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Body neutrality: what it is, why we love it, and why you need it (especially now)
There are a lot of things we’re looking forward to doing once Covid is under control and the country begins opening up safely. We’re looking forward to hugging friends, indoor lunches with our grandparents, and trying on clothes before we have to buy them. We are looking forward to spending a few days soaking up the sun at the beach — but we are NOT excited for the diet culture messages and disordered messaging about how bodies are supposed to look while at the beach.
The beginning of spring always comes with a wave of body-focused, diet-culture messaging that enforces the idea that our bodies are about to be under renewed scrutiny. This year, the level of attention on our bodies has been heightened even more by Covid and social distancing. A lot of people gained weight during the past year, as we were all stressed out and coping with a traumatic international event. Now that the end of quarantine is within sight and vaccines are being distributed (if you are eligible for your vaccine, get it! Here are some resources), people are talking about trying to shed the “quarantine fifteen,” getting back into the shape they were in before covid began, or maybe aspiring to prove that they used their time at home well by working out every day.
Our society sends a lot of messages about how our bodies should look and what they should be able to do to meet beauty and wellness standards. This is particularly true for cis-women, but its effects can be felt by people of all genders and ages. It is exhausting to be barraged by these messages.
As we exit quarantine and enter into a world in which our bodies will be increasingly visible, how can we take attention away from the ways our bodies may have changed? One popular response in recent years has been “body positivity,”which is the idea that every body is beautiful and lovely and strong, no matter what it looks like.
While this approach works for some people, it’s not a movement without flaws. Some critics take issue with the fact that the movement has been coopted by white, able bodied, cis people. While of course all people deserve to feel good about their bodies, this is not the group of people who face the majority of body criticism and negativity, and not whom the body positivity movement was initially representing.
Another way that body positivity can be less than helpful is that it asks you to regulate not just your body but also your mindset. For example, if body positivity tells you that you’re supposed to love your body everytime you look in the mirror, and you have a moment where you don’t love your body this way, then you are “failing” not just to look the way you’re expected to look, but also to feel the way you are expected to feel. This can be particularly difficult for those with a history of eating disorders; for many of our clients, a goal of LOVING your body exactly as it is feels near-to-impossible. And while body positivity is wonderful for those who it works for, there are many people who are feeling inadequate and unable to reach that goal.
Our biggest issue with body positivity is that the conversation still remains focused on how we look. So, now, let’s talk about body neutrality. If body positivity is loving your body despite all cultural beauty standards, body neutrality is accepting your body for what it is and moving. on. with. your. life. You’ve spent a lifetime conditioned to hate your body – give yourself some self compassionate for that. Try reframing your body as simply that: a part of your existence, that does cool and interesting and frustrating things, and is not who you are. Body neutrality encourages us to lean into the act hat our body has nothing to do with your value or worth!
What if, instead of convincing yourself to love your body, you use that headspace to think about how you feel and what you’re doing? “My body feels good today,” “I just gave a bad ass presentation at work,” “I like how powerful I feel in this outfit,” “I am thankful to be able see all these budding spring flowers,” are all examples of focusing on what our body is doing for us, without centering on how our bodies look.
Body neutrality promotes acceptance of one’s body as it is, encouraging people to recognize the value of their bodies based on their abilities and nonphysical characteristics. It asks people to take their appearance out of the center of the conversation, and recognize that what they see in the mirror doesn’t define worth.
Body neutrality reminds us that it’s okay if we don’t love our bodies everyday, or even any days. But that doesn’t mean we have to hate our bodies. Instead, we can just exist. We can use the limited energy we have to do things with our bodies, like reading, or going for a walk, or talking to friends, or dancing in your room to the new Rozes album, instead of focusing on our bodies. Take your body along with you and think about it when it serves you to, but you don’t have to do so constantly.
Okay. So, how do we go about making this shift to the body neutrality mindset?
- Notice when you’re having judgemental thoughts towards your body. These are normal! Acknowledge that you’re feeling them, and then move on. You don’t have to stay stuck in the thought you have. (For more about this, see articles on mindfulness.)
- Redirect your internal conversation. We’re not saying that you’re going to be able to turn your thoughts off (it’s hard to overwrite something that society has taught you to do since you were a child!). Instead, we’re asking you to introduce a new response. If you find yourself saying “My thighs look so big right now,” try to think of something your thighs do for you. For example, “Thank you thighs for allowing me to squat down to pick up my child.” or “My thighs have nothing to do with who I am as a person. That said, they do allow me to explore nature, which I love!”
- Remind yourself what your body does for you. Some examples could be: “My arms let me hug my Mom.” “Thanks, body, for taking me from place to place.” “It’s so cool how my body heals me when I get sick.” This can help put into perspective all the good things that your body — your vehicle, your forever home — does for you.
- If someone around you mentions body/looks/the fit of clothing, change the conversation. There is so. much. more. to. life. than. how. we. look. Shifting conversation from our bodies to the numerous other exciting things going on in the world and in our lives helps us remember that our bodies are not the most important part of any of us.
- Practice self compassion. For example, “I am doing my best today” (you are! Even if you don’t feel like it). Negative and judgmental thoughts might continue to come up for a long time, and that’s normal: you are not failing! You are in process. You are worthwhile because you are you, not because of how you look or how you feel about how you look.
So, this year, when. you go to that pool party, remember that your body is not anything but a physical body. Try to appreciate it for getting you through Covid and for allowing you to be with your friends. Give yourself the chance to #moveon past the thoughts of how your body looks in your bathing suit or how many mini cupcakes you eat at the snack table (a staple at every good pool party, we think). Dive in and enjoy all that your body allows you to do – and leave it at that.
Note: While changing our own mindset from body positivity to body neutrality can be incredibly powerful in your day to day life, until we change the structures that tell us what is a “good” body, and the ways that manifests in society, there will continue be struggles. As an organization we are committed to this type of systemic transformation! But in the meantime, while society is still focused on bodies to the extent it is, a shift to body neutrality is a strong first step.