CONTENT WARNING: This story contains mentions of disordered eating and body image issues, and may be triggering or disturbing for some.
When I contracted COVID-19 and consequently quarantined for nearly a month in January, the thing that weighed on me most was not the isolation-fatigue my extroverted brain was drowning under. Neither was it the complete atrophy of my creative muscles that once allowed me to work and maintain inspiration. Instead, my heaviest burden was quite literally: weight. I gained a few kilos in quarantine, and once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop noticing.
This was not my first rodeo with a body image issue, but it was deeply impactful, quickly burrowing a little hole for itself into my psyche. Not disrupting my daily function, but ever-present. It showed itself in the number of times I body-checked during the day, scrutinising my reflection in every vaguely shiny surface I came across, suspiciously searching for bloat and the broadening of my body. Extra softness on my lower belly, more cushion in my arms. My face was the clearest indicator—my cheeks sagged, more rounded out than ever. I could feel it in every smile.
I hid these thoughts away for the simple reason that, beyond self-loathing and a desire to manipulate the size of my body, I was filled with profound shame. Shame that I had managed to slip down the ladder of body positivity Lizzo had dragged me up with each of her hit releases. Shame that the women I preached self-love to on a daily basis would find out that I was a hypocrite, stonewalling behind my own insecurities while I told them to embrace theirs.
TOXIC (BODY) POSITIVITY
As I looked for a way out of this hole I had fallen into, the social media-saturated mantras of body positivity did the opposite of help. Love yourself—every part of yourself. Believe that you are beautiful—every inch of you. As a movement, body positivity is nice, but it’s a lot of pressure.
It seemed to pull me further down the spiral, especially when I realised that I didn’t want to dedicate time to falling in love with my new stretch marks or embracing the extra fat on my thighs. My main priority was, instead, figuring out how to spend less time thinking about how my body looked. I had far more important things to do—I wanted to meet the people I loved, explore my hometown with new eyes after a period of isolation and most importantly, sit with myself, content and at peace.
“While body positivity advocates for an open-armed embrace of all our physical traits, it still levels an evaluative, calculating gaze at our bodies”
And so, I found the antidote to fix not just the damaged relationship I had developed with my body, but also the toxic optimism that body positivity brought with it: body neutrality.
What do you most love about your body? Really think about it and pick one trait. If you were able to hone in on a utilitarian feature rather than an aesthetic one, then congratulations—you are one step closer to achieving body neutrality.
Body neutrality may sound similar to body positivity, but the most significant distinction between the two is body neutrality’s reduced emphasis on the aesthetic component of our bodies. Where body positivity calls for a celebration of every superficial physical feature—even our perceived flaws—body neutrality says that you don’t always need to think your body is beautiful, as long as you are gentle with it.
“To be body neutral is to step away from the judgmental, appraising eye that we constantly come at ourselves with,” says registered dietician Nicole Groman. “It is a way for us to treat our bodies with respect, rather than criticism.”
Think of it this way—while body positivity advocates for an open-armed embrace of all our physical traits, it still levels an evaluative, calculating gaze at our bodies. The movement has come a long way since its genesis in the 1960s, led by predominantly fat black women who rallied for fat acceptance and liberation. As with most social movements, the passage of time and social media have, to an extent, distorted what body positivity stands for.
Scroll through any fat creator’s comments on Tik Tok and you’ll find them littered with fatphobic comments and backhanded compliments zoning in on their weight and broadcasting the parts of their body that need extra, compensatory celebration. Even Lizzo is not spared from these barrages, going out of her way time and again to call these backhanded compliments out for what they are. It is no wonder, then, that on several occasions, the musician has made it clear that in its current form, body positivity no longer “protects and uplifts the bodies it was created for and by”.
So here is the verdict—viewing our bodies through a body positive lens still places immense value on the way we look, and fat women are still heavily judged for occupying a body that society considers conventionally unattractive.
Body neutrality, on the other hand, rejects the fixation on the aesthetics of our body entirely. You don’t need to constantly love every physical feature on your entity, simply because you don’t need to be thinking about them in the first place. As Groman says: “Not only is it unrealistic to love every part of our bodies all the time, it is also difficult to say ‘I’m going to love my body today’. What does that look like? How does it actually manifest? Instead, we ideally want to be working towards a place where our bodies are not the most celebrated thing about us.”
It sounds nice, but true body neutrality can be difficult to achieve. In part, this stems from our biological imperative to be desirable to potential partners, but the most insidious contributor to the harsh ways we judge our bodies are body trends: the ever-evolving beauty standards that, today, are most evident across all social media platforms.
