From Obsession to Acceptance: The Case for Body Neutrality

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Am I beautiful?

It’s the silent, insidious question that lurks in so many minds. Society’s beauty standards are well-defined enough that most people believe they already know the answer to that question. And in spite of that knowledge, or perhaps because of it, chasing a perfect face and a perfect body is a national obsession — beauty is a $460 billion industry, and weight loss is another 64 billion. The pressure for perfection is high, and it is inordinately higher for women, with hundreds of ads targeting our faces and bodies every day.

Just as pervasive as the messages telling us to change ourselves to become more beautiful, however, are messages insisting we ought to love ourselves exactly as we are, flaws and all. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t exactly dislike the intent behind that messaging or have anything against the body positive movement. Surely, it’s a good thing to keep challenging and expanding society’s conventional views of beauty.

But the mantra of constant self-love, the sort of blanket positivity that the movement promotes, is one that I often find a bit exhausting. Yes, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of features and shades. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to ooze self-confidence at any size and shape and look. However, I think it’s unrealistic to expect that bullet-proof confidence of ourselves 100% of the time — and the prescriptive “love your body” rhetoric doesn’t always account for that.

The reality is that most days, I don’t particularly love OR hate what I see in the mirror — I feel strictly neutral about it. And that, admittedly, puts me in a strange place. It begs the question: Do I really have to love my body? Isn’t it enough to just like it?

More importantly, I find that body love keeps the focus on the body. The times I’m happiest are when I’m not thinking about my body at all. I prefer to be very neutral about it — body neutral, if you will.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in my thinking. What I’m describing is an idea that’s been percolating among psychologists and body activists: body neutrality. A more moderate approach to self-image, body neutrality aims for self-acceptance over self-love, attempting to move beyond the reflex to constantly judge our own appearances, positively or negatively. Where body positivity’s motto might be “love yourself,” body neutrality’s would probably be “underthink it.” In shifting the focus from the body’s appearance, it aims to help neutralize disordered thinking.

And according to Bryan Karazsia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the College of Wooster, it’s that key shift away from the body that makes body neutrality a much more rational concept than body positivity or acceptance. “Neutrality goes a step further to ask an important question: Why all the fuss about the body?” he says. “The sentiment is, ‘Let’s get over bodies already and focus on more important matters.’” That statement may seem flip in the current landscape of body imagery, but it actually represents a fundamental paradigm shift he thinks we’re inching toward. Body image coach Sarah Vance agrees. As she puts it, “Right now, body positivity is very body-centric. We want to get to a place where our worth is outside of our bodies.”

Viewed through that lens, body positive movements do sometimes ring a bit hollow for me. And while I would still shy away from dismissing body positivity altogether, I will say this: why, exactly, do we have to be beautiful to be worthy of attention or praise? Why do we assume women can’t be confident or feel good about themselves if they don’t feel pretty, specifically? There are so many other things a woman can be — ambitious, intelligent, articulate. Beauty is a nice thing to have, and it’s always something to admire, but it doesn’t mean or impact much else.

It’s certainly an uphill climb, but in accepting body neutrality, there’s the hope that women can reach a point where they feel comfortable in their own skin, regardless of how attractive they perceive themselves to be.

So as strange as it sounds, my message is this: it’s OK to not find yourself beautiful. It’s OK to be just “body neutral.” Sure, it feels great to love the way you look — but you certainly don’t need to in order to respect and value yourself. At the end of the day, your body is not your greatest accomplishment — you are.

About the Author

Namankita Rana
Passionate about technology, women's issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.