Skip to main content

Dietitian Dish: Body Neutrality (October 2021)

Hey Mountaineers!

I hope this post finds you drinking some hot tea or other forms of hot deliciousness as you enjoy this fall weather we are having in Morgantown. Because many of you are recovering from midterms in recent weeks, I decided to pump the breaks on our, at times, science-heavy blog posts and give you some history mixed in with a little activism and perceptions related to body image (pretty light stuff, right?). Although I am a registered dietitian and didn’t take a traditional history course in college, I love learning about the history of nutrition and how it impacts us today. In honor of this, I decided to dive into the history of body neutrality to give some different perspectives, as well as tips related to this concept.

Where it all started…

Before we can talk about body neutrality, we need to discuss the body positivity movement. The roots of the body positivity movement began in the late 1960s in response to the mistreatment reported and bias associated with individuals in larger bodies. Because of the discrimination and shaming of those in larger bodies that took place in healthcare, the workforce, education and the news and media, a movement began that focused on accepting all bodies, more specifically fat bodies. (It is important to note that the term ‘fat’ is used as a descriptive term and was/is accepted within the fat acceptance movement community and will be used throughout this post as a descriptive term of larger bodies and is not associated with any negative inferences). While the goal of this movement was to promote equal rights, respect and recognition for people in larger bodies, fat acceptance and activist groups aligned their messaging with other oppressed groups that experienced barriers related to racism, sexism and ageism.

While this movement originated to provide support and resources for those experiencing discrimination as a result of their body size, the movement evolved in the 1990s, and the concept of what we now call body positivity began. The term ‘body positive’ was coined in the 90s to give people unconditional permission to love and care for their unique bodies. This term was also being used by AIDS organizations at the same time to support individuals and groups who were HIV positive. Unfortunately, as this ‘body positive’ term continued to evolve into the body positivity movement, several criticisms formed. While the body positivity movement initially began as a way in which all could accept their bodies regardless of the size, shape, skin tone or abilities, the movement was eventually charged with being co-opted into a phrase that supported Eurocentric beauty standards only. It is argued that the term ‘body positivity’ eventually excluded the very groups of people that began the movement, such as those in fat bodies, minority groups and other disenfranchised groups.

As limits to accepting all bodies under the umbrella of body positivity began to form, it became increasingly challenging for individuals that did not fit the conventional beauty standard to connect with its messaging. Put plainly, the beauty and diet industry began to capitalize on the term, body positivity, to promote products that ultimately went against the original messaging that all bodies are accepted and loved and don’t need to be altered. Because body positivity was viewed by many to be a covert way in which the media and beauty industry placed judgment on bodies that don’t fit the stereotypical ‘ideal,’ a new term and idea was created.

Where we are…

While the concept of body neutrality didn’t develop at the beginning of the fat acceptance movement, the movement’s idea that all people regardless of body size, type, skin color or shape deserve love and respect is central to this new concept. The term body neutrality adopts a neutral perspective towards bodies, in that it suggests viewing bodies through the functionality lens versus through an appearance, body-centric lens. Body neutrality put simply is a mindset that we can use to approach body image that is rooted in acknowledging what your body does as opposed to what your body looks like. Another way of thinking about this concept is thinking about bodies as a vessel or vehicle that carries one’s personality, soul and identify, transporting us to where we want to go each and every day. Ultimately, decreasing the emphasis of our body’s appearance and focusing on the functionality of our body and what it can do allows us to place less judgement on ourselves; this rejects the notion that our body shape or weight has any indication of self-worth, and it increases our ability to focus on non-physical characteristics that provides a more neutral thought pattern.

Body neutrality is for everyone…

While body neutrality is a newer concept that has gained popularity within the last decade, individuals that identify as LGBTQ+ and with the disability community have utilized these same basic principles long before. Identifying with body neutrality can be a tool in which all societal groups can acceptance their bodies regardless of any barriers or discrimination that is present. While these principles supporting body neutrality are in no way new, they can be a great start towards adopting a body neutral approach.

Tip #1: Consider a weight-neutral approach.

A weight-neutral approach acknowledges that body weight is determined by a complex set of metabolic, physiological, cultural, social and behavior determinates — many of which our out of our control. Focusing on health through sustainable, compassionate approaches, such as joyful movement, self-care and anti-diet approaches to eating, can all impact your body and health in a positive way, without dieting and weight manipulation.

Tip #2: Respectful Care

We live in a society that places a moral value and significant emphasis on one's weight and deconstructing this personal weight bias can positively impact how you view your body and weight.

Tip #3: Change how you approach food.

Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. By giving yourself unconditional permission to eat foods and find joy in the foods you eat, you can impact how your body and mind feels in a positive way.

Tip #4: Change your approach to movement.

By engaging in activity that you truly enjoy compared to choosing physical activity because of the calories it burns can be a great strategy in practicing joyful movement and self-compassion.

Tip #5: Check your conversations and social media.

Have you thought about how the images, conversations and information you receive on a daily basis impacts our self-image? Following social media accounts and participating in conversations that reflect your values is key!

Tip #6: Reframe

Consider self-talk and thoughts that come up surrounding your body and weight. Self-worth and happiness are not contingent on our body image. By reframing our thoughts, we can work towards accepting our bodies as they are.

That’s all for now, my fellow Mountaineers! Stay warm and remember: all bodies are good bodies!