By: Sai Siddhaye
I, like many others, grew up within the culture of body positivity, yet also in the wake of a society that is deeply discriminatory. Some told us to love ourselves and our bodies, to accept that we were beautiful despite our flaws–and yet body negativity did not disappear. The subtle (and not so subtle) critiques of others’ bodies were veiled under “good intentions”, but their impact was no more positive. Though body positivity means well in theory, it is not quite effective when it comes to tackling the internalized and unfathomably long legacy of fatphobia, racism, transphobia, and ableism. A contemporary offshoot of body positivity, coined ‘body neutrality’, has been attempting to reframe the tenets of body positivity, and decenter attractiveness from the discourse about body inclusivity. Though this movement may not yet be able to fully decolonize how bodies are discussed in our culture, it is taking the important stance that inclusivity is about giving every body the same value, care, and visibility, regardless of whether or not it is beautiful or attractive.
The Body Positivity movement began around the 1960s, though similar sentiments have cropped up throughout history. It began primarily as a movement for fat acceptance, and over its multiple waves has expanded to promote acceptance of different sizes, features, and skin colors. Its primary goal is preaching the idea that people of all different appearances can be beautiful, and has made waves in improving the self-acceptance and general psychological health of people who it has influenced; its main goal is inarguably beneficial. However, many people have voiced their dissatisfaction with its scope. Placing emphasis on embodying beauty in order to feel self-worth reinforces the standard of beauty that is valued in our heteropatriarchal culture, and increases the value of beauty within our society. As such, using the values of body positivity in daily life can quickly turn into toxic positivity, which invalidates any negative affect and encourages people to veil their normal emotional fluidity with unwavering positivity. Body positivity can put pressure on us to feel beautiful regardless of what we look like, but this is hard for most people to truly internalize. Trying to ignore a fluctuating self-image in order to feel beautiful all the time can stop us from processing what we are feeling about ourselves, and from analyzing where these thoughts stem from or talking about them. Body positivity encourages accepting one’s own flaws, but doesn’t analyze the history of how these characteristics came to be labeled ‘flaws’ in the first place.
As someone who has survived body dysmorphia and body image issues for several years, it has been very difficult for me to embrace body positivity, despite my best efforts. Trying to feel beautiful while my mind was filled with disgust at my own body was not feasible for me, nor was it a healthy way to try to repair my self-esteem. I felt that unless I was able to feel beautiful, I would not be worthy of love, from myself or others. My fixation on beauty as a gateway to acceptance was holding me back from caring for myself and healing. This certainly isn’t an indictment of body positivity, but rather an example of its limitations; I have many privileges and am certainly not one of the most marginalized in our society, and yet the scope of body positivity was not able to repair my unhealthy relationship with my body. Unless this school of thought can adequately benefit the most vulnerable in a community, namely fat people, trans people, disabled people, and BIPOC, it is not a viable solution for the intense body shame ingrained in our culture.
Though the idea of body neutrality is not directly confronting the root of conventional beauty standards either, it nonetheless separates itself from the patriarchal notion that being attractive gives a person more value. Subverting the power that beauty holds in our culture also means rejecting the influence of the power structures that emphasize a certain kind of beauty. Body neutrality has the same goal as body positivity: self-acceptance regardless of what your body looks like. However, its approach prioritizes the undisputable and objective value and functionality of each body over its appearance. In a body neutral approach, people do not have to feel beautiful in order to treat their bodies with love and care, nor should they emphasize other people’s beauty over their inherent value.
I should make it clear, however, that valuing your body regardless of your appearance does not mean anti-change. A side effect of putting less importance on appearance should be that bodily changes, whether it be weight loss/gain or gender confirmation surgery, are destigmatized, but still legitimized. Prioritizing people’s physical and mental health, no matter what that entails–as well as divorcing health from appearance (read: thinness ≄ health)–should be one goal of body neutrality. However, a critique of body neutrality is that moving focus away from attractiveness and onto health and functionality makes this movement inclined to ableism. Focusing on what a body can do instead of what it looks like is hugely detrimental to the disabled community, as it still places value on physical ability and productivity, which is not an inherent quality that all bodies possess. In order for the goals of body neutrality to be achieved, they also must be sure to put value in human bodies regardless of what they are physically capable of, or they will further marginalize disabled people.
Rejecting a connection between value and beauty also goes beyond combating fatphobia, and should also combat racism. Whether this means transgressing Eurocentric standards of beauty, combating fetishization, or addressing how “pretty privilege” is yet another function of white supremacy, body neutrality and anti-racism should go hand in hand. Decentering attractiveness and appearance from discourse about bodies benefits everyone, and requires systemic changes–such as preventing racial bias in medicine and dismantling the prison industrial complex– along with cultural changes. True body neutrality can’t be achieved without dismantling power structures like white supremacy or cissexism.
The tenets of body neutrality have helped me finally understand that treating myself with love, care, and respect is possible even when I don’t like what my body looks like. Though this may come naturally to many people, my experience with mental illness has forced me to relearn how to care for myself, and refusing to place value in physical beauty has made this process much easier. The subversive nature of body neutrality may be hard to fully internalize, as that requires unlearning most of the cultural norms that we have been indoctrinated with, but it may have the potential to help repair the fraught relationships that many of us may have with our bodies.