What is body neutrality and why is it important in eating disorder recovery?

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Body neutrality is a body image movement that is slowly replacing body positivity, and there’s good reasons why. Unlike body positivity, which sets unrealistic expectations for self-love and positive body image all of the time, body neutrality acknowledges that individuals don’t have to love their bodies.

People who practice body neutrality focus on how they move and care for their bodies. In many cases body neutrality allows individuals to stop thinking critically about their bodies. This mindset can be particularly helpful for those in eating disorder recovery who are learning how to engage in joyful movement and mindful eating.

Last updated on 
December 10, 2021
In this article

What is body neutrality? 

Body neutrality, as the name suggests, encourages people to disinvest from thinking about their body in a positive or negative way. Instead of focusing on what their body looks like, people who practice body neutrality try to focus on what their body can do for them.

Contrary to the body positivity movement, which urges individuals to love their body no matter what, body neutrality acknowledges that unconditional “positivity” is setting unrealistic expectations for most people. It’s normal for people’s feelings about their bodies to change from day to day, and body neutrality acknowledges these fluctuations. For many individuals who prefer body neutrality, it feels more authentic than forced and oftentimes false positivity. 

While this emphasis on body functioning can be beneficial for many, some people may regard it as ableist since it involves non-disabled privilege. Perhaps a better, more inclusive way to frame body neutrality is by emphasizing a framework of care. Individuals practicing body neutrality focus on caring for their bodies, even if they don’t see them in a positive light. This care may look like participating in joyful movement, eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, meditating, taking a bubble bath, receiving massages, and more. 

The empowering nature of radical acceptance

Radical acceptance and body neutrality go hand in hand. Radical acceptance, a component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), involves accepting reality exactly as it is, despite how distressing or uncomfortable it may be. In regard to body image and eating disorder recovery, it empowers individuals to accept:

  • The body that they have.
  • The challenges associated with recovery.
  • Any stressors or triggers related to body image.
  • Any relapses back to disordered eating behaviors.
  • Distressing feelings like shame or guilt.

Unlike body positivity, which encourages a constant positive attitude related to one’s appearance and body image, radical acceptance promotes body neutrality—it acknowledges the inevitable ups and downs associated with both eating disorder recovery and life. 

Instead of attempting to avoid or change a situation, someone who is practicing radical acceptance acknowledges the truth, allowing them to move forward on their healing journey.

However, body neutrality doesn’t mean people should give up on healing and peace in their relationship with food, and mindful movement. Rather, it is about forgoing the desire to lose weight or change their appearance in favor of prioritizing how they feel. People practicing body neutrality check in with themselves to see what activities and food bring them satiety, and joy—this pleasure and greater self-awareness is the focus, rather than outcomes or goals tied to size and weight (which more predictably lead to mental pain and suffering, and the cyclic and destructive patterns embedded in eating disorders and weight cycling)

How to practice body neutrality

If you like the sound of body neutrality, but are unsure of how to start practicing this concept, here are some tips:

  • Eat what you want to eat based on internal cues
  • Engage in mindful eating, which involves being present and savoring your food
  • Redirect size– or weight-focused conversations
  • Avoid body talk, whether with others or with yourself
  • Listen to your body and give it what it needs
  • Choose physical activity that brings you pleasure
  • Acknowledge re-frame self-criticism
  • Appreciate your body for what it does for you
  • Acknowledge the ways your body may not work well or needs support, without judgment or criticism
  • Engage in self-care only when you want to and not when it feels like an obligation
  • Wear clothes that you feel good in and like the look of
  • Focus on compassion instead of judgment 
  • Be patient with your progress

This last point about patience is particularly important—you’ve likely spent your whole life internalizing body negative messaging from society. It’s going to take some time to unlearn those thoughts and perspectives, and embrace a new way of approaching your relationship with your body and yourself

How body positivity has been co-opted by thin women

Body positivity was largely inspired by the fat acceptance movement from the 1960s, which centered fat, Black, queer, and disabled bodies, those that have been historically stigmatized and shamed. 

While the body positivity social movement began as a way to accept and celebrate marginalized bodies, it has largely been co-opted by thin white women—especially influencers on Instagram who post photos of their unstigmatized bodies and write “inspirational” captions about self-love.

Many thin girls and women have also begun participating in a TikTok trend involving displaying a “before eating” photo and an “after eating” photo, the latter of which highlights their bloated stomachs. (1) This trend is being celebrated as a part of the body positivity movement, but it is, in fact, fatphobic and potentially triggering for those in eating disorder recovery. This is due to the video involving body surveillance and its participants obsessing about stomach size. It can be harmful for “fat” people (a term which has been reclaimed by people living in larger bodies) to see these TikTok videos and internalize the messaging that flat or toned stomachs are the ideal. 

Thin and “fit” people (thinness is not equated with fitness) are not the populations that body positivity was initially created for and by, and this appropriation is just one of countless examples of privileged people centering themselves in a conversation about marginalized bodies and communities. As such, it makes sense that body neutrality has gained traction over the past few years, with many people feeling alienated by the bodies they now see represented by the body positivity movement.

Body neutrality in eating disorder treatment

The team at Within Health strives to bring thoughtful care to every patient, wherever they are in their body acceptance journey. Our clinical care team will work with you in a body neutral framework, to practice radical acceptance, intuitive eating, joyful movement, and compassionate care through our virtual eating disorder treatment program. Call our team at Within Health today to learn about the next healing steps you can take to overcome disordered eating. 

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.

Resources

  1. Conger, K., Browning, K., & Woo, E. (2021, October 27). Eating Disorders and Social Media Prove Difficult to Untangle. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/22/technology/social-media-eating-disorders.htm

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