Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality

Woman standing in front of the mirror, observing their appearance in two different instances (body positivity and body neutrality).

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

Body positivity is a social, worldwide movement focusing on equality and acceptance for all body types and sizes. One of the goals is to challenge how our society, particularly all forms of media, presents and views the physical human body.

Plastic surgery, injections, dangerous diet culture, and extreme workout regimens became the norm for decades as skinny jeans and size two waists seemed to be the perfect body type for mainstream society. This “skinny” culture quickly led to low self-esteem, depression, alcoholism, and extreme eating disorders. In the early 2000s, the Internet was the primary place where body shaming and body love were spread.

People were commonly shamed and bullied for being “overweight,” but many individuals started speaking out on normalizing all body types, regardless of size and weight.

The popular buzzword “body positivity” emerged all over the Internet in 2012. However, it has a much deeper history and goes back to the late 1960s. Shortly after the "body positivity" movement emerged, body neutrality made its introduction as an alternative approach to body positivity. Instead of focusing on loving your body no matter what, body neutrality is a philosophy that focuses on what your body can do for you.

This article defines body positivity and body neutrality, the advantages and disadvantages of each movement, and discusses how we as a society, can adopt both movements to better enhance our lives.

The Body Positive Movement

In 1969, an engineer, who was angry about how the world was treating "fat" people, established The National Association to Aid Fat Americans. Today this organization is known as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), the world’s longest-running fat rights organization.

This fat acceptance movement focused on ending fat-shaming and discrimination against individuals who did not fit society’s mold according to their body shape and size.

In 1996, after entering eating disorder treatment, a psychotherapist coined the term “body positive” after finding the website bodypositive.org. This website offers resources and material designed to help people accept who they are and love their body shape.

During this time, society started to learn that “skinny” is not the only way a human body should be viewed and loved.

What Is Body Positivity?

As it is known today, the body positive movement began to emerge across all media channels around 2012. The goal was to shift unrealistic feminine beauty standards into a more whole-bodied, realistic approach.

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Cellulite and wrinkles are normal. Exercise and diet plans can be extremely unhealthy, and instead, we should focus on eating whole, nutritious foods and loving our bodies as they are. This movement emphasizes that “all bodies are beautiful.”

The body positive movement has grown increasingly popular and has developed a wide array of criticism and stigma.

Criticism of the Body Positivity Movement

Today, it is nearly impossible to log into social media without being inundated with diet and exercise ads with hashtags #bodylove, #bodypositivity, #allbodiesarecreatedequal, #loveyourbody, and #allbodiesarebeautiful.

Individuals are proud to show their body imperfections and promote #fatculture; however, there is a lot of harassment, pushback, and criticism against the movement.

Body Positivity and Obesity Culture

Many people believe that the body positive movement has created an unhealthy culture that allows people to disregard the medical complications that often come with obesity. Obesity is linked to diabetes and heart disease, and many advocates of the body positivity movement often criticize this research.

There seems to be a line drawn in the sand between accepting all body types regardless of the health risks and promoting healthy and sound life choices while still going against the dangerous diet and skinny culture.

Many medical professionals will argue that there is an unhealthy weight and a healthy weight, which is very different from being skinny or fat. Individuals can be thin and unhealthy or overweight and unhealthy.

Being "skinny" does not automatically promote overall good health, and being too underweight can come with other medical complications such as osteoporosis and hormonal imbalances. As a result, many medical doctors encourage eating a whole balanced diet and regular exercise.

These should be fun lifestyle choices and not be forced upon us. Engaging in exercise regimens that we enjoy is extremely important. This can vary with each person. Whether it is walking the dog, going for a run, joining a gym, doing a home workout, practicing yoga, playing a sport, skiing, hiking, or biking, there are plenty of ways to exercise.

Routine exercise can reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease and make you feel good about yourself. This mindset also works for eating whole, nutritious foods. Share recipes, cook with friends, subscribe to a recipe delivery service, grow your veggie garden; are all ways to adopt healthy eating that can also be fun.

Too Much Focus on Appearance

On the other end of the spectrum, the body positive movement can make people obsess over their appearances that they forget all the other important aspects of their life and individuality. As a result, many individuals may engage in dangerous diet culture and exercise regimens because they feel pressured to love their bodies.

As humans, we are multifaceted, and our physical appearance is just one of the many facets of our existence. Our physical appearance does not define who we are.

It can be difficult to love your body daily, especially when you may be feeling bloated or feel that your clothes are not fitting you like they are supposed to. Sometimes we feel down and tired, and we don’t feel good about our body shape and appearance.

This can lead us to feel guilty that we are not embracing the body positive culture and that little voice in our heads keep telling us that we need to do better and be more accepting.

Some days we are not going to feel good about ourselves, and that is okay. While other days, we will feel great in anything we wear. Body positivity means appreciating and loving the body you have and not criticizing yourself over changes that happen naturally due to aging, pregnancy, or lifestyle choices.

The Body Neutrality Movement

Body neutrality is a different approach from body positivity. Instead of focusing on loving your body no matter what, body neutrality is a philosophy that focuses on what your body can do for you.

What Is Body Neutrality?

Body neutrality was coined after the body positivity movement began to curb the extreme criticism associated with body positivity and fat acceptance. The term was coined around 2015 as bloggers, celebrities, and intuitive eating coaches helped promote this movement to steer away from the link between physical appearance and self-worth.

Body neutrality promotes accepting your body as is and recognizing its remarkable abilities and non-physical characteristics instead of the physical appearance.

Body neutrality means taking a neutral perspective towards your body, meaning that you do not have to cultivate a love for your body or feel that you have to love your body every day. You may not always love your body, but you may still live happily and appreciate everything your body can do.

For example, your body can run, ski, carry bags of groceries, give hugs to loved ones, birth a child, and take you to many places around the world. Your body can do amazing things!

When you eat an extra donut or add that extra splash of heavy cream to your coffee in the morning, you satisfy your body by eating intuitively and practicing body neutrality.

Body neutrality commonly goes hand in hand with mindfulness in the sense that when you respect your body, give it care, nutrition, rest, and movement, you will notice how good you begin to feel and how well your body functions.

Adopting Both Practices

Although body neutrality was coined to circumnavigate the body positivity movement, both of these terms can be practiced simultaneously. It is not required to pick one movement over the other.

Body Positivity
  • Promotes strong self-esteem

  • Encourages others to love their body

  • Encourages others to care for their body

Body Neutrality
  • Emphasizes what your body can do

  • Encourages mindfulness

  • Focuses on the body as a vessel rather than what it looks like

One day, you can love your body, and the next day you may struggle with your appearance but still appreciate your body for what it can do.

You can adopt body neutrality mindsets such as practicing mindful eating and exercise to build the body you desire. 

You can equally love your body for how it looks, regardless of the shape or size, while also appreciating the amazing things your body can do.

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