Eating Disorders Treatment How Body Neutrality Can Help With Eating Disorder Recovery By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. Learn about our editorial process Updated on September 20, 2021 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change. Learn about our Medical Review Board Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Aaron Johnson Fact checked by Aaron Johnson Aaron Johnson is a fact checker and expert on qualitative research design and methodology. Learn about our editorial process Print Brooke Schaal Photography / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Eating Disorders and Body Image Body Neutrality vs. Body Positivity How to Practice Body Neutrality If you are struggling with an eating disorder you may have heard about body neutrality and wonder whether it could be helpful for your recovery. This article will discuss what body neutrality is, how it represents a shift from a focus on body positivity, and how you can work on building body neutrality. Eating Disorders and Body Image Not everyone with an eating disorder struggles with a negative body image, but negative body image can be a significant problem for many with eating disorders. It is a defining feature of several eating disorders. For example, anorexia nervosa includes a “disturbance in the way one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body shape and weight on self-evaluation, or persistent lack of recognition of the seriousness of the current low body weight." In bulimia nervosa, "self-evaluation is unduly influenced by body shape and weight." Even putting eating disorders aside, our cultural climate defines thinness as a virtue and a way to attain status—a negative body image is commonplace among people who have not been diagnosed with a disorder. In a 1984 paper, “Women and weight: A normative discontent,” Rodin, Silberstein, and Striegel-Moore coined the term “normative discontent” to describe women's dissatisfaction with their weight and preoccupation with their appearance, which had become so prevalent it was considered the norm. A 2013 study confirmed that body image dissatisfaction is a problem impacting people of all genders, not just women. And in cases of gender dysphoria—the distress associated with feeling that one’s body does not match the gender with which one identifies—body dissatisfaction is a common and intertwined issue. Disproportionately higher rates of disordered eating behaviors are found among people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database. What Is Body Neutrality and Is It a More Realistic Goal than Body Positivity? Body neutrality is a concept that has been discussed in popular media since about 2015 but there are only a few formal studies. Body neutrality refers to a potentially more realistic recovery goal than full body acceptance, body positivity, or body love, which have previously been suggested as goals for successful eating disorder recovery. Body Neutrality Body neutrality focuses on accepting the body as a vehicle for living that needs to be cared for with sufficient food, water, rest, and basic self-care, rather than on focusing on its form or shape. Body dissatisfaction is a normal state among people without eating disorders. How, then, can we realistically expect people with eating disorders in recovery to attain full body positivity—winding up with even less body image dissatisfaction than the population at large? Gendered body ideals represent extremes that are unattainable for most cisgender individuals and even more challenging for transgender individuals. For transgender and non-binary individuals, and people in other marginalized bodies and disabled bodies, body neutrality is a more realistic and inclusive treatment goal than body positivity. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with body love, if we hold it up as an end goal for recovery, we risk making recovery seem out of reach for most people, including those who have experienced body hatred, trauma, stigma, and gender dysphoria. Body positivity implies unconditional acceptance without room for any other experience of the body. The ideal of body love is also an absolute: implying that, after recovery, one should love one’s body all the time. In eating disorder treatment, we aim to challenge this sort of black and white thinking; having an all-or-nothing definition of recovery would run counter to this goal. Dietitians at NourishRX, a practice in Massachusetts, suggest a continuum starting from body hatred and passing through body neutrality, body appreciation, and body acceptance on its way to the ideal of body love. They posit that loving your body all day, every day “is just plain unrealistic given all the things our bodies go through with us.” They suggest going from one extreme to the other can feel like a discouraging, unattainable goal. So, taking the smaller steps toward acceptance is more realistic and less daunting. In a climate of diet culture where diets and weight loss surgeries are still sold as the keys to happiness, body neutrality allows for more nuance and recognizes the broad range of experiences we have with our bodies. It’s OK and normal for any of us to have days where we don’t feel perfect in our bodies and days where we don’t love the way our body looks. In the words of Australian therapist Ashlee Bennett, AThR, “Not experiencing these things [body love] all the time doesn’t mean you’ve still got work to do—nope! Just like goals around happiness 100% of the time, our experiences in our bodies are varied, layered, paradoxical, multicoloured—trying to hold a single view or feeling about your body is an exhausting job and a bit of a cruel task.” How to Work on Body Neutrality When You Have an Eating Disorder We might feel at our worst when we compare ourselves to celebrities and other people who have the most idealized bodies in our culture. It can be helpful to remember the resources that go into helping them look the way they do: stylists, personal chefs, trainers, Photoshop, and so on. Here are some ways you can incorporate body neutrality in your life. Limit Exposure to Unrealistic Body Standards You can reduce your exposure to unrealistic body standards by unfollowing people who promote unrealistic body standards and unhealthy behaviors. Learn About Body Diversity You can educate yourself about body diversity and expose yourself to more diverse bodies. Traditional media usually only portrays the most idealized bodies in the culture. When it exhibits bodies of more marginalized statuses, it usually displays them in a negative light, e.g., stock photos of disheveled people in larger bodies eating junk food. You can curate a social media feed in which you deliberately follow accounts of people with diverse sizes, shapes, skin colors, and abilities. This can help to challenge the stereotypes that we all hold about bigger bodies. Practice Body Gratitude You can practice body gratitude by appreciating the skills, strengths, and capabilities of your body. Notice the things your body allows you to do and experience. Did your legs take you to where you needed to go today? Did your arms allow you to hug your loved one? Were you able to feel the beat of the music in your body when you danced? Answering these questions will help you show gratitude to your body. It is also important to work toward accepting the fact that you don't have to love your body all of the time. Acknowledge that unconditional body positivity is not realistic. Instead, working toward body neutrality is a more achievable goal. Stay True to Your Values You can remind yourself of your values and what you want to be known for. Do you want to be remembered as the skinniest, most fit, or most beautiful person? Or do you want to be remembered for being a caring person who focused their efforts to make the world a more positive place? Take Care of Your Body Focus on caring for your body—we are more likely to be able to appreciate something we take good care of. This includes eating intuitively regular satisfying meals, engaging in joyful movement, and getting enough rest. People with eating disorders benefit from treatment by professionals including therapists, dietitians, and medical doctors. You are encouraged to seek help and reach out to your team for help with your body image concerns. What Is Body Positivity? 7 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 2013;5. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596 Rodin J, Silberstein L, Striegel-Moore R. Women and weight: A normative discontent. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. 1984;32: 267–307. Tantleff-Dunn S, Barnes RD, Larose JG. It's not just a "woman thing:" the current state of normative discontent. Eat Disord. 2011;19(5):392-402. doi:10.1080/10640266.2011.609088 Perry M, Watson L, Hayden L, Inwards-Breland D. Using body neutrality to inform eating disorder management in a gender diverse world. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. 2019;3(9):597-598. doi:10.1016/s2352-4642(19)30237-8 Cohen R, Newton-John T, Slater A. The case for body positivity on social media: Perspectives on current advances and future directions. Journal of Health Psychology. Published online March 19, 2020: doi:10.1177/1359105320912450 Gordon AR, Moore LB, Guss C. Eating disorders among transgender and gender non-binary people. Eating Disorders in Boys and Men. Published online 2021: doi:10.1007/978-3-030-67127-3_18 Selensky JC, Carels RA. Weight stigma and media: An examination of the effect of advertising campaigns on weight bias, internalized weight bias, self-esteem, body image, and affect. Body Image. 2021;36: doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.10.008 By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, CEDS Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD, is a certified eating disorders expert and clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for Eating Disorders Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.