Body positivity has been a popular phrase among lifestyle influencers in recent years. But the roots of the modern body positivity movement are far older than social media, and its original mission was quite different to some of the messages you see today.
Now, the body positivity hashtag often accompanies photos of relatively thin women talking about learning to love their “flaws.” This isn’t exactly what the folks who started the body positivity movement had in mind, and the idea of body love or even body acceptance can seem completely out of reach for many. That’s where body neutrality, a much newer concept, comes in.
Instead of striving for all-out body love, the goal of body neutrality is to live your life without having strong feelings (good or bad) about your appearance.
Ultimately, both approaches (body positivity and body neutrality) are about fostering a healthy body image, defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as the mental picture one forms of one’s body as a whole, including its physical characteristics and one’s attitudes toward these characteristics.
It’s important because body image does significantly affect our physical and mental health. A study published in September 2016 in PLoS One found that better body image was associated with a better overall quality of life for adults and teenagers. A study published in March 2015 in the journal Body Image found that adults with a positive body image typically had better self-esteem and less depression than those with a negative body image, and were less likely to engage in unhealthy dieting behaviors.
If you’re curious about body positivity and body neutrality, or wondering which one might be right for you, here’s more about each concept and the differences between them.
Why the Body Positivity Movement Started and What It Means Today
“Body positivity is a movement that believes all people deserve to have a positive body image,” says Brit Guerin, a licensed mental health counselor and co-owner of Current Wellness, a weight-inclusive wellness center in Raleigh, North Carolina. “This movement encourages folx to love their bodies just as they are.”
But while body positivity has become personal — it’s about individuals feeling better about their own bodies — its roots are more political. Many sources trace the body positivity movement back to 1969 and the creation of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA), now called the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
Tigress Osborn, an equity and inclusion consultant and the current chair of NAAFA, explains that the organization was started in response to the discrimination people in larger bodies face (and still face), with the goal of making the world more accessible to and accepting of people in fat bodies.
The term “body positivity” started showing up in the 1990s, Osborn says, as a way for fat activists and others in marginalized bodies — primarily Black and brown women and femmes, people who are disabled, and those who identified as LGBTQ+ — to stand against oppressive body and beauty standards.
As social media rose in the late 2000s, the movement made its way to the mainstream and the messages morphed in some ways, Osborn says.
Now, body positivity is often associated with “the woman who weighs 15 pounds more than society thinks she’s ‘supposed’ to weigh, pinching her thigh roll, and talking about how she’s accepting herself,” Osborn says. “That’s not as radical as having a nonbinary Black or brown person who weighs 350 pounds showing their body and saying, ‘I’m going to live my best life.’”
Both of these individuals have the right to practice body positivity, says feminist scholar Celine Leboeuf, PhD, assistant professor of philosophy at Florida International University in Miami. She defines the body positivity movement as a movement to accept our bodies regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities. “But it’s important to remember that at its roots, body positivity is about accepting all bodies, not just your own,” Dr. Leboeuf adds.
Where Body Neutrality Comes From and What It Means Today
“Body neutrality is neither having strong feelings against or affirming your body,” says Sasha Jackson, LCSW, a therapist in private practice in Patterson, California.
Although it’s impossible to say exactly when the phrase was coined, most sources agree that “body neutrality” started showing up on the internet around the mid-2010s. The Green Mountain at Fox Run, an organization that hosts wellness retreats in Vermont focusing on healthy lifestyle and healthy body image, wrote a blog post using the term in 2013.
Ultimately, the goal of body neutrality is to be able to live your life without having strong feelings — positive or negative — about your body and your appearance.
Instead of trying to push against unrealistic beauty standards, the body neutrality movement says: “Your appearance has nothing to do with your worth as a human being” and “you are more than a body,” Guerin says. “This can help us refocus on things that build self-esteem, such as being a supportive friend, giving back, finding our purpose, and building new skills.”
What Are the Key Differences Between Body Positivity and Body Neutrality?
