Life&Style Writer Alena Leemann compares the body positivity and neutrality movements and explains why the latter is right for her

Written by Alena Leemann
2nd year English student
Last updated
Images by Anthony Shkraba

Content warning: discussion of eating disorders

The beauty, fashion, diet, and fitness industries make millions by making us feel like we are not good enough, not pretty enough, or not thin enough. And if making people feel bad about their bodies pays off in profit, they are not going to stop. Who would get liposuction, buy anti-ageing cream, undergo plastic surgery procedures, or buy potentially harmful diet pills if cellulite, wrinkles, and belly fat were socially accepted?

We are taught to hate rather than love our body for the way it looks. We are taught to focus on our looks rather than our health. And we go through life constantly comparing ourselves to others, striving after the idea of a perfect body and look– an idea perpetually promoted by the modelling industry, advertisements, movies, tv shows, and social media.

We are taught to hate rather than love our body for the way it looks

According to Western beauty standards, the ‘ideal’ woman is thin with curves and the ‘ideal’ man is tall and muscular. These ideals are unrealistic or unhealthy for many, including the models, actors, or influencers promoting them.

Valuing and holding oneself against an unattainable ‘ideal’ body type or look leads to body dissatisfaction, or more severe conditions like body dysmorphic disorder or eating disorders. How can we ever be ‘skinny enough’ when the beauty ideal is defined by size extra-smalls on a runway (yes, over 90% of models are still clinically underweight), when every time we walk into a clothing store we are surrounded by mannequins that represent but a tiny slice of the population?

The body positivity and body neutrality movements counteract these problematic non-inclusive beauty ideals despite not being entirely unproblematic and inclusive themselves.

Body positivity aims to normalise all body types and promotes the message that all bodies are beautiful and to be loved regardless of shape or size. Especially because of its link to fat acceptance, body positivity has been widely criticised as disregarding the negative health consequences of being overweight and obese. However, criticising the movement based on its association to fat culture seems like yet another way of fat-shaming. After all, body positivity is seldom criticised for accepting underweight bodies, which are at an even greater health risk. To me, the main point of critique is its focus on appearance over health.

Body positivity still focuses on the way our bodies look

While counteracting unhealthy behaviours such as extreme dieting and exercise regimen or the need to be skinny, body positivity still focuses on the way our bodies look. It is a more inclusive beauty ideal– but still perpetuates a beauty ideal so becomes susceptible to commercialisation. The mass media continues to push an unrealistic image of the ‘perfect body’ and the ‘perfect mindset’ dressed up as ‘body positivity’.

The perfectly proportioned curves we see on Instagram are the grounds for yet another form of body scrutiny. The Kardashians, for example, are praised for their curves and accepted for their curves, despite their curves being the result of surgical procedures. The commercialised body positivity movement still neglects everyone with non-standard bodies like people of colour, people with larger bodies, people with disabilities, and transgender people. The mindset it promotes is moreover unobtainable for people with eating disorders or body image issues.

While some people are able to embrace body positivity and love how their body looks, others are not. I sincerely wish I could accept my body for the way it looks, but I cannot. I wish I would not obsess over every little change in my body or feel like I have to go for a run every time I have cake, but I do. The body positivity movement does not make me feel good about my body, it makes me feel guilty about not loving my body.

Loving one’s body is doable for some, hard for most, and impossible for others

Loving one’s body is doable for some, hard for most, and impossible for others. It can be hard to feel positive about one’s physical appearance and it can be hard on our mental health to let physical appearance determine our values.

In contrast to body positivity, body neutrality aims to shift the focus away from its appearance. It is about respecting our bodies for what they do for us, for keeping us alive, rather than loving and accepting the way our bodies look.

Bodies inevitably change– they age, they shrink, they grow, another being may grow inside them– and that is okay, necessary even. The body neutrality movement acknowledges that health does not have a look, that our physical appearance does not define who we are. It recognizes that the ‘body’ is more than ‘body image’ and that we should care for it rather than scrutinise it. Body neutrality is a practice of mindfuness, it encourages people to take care of their bodies through nutrition, exercise, rest, and acceptance.

Bodies inevitably change– they age, they shrink, they grow, another being may grow inside them– and that is okay, necessary even

Even though body neutrality is, in many ways, more inclusive than body positivity, not everyone is able to practice this mindset. In its focus on health, body neutrality disregards people who suffer from chronic illnesses such as heart disease, kidney disease, osteoporosis, or cancer. In its focus on function, body neutrality neglects disabled people who are not able to appreciate their bodies for what they can do. In its aim to respect the body we were given, it excludes transgender people who are unable to appreciate or feel comfortable in a body that does not match their gender.

The people who proclaim body positivity and body neutrality the loudest are unfortunately the ones with the most body privilege and the most social privilege. Thus both movements often disregard people of colour, people of size, trans people, and people with disabilities.

Both body positivity and neutrality, the former more than the latter, have become a hashtag; they have become commercialised and neither one of them is all-inclusive.

Nonetheless, both movements are important and necessary– body positivity has converted beauty norms to be more inclusive and promotes self-confidence and self-love regardless of size, while body neutrality focuses on mindfulness, the body’s non-physical characteristics, as well as mental and physical health. Both mindsets aim to change the way we see our bodies and enable us to make peace with our bodies in the way that works best for us.

I have learned to respect my body by giving it all that it needs to be healthy

The mindset of body neutrality enables me to appreciate my body for what it is and does, despite my not being able to embrace and practice body positivity in the way I wish I could.

Unfortunately, my body knows what it is like to be hated and despised, to be over-exercised until exhaustion, and to be starved of fuel. But I have learned to respect my body by giving it all that it needs to be healthy. I have learned that my body does not exist to be scrutinised and objectified, least of all by myself. My body is my home, and I will take care of it.

Read more from Life&Style:

What is ‘Body Positivity’ All About?

Eating Habits: Separating the Opinions from the Facts

Body Shaming: The Stigma We Can’t Seem to Shake