Body positivity is out, body neutrality is in. But what exactly is it?

If you find the body positivity trend a little toxic, try body neutrality, where the way you feel about your body doesn't define your worth.

Body positivity is out, body neutrality is in. But what exactly is it?

As part of the “BoPo” movement, it’s become commonplace for women to post celebratory selfies on social media, posing in front of full-length mirrors. Photo: Carmen Cheung

There aren’t that many photos of me pregnant. It wasn’t a conscious decision; I just didn’t prioritize it because I thought surely an experience so profound could never be forgotten. But five years out from my last pregnancy, I find myself forgetting not what it felt like, but what it looked like. Whatlooked like. It was impressive, growing life, but who was I now that I have been forever changed? My body told the world that I was a mother before I had really grasped that idea myself. And the world was selling me celebrity snapbacks, waist trainer ads and diet noise. When I discovered body positivity—which has roots in the “fat acceptance” movement of the 1960s—it felt like a powerful, yet soothing, antidote to all of that.

Five years ago, body positivity was buzzing, making joyful noise on Instagram, inspiring think pieces, attracting attention with billboards featuring “real women.” Models and influencers like Tess Holliday and Gabi Gregg reached millions with positive posts about self-love at any size, shape, shade or ability. They preached that women and those who identify as women could, and should, celebrate their bodies for what they do and how they make us feel. Body positivity, also known by its inevitable short form, BoPo, felt a bit like “Fake it till you make it”—if you say you feel good about your body no matter what, eventually you will believe it. It felt freeing for perinatal women and mothers to see stretch marks, saggy skin and Caesarean scars gain traction on social media and in ads. One of the more successful brands to embrace body positivity, Canadian brand Knix, impressed media and consumers with their commitment to using all types of bodies in their advertising for bras, undies and nursing bras. BoPo was a bonafide hit.

Body positivity started with the best of intentions, but as the movement grew, it began to look homogenous. The message was being co-opted by women who were bigger than runway models, sure, but they were still smaller women who could fit into traditional clothing sizes, and they were often white. It was still, somehow, hawking unattainable aspiration, and it seemed like many companies were capitalizing on the movement’s popularity rather than offering inspiration. The self-love flag was being flown by everyone from authentic voices to corporations craving a dollar. It began to feel disingenuous and hollow. The environment was becoming toxic.

Toxic positivity is feeling pressured to be a specific kind of happy where there is no space for anything else. When you apply that pressure to maternal body image, it can feel like if you admit you have negative thoughts about your body or appearance on occasion, then it’s a failure to be grateful for the miracle of growing and birthing children. That we aren’t allowed to look in the mirror or through a camera roll and have a few twinges of dissatisfaction. That we have to love it all, all the time, because we should be serene, glowing Madonnas, right?

Enter body neutrality. When I first encountered the term on social media, I thought it meant reaching a Zen-like state about your body—feeling nothing at all except peace. It seemed not only unachievable, but laughably naive. How can women remain neutral about their bodies all the time? The world will not let us. But the more I learned, the more it made sense. Body neutrality is not about feeling nothing, it’s about accepting that all our thoughts about our bodies—from joy to awe to sadness—are worthy, but they do not define us.

Lindsay Ross, a Toronto-based registered social worker and therapist, unpacks what this means in the prenatal and postpartum stages of women’s lives. “In our society, a woman’s evaluation of her self-worth is often linked to her physical appearance. This is even more true within the perinatal world,” says Ross. “Pregnant and postpartum women are constantly being bombarded by messages on how they ‘should’ feel about their bodies. This creates a culture of shame.” Unfortunately, body positivity, intended to be a counterforce to that shame, ended up reinforcing it, prompting unfair comparisons and negative thoughts. Why aren’t I happy about my postpartum body like she is? The homogenization online, especially on Instagram, made it difficult to see beyond the palette of white, mid- to straight-size mothers awash in soft filters, with mother and baby alike clad in layers of gently worn beige, pale greens and dusty rose. Even in posts hashtagged #BoPo, it was always this snapshot of a perfect pair: a pink-cheeked, youthful mom and her peaceful, compliant infant in a ring sling, looking effortlessly beautiful, in a home filled with plants, macramé and only wooden toys (no plastic). The baby never cried, the mom never needed a break and she never frowned or felt defeated when looking at her reflection in a change room mirror. Even though we all know these are curated snapshots—the baby cries and the mom does, too—it’s hard to remember this when faced with a barrage of relentless contentment without proof of anything otherwise. 

Refreshingly, body neutrality is not about forced joy or putting on a brave face. It’s about de-prioritizing our body’s appearance and valuing its abilities and strengths. “Body neutrality allows women to focus more on accepting their bodies for what they are in the moment without judgment,” says Ross. “The end result is often us gaining more compassion for ourselves and finding new ways of fostering self-worth.” Acceptance is the key to neutrality—you can’t have one without the other.

