Body neutrality is a relatively new term in my vocabulary, but I’ve been thinking about the concept to varying degrees over the last couple years.
As someone who’s been on quite the rocky body image journey myself – and now helps other women navigate their own path – I’m no stranger to the ideas of body hate and body love.
Why Do I Hate My Body So Much?
For a long time, I was stuck in the place of hating my body, ruminating on it every day for hours a day. They say the average person thinks about sex dozens of times a day. Sub “negative thoughts about my body” for sex and that described me pretty well.
Luckily, things did change for me. I figured out how to eat, move, and rest in ways that made me feel better. I stopped spending my waking moments obsessed about the size of my thighs.
But I don’t spend every day now loving my body. Let me explain.
If constant body hate is a terrible state to be in – and it really is – then the opposite, body love, must be the antidote, the holy grail, a type of self-actualization. Or at least that’s what’s assumed.
Self-love is an extremely popular movement right now with over 14 million hashtags in use on Instagram alone. I’m not against caring for, appreciating, and having compassion for oneself. And I think the intentions of the self-love movement are pure, but like many things in the self-help world, it can get misinterpreted. Women heap a lot of pressure on themselves to swing the pendulum in the other direction.
I’m not opposed to feeling good about your body. What I would like you to suggest, though, is a more neutral state of being.
When you’re in the deepest depths of shame and hate and embarrassment about the way you look, it can seem like a pipe dream to envision loving yourself every damn day.
So What is Body Neutrality?
I’m not an expert in the subject nor a psychologist, and my thoughts on this are my own, but what about this state where things are neither profoundly negative nor positive?
(I wrote about this on Instagram recently, and the response to that post was huge.)
These are the times when things just are. When you’re not spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about your body. Yes, you feed it well and get some movement and sleep. You engage in self-care and respect your physical house. Body neutrality doesn’t mean you neglect yourself…it just means you aren’t spending a lot of time in deep admiration or disgust.
What if, most of the time, we just are?
And what if it’s still possible to appreciate yourself, express self-compassion and practice self-care, while still having things about yourself that you don’t love all that much?
To me, that seems far more approachable than the perception that we should be striving for 24/7 love.
It also accepts that periods of positivity – where you’re feelin’ your fine self – and negativity are normal human thought patterns. It’s unrealistic to be happy or positive every second of every day. And it’s deeply unrealistic to think we can just will ourselves to only have positive vibes forever and ever, amen.
Sure, there are individuals whose sets points are a little bit more Tigger than Eeyore (hat tip to Gretchen Rubin), but ups and downs are part of life. And periods where you don’t have polarized body thoughts are possible, too.
I spend most of my time in a body neutral zone. Sometimes I think I look hot; others, I think I look like a potato. But most of the time, I don’t give it much second thought at all. I just am…without the heady highs or paralyzing lows.
There isn’t a concerted effort to love every single part of me all the time. It’s pretty refreshing. Yes, I’m very grateful for what my body can do, that it’s kept me pretty healthy, and I appreciate it so much more now than I used to. But I’m not head over heels in la-la-love with every single thing. Rather, some things just are.
Again, this was a journey for me. It took years to get to a place of pretty consistent body neutrality. If you’re really struggling with being too hard on yourself even when trying to make positive changes in your life, I recommend reading Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristen Neff. I wish I’d seen it a decade or two ago.
I’m not sure I’ve explained all this very eloquently, but I’m making more of an effort to put thoughts and ideas out there even if they’re not 100% perfect or polished.
Shannon K. Wagner of the Women’s Strength Coalition described her thoughts about body neutrality on a recent episode of the podcast.
A Letter to My Body
Practicing self-compassion has really been a game-changer for me, and I find it fits in well with body neutrality. It’s about being kind to yourself. For appreciating that life is sometimes hard, and we are imperfect human beings trying to do our best.
In the spirit of self-compassion, I wrote this letter to myself…and then shared it with the world as I’m wont to do.
Some of the things I admitted in this letter are things I’ve never really spoken (written) before. Bringing up the pains of the past can set the stage for self-judgment and feelings of shame which is why self-compassion is an important skill to diffuse the moments of overwhelm.
I hope this inspires you to write your own “Dear body” letter when you’re ready.
“Dear body, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for treating you badly for so many years. For withholding nourishment. For feeding you things that made you feel sick and not listening to your cries. For numbing you out with reckless amounts of alcohol. For punishing you with endless exercise. For being pretty cavalier with sexual partners. (Yes, I got very lucky.) For pinching, poking, and analyzing every bit of fat, every wrinkle, every ripple. For wanting to be anything other than you. For hating you.
Despite all of this, you dutifully absorbed the abuses I threw at you, doing everything you could to keep me going. You supported me when I treated you the worst…because why would I treat you better when I had no self-compassion? No sense of worth? I punished the thing that was easiest to hurt: you.
Dear body, it was hard.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know, what I know now. That there’s another way. A way of honor and ease. That I could be compassionate and loving and still change into the person I wanted to be, to feel the things I wanted to feel. I forgive myself for putting you through hell.
Dear body, I love you.
I love you for continuing to keep me alive. For being the meatsuit that carries around my thoughts and ideas, my hopes and dreams, my spirit. For helping me squat and play jiu jitsu and jump and run and play. For being so loyal when I treated you so badly. For helping me explore this amazing, fantastical, messyAF life.”
I’m sure the conversation around the body neutrality concept will continue to evolve and change. It’s all about dialogue and exploring the nuance of these issues.
If expressing what you love your body FOR is too hard, think about what you can appreciate it for. Take the focus off what you love ABOUT it (ex: features) and try pinpointing something you’re grateful it does for you. I find that helps.
I’d love to know your thoughts.
This is perfect timing! I have started to very slowly, like and appreciate parts of my body that I have hated for a long, long time. I started doing yoga in January and I liked how I felt afterwards, I felt peace with being me, it was pretty cool so I kept doing it. In February, I decided that I would go back to running (we have had a love/hate relationship) and I have been having a great time and not allowing any negativity to taint my running time.
I have been focusing on how I feel instead of standing in the mirror shaming myself and I am feeling stronger, healthier and happier than I have in a long, long time.
This life business is quite a journey! 🙂
I finally got around to reading this post, and I’m so glad I did!
After reading your description of body neutrality, I have to say that I’m really in that camp, too. I’ve always felt somewhat awkward talking about self love and body positivity, because even though I overall do love myself and my body, most days I don’t really think about it… like you said, it’s more of a neutral stance. There are more days when I feel rockin and sexy than days where I feel bloated and bleh, but it’s not 100% love or 100% hate. It’s moreso that I have this meatsuit and it allows me to do the things I love to do. If I take my shirt off at the gym, it’s not because I feel suuuuper good looking and I want to show everybody my radical love of my body, it’s because I just don’t care what everyone else thinks about my snow-white flabby stomach. Like you said, it’s not like I love every part of me…it just is. I’m not going to break down if I gain 10 pounds. I’m not going to love myself more if I lose 10 pounds. It’s just fluctuations and changes that happen – and I can approach it without intense love or burning hate.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and perspective Chelsea. I really appreciate knowing how it landed with you, and I think that many of us have the same exact thoughts. Much love!