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What is the difference between body positivity and body neutrality

Demonizing or singling people out for their body weight, shape, or size is not only cruel but can contribute to the kind of self-internalized struggles with body image and self-esteem that work to power so many eating disorders.

And while bullying is a difficult thing to eradicate completely from society, some groups have worked to raise awareness around the negative impact of this type of behavior and promote more positive alternatives.

The body positivity and body neutrality movements were borne of these efforts, and while both movements work to help change the way people think of those in larger bodies, and the way people in larger bodies think of themselves, they utilize different techniques to encourage that change.

6
 minute read
Last updated on 
October 27, 2023
December 26, 2023
Body positivity
In this article

What is body positivity?

Of the two major social movements, body positivity is generally thought to have started first, with some historians tracing its origins to the "fat rights" movement of the 1960s.3

As the name suggests, the concept encourages the idea of radical acceptance, calling for bodies of all types to be celebrated and accepted, regardless of weight, gender, skin tone, or physical ability.3

With its bold-strokes stance, this movement works to challenge some of the more systemic issues at play, including the unrealistic beauty standards regularly promoted by traditional media and the obsession with dieting and weight loss tips fueled by diet culture. The modern body positivity movement has also taken on the type of cyberbullying and proliferation of photoshopped images that run rampant online.

As time went on, the movement began to fracture, with splinter movements focusing on promoting equal rights for larger people and some going as far as demonizing diet culture as "the enemy."3

Regardless of how it moves the needle of society, however, the self love that exists at the core of the body positivity movement may help people on a more individual scale, with the concept correlating with positive body image, which tends to contribute to good self-esteem.1

Reaching out to a professional is one of the best tips for improving body image, particularly if there may be an associated eating disorder. At Within, we assess the needs of each person and create an individualized care plan. Contact us today to begin a healthier and more self-loving path to self-acceptance.

What is body neutrality?

Body neutrality takes a step away from the more extreme ideas promoted by the body positivity movement. As the name suggests, it teaches that a person does not have to love their body unconditionally, nor do they need to think about it positively or negatively in any sense.3

Rather, the body neutrality movement focuses on appreciating what the body is capable of doing. The concept centers more on promoting respect than encouraging love.3

The other aspect of this idea is taking the focus away from physical appearance at all. Body neutrality would have followers be grateful for how their body helps them live their life and interact with the world — how their body allows them to dance or hug another human, go for a hike, feel the warmth of the sun, or even climb the stairs to bed every night.

Cultivating gratitude for these simple actions and the vessel that enables them naturally draws attention away from what that vessel looks like, and can help promote a sense of self-peace. For people with eating disorders or body image disturbances, exploring the concept of body neutrality and focusing on self-care may also be an important part of the healing process.

Body positivity and body neutrality

The difference between body positivity and body neutrality

Body positivity focuses on cultivating acceptance towards a positive body image through unconditional self-love. Body neutrality does not involve constant positivity but rather an acknowledgement and appreciation of all the things the body can do, regardless of what it looks like.3

Some people with eating disorders may have a disordered self-image. Engaging in body positivity helps some people with eating disorders.1 However, for others, it is challenging to switch from often deep-seated low self-esteem to what may seem like an overinflated, untruthful amount of positivity.4

Teaching the practice of body neutrality to people with eating disorders may be more helpful, challenging the way they see and feel about their bodies, promoting a deeper appreciation for the positive aspects of their life, and cultivating a more naturally-discovered sense of self-love and self-care.

Learning about food as nutritious fuel, practicing mindfulness, self-awareness, and improving self-esteem are also important aspects of eating disorder recovery for many people.

Body image and mental health 

Body image refers to a person’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions related to their own body. This is at the core of nearly all eating disorders, with most people struggling with a negative self-perception that can go on to affect their mental health.5

How body image can affect your mental health

People with body image disturbances (also referred to as poor body image or negative body image) are more likely to have mental health-related problems such as:6

  • Generalized anxiety or social anxiety
  • Feelings of isolation and poor self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Risk of suicide
  • Unsafe sexual practices related to low self-esteem
  • Preoccupation with the appearance that is unhealthy

Body image distortion is also a risk factor of the development of an eating disorder. It can lead to an urge to alter one’s appearance by unhealthy methods and long-term emotional and physical problems.2

Body image distortion is a strong predictor of the development of an eating disorder. It can lead to an urge to alter one’s appearance by unhealthy methods and long-term emotional and physical problems.2

Getting help with body image

Thankfully, body image isn't a permanent feature of someone's psyche. Even those who have developed negative self-image can learn to see themselves in a more positive light.

Some tips to improve self image include:

  • Practice gratitude. Learn to be grateful for the body that you are in and what it does for you daily, even if it doesn’t function in exactly the same ways as other people’s bodies.
  • Practice positive self-talk. Compliment yourself daily. Leave yourself sticky notes with kind words or schedule encouraging reminders on your daily phone calendar. Practicing body positivity through self-talk can be helpful for your body image.
  • Focus on your strengths. Journal about five things you are good at. 
  • Be aware of social media and its associated negativity. Follow accounts that feel supportive and unfollow those that consistently make you feel worse.
  • Be patient with yourself and avoid self-judgment.
  • Practice self-care. Take a warm bath, get a massage, or read a book that interests you.

Reaching out to a mental health professional can also help change body image for the better, particularly if there may be an associated eating disorder or if negative body image substantially disrupts your life. At Within, we assess the needs of each person and create an individualized care plan. Contact us today to begin the process of working towards self-acceptance.

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Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. McCallum, M., Ho, A. S., May, C. N., Behr, H., Mitchell, E. S., & Michealides, A. (2021). Body Positivity and Self-Compassion on a Publicly Available Behavior Change Weight Management Program. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(24), 13358. 
  2. Hosseini, S. A., & Padhy, R. K. (2023). Body Image Distortion. StatPearls. Retrieved May 28, 2023.
  3. Body Neutrality vs. Body Positivity. (2022, April 22). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved May 28, 2023.
  4. Fogelkvist, M., Parling, T., Kjellin, L., & Gustafsson, S. A. (2016). A qualitative analysis of participants’ reflections on body image during participation in a randomized controlled trial of acceptance and commitment therapy. Journal of Eating Disorders, 4(1), 29. 
  5. Dane, A., & Bhatia, K. (2023). The social media diet: A scoping review to investigate the association between social media, body image and eating disorders amongst young people. PLOS Global Public Health, 3(3), e0001091. 
  6. Yazdani, N., Hosseini, S.V., Amini, M., Sobhani, Z., Sharif, F., Khazraei, H. (2018). Relationship between Body Image and Psychological Well-being in Patients with Morbid Obesity. International Journal of Community Based Nursing & Midwifery; 6(2), 175-184.

FAQs

What is body positivity?

The body positivity movement aims to help people accept and love themselves as they are. It is a method of self-acceptance through a person loving their own body regardless of size, shape, body weight, physical appearance, skin color, gender, or physical ability.

What is body neutrality?

Body neutrality is a method of accepting a person’s body for how it is, regardless of how it looks or if they like how it looks, which cultivates self-compassion and encourages self-care.

How does body image affect mental health?

A disordered body image can lead to depression, anxiety, isolation, self-harm, and eating disorders. 

Further reading

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Further reading

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