What's going on under the surface?
It’s a familiar narrative most of us have heard before: Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess. She had long hair, doe-shaped eyes, and was elegant and tall (but not too tall), and skinny (but not too skinny. But not fat, either. She was just right). Perfect in every single way.
By the time the story ends the image of our perfect princess seems to linger. And many young girls, much like I was, went to sleep dreaming of being someone else.
Thankfully, we’ve come to an age where society seems to have progressed from this archetype of beauty, or at the very least are starting to recognise the harm that it creates. Multitudes of body positivity movements and normalisations of natural body types finally seem to be making a breakthrough, despite the backlash it faces from going against what’s still considered the ‘status quo’. It’s no lie that there's still a long way to go, but it’s important to recognise the progress that’s already been made.
That being said – when diving into the subject of body positivity, it's apparent that there is much more going on than simply ‘loving’ your body. The issue at hand cannot be seen from the iceberg tip of Instagram posts and marketing campaigns, but from individual experiences of body image and self-love – so, what’s really happening beneath the surface?
The Plot Thickens...
Body image is no small issue. And for a lot of us, it is a topic that comes into play at a very early age, and not often in a positive way. For me, it was body hair. Some of the first phrases I heard thrown around in my early teens included variations of ‘you should learn how to shave’ or ’have you tried waxing?’ or ‘there’s this great threading place at my hairdresser's they could really sort those eyebrows out – ‘.
It took years for me to overcome my insecurity and realise that body hair is completely natural. What no one tells you, however, is that it’s no simple road to get there.
Despite the progressions we’ve made in body-positive movements, there still seems to be a lack of awareness about how hard it is to learn to love yourself. Love is no mean feat. It takes a lot of effort and self-discipline, with lots of falling down and getting back up again. And for those of us who grew up viewing ourselves in a less than loving way, trying to be positive feels all the more daunting. Perhaps this is where body neutrality comes into play.
Body Neutrality, Our Key To Happy Ever After?
"Body Neutrality is a middle-of-the-road approach… it is neither loving nor hating your body. It is based on the notions of acceptance and having respect for one's body rather than love”
Let's not beat around the bush – most of us tend to obsess over our appearances. I know I do. Who doesn’t? Our current modern-day lives are filled with image-obsession: social media, photo and video ops, presentability to others around us and to those online - It’s no wonder that so many of us feel self-conscious about our bodies. We see every day what people look like, how they look like that, and what we can do to look like that, which is often unachievable to the everyday person.
For many of us, this hyper-awareness of our bodies often spins us into a turmoil we’d rather not get ourselves involved with. The push and pull we get about what we are expected to look like versus loving what we already have often put those of us who struggle with body image in a tight corner; we don’t want to hate ourselves, but it's very difficult to force yourself to love yourself.
Body neutrality addresses this issue – it is not love, but acceptance of what you are and gratitude for what you already have. Through respect for your body, naturally, you can progress to love, but love is not the main aim here.
Body neutrality takes the pressure of loving yourself and puts the focus on simply just being there for yourself. There is no forced positivity. There is no forced love. It is a humble approach to self-acceptance, but there’s no denying it’s probably the best one. Again, it’s no simple road to get there – body neutrality questions every beauty standard we’ve ever grown up with, targeting not the appearances, but the functions of the body: your body keeps you alive. Your body loves you. There is a lot our bodies do for us, so why not give it the kindness and respect it deserves - that we deserve?
Wishing Upon Stars - Body 'Ideals'
Truthfully, it is easier said than done - to exercise the practice of body neutrality doesn't dismiss the tidal wave of influence (be it good or bad) we are faced with every single day.
Something like personal appearance has become something we all feel like we must achieve, to find resolutions to our ‘problems’. This includes the development of toxic body positivity.
Due to the uprising of body-positive movements, a fraction under its umbrella feels like it's gone from one extreme to the other; from 'skinny-shaming' to TikTok trends 'Bodies that look like this, also look like this', it’s a method of activism that still seems hung up on what is 'bad' and what is 'good' - they've just switched around. There still feels like a standard ‘ideal’ when it comes to body image, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of those who don’t want to experience the same thing twice. Altogether, it has developed into a rose-colored idealisation that ignores past mistakes that have been made, because you can’t be positive about something whilst also shaming the other.
Turning A New Page
So, what’s the approach?
Arguably, we need to eliminate this idea of ‘good’ and bad’ and focus instead on gratitude and acceptance of ourselves. There’s no forcing love or positivity; it’s too much of a mountain to climb, especially in a scenario that feels a lot like a sink-or-swim.
So why all the pressure? By pursuing body neutrality, we give ourselves a fighting chance to develop self-love, and maybe in the long run we’ll see a change in the world too – but for now, it’s more than ok to stick to the paddling pool!