How Body Neutrality can help alleviate the pressures of an increasingly visual world and bring inner confidence to the surface.
CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness, such as eating disorders, which could be distressing to some readers
Body positivity is a good start and a welcome change to the tidal wave of unrealistic standards that suffocate social media platforms and our TV screens, but it’s not for everyone. Body positivity’s success is founded on the ability to restructure our own internal monologue, to move the attention of the mind away from what we dislike and onto what we do. For example, someone may hate their nose but love their hair; so they spend less time focused on the negative until it is starved of attention and becomes neutral, or even positive over time.
The shortcoming of this method is strikingly obvious to critics of the method, such as Nicole Hawkins. In the paper, The Impact of Exposure to the Thin-Ideal Media Image on Women Hawkins notes: ‘Research has consistently shown that exposure to depictions of the ‘thin ideal' is associated with both behavioural and emotional symptoms related to disordered eating’ Body positivity implies you should do whatever possible in order to feel positive about how you look. The ‘thin ideal’ is typically the positive that media depictions have socialised women into pursuing. This negates many of the positive effects of the body positivity movement, as it still holds onto the root of body dysmorphia.
The key to loving yourself? stop trying
How, then, are we able to move forward? Breaking the chains of social expectations may be found in the use of ‘Body Neutrality’. This evolution of the body positivity movement was largely spearheaded by counsellor Anne Poirier, who first coined the term to help patients develop a healthy balance between diet and exercise. Body neutrality, unlike its more optimistic forerunner, isn't focused on appearance, it allows us to appreciate all the things that our body allows us to do. For example, our body allows us to enjoy the experience of good food, the sensations of love or simply the ability to feel at all. Body neutrality recognizes the value our physical being provides in its ability to allow us to experience the things we love, rather than its own innate value.
Body neutrality is an ideal starting point in that it asks for less of us in comparison to body positivity. For many, carpeting themselves with admiration may feel ingenuine, superficial or too challenging. The beauty of a neutral approach is in the lack of expectation. As with other well-being tools, such as meditation, Body neutrality centres the mind on the present moment, finding peace in what the body is already doing for us, rather than what it should be doing.
Body neutrality is refreshingly non-visual in its attempts to kindle feelings of self-confidence. The aforementioned downfall of body positivity is in its reliance on socialised standards of beauty, meaning those who fall out of this demographic or were never a part of it are trapped in a cycle of guilt and shame. Though popular media is changing to be more diverse, we still live in the shadow of historic television and cinema dominated by athletic, heterosexual, white men and women. For the many that don’t fit into any or all of these categories, these expectations are impossible to achieve. Body positivity, a movement that spreads the message of self-love, falls short in that it leans on external sources of validation.
Celebrate, don't compare
Body neutrality has taught me that self-confidence is in the lack of comparison to a societal ideal, rather than the pursuit of it. My body isn’t perfect, I may not have a perfect, adonis body, but it does so much for me and is a vessel that carries me through all of life’s experiences.
In a recent conversation with my sister, someone who is assailed far more than I with social expectations, I found it eye-opening and slightly worrying to hear about what runs rampant amongst social-media circles. ‘Beautified’ Instagram posts, Snapchat dysmorphia, eating disorders spurred on by impossibly high standards. The upcoming generation is becoming increasingly defined by a lack of self-confidence.
Social media is a powerful tool, work needs to be done to change the status quo. Body neutrality is an excellent way to say no to harmful societal expectations. Body neutrality is an amazing way in which we can celebrate ourselves without the crutch of outdated social pressures. Don’t love your body? That’s fine! You are so much more than it anyway, but try to remember that without it, the rest of you wouldn’t be able to do all of the things that make you who you are. If we stop comparing and start celebrating one another, who knows what social media will look like in the years to come?