By now, we all (at least on some level) understand the body-positivity movement; the movement celebrates people loving their bodies and everything their bodies can do for them. While body positivity is great and definitely has its place, for some it’s simply an unattainable goal. I recently came across body neutrality—a movement similar to body positivity in name but not yet in reach. From my initial research I understood that body neutrality asks us to feel neutral toward our bodies, by doing things like not ascribing words such as “good” or “bad” to our bodies. I was drawn to the idea that no kind of value could be ascribed to my body. It felt like the pressure was removed to be in love with my body and instead just accept its constant state of flux without judgment. Body neutrality seemed like a more accessible way to heal a relationship between the person and the body, particularly for those who’ve struggled with disordered eating or body image issues.
Therapist Ashlee Bennett works with people experiencing body-image issues, offering a healing space to process shame and trauma related to fatphobia. When she isn’t working on her private practice, she shares information as The Body Image Therapist on Instagram and facilitates workshops internationally. I sought her expertise on how we can better understand body neutrality and practically implement it into our everyday lives.
Lithium Magazine: What is body neutrality? How does it differ from or interact with body positivity?
Ashlee Bennett: Firstly, we need to highlight the two versions of body positivity. The most common public understanding of body positivity is the literal interpretation of the term, which is being positive about your body no matter what it looks like. There’s criticism surrounding the broader use of the term, though, as the original version of body positivity was a social movement created by fat Black women for people in diverse bodies, which was borne out of fat activist spaces in the late 1960s.
If we interpret body positivity more as being positive about your body no matter what it looks like, contrasting it with body neutrality will make more sense. Body neutrality is when you see your body as neither good nor bad. You’re not trying to be positive or feel amazing about it, nor are you putting it down or seeing it as bad or wrong.
Lithium: How can body neutrality help prevent us from moralizing about weight?
Ashlee: With body neutrality, we aren’t aiming to place any value-based label on the body—the body just is. When we let go of body weight being either good or bad, we’re less likely to moralize our body weight or size. For people with eating disorders, beliefs about weight and its meaning can be a big driver for behaviors and fears about potential recovery weight changes. The concept of body neutrality can help buffer and reframe the meaning given to weight and weight changes.
Lithium: How does body neutrality influence your humanist/feminist approach as a therapist?
Ashlee: It influences it quite a lot. My aim as a therapist isn’t to help people love what they see in the mirror, my aim is to share how we can make what we see in the mirror less important—to make life less about loving or hating how you look, to free up brain space for other things!
Lithium: What does it mean to be actively neutral about your body?
Ashlee: As body positivity gains popularity, we’re increasingly seeing people trying to make loving their body their new goal, when really, trying to force yourself to love your body all the time is like asking yourself to be happy all the time. Being in a neutral space as a baseline allows for the natural ebb and flow of being in relationship with your body—you can expect to have a range of emotions and perceptions about your body. That’s normal. In being body neutral, these emotions and perceptions—regardless of whether they’re positive or negative—are given less meaning. They don’t contribute as much to the story you tell yourself about your worthiness.
Lithium: What tangible steps can someone take toward body neutrality?
Ashlee: The first step is to try on the concept that your body is actually neutral. Come back to the basics of your body: it’s made up of cells, flesh, and bone; it feels warm; your lungs breathe; your heart beats. What makes our relationship with our bodies challenging are the social and cultural meanings we give to it, ones we continue to uphold and reinforce. Contemplate what you’re left with when you place all the meaning attached to your body aside. Next is noticing when you want to give value-based labels like “good” or “bad” to your body or other bodies. Remind yourself that you’re likely attributing value to the social meaning attached to bodies, and not the body itself. Ask yourself, “Can I give space for my body to just be today?” Do these steps over and over again.
Lithium: In a similar vein to my last question, we’ve all heard how social media can be a negative influence on our self-esteem—in what ways can we reshape our social media usage through the lens of body neutrality?
Ashlee: Notice when you judge someone’s appearance on social media as either good or bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to appreciate someone’s or your own appearance out of celebration or pride, but for the sake of making appearance less important overall, challenge yourself to observe with curiosity.
Lithium: I found your post about the quietness of body acceptance interesting. How is body neutrality a quiet process?
Ashlee: Body acceptance, especially when it stems from being more neutral about your body, often doesn’t feel loud nor is it completely silent. There’s this idea that having a positive relationship with your body means being super confident, bubbly, bold, strutting down the street—loud and proud! That’s absolutely okay, but it’s not essential for body acceptance. Body acceptance doesn’t require being super confident. It’s just about knowing that your body is okay, that it isn’t the main focus point, and that it’s welcomed.
Lithium: How have you seen body neutrality specifically help your clients or followers on social media?
Ashlee: Most find it takes the pressure off needing to love what they see in the mirror to feel okay about their bodies. It can be more accessible and realistic for someone to shift from a poor relationship with their body to a neutral space, than trying to go from having a poor relationship with their body to a brilliant one. For people with chronic illness or pain in particular, feeling positive toward their body can feel so out of reach and ingenuine. Body neutrality often helps people make peace with their body without the condition of needing to “like” it first.
Lithium: Where does body neutrality lead us? Is it an end in itself, or a stepping stone toward self-love?
Ashlee: For many it’s an end in itself, and for some it’s a step along the way or a mix. It’s a personal preference. In my opinion, body neutrality can hold more of our human experience. It’s important that we learn how to be okay with the changing nature of our bodies and the feelings we have about it without it completely derailing our capacity to live a whole, fulfilling life.
By Madeleine Burgess