I’ve written a couple of articles about what body neutrality is and why our society desperately needs it as an alternative to body negativity and body positivity. I hadn’t yet written about how to do it in real life. This is the How To for body neutrality. As a reminder, body neutrality is an approach we can take toward our bodies that focuses on how they function instead of how they look. When we focus on how our bodies are functioning, we are reminding ourselves that how they look doesn’t have to matter.* We are reminding ourselves that the value of our bodies has nothing to do with their size or appearance.
The value of our bodies is that they allow us to have experiences in the world. They allow us to do things, to live life. That is fairly significant. We don’t need to feel negatively or positively about how they look. How they look is not the point.
For those who have decided that judging your body for how it looks doesn’t add value to your life and is not worth the time, effort, and self-beratement, body neutrality is a good option. So how do you actually do it? First let me say, it is going to take a lot of practice and reminding yourself. A lot. You have had decades of practicing an appearance-oriented focus toward your body. It will take a minute to retrain your brain, so be patient with yourself.
Now, the usual place to start is to focus on how your body functions. Your body and every body part (with the exception of one or two) has a function. Eyes, elbows, hips, stomach, liver, trachea – they all have a job. The way they function allows you to live and to do all kinds of cool things. Body neutrality has you focus on how your body is doing its job (which, to be extra clear, is not to look pretty). The point is not to intensely assess how your physiology is working. It’s about noticing and appreciating the valuable parts of yourself. Appreciate that because your body is working, you have been able to do the things in life that are meaningful, the things that light you up, as well as the innumerable smaller things that make life progress. Without your body functioning, you would not have those experiences. This is where the value in your body lies. This is what matters about your body.
Let’s try it. Practice focusing on how your body is functioning. Start with what you are doing right now. Notice which parts of your body are working to help you read this article. You might notice that your core and your back are holding you up. Your arms and hands may be functioning to hold your device. Your eyes are working if you are reading this, or your ears are allowing you to hear it. If you are standing, you might appreciate that your legs and feet function to hold you up and move you around. Your organs are working well if you are not in any internal discomfort. What else do you notice about how your body is working right now?
Pay attention to how it feels to approach your body this way. To approach it out of appreciation, to see it as a part of yourself that allows you to live your life, instead of zeroing in on all of the ways it is failing you by not looking the way someone else’s body looks. Take a minute to think about what it would be like if your legs or back or intestines or ears didn’t work the way you want them to. What feels more meaningful – how your body works or how it looks?
Ultimately, the goal is to approach your body this way all the time. But most of us are solidly stuck in body negativity. We don’t like how our bodies look. We perceive them as not good enough and feel embarrassed by them. We feel so insecure about how our bodies look that we find ourselves repeatedly judging them in the mirror or measuring their size for assurance about how worthy we are. How do we get to body neutrality in those moments?
What exactly do we do when we find ourselves pinching our belly fat, or trying to sit so that our belly doesn’t hang over our pants? Shift your focus. Remind yourself that how your body looks is not meaningful and that how it functions is. Shift from judging how that body part looks to noticing how it’s working for you. So instead of judging how ugly and big your belly is, close your eyes and notice how it feels. Is it hurting? Is it hungry at all? Is it satisfied? Does it have butterflies? Pay attention to how your belly generally works for you. Does it do its job easily or does it often feel bloated or uncomfortable?
If you find yourself assessing how big your thighs are, shift your focus to noticing how they function. Do they hold you up when you stand and walk around? Is there any tension in the muscles? Think about what role your thighs play in your day-to-day life. If you are able to walk, you can appreciate the role of your thighs in getting you around so easily. If you regularly hold a child on your lap, you can appreciate how your thighs play a role in your experience of connection with that child. If you dance, run, ski, swim, or play just about any sport, think about how your thighs allow you to do that. This is the value of your thighs, not how slim they are.
If you are looking at your face and not liking its appearance, shift your focus. Notice your expression. What is your face conveying about how you are feeling? This is part of the function of the face, expressing your inner experiences to the external world. All of the different parts of the face also have their own functions. Notice if your eyelashes keep dust particles out of your eyeballs. Notice if the skin of your cheek feels the warmth of your palm when you put it there. Are your mouth and/or nose allowing you to take in and exhale air? Notice if your eyes and ears are working as well as they usually do. Tongue and teeth too.