THE BBL EFFECT
If you have heard of the BBL, you no doubt know about the currently trending body type—à la Kim Kardashian and slim-thick Instagram baddies. This is a body type that focuses on curves, but only in certain places. Black and brown women have occupied curvier bodies for years, but it is seldom that these bodies are celebrated in their untouched state. For you to achieve today’s beauty standard, you have to have a tiny waist, an ample chest and a thigh gap alongside a big butt. In short, this is a body type that rarely exists naturally and is very likely augmented through surgery or Photoshop.
The most popular of these surgeries is the Brazilian Butt Lift, also known as the BBL, through which fat is removed from various parts of the body and then injected back into the buttock. The BBL is one of the most dangerous cosmetic surgeries in the world, with risks for complications like fat embolisms rendering its mortality rate worryingly high. And yet, despite a mounting number of bad experiences and even deaths, it remains one of the fastest growing in popularity.
“Body neutrality says that you don’t always need to think your body is beautiful, as long as you are gentle with it”
Communications, feminist and queer cultural studies professor Michelle Ho draws the link between our increased social media exposure and a heightened pressure to give into body trends. Essentially, the bodies you see coveted on Instagram are the ones you will want to emulate.
“Especially if you are a young person in your teens or your 20s, being bombarded with these images on social media every day can be very influential. It is going to live in your subconscious mind—that there is this new trend that you need to live up to. Many studies have shown that social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok play a role in influencing our conceptions of what an ideal body looks like.”
The reason why these body trends gain popularity so quickly, theorises Ho, is because ultimately, they are driven by profit. “These trends help to sell certain products, whether that’s a diet supplement or a particular cosmetic procedure. With influencers who present their bodies in a certain way and adapt to the beauty trends of the time, they are endorsing certain products and telling their audience that whatever they are selling would help their followers achieve this ideal body type.”
The BBL-era may seem incredibly pervasive right now, but it was not too long ago that the hottest body trend was shedding fat, not putting it on. Look back to the ’90s and early 2000s and you’ll notice a few things in common between the pop-culture icons of the time, namely a washboard stomach and a diminutive physique. Ultra-thin was in—and this era created a generation of teens and adults fuelled by disordered eating and diet culture.
And now, with a swell of enthusiasm for the return of Y2K fashion and beauty trends (low-rise jeans and butterfly clips, anyone?), anxieties are running high that once again, the most important accessory of the season will become a flat, toned stomach instead of a big, round butt.
Ho comments on the ever-changing, cyclical nature of body trends: “Beauty standards for women go way back. Think about the ’20s or the ’30s, with the modern girl or the flapper. These were also trends that were widely perpetuated—not on social media—but through women’s magazines and other avenues.”
“It’s really key to remember that throughout the decades, the ideal body has constantly changed. So if you are trying to match your body to the current standards, whether those are the curves of this decade, or the ultra-thin standards of 10 years ago, remind yourself that these are fleeting trends and they are going to change before you realise,” adds Groman.
MOVING TOWARDS NEUTRALITY
So, it seems like our bodies will continue to be commodified on a systemic level—the popular look of the moment may change, but the pressure to conform to it will not. What can we do, then, to develop healthier relationships with our bodies and treat them with kindness?
“While loving your body can sound vague, respecting your body is action-oriented,” says Groman. “There are tangible things you can do to show your body grace and respect. One tip is to catch yourself when you are body checking. If you notice that every time you walk by a mirror, there is a body part that you check out in a critical way, make an active effort to reduce the frequency of that.”
Another tip Groman shares is to honour hunger and fullness. She draws from the principles of intuitive eating, which simply put, encourages individuals to eat mindfully based on internal cues rather than external influences. “We can show our body that we respect it by nourishing it and also by having a healthy relationship with movement. If you are having a bad body image day, and now you suddenly want to exercise, notice that that desire for exercise is coming from a place of punishment.”
Groman suggests neutralising that punitive urge by opting for movement that genuinely feels good in the moment, like going for a walk or dancing, rather than forcing yourself through a really intense workout.
Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of the clothing you wear. “Clothing is a really big vehicle for either body respect or punishment. You can show your body respect by putting on a pair of pants that are comfortable and not too tight. Move aspirational fashion items out of sight so that you don’t have a constant reminder in your closet of a body that you’re not currently in. We want to respect the body that we are in now, not a future body that we don’t have.”
Collage Paola Dcroz