If you search the hashtag #BoPo — short for body positivity — on Instagram, you’ll find nearly 670,000 posts by individuals of all shapes and sizes celebrating their bodies.
It’s just one sign of the rise of the body-positivity movement, propelled in recent years by celebrities such as Ashley Graham, who’s unafraid to flaunt her cellulite, and social media influencers like Jessamyn Stanley, who is a proudly Black, fat, queer yoga instructor and uses the practice to foster self-love in herself and others.
However, as with many trends, there has been some pushback against body positivity in recent years, with people asking: "If reaching true 'body positivity' isn’t possible for everyone, then what’s the next best alternative?"
Enter body neutrality, which falls in the middle of the body image spectrum (with body positivity on one end and body negativity on the other). It’s a mindset in which individuals put less emphasis on their physical appearance and instead form a type of indifference toward their bodies. They neither love nor hate them — they simply focus their energies elsewhere. But why?
“I think it’s becoming popular because of pushback against the goal of body positivity as being unreasonable,” Dr. Lauren Muhlheim, a psychologist and certified eating disorder specialist, tells SheKnows. “I also think it stems from recognition that it is very hard to be body positive in a world where thinness is so highly valued — weight stigma is so pervasive, [but] bodies are naturally diverse and the beauty and diet industry contribute to making people feel bad about their bodies in order to sell products that will ‘solve the problem.’”
A compilation of research by Common Sense Media, shows that children as young as 5 years old express dissatisfaction with their bodies and that more than half of girls and one-third of boys as young as 6 and 8 feel their ideal body size is thinner than their current body size.
What could work to nip this troublesome thinking in the bud? Teaching body neutrality.
Origins & meaning of body neutrality
Dr. Haica Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist at the Women’s Center for Binge and Emotional Eating at Green Mountain in Vermont, says the center's program was the first to coin and popularize the concept of body neutrality, around 2010. She explained to SheKnows that many of the women who visit Green Mountain feel uncomfortable in their bodies or may even hate them. And while plenty of therapists and treatment centers believe that reaching a place of body love is the best approach to help these folks, Rosenfeld thinks that attitude misses the mark.
“Healing body dissatisfaction, hate and loathing is not necessarily about liking or loving the image of our own body,” Rosenfeld says. “It is not solely about changing the perception of our body. It really is a about body-acceptance work.”
That’s where body neutrality steps in — as a more realistic goal.
“There is a very big gap between both ends of the body image spectrum,” Rosenfeld adds. “And if we are standing on the side of body hate and look at the other side of the spectrum, body love, we may be thinking: ‘There is no way I can get there!’ And this is where working towards body neutrality can be fundamental and healing work. Body neutrality is the bridging of the gap. We are working towards a middle place on the body image spectrum and moving into a mindset of honoring and respecting the body we have now.”
Rosenfeld says this form of body acceptance work includes introspection and the unraveling of external influences that individuals have internalized that shape their body image, including cultural ideals, social media, comments from friends and family, medical "standards" (like body mass index), etc. By doing so, we can achieve a type of liberation, she says.
“It is freedom to go about your day or week without such a strong focus on your body. Yet it is also about appreciating what our body can do for us today and how it can create joy in our lives.”
What body neutrality means for your child
So, how can body neutrality benefit your child? Green Mountain program and clinical director Shiri Macri tells SheKnows that introducing the concept to kids at a young age is a way to proactively guard against the internalization of the “thin ideal,” which is at the root of disordered eating and negative self-image.
“Especially for young girls in early adolescence and even younger, hearing messages of right versus wrong body types drives dieting behaviors, which often leads to these disordered patterns," Macri says. "Even in best-case scenarios, negative body image leads to a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and inevitable weight fluctuations as well as an impact on emotional well-being and mental health.”
Instead, by internalizing a more authentic body-neutral mindset, children can develop healthier perspectives toward their bodies, which in turn promotes both emotional and physical health, Macri says. “Children focus on caring for their bodies in ways that feel good instead of punishing the body for being ‘wrong’ through restriction, deprivation, [overexercising], etc. By honoring, accepting and having gratitude for their bodies from a young age, children learn to listen to their bodies’ signals, which in turn promotes whole health.”
Tips for teaching body neutrality to your child
Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke, director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, urges parents to "focus on helping your [child] develop all aspects of themselves — not just appearance. For example, telling your daughter every day how beautiful she is may be too much. This may lead to more of an obsession with her appearance. Talk about her other signature strengths: She is a great writer, a very compassionate person, a hard worker, etc.”
When you do address your child’s body, focus on function and not form, Kearney-Cooke tells SheKnows, “Encourage your [child] through example to focus on body function and to develop gratitude for what each part of their body does for them.”
It may be difficult to reverse ingrained body ideals, but licensed psychotherapist Eliza Kingsford tells SheKnows parents can also teach their children to embrace body neutrality by leading by example.
“For instance, parents can refrain from discussing bodies — both positively and negatively — in the home,” she says. “Even discussing how ‘pretty’ they think someone is is emphasizing their stance on beauty and is an important factor. Refrain from using words like ‘fat,’ ‘skinny,’ ‘thin’ or ‘huge.’ Instead, try things like ‘strong’ and ‘capable.'”
She also encourages parents to give children praise and feedback for attributes outside of their physical appearance, such as admirable qualities that have nothing to do with what they look like. Isn't that kind of praise something we could all use?
Ultimately, this new mindset isn’t meant to bash body positivity — but rather to offer an alternative for those who find body neutrality a more realistic goal. Like other parenting decisions, whether or not this approach works for you and your child is just that: your decision. And it’s up to you to determine what suits them best.