What Do You Do When "Loving Your Body" Is Hard?

Photographed by Refinery29.

Late last year, I got an email — a long one. It was from a reader who was outraged over The Anti-Diet Project. But unlike the typical vitriol that occasionally pops up in my inbox (“You’re glorifying obesity!” “I hope you die of cake!”), this was legitimate and totally righteous anger. The reader hasn’t given me permission to quote her email, but trust, she schooled me. To summarize, her primary message was this: Stop telling people to love their bodies. Not everyone can. You’re being an asshole.

My first instinct was to feel defensive. I always knew body positivity wasn’t as simple as saying, “You should just love your body! Problem solved!” I knew from my own experience that one had to allow for insecurity, mixed emotions, and even outright negative feelings. Expecting to make the switch from self-loathing to total, unadulterated self-love was unreasonable — perfectionism in a different form. “Should” was an unhelpful word here. But, looking back over years of Anti-Diet posts (especially in the early days) after I received this email, I realized that I might not have written the word “should,” but sometimes, I sure as hell implied it. And I noticed that a lot of words I had written were just as unhelpful to many people: “love,” “embrace,” and even “positivity.” One word I wish I’d used more often? “Neutrality.”

Body neutrality is an ever-more popular concept, popping up in trend pieces everywhere from college newspapers to The Cut. In fact (and in full disclosure), the first time I’d heard of it as a separate entity from body positivity was when journalist Marisa Meltzer reached out to me for commentary on that Cut piece. As she described it, body neutrality was, if not better than body positivity, then certainly more accessible. “It’s a kind of détente,” she explained, “a white flag, a way station between hating oneself and loving oneself.”

For many of us, that’s what it is: a crucial stepping stone toward the greater goal of self-love. But for others, neutrality is the goal, full stop. And in the grand scheme of things, body neutrality may indeed be a better, more inclusive mission for us all.

“The body positivity community seems to only give voice to a specific type of person,” says journalist and activist Keah Brown, who often writes about the experience of self-acceptance as a disabled woman. It’s an obvious fact, but a woefully unrecognized one. See the term “body positivity” and most of us think in terms of size — specifically women and size, and even more specifically, women of larger size. This is a deeply marginalized population, to be sure. But it is by no means the only one. Yet, often it seems this is the only group to whom the mainstream body positive movement speaks.

“[Consider messaging like] ‘Your body always loves you, and it doesn’t fail you,’” suggests Brown. “For some disabled people, that is just not the case. Your body does fail you and your body does break down.” On a personal level, Brown says, she does relish in truly loving her body now. But true acceptance was a hard-fought battle — and one she fought alone, she adds. “I felt like there [wasn’t] a movement for me, where I was truly celebrated in terms of my body.” Even if (hopefully, when) the body positive movement does someday champion people with disabilities as much as it does those who are plus-size, it will have to do so while recognizing that positivity is not available to everyone. They should be included, Brown concludes, “without feeling the need to love a body that isn’t quite working for them. I believe in loving your body and celebrating it, but I also understand those who simply can’t.”

To that end, consider people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, eating disorders, or mental illness which might impair their ability to even assess their body, let alone adore it. Issuing a blanket statement like “just love yourself” leaves all of them out in the cold. Many in these groups spend their whole lives struggling toward a stable sense of neutrality. Carelessly ordering them to be positive adds insult to a complex and often invisible injury.

Photographed by Refinery29.

Genderqueer people, too, are often left out of body positivity, particularly the non-binary, or those grappling with dysphoria. “I do struggle with being on this pendulum between loving my body and and absolutely being disgusted with myself,” YouTuber Rowen Ellis shared after discovering the concept of body neutrality. “I currently identify as genderfluid. So, sometimes I absolutely love my body, because it’s curvy and it’s feminine, and sometimes I absolutely hate it.” Ellis (who uses she/her pronouns) instantly clicked with the wide-open, welcoming concept of neutrality. It made it easier for her to just be okay on any given day, rather than struggling with being great. “And not beating myself up when I’m not in love with [my body]. Not trying to put loads of energy into either loving it or hating it. Just simply accepting it, and being neutral with it — while also keeping it healthy and safe, obviously.”

For these and so many others, body neutrality is simply a better fit, whether it’s a permanent or temporary state. (And, reality check: It’s all temporary. Confidence does not inoculate one against all moments of insecurity, comparison, and shame.)

Even for some of us who are highly represented in the body positive movement, body neutrality can be a more useful or resonant concept. I’m a cis, straight, white, able-bodied woman, and even with that laundry list of privilege, body neutrality is a life-changing concept. Long before I knew it by this buzzy name, I relied on the knowledge that I was not a failure for not 100% loving the body I saw in the mirror. I would remind myself in the reflection (and in this column) that even Beyoncé probably didn’t feel like Beyoncé every day. It allowed me to get off the perfectionist hamster wheel, and let go of irrational expectations, both physical and mental. For me, neutrality was the very foundation of body positivity. But then again, with every mainstream body positive message pointed in my direction, I also had the privilege of feeling that way.

That’s why body neutrality deserves the buzz it’s getting, and why, I think, it should get even more. These are words we need to spread, for two crucial reasons. First, they speak to so many people who must be brought into this conversation. Second, they deepen the conversation itself.

“I don’t need to be told that I’m beautiful,” says author and long-time activist Marilyn Wann. Wann, whose cause is fat liberation, never found “positivity” a good fit for her or her work. “That doesn’t necessarily answer the whole spectrum of things that I experience around weight. And it can reinforce a lot of gender binary and sexist formulations.” She points out that neutrality is essentially the goal of all body activism, in the long term. “If I tried to come up with a word for everyone getting to be their own unique self, free from transphobia and sexism and everything else — I don’t know what word I would use exactly, but ‘body neutral’ sounds good.” In this sense, neutrality could also be called “equality.”

If neutrality is your goal, Wann concludes, embrace that terminology: “I think we keep coming up with words to try to label the thing that we want. I really am all for people trying to find a word for the thing they want.”

For her, it’s fat liberation. For someone else, it might be body neutrality. For others, it might be positivity, or love, or acceptance. And make no mistake, if those are your words, use them. Using or supporting the concept of body neutrality is not about denying yourself love — and it’s really not about taking it from others. We’re talking neutrality here, and not negativity.

If you can find true joy in your body, if you feel love for it, or even if you just wake up one day feeling super into yourself, then by all means, get out there and embrace that feeling. Do it for yourself and everyone you meet that day. You may kindle confidence in someone else, and start a chain reaction. And if you wake up the next day feeling low or alienated, remember that’s allowed too. Maybe neutrality will be the best you can muster, and if so, embrace that feeling just as readily. Again, it won’t just be your saving grace, but could be someone else’s too.

To get out there and live your life — whether your body is an ally or an albatross — is all that really matters.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.