By Jennifer Pitman, LCSW
It’s that time of year again! Come January 1st we begin to think about the ways we need to change so we can be our best selves. How many of us have made resolutions and how many of us have already broken them? Let’s be honest, very often these resolutions are focused on changing the way our bodies look. It makes sense since we are constantly bombarded with images of bodies that appear “perfect.” We hear messages from influencers and health gurus that are conflicting, confusing and overwhelming. I should go vegan. I should give up sugar, go low carb. I should strength train, do cardio, yoga and pilates but also get enough sleep and make sure I meditate every morning. While these ideas may be put out into the world with the best of intentions, it’s also completely overwhelming. And when you can’t achieve this idea of what you want your body to look like it can create shame, guilt and sometimes down right hatred of your own body. Body neutrality, a new approach to how we think about our bodies, aims to address our culture’s obsession with seeing and having a perfect body.
What is Body Neutrality?
When I initially heard the term body neutrality my first thought was that it would be impossible to have no feelings at all about your own body. But once I did more research on the concept, I realized that body neutrality is not about ignoring feelings, or only feeling positively. Body neutrality is about accepting your body even if it doesn’t look exactly the way you would like it to. A body neutral mindset urges us to shift the focus away from the body altogether and toward our mental and emotional self. In short, we are not just our physical bodies. We’re made up of many parts that make us who we are and there are many activities that are not body focused which contribute to a fulfilling life. While body positivity encourages individuals to love every part of their body and to challenge society’s construct of beauty, for many people this is not realistic. Body neutrality can be very empowering for many marginalized groups who don’t feel that their body is accepted by our culture including people of color, people with disabilities and people who are transgender. Additionally, for those that may have dealt with an eating disorder, hatred of their body, who feel overwhelmed by diet culture, or feel like a failure looking in the mirror, body neutrality can be a much more realistic approach. So what does body neutrality look like? Here are some examples:
- You wake up in the morning feeling stiff and tired. You decide it would be nice to move your body and you jump on your stationary bike.
- You go for a run and soon realize that this is depleting rather than increasing your energy level. You choose to switch to walking and notice how good this feels on your joints. You also notice a positive shift in your mood.
- After your walk you feel grateful that your body allows you to go on energizing walks.
- You go out for pizza with friends and have a thought that pizza is your downfall. You acknowledge having this thought and are able to shift your attention to enjoying the time that you are spending with friends and savoring each bite of delicious pizza.
How to Embrace Body Neutrality
While you may be on board with the concept of body neutrality, you may be unsure of how to adopt this philosophy. Here are some ways to begin:
Focus on What Your Body Can Do for You
Try to accept your body and honor all that it does for you. Instead of wishing your stomach was smaller for example, think about how your stomach digests your food, which allows you to have energy throughout the day. Ignore the “shoulds” and start to pay attention to your body’s signals. This means checking in with yourself around what food would taste good, satisfy your hunger and nourish yourself. Ask yourself what sort of physical activity would feel best that day, if you need activity at all. None of these examples require us to feel particularly positive about our bodies, but they all require us to pay attention and accept what our bodies need.
Avoid Body Focused Conversations
At some point or another you will find yourself smack in the middle of a body focused conversation. Notice the feelings that this brings up and find a way to shift the conversation. If you are able to, be very honest with the other person that these types of conversations are not particularly helpful for you.
Change Your Thoughts
Much of the body neutral concept is about shifting body shaming automatic thoughts, to more realistic thoughts. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy offers us a helpful tool called Cognitive Restructuring which helps people identify unhelpful thought patterns and find healthier ways of responding to given situations. Keeping a thought record can help you identify these negative thought patterns, examine where these beliefs came from and ultimately shift them to thoughts that are more helpful. For example, if each time you eat a cookie you think, “That was so bad,” you could replace that thought with something like, “I was really in the mood for a cookie and now I feel satisfied.” This is realistic, but does not create those feelings of shame.
Self Compassion is Key
As you explore these thought patterns, it’s beneficial to inquire about the origins of this negativity. Numerous factors, such as your family culture and past relationships, could contribute to these patterns. Additionally, dismissing the influence of societal constructs of beauty ingrained through years of exposure becomes a complex task. Recognize that your perceptions of your body have been shaped by a combination of these circumstances. Instead of passing judgment on yourself, strive to understand the journey that brought you to this point and treat yourself with the compassion you truly deserve.
This article doesn’t intend to impose another “should” on your list. However, contemplating a body-neutral perspective can be valuable if you grapple with body image issues. It’s essential to remember that achieving body neutrality is not a fixed goal but an ongoing process. Cultivating this mindset takes time, so be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate through your personal evolution.