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Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality

Is there a difference between body positivity and body neutrality? If so, what is it?

What does body image mean? And why is it important?


This article explores the difference between these terms, what body image means and the forgotten history of Body Positivity.


Heather Bray, RD


I was recently featured on The Good Life Dietitian’s Podcast where we talked all things body image. I was asked about the difference between body positivity vs body neutrality and since this comes up in discussions with my clients often, I wanted to share my answer here and elaborate on it further. 


Because I will be discussing body image, I want to first start with a definition of this term.


women posing in jeans with their backs facing the camera, all. indifferent body sizes - registered dietitian Ontario Canada body image coach and certified intuitive eating counsellor on body positivity vs body neutrality


Body Image 


A person’s subjective mental image of their physical appearance. This includes a combination of the thoughts or feelings one has about their body. 


Body Positivity 

There’s a significant history of the Body Positive movement that often goes unrecognized and started WAY before Instagram was even a thing. 


Body positivity was born as a human rights/social movement by activists in the 60’s. 


It was allegedly started by a man who was infuriated by the way his wife in a larger body was treated and he paired with another journalist to work together to start a small advocacy group which became the National Association to Fat Acceptance (NAAFA).


The objective was to advocate for the rights and dignity of those in larger, more often marginalized bodies. It fought for the equitable treatment of people in all bodies for example in healthcare settings.  


Today there is an association that continues this work is called the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH)


The body positivity movement didn’t have anything to do with “loving your body” or “feeling positively” about your body 24/7 which is what we typically think of when we think of body positivity today. The reason that we think of body positivity the way we do is because of social media co-opting the term.


When we think about body positivity I think many of us think about social media and influencers and models such as Ashley Graham, the Birds Papaya or Lizzo. #Bodypositivity, especially on instagram became somewhat of a trend and is mostly saturated by thin, young, cis, white women showing off unfiltered, unposed bodies. Which as you can imagine took away from the original purpose of the movement and kind of missed the point. 


There are critiques on both ends for these terms but as a clinician - I’ve seen how the idea of “body positivity” can feel really out of reach for a lot of people. It’s almost like expecting yourself to be happy all the time.

 

For many - the idea of “loving their body” or always feeling positive about it, feels like a mountain that’s impossible to climb. This can be especially true for anyone with disordered eating behaviours or anyone living with an eating disorder or body dysmorphia. 



Body Neutrality 


Body neutrality takes the focus off the body entirely and encourages us to detach from the constant “project” that our bodies can become. Body neutrality encourages people to make peace with their body. It challenges individuals to look more at what their worth, value and abilities are - without using their body as a factor in that equation. 


Many people attribute self-worth and even their identity with their body or weight (whether or not they know it) - body neutrality encourages people to look beyond the physical body at their self-worth and value. It takes the dichotomous thinking away from the concepts of “body love” or “body hate”, the good the bad etc.


We’ve been so conditioned to dislike our bodies and pick them apart from early ages and so it makes a lot of sense for us to dislike our bodies. Once we can see that we’ve been conditioned to think this way it can be transformational in the way we understand ourselves and is sometimes the first step in body image work. 


I think that what both terms have in common is that they challenge the unrealistic standards of beauty. Any concept that takes us away from hating our bodies and challenges our thoughts and beliefs about bodies in my opinion, is important. 

Articles for further reading 


BooksFurther Reading 

The Body Joyful

What’s Eating Us: Women, Food and the Epidemic of Body Anxiety 

The Body is Not an Apology by Sonia Renee Taylor

Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield RDN

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