Suzanne Manser, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

A Path to Body Neutrality

It is freaking hard to like our bodies. We see so many images of people with “beautiful” bodies and body parts. We see so many advertisements for how to change our body to look more like their bodies. Our mothers and friends, who look like us, say mean things about their bodies. We are told, directly and indirectly, that our bodies are not acceptable, sexy, or loveable as they are. And we believe it.

It’s hard not to, with the onslaught of Body Negativity that bombards us on an hourly basis from peers and media. Body Negativity teaches us that our bodies are not ok as they are. Our bodies are too big, fat, black, brown, dimply, or hairy. They are too small, white, blotchy, or have not enough hair. Body Negativity teaches us that the way we look is embarrassing.

This message, so false and so damaging by itself, has a predictable impact on us. It trains us to focus on our bodies (we don’t actually have to pay such close attention to whether our thighs touch, or even to our weight). Even more damaging, it trains us to focus on our bodies as a source of worth. We have been taught that the appearance of our body is an indication of our value as a whole person.

Most of us believe some version of this. Most of us feel miserable, at some point or at lots of points, about how we look. Many of us have tried to change how we look, have put considerable time and money into it. And even with all of that effort, we still don’t make it to the sunshine-filled land of “beautiful” bodies. We still believe that our bodies are not ok as they are, and therefore that we are not ok as we are.

There are reasons that we, as a society, have taken this attitude towards our bodies. This attitude of Body Negativity has been heavily promoted for the past 40+ years purely because it makes billions of dollars for marketers and anyone selling anything along the lines of a diet, cleanse, or fast. But even before that, more than 300 years before that, the notion of the mind-body split was raised in philosophical realms, and this continues to influence the way we look at and treat our bodies.

In the 17th century, Descarte suggested that mind is separate from the body and brain because the mind is nonphysical. This was radical stuff and led to a focus on understanding the mind. Focusing on the mind – consciousness, awareness – leads us to believe that mind is equal to Self. “I” am my mind, my thoughts, my feelings, my dreams. When we talk about “I”, we are not typically including our body, our muscles and organs and all of it. And when we talk about our body, we are not typically including our mind or our Self.

When we talk about our body, we are looking at it as an “it” that is good or bad by itself. My belly is good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. As if my belly exists separately from me. As if my belly is an object to be judged. As if my belly is an object. Seeing our parts as separate from each other, as separate from our Selves, makes them vulnerable to being objectified.

Too many people know the feeling of being objectified by another person. When a person is objectified, they are treated as an object, a thing, not human. When a person is objectified, they are not seen as a being with hopes and feelings and physical experiences of their own. They are seen as an object to be used.

Objects are used, and their worth is based in how useful they are. An object does not have its own will, is not in charge of itself. An object has no value outside of how it is used by someone else. Women are too often seen this way, only as bodies, bodies whose worth is based on how useful they are for someone else’s sexual pleasure.

By separating body from mind and from Self, we open the door to objectification from within. Our body parts become objects whose worth is in their appearance. If our bodies do not match what we see in the media, they are problematic and offensive. If our thighs touch, they are worthless and embarrassing. As if it matters. We judge our bodies as if they are literal pieces of meat preparing to be graded (and we, by the way, are doing the grading).

Clearly, none of this is helpful to our self-esteem or self-acceptance. And we are starting to get wise. We are starting to see that there are alternatives to Body Negativity. The most well-known alternative is Body Positivity. Body Positivity started and continues as a movement to give space for fat people to be able to love and celebrate their bodies. It reminds us that thinness is not actually “better” and fatness is not “worse,” not even in terms of health. Body Positivity is meant to combat the prejudice and oppression that people in bigger bodies deal with on a daily basis.

Body Positivity sends a message of equality. It says that fat bodies are beautiful and sexy and loveable and acceptable. It directly counters the message of Body Negativity. It has been a life preserver. It is also a really, really hard path to get to. For those of us who are firmly rooted in Body Negativity, it can feel like an impossible place to find. It’s a lot like asking an atheist to suddenly believe in God and all the angels. How do you stop hating your body and judging it as ugly and start loving it and seeing it as beautiful? (Step one: back slooowly away from Instagram.)

Most of us can imagine scaling Mt. Everest before seeing our bodies as beautiful. However, that is not the only challenge to Body Positivity. As it is commonly interpreted, it still puts a focus on the body (as separate from mind and Self). This sends a message that the body is an object that has value in and of itself.

Being told that we should value our body for its appearance can be tricky. It can create pressure. It can feel like being told you should feel a certain way. It can feel like you are “wrong” if you can’t see your body as beautiful. It can feel demoralizing, rather than inspiring, to watch others feel so good about their bodies but not be able to do the same for yourself. I’ve had patients in tears, feeling like a failure because they can’t figure out how to love their bodies or feel comfortable showing them off. As if that needs to be a goal in life. As if that is the only alternative to feeling bad about our body.

