Body Positivity, Body Neutrality

What if you truly loved your body just as it is right now, celebrating what it can do, like a three-year-old joyfully running through a lawn sprinkler?

What if you had no judgmental thoughts when you looked in a mirror, viewing your own wrinkles (for instance) as you would lovingly gaze at your grandmother’s face, and any excess fat in the same way you would view your beloved cat’s belly which happens to be hanging a bit low?

Would you stop washing your clothes and brushing your teeth, because it means you “don’t care how you look”? Or would you be energized and liberated, free of endless cycles of shame and negative thoughts? And might you put some of that new energy and enthusiasm into taking great care of yourself, so you can stay as active and strong as possible for many years to come, regardless of your size, shape or limitations?

I’ve been working on this since 2013, and I’ve come a LONG way.

I know, my case is truly a very mild one, and it’s easy for me to say “I care about being strong and healthy, not how I look in the mirror.” I don’t know what it feels like to have grade 3 obesity or a significant disability (although I was once covered with red, blistering burns for weeks after foolishly dropping a block of frozen hash browns into hot oil, provoking shocked and horrified reactions from drive-up customers at the dry cleaning business where I worked).

These feet have bunions and varicose veins, but they carry me everywhere!

I’m just an ordinarily flawed person in the average range: I’ve lost most of the excess body fat that plagued me, but I still have loose skin, a big red nose, age spots, scars, bunions, bulging veins and various other imperfections.

But in recent years, I’ve made great progress in learning to love my amazing body that can dance, jump, ride a bike, swim, run (when my knees don’t hurt), throw big sticks during my Saturday morning forest workout, grasp my elbows behind my back (newly regained skill), carry IKEA furniture into the house, and even keep my wobbly balance on a glowing stand-up paddleboard.

My amazing body didn’t fall in the river, and neither did anyone else in the diverse (age, size, ability) Airbnb Experience group in Austin, Texas

And as a wise client told me, the simple facts of human biology are miraculous. Every day we extract oxygen from the air and nutrients from food and turn them into movement and emotions and thoughts, incredible!

The body-positive philosophy says that we should love and respect our own and each other’s bodies, no matter their shape, size, color, age, or limitations. What a liberating, refreshing idea, although clearly we still have a long way to go. (For a while in the 1990s, it seemed like the internet would be an equal playing field for those of any age/size/gender/ability/species , but today’s carefully composed social media photos may sadly be taking us in the other direction)

Recently, some thinkers have pointed out that it can seem like asking too much to expect people to “love” their bodies (implying a kind of failure if they don’t). Would it have been fair to expect Stephen Hawking to love his paralyzed body? How about my transgender colleague who described her transition as “running out of a burning building”? Or a person with agonizing chronic pain?

A suggested alternative is “body neutrality.” The idea is simply to make peace with the fact that our bodies are not perfect — maybe very far from it — and turn our attention to other things. Our talents, values and relationships. Our intrinsic worth as human beings.

But “accepting” our bodies brings up a strong objection for many people, including some of my clients. How can we “accept” a less-than-healthy state? And if we accept ourselves as we are, won’t we lose our motivation to improve?

Acceptance is not complacency, or never wanting to change. Acceptance is making peace with what is.

Here’s a powerful 2-minute video by Tara Brach, mindfulness teacher author of the book “Radical Acceptance.” She argues that “whatever we can’t embrace with love imprisons us.” Emotions are the fuel for our actions, and shame and self-loathing seem like they should be strong motivators for change, but the evidence shows they are not. My personal experience agrees with this. When I felt shamed for being overweight (by my own internal voice or by other people), I felt discouraged and stuck. This feeling could even make things worse, since I was using food for comfort at the time (these days I resort to Zumba classes, audiobooks, Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and streaming restorative yoga from YogaGlo).


– Carl Rogers
Aloe vera!

I can “accept” the fact that I have a sunburn, for instance, and not let it affect my self-worth in any way, even though I don’t think having a sunburn is actually a desirable thing. Beating myself up for my carelessness will just make me more miserable. It might even make me less likely to protect my skin more effectively next time, or to take the trouble to cut spiky pieces off the aloe plant in my kitchen and rub my skin with the healing gel.

Accepting some other things, like my cringe-worthy mistakes from the past, rather than futilely raging against them, is an ongoing journey for me. The best kind of acceptance involves taking a clear-eyed, compassionate view of reality, absorbing any lessons to be learned, and taking action to reduce suffering in the future (doing our best while realizing that we will still often make mistakes or be driven off course by circumstances), while staying calm and cheerful. Yes, I’m describing the Dalai Lama, or Marcus Aurelius, and certainly not myself!

So what are some methods that can help us move closer to body positivity, body neutrality, and acceptance in general? Here are three that have helped me:

  1. Loving-kindness meditation. From Buddhist tradition, the idea of this meditation is to help cultivate compassion. Traditionally, meditators repeated blessings for themselves (such as May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain), next for loved ones, then for people more difficult to love, and finally for all beings. If you find yourself/your body difficult to love, you can start with easier targets and work up to yourself. Here’s a guided loving-kindness meditation along with others that help cultivate self-compassion.
  2. Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique, EFT). This may seem a little unusual, but it’s simple to try on your own. Basically, you tap your fingers on a specific circuit of positions on your face and upper body, while talking to yourself about an issue in your life. The tapping helps ground you in your body and give you a feeling of safety while you process the difficult topic. For example, you might say to yourself at each tapping point: “Even though I’m carrying excess weight, I love and accept myself.” You can repeat the same statement or vary it based on what comes up in your mind. Here’s a great short introduction by Jessica Ortner.
  3. Stepping back and being a friend to myself. It’s so easy to see beyond the superficial flaws of a friend, family member or someone you admire. Catch yourself at self-critical moments and imagine how you would think and feel instead about someone you love.

Have you been struggling to love or even to accept your body? If so, I hope these ideas will help you find peace and new confidence. May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain.

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