The long read: the new body movement

Why the rise of the body neutrality movement is cause for celebration.

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To throw some numbers at you, research released by Dove, for their ‘Self-Esteem Project’, found that 96% of women in the UK reported feeling anxious about the way they look, compared with 86% in China, 72% in Brazil and 61% in the US. Only 4% of the women in all the countries surveyed would consider themselves ‘beautiful’, and by the time girls reach 17, 78% will be ‘unhappy with their bodies’.

Although the stats are harder to find, men aren’t immune from the problem. A survey of more than 1,000 8-18 year old boys, conducted by the Credos advertising industry thinktank, found that 55% would consider changing their diet to look better and 23% believed there was a ‘perfect male body’. Obviously, this affects all of us. But we already knew that.

Just when we were all beginning to tire of opening Instagram only to scroll through seemingly endless pictures of slim, toned and altogether ‘perfect’ bodies, the ‘Body Positive’ movement erupted onto our screens.

And erupt it did. At the time of writing, typing #bodypositive into Instagram coughs up 9,519,285 posts. Literally millions of people have seemingly embraced the Body Positive message that no matter what shape, size, age, or weight, every body is beautiful.

At its height, the movement no doubt helped innumerable people embrace who they were and what they looked like. As mentioned above, it’s inevitable most of us will struggle with body image at some point in our lives (for a surprising number of us it might even be throughout our lives) and social media only makes this issue worse.

Earlier this year, two researchers from York University in Toronto published a study linking social media to self-perceived body image (Body Image 28, 2019). Commenting on the findings, Mills said, “[Participants] felt worse about their own appearance after looking at social media pages of someone that they perceived to be more attractive than them. Even if they felt bad about themselves before they came into the study, on average, they still felt worse after completing the task”.

So, amidst an overbearing conventional beauty standard, constantly reinforced through the media, which prescribed thin as the ideal, seeing people such as Chessie King, Meghan Jane Crabbe and Sara Puhto post their ‘Instagram vs Reality’ myth-busters really helped people, including me, to recognise that what you see is most certainly not always what you get.

We don’t see the countless outtakes, discarded photos, or time spent editing those perfectly posed bikini photos. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is great. While most of the mainstream media continues its onslaught on the average person’s self-esteem, it’s truly inspiring that this movement has empowered so many people to love their bodies.

But that being said, I do think we’re in danger of allowing ourselves to become too enthralled with, and too caught up in, it. Body Positivity actually originated in the ‘Fat Acceptance’ movement of the 1960s, experiencing a second wave in the 1990s before the advent of social media accelerated its growth and thrust it to the fore of our attentions. This was a period when beauty standards were getting progressively more unrealistic, culminating in where we are now.

In fact, current media ideals are achievable by less than 5% of the population – and that’s only if we’re thinking about weight and size. When we add shape, face, muscle tone etc into the messed-up mix, it’s probably going to be around 1%. 1 percent. Yes, ‘Body Positivity’ set out to alter (even rectify) this, but as it’s grown #bodypositive has become more of a buzzword to attract likes or attention than a focused and effective attack on conventional ideals.

The same flawless, edited and ‘perfect’ women that flounced onto our screens before are still there, but now they’re ‘embracing’ body positivity too, using the hashtag for their gym selfies and clean-eating snaps (Fit Tea anyone?).

Yet again it feels as if those who don’t fit these standards are being alienated from the cause – the cause that was started by them and for them. Interestingly, there’s also a flip side to this. Alongside the insta-beauties who have appropriated #bodypositivity for themselves are the ‘acceptably curvy’ people. People who are around a size 16 and have fat ‘in all the right places’.

Whilst it’s great that these previously marginalised people have found a way to express their self-love, it does leave many feeling that they’re not curvy enough to be body positive. Of course I’m not saying that anyone should be excluded from loving themselves and I’m certainly not implying that slimmer people don’t struggle with body image issues – many of the 96% from Dove’s study will have been an average dress size.

What I am trying to say, however, is that body positivity has become confused with confidence and self-love meaning those who the movement was originally intended to empower are often left on the outside looking in. There’s this new pressure to love ourselves, when for many of us, this is often far from realistic.

So, how can we reclaim the idea that each and every one of us deserve to take up space in the world? How can we really and truly accept ourselves for how we are, granted that we’re healthy and happy? And how can we relieve ourselves of this obsession with what we look like?

Welcome to the stage ‘Body Neutrality’.

It might not be the catchiest heading – it’s certainly not as attractive as ‘Body Positivity’ – and it hasn’t captivated social media in quite the same way (yet) – at the time of writing there are 12,357 posts with #bodyneutrality. But bear with me. It will all make sense.

Basically, Body Neutrality empowers you to embrace yourself as you are, including the bits you don’t like about yourself. Its focus is to avoid self-hate whilst simultaneously alleviating the pressure of having to love your body. The goal is to respect and accept your body for what it is – and that’s it.

