Taylor Wark

Taylor Ashley, RP #11063

Why I Focus on Body Neutrality and Not Body Positivity

The definition of body neutrality, provided by Google, is as follows: the act of taking a neutral stance towards your body both emotionally and physically.

In comparison, the definition of body positivity (again, thank you Google) is the insistence that everyone deserves to have a positive body image regardless of society and pop-culture standards.

This movement focuses on viewing our bodies in a positive way instead of perceived imperfections. The idea is that we can be comfortable in all body types and admire the parts of our bodies that may not fit societal norms.

From the get-go this sounds like a great approach to body confidence and embracing ourselves as we are, and I do agree that the idea behind body positivity is admirable. The difficulty begins when the negative emotions or thoughts about our bodies do come up and how we internalize these ‘positive messages.’

The term toxic positivity is a familiar phrase to us. It is when we feel the pressure, either internally or by others, to only display positive emotions and suppress ‘negative’ emotions, thoughts, feelings, reactions, and experiences. This type of positivity turns toxic when we suppress our reality and experience and choose to only focus on the ‘good,’ gaslighting ourselves and not accepting that experiencing ‘negative’ emotions is part of the human experience.

I put ‘negative’ emotions in quotations because, as an emotion-focused therapist, I emphasize to clients that emotions are neither good nor bad, they are just information. What makes emotions ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ is our evaluation of them based on our own ability to understand them and move through the discomfort. Understanding emotions are just information, allows us to approach them in a curious versus judgmental way. This is why I do not use a body positivity frame when working with eating disorders or clients struggling with body image.

Body positivity, at its core, does not make space for the down days, nor does toxic positivity. When people are at the initial stages of working on body acceptance and eating disorder recovery, asking them to love the parts of their body, they have spent years hating, trying to change, or society has told them to change is not a realistic experience. It is like telling someone who is anxious to stop worrying. It does not work like that. When we introduce the idea that we should love our body in all forms, no matter what, it often sends the unhealthy message that experience negative thoughts or hard days, and most clients who experience eating disorders thrive on perfectionism. Internalizing the failure of ‘being positive’ and pushing away all other emotions leads to even more harmful behaviours and messaging around self-worth.

Instead, body neutrality promotes focusing on our very normal experience of not being 100% happy all the time and allowing ourselves to have good and bad days.

The difference is encouraging neutrality and self-compassion on the bad days instead of allowing ourselves to wrap ourselves in self-hatred or self-judgment that society has normalized to try and control the look of our bodies and how we feel about ourselves.

And why has society done this? Simply, it is because businesses do not make money if we are happy with ourselves. If we focus on the things we want to change, or tell excessively how we could improve ourselves, then the diet and weight-loss industry stop making money. Society has allowed the weight-loss and supplement industry to become a multi-billion-dollar industry simply by convincing people they are not good enough as they are. If we constantly have something to improve then we are constantly spending money on the ‘next solution’ to a problem that does not exist.

So really, how are body neutrality and body acceptance different than body positivity?

It is a simple yet impactful difference when discussing how we internalize our self-worth and emotions.

The goal of body neutrality is to leave space for all emotions a person needs to experience and express, not just positivity.

This approach acknowledges the reality of human experience and the fact we will not always love our bodies or all aspects of our bodies. It is unrealistic. On the hard days, and days when social media makes us feel less than others, neutrality aims to validate those emotions and allows them to exist in a non-judgmental way.

For example:
Body positivity may sound like, “I do not need to think badly about my body because my body looks great! I am embracing my flaws, loving myself, and pushing away the negative thoughts!” Let me be clear, this does not address the root issue, it just ignores the uncomfortable emotions and internal messaging. It says, “If I feel sadness or judgement then I have failed at loving myself. If I cannot love myself then how can others accept me? Therefore, I must be positive about my body. People cannot see my insecurity.” If you are already struggling mentally then this response does not feel particularly good, does it?

If a client with an eating disorder comes in with this body-positive mentality, then this thought process quickly turns into “I can’t be positive about my body all the time unless I change XYZ, only then can I be positive and be truly confident with my imperfections.” Thus, we restart the cycle of trying to control our bodies to meet others’ expectations.

Whereas body neutrality sounds like, “Today I am struggling with how my body looks and that is okay. Something upset me today and has impacted how I view myself, but I do not have to be mean to my body, or myself. Even though I do not love my body today I can still choose to take care of it. Today that is good enough.”

Good enough should always be our goal.

We live in a society that prioritizes emotional avoidance and not experiencing uncomfortable emotions, which is why body positivity often appeals to people, and does not seem harmful from the outside looking in. But if you are someone who has struggled with weight, body image, and negative messaging their entire lives, body positivity invalidates struggle. You are not always going to concede the fact that your body is changing as you heal. Being a distinct size is going to be worth the discomfort of going against societal norms. There are days it is going to feel crummy. The last thing someone wants when they are feeling down on themselves and struggling mentally with body change is for someone to tell them to embrace and LOVE their flaws… No. When others witness you in your struggle, others can acknowledge that you will not always be happy, and it is okay. Allow space for your emotions, you deserve it.

We can acknowledge the world may not see or appreciate thinness does not equate to health, and a changing body is not you ‘giving up on yourself,’ but you are allowing yourself to heal.

In a society that promotes diet culture, it is impossible to love every part of ourselves every day, but this is not a failure for the individual.

I promote body neutrality and body acceptance because I like to be realistic and show clients it is okay to have hard days. The important takeaway is knowing how to work through those hard days without going to unhealthy behaviours or to thought patterns. You do not need to feel as if you have failed if you do not embrace every perceived flaw. We are human and we have flaws. You do not need to love your body every day to respect your body every day. Let us keep it neutral.

Taylor Wark

Taylor Ashley, RP  #11063

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