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body positivity isn’t always the (best) answer

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

body neutrality picks up where positivity falls short.

When I was a freshly-minted new yoga teacher, I had one goal with my students: to help them to recognize that they were enough, perfect, just as they were. I proclaimed radical self-love to anyone who would listen– convinced that if they could just throw out their scale and embrace their own imperfections, they would discover true happiness. At the time, I had just become a certified Curvy Yoga teacher and was excited to make yoga more accessible to more people. While I had great intentions, I was missing one a big piece of the puzzle: my own privilege.

I’m a young(ish), thin, white woman, educated, upper middle class, able-bodied and cisgendered. While I’ve had my own struggles with mental health, body image and disordered eating, the reality is that I’ve never been too far from what our culture centers as “the norm.” For me to declare radical self-love or body positivity was a pretty small step, and didn’t require any real risk. Even when I was in a bigger body, I was still able to fit comfortably in public spaces and purchase clothes at major retailers. I never had to navigate racism or ableism. Wellness spaces (and their marketing) were filled with folks that looked like me, so that even if my social anxiety got in the way, I understood that I was intended to be there and it was safe.

Where the messages of body positivity and “self-love” fall short is that in a culture that values one type of body over another, not all bodies have equal access to safety. Simply based on marketing images alone, to be fat, openly queer, or BIPOC, for example, is to automatically be considered “other.” Worse, this “otherness” means that if you are not thin, white, able-bodied and cisgendered, you may not have equal access to health care. You may earn less than your colleagues. Property ownership may be less of a possibility for you. For those in bigger bodies or living with disabilities, simply navigating the world is more challenging everything from public transportation to the chairs in your doctor’s office may be uncomfortable or completely inaccessible.

As I grow older, I’m also more conscious of the ways in which our seniors are treated differently; often with less inherent respect and dignity. I recognize my own feelings of dismay at wrinkles, gray hair and other signs that my body is aging, and I have more empathy and compassion for the ways in which we work to “stop the signs of aging.” I recall an especially poignant episode of Grace and Frankie in which Grace (Jane Fonda), tired of being treated like a senior citizen, cries out, “I just want to be relevant!”

We all deserve to feel safe, comfortable, and relevant. It’s only natural that some of us will feel compelled to make changes to our bodies in order to meet these basic needs. To ask all humans to love themselves through unconditional body positivity is to deny the reality that many people are desperately trying to navigate a system that is ignoring, discriminating against, shaming, or even killing them.

Rather than offer body positivity, we can encourage body neutrality. Body neutrality allows us to acknowledge our bodies for what they can do for us, rather than for what they look like. We can recognize the functions that our bodies have, even when we aren’t able to appreciate or love them.

Body neutrality allows each individual to have their own experience with their body. It does not deny the inequity of our cultural ideals, nor does it invalidate anyone’s lived experience. It also allows room for self-agency and autonomy, including the idea that each of us may want or need to change our body in order to feel safe or comfortable within our current systems.

When we center an experience of body neutrality, rather than body positivity, we can begin to work toward body liberation. Body liberation seeks to free all bodies from the hierarchal systems that keep all bodies from experiencing true equity and equality. It’s a social justice movement that begins with an understanding and acceptance of ourselves and our complicated relationship with our bodies.

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