Sometimes you aren’t judging a body part in a negative way. Sometimes you look at your whole body and say, “Gross.” How do you shift to body neutrality in this case? Start by shifting your focus to how your body as a whole is working for you. Notice how it functions in your life. Appreciate your body for the very crucial role it plays in allowing you to live your life in the way that you do. What role does your body play when you are doing your favorite activities? How does it contribute to your experience of those activities? Just for fun, think about how your life would be if you didn’t have a body.
Then ask yourself what it means about how you feel about yourself that you would call your body “gross.” Is that how you feel about yourself? It is helpful to be aware of how you feel about yourself and how you feel about your body, and whether they are connected. While you’re checking in about that, also ask if that is an acceptable way to speak to yourself. If someone else called you “gross,” would you be OK with it? If not, why not? And why, then, aren’t you upset with yourself for the same reason?
If you do think it is acceptable to be called “gross” by yourself or anyone else, let me ask you this: If your 10-year-old daughter/niece/neighbor looked at her body in the mirror and said, “I hate my body. It’s so gross and ugly,” would you tell her that she’s right? Would you tell her that she’s also right to be focusing on it? Would you agree with her that the size of her body matters? Or would your heart break, witnessing a child hate a part of themselves? How do you think that little girl feels about herself as a whole? What do you think she believes is valuable about herself?
Finally, what do we do when we are looking at photos of ourselves and don’t like what we see. Too often, there’s a moment of, “I look like that??” and feeling ashamed, definitely not wanting anyone else to see that photo. When you find yourself in that fun moment, shift your focus to what you were doing in the photo. Standing? Sitting? Putting your arm around someone? Smiling? Was it an action shot? Notice how your body was functioning in the moment the photo was taken. Notice what was working to allow to you do what you were doing in that moment.
And then pull back from focusing on your body at all and think about what was happening in that moment that was worthy of a photo being taken. What experience were you having? How were you feeling? That is what you should be focusing on when you look at that photo. That is the reason the photo was taken – to capture the moment, the experience. The experience you were having is what matters about that photo.
Body neutrality reminds us to shift our focus from the way our bodies look to what actually matters – the role our bodies play in us having experiences. When we shift our focus in this way, we naturally start experiencing more. When we focus on how our bodies look, we experience less. Focusing on looks isn’t much of a fun “experience” for starters. And for finishers, 9 times out of 10 when someone is very focused on the appearance of their body, they don’t feel good enough about themselves to just go do things and live life. They are too worried about judgment (mostly from others, sometimes just from themselves) to take the risk of having the experiences they really want to have.
One last bit. What about when you’ve got body parts that are uncomfortable, that aren’t functioning well or at all? How does body neutrality work then? Well, you would still focus on functionality instead of appearance. In doing so, you would notice that those body parts aren’t working well. Ideally, you would feel some compassion for yourself for this pain, discomfort, or lack of ease. You’d take action to address the issue to whatever degree you can. And then you would shift your focus to how your body as a whole and the other parts of your body are functioning. You would appreciate how your body allows you to live your life as easily as you do (even though it could always be easier). If you do that, you will be more likely to go do things and live life. It is motivating to focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have. Doing it the other way round is demotivating and depressing. That’s one of those life truths that we do naturally as kids, until society gets to us.
Although it takes time and effort to practice body neutrality, it involves A LOT less baggage than body negativity, and for many it is more conceivable than body positivity. Notice how your body is working. That’s all you have to do (she said with a wink). When your mind wanders back to worrying about how it looks, as it definitely will, bring your focus back to how your body allows you to do all of the things you have done today and all of the things you dream of doing. It’s work, and it is freeing and motivating. That’s the feeling of connecting to what actually matters, by the way.
* For those who say, “I have to pay attention to my weight or size for my health,” being fat or in a bigger body is not actually correlated with being unhealthy. This is extremely important news. See articles about Health At Every Size (HAES®) for more information.).