OPINION: Instead of body positivity, embrace body neutrality

A girl looking at herself in the mirror surrounded by suns, hearts, and rainbows
(Jenny Park • The Student Life)

I’m a runner, but that is far from what people assume when they meet me. Body type can be one of the first things you notice about someone, and mine is the first thing people comment on upon meeting me. “You’re so tall!” is no more of an observation than it has become a greeting call. 

I can’t claim to have always loved my height, nor do I still. Each time that seemingly innocent comment is made, I feel I am failing to fit into the petite frame women are allotted.  

I am all for challenging the unrealistic beauty standards society sets for women, but I cannot stand behind the current body positivity movement as promoted by hashtags on Instagram. The real, marginalized voices of the movement — including women of color, women with disabilities, trans women and fat women over size 16 — have been lost.

It is time for a new approach — body neutrality. 

“We as a culture, as a society, are obsessed with size. It’s become connected to our identity as people,” Emma McClendon, a curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology, writes.

This obsession with size manifests itself in daily life, from the clothes we choose to wear to the comments we use in articulating our first impression of others. The concept of an “ideal body” fuels the societal pressures on women to change their appearance. Thus enters the body positivity movement. 

In an online campaign initially aimed to promote inclusion on social media platforms, body positivity transformed from a simple concept to a far-reaching social revolution advocating for radical self-love. In this transition to the mainstream media, it became thoroughly impractical. 

The new voice of body positivity, which discourages any negative feelings regarding physical appearance, generates a toxic atmosphere by remaining entirely focused on the physical aspects and aesthetics of the human body, while simultaneously expecting individuals to suppress every negative thought they may have regarding their reflection. Even if nothing about the way you feel has changed, you are still expected to express feelings of admiration. Body positivity as it exists now, in many respects, makes us far more aware of all of our features. It tasks us with admiring our entire being rather than accepting it, or focusing on what we could do with the space we occupy and the features we possess.

The question of body neutrality asks us if we have to actively love our bodies, or if it is possible to simply view them as vessels that enable us to do our typical activities. There is potentially far more empowerment in treating bodies as nothing more than occupied space and the things with which that space can accomplish, as opposed to a focus on the figure itself. Body neutrality questions the need to feel complete adoration for our features, and rather look in the mirror and simply accept what is there. This is my body. Moving on. 

Psychotherapist Alison Stone explained to HuffPost, “Body neutrality is simply about being. … It’s about being without passing judgment or harboring strong emotions about how we look.” 

By allocating less time and mental energy to what we look like, we can enjoy experiences by being fully present in our lives.

As body positivity grew in popularity, its voice shrank behind the glossy magazine covers featuring an ideally proportioned plus-sized model and brand campaigns that included women who met conventional beauty standards like an hourglass shape and ideal bone structure — think Ashley Graham, a figure typically identified as the face of the movement. As a result of this over-commercialization, the movement has constructed its own beauty standards. This further marginalizes women’s bodies and leaves many questioning their shape and if their curves are the correct proportions

The concept of body neutrality cannot glamorize one specific body type because it does not focus on appearance. Rather, it is the middle ground. A safe space to simply exist without having to constantly appreciate features of one’s body that they may not always admire. 

Humans are hard-wired to be negative creatures. Thus, expecting our brains to promote constant thoughts of contentment is illogical. Positive affirmations, while occasionally useful in encouraging gratitude, can be damaging to the human psyche when used by individuals that do not already have high self-esteem. If we claim to love every part of ourselves even on days that we don’t actively believe that, the subconscious mind rejects the statement and we’re left feeling more stressed out and dissatisfied with our bodies. 

If individuals fail to be positive about their appearance, the constant reminder of #loveyourbody online can lead to intense feelings of guilt. When encouraging women to hold themselves — and specifically each physical attribute they possess — at the highest regard every day, failure looms just around the corner. The focus should not be on admiration, but rather on acceptance. 

I wish I could look at every part of myself and claim that I wouldn’t change a thing. It would be an incredible outlook on life. Yet, I am human. I am not capable of always being positive, just like the population. I would much rather look at the things I can accomplish every day with what I have than wish parts away.

Abby Loiselle PO ’23 is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is a runner for the Pomona-Pitzer cross country and track and field teams.

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