Body neutrality vs. body positivity: what’s the difference?
LAST UPDATED: May 16, 2023
4 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
My body is perfect. I love my body exactly as it is. My body is a work of art.
These are the kinds of—beautiful and laudable—positive affirmations touted by the body positivity movement, which has gained popularity in the last decade or so. This movement is rooted in optimism, but could there be another side to it?
Some experts have been pushing for body neutrality over body positivity. What are the differences between these two approaches, and which is better?
Let’s dive in.
Fad diets stop here
If appropriate, get effective weight loss treatment prescribed for your body.
What is body positivity?
The body positivity movement encourages people to accept and love their bodies, regardless of how they look. This movement, which started in earnest when The Body Positive formed in 1996, has garnered incredible popularity. At the time of this writing, there are over 11 million #bodypositivity posts on Instagram.
This approach emerged as a backlash against the overwhelmingly negative, often subconscious messages the media and advertising industry sends about having a physical appearance that doesn’t fit into the “ideal” body image in Western society. It’s also an attempt to fight back against weight stigma and body shaming that people with obesity face.
Poor body image is ubiquitous, with up to 46% of adolescent girls and up to 26% of adolescent boys reporting dissatisfaction with their bodies. And it’s not just a problem of adolescence; people who are unhappy with their bodies as teenagers tend to remain unhappy with their bodies well into adulthood.
A negative body image can lead to a wide range of health risks, including eating disorders (like anorexia or bulimia nervosa), depression, social anxiety disorder, and self-harming behaviors. So, the body positivity movement’s emphasis on combating poor body image is important. But is there another approach to dealing with the problem of poor body image? Many experts say body neutrality may be a better option.
What is body neutrality?
In more recent years, a new concept to battle the body dissatisfaction epidemic has emerged: body neutrality.
Rather than encouraging a fully positive outlook on your body’s appearance, the body neutrality movement shifts the focus to taking a more neutral approach to our bodies.
Says Dr. Tzvi Doron, an obesity medicine specialist, “Your body doesn’t define you. It’s one part of what makes you a whole person. Your essence is made up of your personality, your relationships, your values—and your body is just one part of that.” Body neutrality affirms this idea, stressing that one’s value is not solely tied to physical appearance.
For many people, loving and accepting their bodies at all times—as is encouraged by the body positivity movement—might be too difficult. There may be things about our bodies we’d like to change for one reason or another, and it can feel disingenuous to try to convince ourselves those things don’t exist. With body neutrality, we can have a positive body image, while acknowledging that there may be some things we aren’t always happy with.
Body positivity vs. body neutrality: which approach is better?
There is no conclusive research on which approach is the better one; body positivity works really well for some people, while body neutrality is a better approach for others. A lot of this comes down to what works best for you.
Still, it’s worth considering some of the downsides of these approaches.
“A potential problem with the body positivity movement,” Dr. Doron says, “is that people are still attaching their self-worth to their bodies.” The focus may be on acceptance, but it’s still a hyper fixation on loving yourself for how your body looks, rather than accepting that your body is one part of a larger whole.
Some research also suggests that, when people feel pressured to always be body positive, it can have detrimental effects on their body image. Still, some small studies have shown that many women (who face issues of poor body image at higher rates than men) benefit from seeing positive body content on social media.
Regardless of which approach speaks to you more, there’s no doubt that it’s a good idea to take measures to improve your body image.
Can you have a healthy body image while trying to lose weight?
“There’s no reason that trying to lose weight needs to damage your body acceptance or result from hating your body,” says Dr. Doron.
Especially with a body neutral approach, you can love and accept yourself and maintain a positive self-esteem, while taking measures to improve your health, if that’s the decision that feels right to you. “We should be approaching this from a position of agency,” Dr. Doron adds, “giving patients the information they need to make informed decisions about their health.”
The science is clear that excess weight, particularly excess body fat, contributes to a wide range of health risks, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, mental health issues, and more. And it is also clear that obesity and overweight does not happen because people are ‘lazy’ or lack self-control. These are false and harmful ideas that not only create stigmas around weight in society but also create weight bias in the medical community, making it harder for people to get the help they need because they
Your healthcare provider can—and should—share information about weight and health risks with you when it’s relevant; that’s their job. But, as Dr. Doron says, “A provider should recommend what the research shows lowers the risk of having poor outcomes. For many people, weight loss will lower their risks for these poor outcomes. But medical providers should partner with patients to decide what is the best approach for them.”
For some people—for example, those with a history of eating disorders— the very idea of attempting weight loss may create a negative relationship with their body image and potentially put them at risk for the detrimental effects we mentioned above. In that case, a person may decide not to try losing weight.
For many other people, losing weight successfully may help improve their body image.
If you do decide that weight loss is the right approach for you, it’s important to try not to get caught up in diet culture and the disordered eating that can go along with that.
Instead, take reasonable steps to improve your diet and get more movement, and talk to your healthcare provider about medications if you feel you need additional help (many people do, and the medications available now are effective and safe).
You can absolutely love your body and practice body neutrality even if you decide to lose weight.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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