Is there a solution to our body image problems?
From body positivity to body neutrality. Which is the way to go?
August 11, 2022
In a 2019 study done in the UK, 20% of adults reported feeling shame, 34% feeling down, and 19% feeling disgusted by their body image. It is no secret that society values white, skinny, feminine, young beauty standards. Systematic enforcement of fatphobia under the guise of beauty standards can lead to negative body image thinking, disordered eating, and over-exercising. Over the years, several body image movements have popped up to tackle these issues.
The body positivity movement has its roots in the fat acceptance movement, which began in the 1960s. It aimed to eradicate fatphobia in aesthetics, legal, medical, and social areas. The movement positively views bodies despite weight, shape, size, or other visible factors. At first, this movement seemed radical and game-changing. Social media played a role in empowering people with body positivity through mantras such as "I love my body" or "My body is perfect the way it is." The movement led to more plus-sized representation in ads and media and a more open mindset toward different body types.
However, like many other movements, body positivity has been oversaturated in social media and commercialized by big corporations looking to make money from insecurities. Mantras that emerge from the movement like "My body is beautiful" or "All bodies are beautiful" emphasize beauty, defeating the movement's purpose, connecting beauty with value. While people practice body positivity to feel better, it can have the same effect as toxic positivity. It is unrealistic for someone to love everything about themselves and ignores their true feelings, which can feel invalidating. The movement places pressure and blame on the individual for not loving their body despite society's routine anti-fatness.
Additionally, brands and companies that propagate traditional beauty standards co-opt the body positivity movement for profit. To appear "woke," companies use body positivity in marketing campaigns while selling products that will "make you feel beautiful." Aubrey Gordon, a fat liberationist, describes the reality of the body positivity movement being corporatized and market-driven: "We're going to show every kind of body, and by 'every kind of body,' we mean white- to light-skinned able-bodied people size 14 and down." Ironically, body positivity marketing campaigns still center on beauty standards.
Recently, the body positivity movement has started receiving criticism, and in 2015, the body neutrality movement started gaining traction. Body neutrality does not focus on what the body looks like but on what the body can do for you. The movement strives for individuals not to have strong feelings about their bodies, positive or negative. Rather than centering on appearance and loving one's body despite of "flaws," body neutrality allows people to appreciate the body for existing and accept difficult emotions instead of denying them.
While body neutrality seems like a more feasible alternative to body positivity, the movement is just starting to gain popularity and is still a work in progress. Because body neutrality emphasizes function over aesthetics, it is not 100% inclusive. If the movement focuses on ability and function, how does it account for people with disabilities? Additionally, not focusing on physical appearance may not be possible for people with gender dysphoria. Like body positivity, body neutrality can be helpful to some people and help with their body image. Still, it is not the final solution in our body image journey. Nicola Dall'Asen articulates this sentiment in her article: "Ultimately, I believe the main thing that matters is that we prioritize the fat liberation at the core of these movements and express gratitude for any systemic body privileges we do have. As I've said a million times, being fat isn't a bad thing; underrepresentation of and discrimination against fat people are why we need these conversations in the first place, and (societally speaking) to shift our perspective from "but all bodies are beautiful" to "systemic fatphobia must be stopped."
(1) “Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality.” Verywell Mind, 30 June 2022, https://www.verywellmind.com/body-positivity-vs-body-neutrality-5184565.
(2) “The commercialisation of body positivity — JADE.” JADE, 28 June 2019, https://jadeasterling.com/flourish/2019/6/28/the-commercialisation-of-body-positivity.
(3) Dall, Nicola. “Why Body Neutrality Hasn't Won Me Over Yet.” Allure, 7 September 2021, https://www.allure.com/story/why-i-dont-use-body-neutrality.
(4) “I agree with Lizzo, body positivity has become commercialized.” The Daily Aztec, 30 March 2021, https://thedailyaztec.com/105093/opinion/i-agree-with-lizzo-body-positivity-has-become-commercialized/.
(5) Jackson, Adele. “Experts Explain the Difference Between "Body Positivity" and "Body Neutrality."” Good Housekeeping, 25 August 2021, https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/a36865992/what-is-body-neutrality/.
(6) oliSUNvia. “body neutrality is on the rise... but not without its shortcomings.” YouTube, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Knv0_sYJFlI.