Fine Ideals: Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality
Words by Hollay Ghadery
There’s this picture of me I posted on Instagram: I’m wearing high-waisted jeans and a blue and red houndstooth cardigan tied in a tight knot over my belly button. The bottom of the picture cuts off mid-thigh, the top, around my shoulders, so you can’t see my face. I took this picture because I wanted to see how my body looked in the outfit. Like Cher in the 1995 classic, Clueless, I don’t trust mirrors. And even though, at 41, I have begun wearing more stomach revealing tops than ever (and by “ever”, I mean, I never did before), the peek of my bare stomach afforded by this ensemble—which I liked in theory—was making me feel a little queasy.
A little jittery.
A little like an imposter. I was supposed to feel comfortable wearing this no matter how I felt about my body, and I didn’t. All I saw was the pillowy mound of fat between my wide hips and, when I zoomed in, the waist band of my jeans digging into the crepey skin on my stomach.
I took this picture for one reason, but I shared it for another: I wanted to feel less alone. I wanted to know if anyone else felt the same way about their bodies.
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The Body Positive Movement: Good Vibes Only, Please
You see, the body-positive movement would tell me to love these parts of myself: the tissue paper skin, the big hips, the lower stomach fat that I’ve never been able to shake completely. Not even when I starved myself down to 120lbs or threw up everything I ate. Not even though I work out 5-6 days a week: running, HIIT, cycling.
The body positive movement is founded in acceptance—if not love—for your body, and more broadly, championing a more accepting and inclusive world for bodies of all shapes and sizes. Don’t get me wrong, I love this idea—especially the last part about creating more inclusive representation. But that first bit? The loving and accepting my own body? That doesn’t come so naturally for me.
And maybe it never will.
In addition to struggling with an eating disorder, I also have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and something I talk about less: body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)—a mental illness that makes me so excessively concerned about the way my body looks that I can’t function normally. I don’t talk about it much because I’m afraid I’ll look shallow or narcissistic. Or worse, that disclosing my condition will prompt people to tell me how pretty I am, which just makes everything worse. Makes me reflect on my physical appearance again, which is exactly what I try hard not to do.
After getting sober and years of therapy, there’s no doubt my BDD is better than it used to be—I no longer avoid social occasions because I’m so preoccupied by stomach fat, or have to drug myself into oblivion just so I can exist in my own body and mind—but the illness will never go away.
So for me, not only is self-directed body positivity not in the cards, but it exacerbates my feelings of inadequacy: I can’t even love my body right. Looking at the Instagram photo through the lens of the body positive movement, I’d feel nothing but shame.
Enter Body Neutrality: What Your Body Can Do
But that’s not the lens I choose—though it is one I’m always aware of; one I’m always measuring my response against. I don’t know when exactly I first heard about body neutrality, but I remember that my world opened up a little when I did.
Body neutrality is a mindset that assigns no moral value to the way someone feels about how their body looks. So I can feel less than enthusiastic about my appearance, and it doesn’t mean I’ve failed to live up to the shiny ideals of body positivity. I can acknowledge my stomach, my flat ass and wide hips – and sigh.
But body neutrality is not a philosophy that encourages people to dwell in negativity either. You’re allowed to feel how you feel, but you’re also encouraged to focus on what your body can do rather than how it looks. So I might look at my lack of thigh-gap and instead of focusing on the (ridiculous) aesthetic expectation, I’d think, “Thigh gap or no gap, these legs are strong enough to power me through a 10km run, then support me while I hustle around the house after four kids. That’s pretty awesome.”
Do I feel differently about the way I look after this less negative self-talk? Maybe. Maybe not. But I certainly care less because now, I’m not thinking about my body in terms of its appearance anyway.
Would I say body neutrality is better than body positivity?
Nah. I imagine there are a great many people who can embrace the tenets of body positivity without feeling shattered by all the good vibes. I think it is a hopeful philosophy and I am glad it’s out there. It’s one I gently encourage in my children. But for me—middle-aged, damage done—I feel it asks too much, when the world has asked too much of me already. This one time, I’m letting myself off the hook.