One major difference between body positivity and body neutrality is the emphasis placed on appearance, explains Paula Atkinson, LCSW, a therapist based in Washington, DC, who specializes in eating disorders.
The body positive approach says you are beautiful no matter what your body looks like. The body neutral approach says, it doesn’t matter if you think your body is beautiful or not, because what you look like is irrelevant to your value, happiness, and satisfaction in life.
Which Is Better: Body Positivity or Body Neutrality?
Whether body positivity or body neutrality is a healthier attitude for you to adopt comes down to personal preference.
Body positivity is a healthy way to approach body image if learning to love your body feels possible. If you live in a body that’s been marginalized by society for being fat, disabled, or some other reason, practicing body positivity can also be a political statement, and a way of demanding visibility and respect from society, Osborn says.
Body neutrality can be a healthy approach to body image if loving your body or focusing on your appearance doesn’t feel safe or possible for you, Atkinson says. This might be because of your history with body image and trauma, or because of the messages you get from society about your body, or a combination of both.
Body positivity may not feel realistic for everyone. “The body positivity movement still places an emphasis on the importance of appearance through its ‘Your body is beautiful just the way it is’ message,” Guerin says. “Sometimes this feels unattainable for folx who don't fit unrealistic beauty standards.”
Body positivity can even spark imposter syndrome (the belief that you haven’t earned something or don’t deserve it) in some people. “Body positivity may feel disingenuous if a person does not feel confident [about the way they look],” Jackson says. Promoting overly commendatory attitudes about the way you look when you don’t actually feel that way may leave you feeling somewhat like a fraud, she explains.
Another consideration: Improving your own body image can’t change the fact that people in larger bodies face constant weight stigma from external sources — discrimination based on weight and body size — in ways that have a significant, negative impact on their lives.
In a Tweet from January 5, 2022, fat activist Aubrey Gordon expressed concern that body neutrality minimized the very real discrimination that fat people face. “Being ‘body neutral’ or ‘body positive’ or ‘anti-diet’ isn't the same as ending anti-fatness, pass it on,” she Tweeted. The thread garnered over 10,000 likes and 2,000 retweets, indicating that the conversation struck a chord with many.
Healing your own body image can be helpful in the face of that discrimination, Guerin says, adding that it’s also important to push for change and fight against anti-fat bias, so that there aren’t such huge obstacles to a healthy body image in the first place.
Research indeed backs up that fat stigma exists. A study published in 2016 in Frontiers in Psychology found that those in larger bodies are less likely to be hired by employers than their thinner peers despite no differences in ability or qualifications. A review published in July 2019 in Primary Health Care Research and Development found that healthcare providers have negative attitudes towards higher weight patients, treating them with less respect and providing lower-quality care than they give their thinner patients.
How to Work Towards Body Positivity or Body Neutrality
Whether you’re working towards body positivity or body neutrality, Jackson says that the first step is to shift your focus away from what your body looks like and start to appreciate the ways in which it serves you.
1. Focus on What Your Body Can Do
A good first step is to focus more on what your body can do. Jackson recommends writing down three things your body does for you, like allowing you to play with your kids or helping you stand as you wash the dishes. “This exercise will help you identify and build genuine gratitude,” she says.
2. Reconnect With Your Senses
Then, tune into your senses as a way to further connect with your body. Identify ways in which each of your five senses helps you interact with the world. For example, my sense of touch helps me snuggle with my pet, or my sense of taste allows me to appreciate ice cream. “This exercise will help you to build appreciation and focus your attention on what your body does for you,” Jackson says.
3. Seek Help if You Need It
If you’re experiencing severe body image distress, seek out a qualified therapist who can help you work through it. If you don’t already work with a mental health professional, you can ask your primary-care provider to refer you to a therapist who specializes in body image, or search for local body-inclusive therapists through directories like Inclusive Therapists or the Health at Every Size Community. And no matter how you choose to approach body positivity or body neutrality, remember that changing your relationship with your body will take time.