Explained: Why wellness experts are recommending a paradigm shift from Body Positivity to Body Neutrality
Body Positivity asks you to 'love your body'. Body Neutrality, on the other hand, seeks that you accept your body, allow it to be, focus on what it makes possible for you to do and feel, rather than how it looks.
Earlier this month, Kate Winslet made headlines for an interview with The New York Times about her role in the critically lauded HBO limited series, Mare of Easttown. The headlines were not only for her stellar performance, but for a revelation she made in the interview, about how the MoE team offered to edit out a "bit of [her] bulgy belly" from an intimate scene with co-star Guy Pearce. Winslet said she firmly shut down the suggestion, and also had retouching of her photos for the series' poster reversed to show her lines and wrinkles.
Winslet, 45, explained that she wanted to play her character as a "fully functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from."
Winslet's phrasing reflects a movement that has gradually gained a lot of credence over the past five years: Body Neutrality.
It recently received celebrity endorsement in the form of musician Lizzo, who spoke out about the limitations of the Body Positivity movement, and how these could be addressed by Body Neutrality instead. (Lizzo used the term "body-normative".)
What is Body Neutrality and how it's different from Body Positivity
Body Neutrality grew as an offshoot of Body Positivity around 2015, when health and wellness bloggers like Gabi Gregg and Stephanie Yeboah began talking about it, and Anne Poirier designed a popular workshop/programme around the concept.
Some people had begun voicing the opinion that despite the great strides made by the Body Positivity movement since the 1960s, in later decades, its language had been co-opted by brands and influencers to peddle a certain kind of "acceptable body". Body Positivity was fine, this new messaging seemed to say, as long as your body was of a certain type: (usually) thin, white, able. It was "okay" to celebrate fat bodies, as long as they "weren't too fat". People of colour, those with disabilities, or trans and gender nonconforming individuals were marginalised even further by the bent of this discourse — the very populace Body Positivity was meant to embrace.
At such a time, it was felt that Body Neutrality could be what refocused the discourse.
Body Positivity asks you to "love your body". Body Neutrality, on the other hand, seeks that you accept your body, allow it to be, focus on what it makes possible for you to do and feel, rather than how it looks.
Why Body Neutrality over Body Positivity
Apart from the co-opting of Body Positivity as a movement by the very voices and viewpoints it was meant to challenge, and the criticisms about ableism and exclusion levied against it, there are several practical reasons why Body Neutrality might be a better goal/mindset to aspire for.
Toxic positivity: Critics of Body Positivity feel that it overlaps with the damaging trend of "toxic positivity" wherein individuals are asked to focus on their positive feelings, thoughts, emotions and experiences to that extent that it almost seems as though any negative thought or feeling they have is a lapse or setback. But negative emotions, thoughts etc have their own place in our lives. Suppressing them leads to an inauthentic positivity. Rather, the emphasis should be on engaging with these negative thoughts and feelings, examining where they stem from, and how those core issues can be tackled.
Affirmations are not always helpful: Body Positivity requires an individual to repeat several positive affirmations to themselves — "I love my body", "My body is beautiful as it is" etc. But experts say that when a person repeats these affirmations without actually believing in them, when in fact their true thoughts are quite the opposite of what they're stating as an affirmation, the practice does more harm than good. The disconnect between how you feel about your body versus how you've been told you should feel about it creates mental and emotional dissonance. It can exacerbate the distress people feel over their bodies.
Focus is still on appearance: Even if Body Positivity says "all types of bodies are beautiful", the emphasis is still on beauty, on an ideal of perception, on the physical form. Body Neutrality on the other hand would probably say: "All types of bodies exist". There is no judgment — good or bad — attached to the body.
How to practice Body Neutrality
The Good Place star Jameela Jamil, who advocates for Body Neutrality, once said that she thinks of herself as a floating head — "I don't think about my body ever... 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" — that is the lack of conscious thought or attention she has towards her own body.
Of course, this may be a step too far for most of us. Instead, beginners can make Body Neutrality a part of daily life through simple steps such as mindfulness (being aware of what you body needs at a particular moment: Are you thirsty? Do you need to change your posture?), intuitive eating (eating what nourishes you, and also what you feel like instead of going on punitive or rigid diets), reframing hateful and critical thoughts about your body, focusing on what your body allows you to do rather than how it looks (hugging a loved one, moving from one place to another, letting you experience a specific sensation etc).
Kate Winslet's disclosure about her Mare of Easttown experience underscores that the scrutiny on women's physical appearances continues to be harsh, unforgiving and unrealistic. The recent Apple TV+ series Physical, has Rose Byrne's protagonist verbally flagellate herself with critical self-talk about her looks and figure, all while she keeps up a destructive, secret binge-and-purge cycle coupled with starvation and over-exercise. Then there are also developments like the recent Victoria's Secret move to replace its "Angels" with achievers such as Megan Rapinoe and Priyanka Chopra. It's not quite Body Neutrality, but if the bastion of unrealistic body ideals can take a step forward, maybe as a society, so can we.
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