There is, of course, a third alternative to Body Negativity and Body Positivity. This alternative involves stepping away from the tug-of-war between loving and hating our body. Stepping away from the narrative that our body is either beautiful or ugly, positive or negative. Body Neutrality has us step away from focusing on our body as an entity to be judged.

Body Neutrality reminds us that the body is not meant to be lauded or demonized. It is not actually up for debate whether any person’s body is “good” or “bad.” The body is simply not an entity that is up for judgment. By anyone. It can’t be judged on its own merit because it only exists in relationship with mind. It only exists as a part of our Self. It doesn’t have any true meaning as a separate entity.

When we are on the path of Body Neutrality, we are looking at the body through an entirely different lens. Through this lens, we see our body as the part of our Self that interacts directly with the external world. The mind is the part of our Self that interprets that interaction and decides what to do next. Body Neutrality reminds us to focus on the relationship between body and mind and the connection to Self. This lens helps us step away from judgment about how this part of our Self looks. It offers a more attainable path for some of us that have trouble finding Body Positivity.

Through the lens of Body Neutrality, our body is meaningful for its role in our Self interacting with the world and moving through life. Our body moves our Self around and experiences the world on a physical level. That is a big deal! That is a very meaningful and important part of how we experience life. But it’s not the whole shebang. The Self needs the mind to interpret the body’s experience.

The mind takes in the body’s physical experience as data that it responds to. For example, the body “itself” doesn’t feel pain or pleasure. The mind interprets which physical experiences are experienced as pleasurable and which are not. When I smell a rose that reminds me of home, both my body and mind are necessary to create the pleasurable, meaningful experience my Self had. Though the body and the mind each have their own roles within their relationship, they can only be meaningfully understood and viewed in the context of the other.

Through this lens, we recognize the body’s role in the Self, and we don’t focus on the body only. Body Neutrality is the path of not focusing on the body, not trying to have a certain feeling about it. Body Neutrality gives us space not to have the body’s size or “imperfections” be a point of celebration or embarrassment.

Through the lens of Body Neutrality, we see our body for what it ultimately is: a way for our Self to exist in the world and interact with it. Our body isn’t meant as decoration or an accessory. It isn’t Play Dough, made to be changeable and able to fit someone else’s mold. It isn’t a stand-alone object. And it isn’t all of who we are.

Walking on the path of Body Neutrality, doesn’t mean, by the way, that we don’t ever feel good about our bodies. We feel good about them in a way that is meaningful. We feel good about them in relation to our Selves. For example, we can appreciate our bodies in the context of their contribution to our experience. We can appreciate that we got to smell that rose that reminded us of home, that we live with the ease of being able to walk or to hear or to see, or the feel of the tight hug of a friend who missed us. We can appreciate the feeling of excitement in our bodies.

We can even like our bodies and parts of our bodies and still be on the Body Neutrality path. Liking our bodies in the context of noticing and appreciating is different than liking in the context of judging in relation to a societal standard. Does Body Neutrality mean our bodies can’t be acceptable, sexy, or loveable because they are not separate objects? HELL NO!! Our bodies are a part of us and, as such, are as acceptable, sexy, and loveable as we are. The key is to recognize that it’s the whole person who is sexy, rather than a body alone that is sexy.

To get yourself onto the path of Body Neutrality, try noticing how your body feels right in this moment, without judging that feeling as good or bad. Notice the role of the mind in this exercise. Anytime we are noticing, we (i.e., our Selves) are engaging our mind. Noticing the role of our body in our experience of this moment keeps us engaged with the connection between mind, body, and Self.

Body Neutrality keeps our focus away from our bodies as objects of judgment and points it toward the relationship between body and mind, and body and Self. Most of us do not live in this lens. I certainly don’t. I’m trying though. For me, at this moment in time, this is a more feasible path than Body Positivity.

I have to remind myself – constantly – to see my body through this lens. I don’t have to tell you how hard this is to do when we live in a world where others are not on this train yet and do still judge people on our looks. I have to remind myself that caring what others think about my body does not make me feel grounded in myself. When my focus is on impressing others, I am not focusing on the things that light me up and make me feel good about this moment.

When I focus on what lights me up, I focus on my family, my work, my writing, people and things that make me laugh. I certainly do not focus on what my body looks like. By focusing on what is important to me, not what is important to society, I can more easily step onto the Body Neutrality path.

Body Neutrality, as I’ve said before, may be your final destination or a stop along the way to Body Positivity. It can be a concept to be played with and considered. It is not meant to be dogmatic, and it may not be a good fit for everyone. It is an option, a way to relate to your body that is not often advertised. And I will keep writing about it until it becomes less hard to like our bodies or care if we don’t.

[For more information, please read my other articles on body neutrality, Body Neutrality and How To Practice Body Neutrality.]