro-centric standard, are beautiful.

Body neutrality, in contrast, values the facts of what your body does for you over how it looks.

It is a welcome mindset for people who find it impossible to unequivocally love their bodies 24/7, Elizabeth Wassenaar, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado, told Insider. 

The difference between body neutrality and body positivity

Body positivity, Wassenaar said, "can be sometimes a stretch for people because we live in an environment that does not necessarily encourage women feel positive about their bodies." Neutrality feels more attainable and sustainable.

Someone practicing body positivity might say, "I love my body," or, "I feel happy with how my body looks." A person practicing body neutrality might say, "My body can carry me through my favorite hiking trail," or, "I'm able to pick up my child."

It's the personal promise, "even if you're wanting some things to be different, to accept your body as it is today," Wassenaar said. And to do that takes time, patience, and practice.

Focus on what you need in the moment

Think about your values and the life you envision for yourself, Wassenaar said.

A person who loves to be in nature can notice how their body carried them to the top of a trail with a great view of nature, rather than focusing on what their body looks like throughout the hike, or what it might look like after five hikes.

Athletes or gym-lovers who have performance-based goals can use body neutrality to avoid pushing themselves too hard. "Listening to your body to take a rest day or get a massage and observing, 'My body worked really hard and that was important to me to achieve that fitness goal. Now I'm going to observe that my body needs to rest,'" will help, Wassenaar said.

When it comes to eating, do so intuitively, according to Wassenaar. "Intuitive eating requires that you are listening to your body and its cues, and responding to what your body is telling you that it wants," in that moment, she said, whereas a specific diet requires a person disconnect their mind from their body to meet a set of rules they've imposed upon themselves.

You can want to change your body and still practice body neutrality

Even people who seek change in their bodies through plastic surgery or a regimented diet and exercise plan can work towards a body-neutral mindset, according to Wassenaar.

She said body neutrality is difficult to navigate when we're taught physical beauty can create happiness. But if a person recognizes a smaller physique or nose job won't instantly make them happier, they can find body peace both before and after they change their body.

"When people become overly invested in changing their bodies to change their experiences of the world, it becomes a really dangerous sort of thing that perpetuates itself," Wassenaar said. "Because oftentimes I find that you can't ever change your body enough to make yourself happy."

She said diet and fitness plans that require restriction or pushing your body past its boundaries aren't body neutral. Those plans force a person to hold the diet or fitness plan's specific rules above their body's natural cues for hunger or physical activity.

Use mindfulness to stay on track for the long term

Before-and-after photos of diet and fitness plans train people to focus on their future selves and make it difficult to feel at peace with your body in the present moment.

Instead, focus on mindfulness for a few minutes every day to promote a mind-body connection, which will help you keep a body-neutral mindset for the long term, Wassenaar said.

She suggested taking brief pauses throughout your day to ask yourself, "What is my body telling me right now?"

Perhaps you'll realize you're thirsty and need a drink of water, or that you're hunching over your computer and would be more comfortable in an upright position.

"The more that you do that, the more that you'll be able to develop that practice and become more tuned to your body and learn how to live at peace in your body. Your body will be more at peace because it's getting what it wants or needs," said Wassenaar.

When your body feels peaceful, you're better able to focus on your personal goals and self-worth, rather than on others' opinions and perceptions of you.

Reaching that state is challenging, but freeing, Wassenaar said.

"It is a tremendous struggle, and it's actually an act of rebellion to say, 'I am going to accept my body as it is and I'm going to work to find peace in my body,' because every message we are getting from society is that we need to change our body in some way, our body is not enough as it is," she said.

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