Body Neutrality recognises that not everyone is going to love every part of themselves all the time. The reality is that some days you’re going to look in the mirror like ‘F/ck yeah, thank you legs for taking me places, thank you arms for allowing me to reach for the biscuit tin, and thank you stomach for keeping my organs where they should be’, but then there’ll be those days where you stand in front of the very same mirror, focusing on that mole you hate, or the acne scars that suddenly seem so obvious.

We all pick ourselves apart sometimes, and we all have good days and bad days – it’s natural. For people living with eating disorders, body dysmorphia or disabilities, and those who do not identify with the body they were born into, loving their bodies is especially difficult.

Even for the average person, any negative thoughts they may have about their body aren’t going to dissipate immediately upon reading some inspirational Instagram caption. This is simply an unrealistic expectation inherent in the Body Positivity movement, and one that Body Neutrality seeks to dispel.

Embracing Body Neutrality over Body Positivity allows you to experience negative feelings about yourself, but without the pressure that comes with having to be positive all the time. In other words, it’s a middle ground between positivity and negativity – well, it’s neutrality. In its most twisted form, Body Positivity has become commercialised and mediatised.

In terms of the former, so many of these so-called ‘Body Positive’ posts are trying to sell us detox teas, zero calorie noodles or some miracle weight loss potion. Even those you might least suspect – the bigger brands who are seemingly trying to combat the issue with ‘real women’ models or campaigns – are also playing their part. Even Dove, who many will remember being at the forefront of body positivity in the media with their ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’, can be accused of exploiting the movement as a marketing tactic.

The overall perception of women’s bodies was so dire that Dove would get all the credit, and the sales, for simply identifying the problem. Cue a wave of copycat campaigns focusing on the aesthetic and not the issue at heart. It’s no longer expedient for brands to make you hate yourself, so now you must love yourself (and use their products to get yourself there!).

All this might seem incredibly cynical, and maybe it is. But the underlying message in all of this mediatised and commercialised ‘Body Positivity’ is that now, in order to accept your body, others must also accept it. Posting your curves on social media – stretch marks, cellulite and all – is no longer about just you accepting yourself; it’s now about telling others they ought to accept your image too.

When I did my Instagram search for #bodypositive, I had a quick look over the results. In the ‘Top Posts’ section was a picture of a beautifully curvy woman, posing on a sunlounger in a patterned cut-out swimsuit.

Setting aside that she obviously fitted neatly into the ‘acceptably curvy’ category mentioned above, it was the caption and comments on the post which interested me. In her caption, this woman encouraged her followers to accept all the premises of Body Positivity writing, ‘Love yourself today. Love everything about yourself because you are all beautifully and wonderfully made.’ A lovely sentiment, and her followers responded accordingly – the comment section was filled with ‘You look so great’, ‘All that thickness I’m so here for it sis’ and ‘You are so f/cking beautiful’. This woman got a lot of positive feedback about her body, which must have made her feel amazing. But why do we have such an obsession with how we look?

Think about your own Facebook. I know I’m guilty of commenting on how gorgeous someone looks when they upload a new selfie or change their profile picture – it’s just what you do. But does this reinforce our need for others to accept how we look before we can fully accept it ourselves?

Body Neutrality rejects this. Why should anyone else have a say in how you see yourself? It’s your body and you should do what makes you – emphasis on YOU – feel good. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and maybe that’s true, but it should also be in the eye of the beholder. Beauty isn’t about how people perceive you and what’s more, your worth is not defined by your beauty. We alone should be allowed to determine how much our appearance defines us and we alone should be allowed to decide how well we want to conform to societal beauty standards – whether that be ‘conventional’ beauty or that of any social movement.

Asking us to LOVE our bodies simply asks us to focus even more on what is staring back at us in the mirror when in actual fact it really shouldn’t matter so much at all. I mentioned earlier how disabled, trans, people living with eating disorders and other types of people who don’t fit into either the ‘existing’ or the ‘new’ standards can feel excluded from Body Positivity.

But Body Neutrality has the potential to have a real impact on these peoples’ lives. It doesn’t ask for wholehearted adoration of our bodies no matter what, rather it asks us to make peace with them. I want to say again that I am in no way looking to #hate on the Body Positive movement.

I genuinely think it’s an amazing thing which has touched the lives of so many people, helping them to realise that just because they are not a size 6-8 and have ‘wobbly bits’ doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful too. I simply want to point out the flaws in the movement – the commercialisation, the unrealistic expectations inherent within and the exclusion of certain people.

As I said before, Body Neutrality is still somewhat new and is still finding its place on social media. It is also in no way perfect, having its own flaws (we still can’t seem to find a way to properly include men and their body image issues) but I hope this new movement will go some way to overcoming the mistaken assumption that body positivity equals straightforward body confidence. That’s not how it is or how it should be. We need to realise and accept that everyone has parts of themselves that they don’t like, and that’s totally, completely and wonderfully ok.

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