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  • Writer's pictureCraig Lee

Three Principles of Body Neutrality

Body positivity is not for everyone. This may seem like a controversial statement; we should be encouraging everyone to feel positive about their bodies… shouldn’t we? In practice, it’s not so simple because the body positivity movement is based on a set of principles which don’t align with everyone. There are many reasons for this including individual differences in personality, life experiences, and current circumstances. Instead of the almost toxic way in which body positivity is promoted, a lot of people would benefit more from the concept of body neutrality.

 

The origins of the body positivity movement can be traced back to the fat acceptance movement and activism of the 1960s. Its principles include self-love, self-acceptance, celebrating the diversity of all body shapes/sizes, and rejecting societal beauty standards. Whilst it stands to fight against unrealistic, and ever-changing, standards of beauty seen across the media, the language used can be enough to put many people off body positivity. Social media is a great example where posts often focus on positive affirmations, mantras, singing, dancing, telling parts of the body they are loved etc.

 

The body positivity movement has been extraordinarily helpful and inspiring for a lot of people. For those who don’t engage with this concept, it’s important to know that constant body positivity is not necessary for healthier body image.

 

Many principles from the body positivity movement have been adapted into the concept of body neutrality, which may appear indistinguishable from one another to some. Despite the overlap, this blog identifies three key principles which capture the spirit of body neutrality and make it easier to engage with. These principles are function, acceptance, and self-transcendence. 


1. FUNCTION

 

Appreciate your body for what it can do regardless of how it looks.

 

A body-neutral approach moves away from your physical appearance and instead cultivates an awareness of what your body can do. Notice the word awareness rather than appreciation. Forcing appreciation on your body may feel too much for some, including those with chronic illness or disability due to limited functionality, daily pain or physical challenges. Even without disability or physical illness, if you have negative body image then you need an easier place to start.

 

Where to start?


To begin with, become aware of what the body does at its most basic level: breathing. Recognise that if you are breathing right now, your body is functioning well enough to keep you alive and that is a good thing. If you’re struggling to recognise that as a good thing, consider that if you are alive, you have the starting point for being able to experience something positive (however small). This is the foundation for you to be able to pursue a rich, meaningful life, regardless of your body shape, illness, or circumstances. Practicing this awareness daily will naturally lead to a sense of appreciation over time but, like anything, it takes repetition and lots of it.

 

As for other functions to focus your awareness on, the list can be as long as your own unique circumstances allow.  They typically fit into one of three categories: movement, sensory perception, and engagement.

 

Movement can include walking, sports, hobbies, meditation, and sex. Even at its simplest, but no less powerful, it could be the ability to smile at a loved one and acknowledge the small moment of pleasure that can bring to them.

 

Sensory perception is your ability to be aware of any of your five senses: seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, and tasting. Every aspect of your life can be experienced through these five senses, which gives you an incredible variety of objects to focus on. The easiest way to approach this is to think of things you love or that bring you any pleasure and acknowledge the sensory perception involved (hearing your favourite music, touching a pet or loved one, etc.).

 

Engagement follows naturally from sensory perception as it’s about those things that you interact with in the world. An eating disorder can withdraw you from things that bring joy, so try and identify one thing that you’re able to do simply on account of being. This could be talking to someone you care about, reading a book, watching movies, listening to music, creative pursuits, games, politics, religion, or spirituality.

 

2. ACCEPTANCE

 

Accept that it is the nature of the human body to change.

 

Whether through illness, injury, or time, your body WILL change. Think of the person who has what you see as the “perfect” body and reflect on these questions:

  • How long will they look exactly the way they do now?

  • What changes would that person have to experience to their body before it stops being your idea of perfection?

  • How long do you think it will be before they start to experience those changes?

  • What sacrifices are they making in life to achieve that “perfect” body?

 

Likely, you don’t find the answers satisfying. Ageing, illness, and death are harsh realities of life that need to be confronted and accepted not only to function in the world but to have a realistic relationship with our bodies.


3. SELF-TRANSCENDENCE

 

Find meaning and purpose beyond your body.

 

Body neutrality involves recognising that your body is the least interesting thing about you. Self-transcendence may sound like some ethereal, ultra-spiritual concept but it’s just a fancy term for directing our focus to meaningful things outside of ourselves. This is how we live a life of purpose, and it isn’t in any way limited by how we look. Excessive self-focus on our body is a barrier to living a satisfying life, which is why eating disorders consume the sufferer.

 

By tying up our sense of meaning in our looks, change will provoke unhappiness. Self-transcendence is incredibly practical and achievable as life is full of opportunities and experiences through which we can find a sense of meaning, no matter our circumstances. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl described clearly in his inspirational book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  Frankl described three ways in which we can find meaning:

 

  • Creativity – What do you give the world through your work, charity, talents, or hobbies?

  • Experiences – What are you experiencing from the world through relationships, nature, culture, religion, or spirituality?

  • Attitudes – What values can you demonstrate through the attitude you take towards unavoidable pain and difficulties in life?

 

Finding what works for you

 

Improving your body image can only work if you find an approach that works for you. At the beginning of eating disorder recovery, you might feel resistance to change so meeting a therapist may help to guide this.

 

As someone who has recovered from an eating disorder and body dysmorphia, I have experienced the benefits of discovering meaning and purpose. I understand the real difference this approach can make as part of treatment and know that having the right support is essential for recovery.

 

 

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