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Jamie Kim / Gavel Media

The Distressing Paradox of 'Body Positivity'

“Body positivity” has become a major buzzword as of late. Initially emerging from a blog post in the 90s, the movement desires to communicate the fact that every person can achieve a positive mindset surrounding their body. Influencers and corporations alike have rushed to capitalize upon what seems to be society’s upheaval of years of size exclusivity, but is it that easy?

Of course not. When talking about body image, there are layers upon layers of toxicity and insecurity that must be explored to uncover the root of the “problem,” which can be confounding as each person's struggle with body image is different. Even the well-intentioned body positivity movement can prey upon these insecurities; it's easy for someone to feel a sense of guilt if they don’t absolutely love their body every waking moment. 

Such guilt is what the relatively new concept of “body neutrality” attempts to counter. At its core, body neutrality strives to show people that appreciating your body lies more in what your body can do for you rather than what it looks like. Psychotherapist Alison Stone offers her perspective on the emerging trend, attesting, “Too often, we fall into the black-or-white trap of either loving or hating our bodies, and I think this movement provides an opportunity for a middle ground. It provides an opportunity for acceptance.” This happy medium requires a kind of mental rewiring for those who struggle with body image but embedded in the movement lies the hope that this mindset can be reached.

Popular mental health advocate Victoria Garrick addressed the topic when a follower's asked for advice on what Garrick tells herself when her body image isn't extremely and unshakably positive. Garrick’s reply echoes the sentiments of the body neutrality movement, answering, “[I tell myself] It’s just a body. It doesn’t matter. How my body ‘looks’ is not what I value anymore.” This neutral attitude curates a more liberating approach to how we view our bodies, allowing those who struggle with body image to not feel extreme pressure to unconditionally love their bodies. The movement fosters the idea that you can appreciate yourself detached from your body.

This movement has opened the discussion around women's empowerment and how much of a woman’s confidence is meant to be derived from her appearance. Tiktok user Serena Shahidi, also known as Glamdemon2004, recently filmed a video surrounding this topic that garnered over two million views. In the video, Serena communicates her belief that when young women are taught to build their confidence, there is an incredible amount of emphasis placed upon looks. For instance, women are often told to achieve confidence in themselves by saying that they are beautiful, rather than valuing other qualities such as intelligence. Shahidi continues in a follow up video, “Women have complexities outside of our own looks...we have thoughts and emotions and ideas and feelings that don’t just revolve around how we look or whether or not we think that we’re attractive.” Shahidi wants to make it known that confidence based solely upon beauty is not sustainable or genuine as this foundation can be shattered easily by outside influences. 

Body neutrality strives to mend this cracked infrastructure by implementing the ideal that our bodies are useful for things outside of physical appearance. Practicing body neutrality mainly focuses on understanding how much our bodies can do for us and how important achieving a neutral mindset is in regards to our bodies’ physicality. This movement emphasizes noting your feelings about your body and actually feeling them, rather than just slapping a positive affirmation over the insecurity. 

Though this conversation has mainly been centered around women, men cannot be excluded from the switch from positivity to neutrality, as they so often are from many discussions on body image. Though it is seemingly forgotten from time to time, men have bodies too, meaning that they can (and do) easily deal with all the obstacles that come with simply having a body, such as loving it or hating it. In her piece on how body neutrality affects men, Kayla Kibbe explains, “Body neutrality acknowledges that having a body is weird and often very hard and sometimes painful, and it’s okay if you don’t love it all the time. In fact, it’s even more okay to simply not think about your body at all, if you can help it.” This understanding desires to encompass all genders and all bodies. 

The body neutrality movement seems to me an immensely helpful mindset for those who do not have the energy to love their bodies every moment, all the time. Negative body image moments are natural for everyone who has a body; they aren’t another thing to be ashamed of. Body neutrality offers a much-needed escape from the increasingly forceful “positivity” surrounding body image. 

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