Words by Alice Graham
In recent years, body positivity has emerged as a cultural buzzword. But what does it mean? Body positivity is a term coined by founders of the fat-acceptance movement of the 1960s, a movement pioneered by feminists in the US. Although it was not then called body positivity, but Fat Liberationor Fat Pride, it was a movement engineered to rectify the unfair treatment of fat people and challenge the societal anti-fat bias. With the birth of the Internet, this evolved into what we know as the mainstream body positivity movement of today.
Throughout the body positivity movement’s development, many groups, including members of the trans community, people of colour, and people with disabilities, have felt side-lined. The movement has seen a deluge of body-positive activists praised for their confidence in bodies that already meet the received beauty ideal.Whilst the body positivity movement has been attempting to renounce prevailing aesthetic standards of body image, it has fallen flat at its surface-level celebration of bodily aesthetics. Body positivity superimposes the lingering norm that our bodies – particularly female bodies – are solely valued by their appearance.Ideally, body ‘positivity’ might look like a celebration of bodily diversity. That is to say, it would think positively about the various achievements of the human body: the sounds and functions of the human body, it’s pleasures. Not just the aesthetic value of the human body.
Yet, this is not the view taken by the mainstream movement. The Collins English Dictionary defines body positivity in the following terminology:
Note the recurrent focus on the appearance of the body. The language surrounding body positivity is inherently objectifying, and it dismisses the reality that we are our bodies. Our bodies are vessels through which we experience the world. Should they not be understood as more than their outward appearance?
This is where the term body neutralitycomes into the conversation. This movement aims to rewrite the cultural prioritisation of bodyimage. Body neutrality encourages a conscious approach hinged on the unconditional acceptance of our bodies, advocating appraisal of the functionality and achievements of the body rather than its ‘beauty’. Body neutrality focuses on what our bodies are doing for us right now, rather than striving to feel, think, or be something else all the time. Being overly conscious of our bodies, even if the analysis comes from a ‘positive’ place, is unproductive. It perpetuates the reduction of people to their physical attractiveness. Practicing body neutrality as opposed to body positivity dissolves the exhausting internal narrative of how ‘good’ you look, as it equates to how worthy, successful or loveable you feel.
An apt example of how to channel body neutrality can be squeezed out of the strange, changeable space that is the conversation around stretch marks. Stretch marks were once shuddered at, with the media shamelessly promoting bio-oils and lotions marketed in fat-phobic terms as ‘stretch mark removal’ products. In recent years, however, many women have taken to social media baring their stretch marks in an effort to reclaim the narrative, with the hashtag #stretchmarksarebeautiful amassing over 32.3k posts on Instagram.
As with most initiatives for change, here we have taken two big steps forward, and one large leap back. This is certainly an improvement in cultural consciousness, but ultimately, it still emphasises the longstanding idea that happiness and self-worth are rooted in feeling visually ‘beautiful’. It is just disguised as empowerment. To consider stretch marks through the framework of body neutrality would be to disregard their physical attractiveness. Instead of ‘stretch marks are ugly’ or ‘stretch marks are hot’, it might sound something like: as I have grown, my body has had to produce skin cells at a quicker rate to stop my skin from rupturing. As a result of this, I have narrow bands of scar tissue where the skin has stretched. These are called stretch marks and they are harmless. Thinking about our bodies in these neutral, rational terms illuminates the reality that the way they look is ultimately irrelevant.
Body neutrality rejects this aestheticization of the human body which has become so deeply ingrained into the mainstream body positivity movement. The notion that body parts, dress sizes and skin colours can go in and out of fashion is a mechanism of control over body image rooted in misogyny and consumerism. It is a social attitude which reduces us to either a site of attraction or a site of dissatisfaction (the latter likely due to the insularity of the beauty standard). Having grown up in a society which has taught us to hate our bodies and now suddenly tells us to ‘love every inch’ of ourselves, unconditional love for our appearance can feel forced and futile. Insecurities do not simply dissipate at the will of every pastel-coloured Instagram infographic we stumble across. Which can then feel like a downward spiral of self-punishment, as the I’m-not-loving-myself-enough insecurities curl up at the feet of the bodily insecurities. The good news is, body neutrality offers a way to silence this cacophony of mixed-messages. All it asks is that you look at your body in the mirror and concede; yes, that is my body. And that’s that.
So, whilst the body positivity movement has done a lot for the diversification of bodily representation, the sustained focus on the aesthetic value of the human body remains, and the most marginalised bodies in society continue to be spoken over. As a pluralistic conception of body positivity seems further and further out of reach, body neutrality may feel like a more stable and accessible headspace for many of us.