When body positivity started to become popular on social media in the early 2010s, I was thrilled. As a personal trainer who had recently gained a small following on Instagram, I loved being a part of it. Finally there seemed to be mainstream pushback against the increasingly unrealistic beauty and body ideals that caused so many people to feel unworthy and insecure. It all seemed so brave and radical: people showing off their imperfections, reshaping the narrative around what’s beautiful, and shining a light on the unconscious biases we’re conditioned to hold when it comes to which kind of body indicates that a person is worthy of being visible and happy, and which doesn’t.
It was exciting to make social media posts challenging my audience to think more deeply about their desires and assumptions with regard to fitness and bodies, and to encourage them to question everything. I would take a picture of myself with my exposed belly relaxed and bloated instead of sucked in, and write a caption about why we need to destigmatize round bellies. Or I’d compose a “before” and “after” comparison, showing how easy it was to fake a “perfect body” for social media, and exposing how even supposedly flawless bodies have cellulite and rolls when they’re not posed and edited. People loved these posts, and I was inundated with messages about how brave and inspiring I was and how the fitness industry needed more voices like mine.
Looking back, I find this all very cringey for a lot of reasons, the least being that my naked body is now all over the internet, and the most being that I contributed to the soon-to-be-popular trope of a thin, able-bodied white girl in her 20s being celebrated in a movement that was founded to uplift and center the rights and dignity of folks in marginalized bodies. Body positivity was originally based on the work of fat-acceptance activists from the 1960s. The movement was focused entirely on fighting for the equality of opportunities, treatment, representation, safety, and dignity of all people living in marginalized bodies. You could hate your body while pushing for greater accessibility and anti-discrimination policies, and you could also embrace your body without participating in the movement for justice or equality. The two ideas were separate. The social media version of body positivity has migrated so far from the movement’s original intent that many users posting about the topic are completely ignorant of its roots.
And, frankly, the social media version of body positivity doesn’t work. Despite the extraordinary popularity of the idea that we should all feel good about our bodies, here we are over a decade after the concept’s mainstream rise, and body image issues haven’t become any less common, intense, or destructive to people’s lives. Some studies indicate that eating disorders, as one example, became more prevalent during the pandemic. See: the distressing craze surrounding the diabetes drug Ozempic, which has been widely touted as a weight loss shortcut on social media.
We need to let go of the idea of body positivity. There’s nothing wrong with loving ourselves or our bodies, if we’re being realistic about what “love” means. But I do take issue with the notion that we should be able to feel a constant flow of celebratory happiness and affectionate gratitude toward our bodies, or that we have to joyfully embrace every dimple, every jiggle, every inch. That’s neither realistic nor necessary.
Body neutrality, on the other hand, takes the pressure way off, and tends to feel like a much more approachable and achievable goal. First popularized by Anne Poirier, the author of The Body Joyful, it offers a safe place to rest as you exit body hatred, without putting pressure on you to somehow magically love every iota of your body and self. Body neutrality invites us to understand ourselves and others as whole human beings first, and to form our concept of worth, value, and identity around a person’s internal self instead of their external self. It helps us strip away the many layers of complex social conditioning telling us what different bodies mean, so we can see this clear and objective truth: that beauty and attractiveness can be pleasant and nice, but they can’t tell you anything about a person’s character, personality, lifestyle, or the kind of life and treatment they deserve.
Neutrality gives you space for everything that previously felt like a huge problem to kind of just be . . . whatever. Not good, but not bad. Not something to freak out about. Not even a problem to solve. Sort of an annoying thing maybe, worthy of an eye roll or a shrug before you move on with your day, but ultimately pretty meaningless. It gives you the ability to see yourself and the world clearly, which means you can take your emotional power back from the places that don’t deserve it.
If you’ve been trying to love your body without success for a while, try this: say to yourself, in your head or out loud, your big complaints about your body, and follow each one up with the phrase “and that’s not a problem,” “and that makes sense and is OK,” or “and that doesn’t mean anything bad about me.”
I wish I were smaller, and that’s not a problem.
I hate the way my ____ looks, and that makes sense and is OK.
I desperately want to lose weight, and that doesn’t mean anything bad about me.
The point is: whatever negative feelings you may have toward your body are understandable, given everything you’ve learned and experienced in your life. Body neutrality gives you the opportunity to explore the roots of your beliefs and feelings. And this is important, because when we recognize how reasonable it is to feel critical of our bodies, we have the power to invite compassion for ourselves and our suffering, instead of judgment.
You are not unintelligent, unreasonable, feeble, or misinformed just because you’re struggling with body image. And frankly, rejecting our feelings about our bodies isn’t all that different from rejecting our bodies themselves. If the goal is peace and acceptance, we have to work with and not against ourselves. That means letting go of the idea that self-criticism is irrational and that we should plow over it with forced positivity. Approaching our body image issues with kindness, curiosity, and understanding is key if we’re going to stand any chance of dismantling them.
From Body Neutral by Jessi Kneeland, to be published on June 6, 2023 by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Jessi Kneeland.
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Contributor: Jessi Kneeland