I am nine years old and am running through a luscious green field. The coarse blades of grass graze my ankles, and I feel the warm sun on my face. The wind rushes by, providing a gentle, cooling effect on my hot skin. I pump my arms and legs harder, running faster and faster. I feel free.
Flash forward to middle school. I am 13 years old, standing in front of a foggy mirror in the girls’ changing room of my school gym. My fellow classmates stand on either side of me, scrutinizing their reflections.
“Ugh, I hate my skin right now. It’s so oily,” one says. Another shakes her head vehemently. “No, you look so good,” she whines. “My stomach looks so fat though.”
Suffocated by these negative comments, I nod my head in agreement, offering my own critiques of my physical appearance among the cacophony of self-criticisms.
How did this change happen so fast? At nine, I was running through nature without a conscious thought about my body. At 13, my body was all I could think about.
Yet I was not alone in this shift. In 2023, a report found that 50 per cent of 13-year-old American girls were unhappy with their bodies, and by the time the same girls were 17, this number grew to nearly 80 per cent. Another study discovered that 70 per cent of adult women reported withdrawing from activities due to negative body image, and 60 per cent were self-conscious about their weight.
Men are also affected. A 2022 study found that 75 per cent of young boys and men report using appearance and performance-enhancing substances to modify their body image, and in a survey of over 50,000 adults, 41 per cent of men were self-conscious about their weight. In 2018, 83 per cent of American women and 74 per cent of American men reported being dissatisfied with their physical appearance at one point in time.
At age 13, when the majority of my peers used this negative self-talk, these statistics would not have surprised me. It seemed normal, natural, even, that my classmates and I experienced negative body image; this was simply the way the world worked. Now, however, I understand how dangerous this thinking is. Negative body image should never be thought of as the status quo.
In an effort to combat these sentiments, body positivity and body neutrality emerged as two approaches to improving one’s perception of one’s external appearance, self-worth and overall well-being.
Body positivity, which refers to having a positive, loving view of one’s physical body, originated in the 1960s fat rights movement in the United States. At this time in the US, body positivity helped to raise awareness about the barriers faced by fat people; consequently, the word “fat” was reclaimed as a descriptor instead of an insult.
In 1969, New York engineer Bill Fabrey was frustrated with the negative way society was treating his fat wife, Joyce, and began reaching out to everyone he knew to raise awareness about it. This led to the creation of what is currently known as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), which played a key role in founding the modern-day body positivity movement.
At its inception, mainstream fat activism associated with organizations such as NAAFA often excluded people of colour, due to the worry that tackling more than one issue at a time could “dilute” their message. This thinking is extremely dangerous. The body positivity movement should be one of inclusivity and intersectionality that champions every body. However, when it excludes people of colour, it implies that some bodies matter more than others.
As the Black body positivity activist Sonya Renee Taylor stated, “if the body positive movement is only positive for some bodies, it is not a body positivity movement.” A movement that was intended to aid marginalized people ironically marginalized entire groups at the same time.
In the early 2000s, after a global expansion of the body positivity movement, it morphed into the version of body positivity that we are more familiar with today. As 1990s message boards and chat rooms morphed into contemporary social media platforms, fat people continued to build digital communities. At this time, Black and brown people were also able to more easily create their own communities, causing the movement to be more inclusive of people of colour.
However, in recent years as social media became pervasive, the body positivity movement took a turn for the worse. The term “body positivity” became something of a buzzword that often contradicted the original intentions of the movement. White women with hour-glass figures whose sizes did not surpass 16 started being touted as “radical role models,” pushing those who did not fit into this ideal to the sidelines.
As Stephanie Yeboah, influential writer and fat blogger, states, today’s concept of body positivity “has alienated the very people who created it. Now, in order to be body positive, you have to be acceptably fat – size 16 or under, or white or very pretty. It’s not a movement that I feel represents me any more”. The body positivity movement also began to be critiqued for being unrealistic; radically loving your body every day can be overwhelming and is simply not feasible for many.
Enter: body neutrality. Popularized by Anne Poirier, intuitive eating counselor and eating disorder specialist it invited people to form their concept of worth, value, and identity around their internal self instead of their external appearance. Unlike body positivity, which encourages a constant flow of positive thoughts and speech directed toward one’s physique, body neutrality encourages people to simply accept their body without the pressure of feeling love toward it. Moreover, this philosophy states that beauty and levels of attractiveness do not say anything about a person’s character, lifestyle or the kind of treatment they deserve.
Body neutrality can be a particularly helpful approach to those with disabilities. As writer Rebekah Taussig describes, some people “are frustrated with the demand to love their bodies when they feel betrayed by them. Being neutral could feel like a relief.”
It is clear that body neutrality has many benefits; must we then conclude that body neutrality is superior to body positivity? I don’t think so. In many ways, body positivity’s demanding nature and transformation into something of an insincere buzzword are not conducive to improving one’s body image and feelings of self-worth. On the other hand, aspects of body positivity – such as directing compliments and positive self-talk toward one’s body – can lead to increased self-confidence and overall well-being.
However, radically loving one’s body can often feel like too big of a step. Instead, body neutrality can be an excellent approach to sincerely accepting one’s body for its abilities instead of its external appearance.
When I think back to my nine year old self, happily running through fields and blissfully unaware of my body, I wonder – wouldn’t it be better not to have the terms “body positive” or “body neutral” at all? What if we could just be, without hyper-fixating on strategies to improve the ways in which we view our bodies?
Currently, our world is obsessed with the body’s physical appearance. Be it through photo editing apps, plastic surgery, or simply social media in general, it is clear that a preoccupation with the external pervades society. However, I do not think this fixation is natural – in my mind, humans should be able to exist without a constant stream of commentary on beauty standards, body image and external appearances.
However, in the face of such a world, my wish to be rid of complex terms that comment on the way we view our bodies seems unrealistic. Instead, in order to improve one’s body image and sense of self-worth, adopting body positivity or body neutrality to most effectively suit an individual’s needs seems to be the next best thing.