One of Canada’s most famous influencers, Sarah Nicole Landry, has been out in front, surfing the wave of body positivity as it crested and then transformed/morphed into/re-emerged as body neutrality. Landry, who lives in Guelph, Ont., may be familiar to you as The Birds Papaya (@thebirdspapaya), where she has two million Instagram followers, or from The Papaya Podcast, where she discusses body image, self-esteem and more with her guests. Landry’s talents lie in her way with words and images; her ability to expose relatable vulnerabilities is inviting and moving. She often posts unretouched images of her body, and, in the middle of a pandemic, she gave birth to her fourth baby, with an extended age gap between kids. (Her other three kids, from a previous marriage, are tweens and teens.) She’s a bastion of body positivity—so how does she feel about body neutrality? 

“Body positivity was this place of warm acceptance; you could be positive about your body, you could look however it is that you looked, and be accepted. But it also was difficult, because then I was like, ‘Where do all my bad thoughts go?’” she says. “Body neutrality, to me, is almost like another step above that first layer of that soothing balm of what body positivity was. It’s allowed me to live beyond my body.” 

While Landry has lived in a bigger body and used to struggle with disordered eating (she started out by documenting her exercise and weight loss on her blog), she understands that, as a blonde, conventionally attractive white woman, she fits that homogenized mould that took over and started to dominate social media.

“We throw out all these terms, like ‘body love’ and ‘positivity,’ while at the same time not making actual efforts to change a lot of the systems that are keeping people out of the BoPo community,” she says. “If you’re not aware of what’s going on for the disability community, in marginalized communities and with those who live in larger bodies, you’re totally missing the point,” she says. “I can’t be centred in this type of work.” The true leaders and pioneers of this movement—whether body positivity or body neutrality—are not, and cannot be, conventionally attractive white women, says Landry. “I’ve really tried to follow people who look nothing like me, who can teach me things that are outside of my realm of understanding,” she says. You can’t talk about the toxicity of the body positive movement without centring Black, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander and other marginalized women, including women with disabilities and trans women. 

They all live with the blunt-force biases of society when it comes to their bodies, whether it be racism, fatphobia, ableism or transphobia. These types of biases are called body-based oppression, meaning systemic discrimination related to how your body moves or works. It can be wide-ranging, such as airplane seats being “standard size” but not fitting bigger bodies, or stores that advertise accessibility but also have “just one step” to the bathroom.

“When I started blogging in 2008, Black women were at the forefront of the body positivity movement. I feel like it definitely has been hijacked,” says Assa Cisse, the Black creator of the plus-size positivity and style blog My Curves and Curls, and a mom of two in Toronto. “I’ve always been conscious of my body. Loving yourself and loving the way you are, no matter what size you are… it’s something that you have to do and it’s not something that just happens.” The fact that it’s a journey is a huge point that went missing from body positivity’s relentlessness. Influencers were pushing “Good Vibes Only!” without talking about the work it can take to get there, and they were promoting it without recognition that the path looks different for marginalized women.

If you’re still wondering what the difference is between body confidence, body acceptance and body neutrality, the simplest answer is nothing—they are all focused on helping women feel better about their bodies. The complex answer is that acceptance and neutrality are more similar in that the former leads to the latter; confidence is not a must-have for neutrality, though it certainly helps.

Landry has reached neutrality after years of advocating for body positivity, sharing her story (and pictures of her body) with millions of people along the way. “A lot of women think that when they enter into a neutral state about their body that it’s an abandonment. For me, it’s a de-prioritization of your body—it’s a part of you, but it’s not all of you,” she says. Welcoming another baby after a long break added another layer. “My big ‘aha’ was how much I cared about my body when I was pregnant, because I was carrying life, and how much it hit me afterwards that I didn’t think that way when I wasn’t pregnant, even though I was carrying my own life. I really had to remind myself that I’m carrying life every day.” 

This comment struck me speechless because it had never occurred to me. I’ve mostly accepted my body and its power—except for those moments when I look in the mirror and see the shifts in my peaks and valleys. I do wish I had more photos of me pregnant, especially to show my kids, but once they were here, the pregnancy part faded to make place for new memories—the weight of my son in my arms as he nursed, my daughter clutching my curly hair as I hefted her on my hip. I stopped thinking about my body in terms of what it offers other people, and focused on how it made those people feel. My family loves me regardless of how my body has changed, or why. In many ways, I’m still carrying their lives with my own, forever intertwined. 

Becoming a mom can remove parts of you until you feel half-erased, just a fuzzy outline that feeds people, changes diapers and desperately needs sleep. It can be hard to feel human, much less care about how you look. But motherhood can also bring a fresh appreciation for your body: what it did then, what it does now. A new pragmatism settles in. You carry the stroller up the stairs, schlep six grocery bags at once, rock the baby to sleep and lug a wagon to the park for the umpteenth time. And then there’s the love your children have for your body, whether they ride you like a horsey or lay their head in your lap, using your midsection as a pillow. 

Having kids changed my body irrevocably. Perhaps motherhood is a gateway to body neutrality—unconditional love plus practical functionality leads to appreciation and, eventually, acceptance.

This article was originally published on Jun 21, 2021

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