My friend recently stumbled upon some profound wisdom in a bathroom stall. Printed on a bumper sticker on the door was a maxim that I hear more and more from magazine covers, fashion campaigns, friends, family and Instagram yogis: “Love your body!” Underneath it, scribbled in Sharpie, was a slightly more accessible message: “But it’s okay if you find that hard too.”
That Sharpie vandal may just be my soul sister.
I’m a wholehearted supporter of the self-image revolution underway. Celebrating more diverse bodies is unequivocally a good thing, one that’s leading us (if not quickly or drastically enough) toward a more inclusive, empowering definition of beauty.
But while it sounds delightful to ooze self-confidence at any size and shape and look, it’s also unrealistic to expect that of ourselves 100% of the time — and the “love your body” rhetoric doesn’t always account for that. Sometimes I look in the mirror and DON’T like what I see. And in those moments, the mandate to worship the skin I’m in feels almost as prescriptive as the imagery suggesting I lose ten pounds. It seems like a bait-and-switch: I may feel less shame for having cellulite, but instead I feel shame for not liking my cellulite. Are we simply replacing our dos and don’ts and shoulds with others?
“I hear that a lot from my clients, and that’s why I practice body neutrality over body positivity,” says Anastasia Amour, a self-love coach. “You’re not required to love your body as an antidote to loathing it.”
Amour is describing an idea that’s been percolating among psychologists and body activists. A more moderate approach to self-image, body neutrality aims for self-acceptance over self-love, attempting to move beyond the reflex to constantly judge our own appearances, positively or negatively. Where body positivity’s motto might be “love yourself,” body neutrality’s would probably be “underthink it.” “If we aim for nothing but total body bliss, when we inevitably fall short of that, it can leave us feeling like failures,” Amour says. “In shifting our focus from ‘I must love my body!’ to ‘This is my body, and I’m okay with it,’ we can learn to neutralize disordered thinking.”
According to Bryan Karazsia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the College of Wooster, body neutrality is actually a much more radical concept than body positivity or acceptance. “Neutrality goes a step further to ask an important question: Why all the fuss about the body?” he says. “The sentiment is, ‘Let’s get over bodies already and focus on more important matters.’” That statement may seem flip in the current landscape of body imagery, but actually represents a fundamental paradigm shift he thinks we’re inching toward. Body image coach Sarah Vance agrees. “Right now, body positivity is very body-centric. We want to get to a place where our worth is outside of our bodies.”
That’s not to say that body positivity — which helps to normalize diverse body imagery — isn’t a valuable movement in Karazsia’s eyes. In fact, he says, it’s a step toward body neutrality. “We stop obsessing over something when we’re exposed to more variations of it,” he says. “True neutrality will come from diversity — seeing and accepting people of all shapes, sizes and colors.”
But many body activists don’t subscribe to Karaszia’s idea of post-body-image society. “Our bodies are important,” says Connie Sobczak, founder of The Body Positive. “They need love and attention and care, and they have so much wisdom if we learn how to listen to them.” Sobczak considers body neutrality an essential part of body positivity. “The body positivity movement is not about being positive all the time,” says Sobczak, whose organization runs educational self-love workshops. “We have bad days. But on those days, I have the tools to come back and remember who I am.”
One of those tools is body neutrality, which Halle Tate, an activist who shares posts about her struggle with anorexia and bulimia on Instagram, relied on as a sort of halfway home along the road to body positivity while she was in recovery. “You can’t go straight from hating yourself to loving yourself. Body neutrality is the stage where you learn to notice the feelings that come up,” she says. “That negative voice is always there, but I’m able to turn the volume down now.”
Sobczak understands people’s frustration with the pressure to “love yourself” but attributes that to what happens when any movement goes mainstream: its messaging splinters. The issue is not necessarily with body positivity as a concept, but the fact that “mainstream body positivity still aligns with traditional beauty standards,” says Ashleigh Shackelford, a self-described black fat femme who goes by @ashleighthelion on Instagram. Take plus-size model Ashley Graham’s historic Sports Illustrated cover for example. Graham is breaking fashion industry barriers — but she is also still classically beautiful, white, hourglass-shaped and able-bodied.
Still, both Sobczak and Shackelford warn against snubbing body positivity altogether just because the term has been diluted. “Body positivity means a million different things,” says Shackelford. “And it’s kind of like how people divest from feminism. Like, what do you think feminism means that you’re ready to give up on it?”
When I ask Shackelford what she wants — to love her body or to stop thinking about it so much — she pauses for a moment and then says, “Both.” We laughed at this together, but I think I’m in the same camp.
It’s sweet to envision a future in which our looks are considered just another quality, like ambition or, say, the ability to juggle. It’s also fun to envision yourself looking in the mirror and thinking, “damn, girl, you look good” 100% of the time. But in reality, we don’t operate within either framework, and as long as that’s true, there’s no one feel-good trick that works every time. What I do like is a term that Shackelford uses in one of her posts: “body autonomy.” Meaning, I get to write my own inner monologue. Mine will probably borrow from Shackelford’s message, which is that it feels great to love the way you look — but you don’t need to in order to value yourself.
This idea clicked for me a few months back when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror while wearing shorts. I realized that I didn’t like the way my thighs looked. To my surprise, though, the thought ended there. I didn’t grimace, change my outfit or launch into self-criticism. I didn’t evaluate myself as a person. Instead, I simply thought about whether I might want to make a change — kind of like how I might consider going to grad school without berating myself for being stupid because I haven’t yet. Then I had a perfectly fine day while wearing shorts.
Should I not want to change anything about my body? I’m not sure that’s really a fair question because we don’t have control over the way we feel — just over the way we speak to ourselves. I do like the idea of not valuing myself based on the way I look. I also like the idea of not needing to like everything about myself at all times in order to be kind to myself. The problem for me is the “should” bit. The fewer of those there are, the fewer opportunities there are to feel like I’m doing it wrong. Right?