I was the first person in my friendship group to grow boobs.
The year was 2007, and while all my grade six girlfriends were shopping for cute age-appropriate crop tops in high street shops, my mum took me straight to the big wigs: Bras N Things.
The kind lady in store took my measurements and rather than giving me a dainty crop like all my friends had, I was handed a beige padded bra in a size B. Obviously, the cups kept growing year after year. Now, at age 26, I wear an F cup.
On some days (particularly around my period), I seriously contemplate a breast reduction. On others, I’m grateful that I can wear flattering V-neck tops and naturally have boobs that some people pay tens of thousands of dollars for. But overall, I feel fairly neutral towards these mammary glands that may feed a child one day.
Recognising that my body is simply a vehicle for my life helps on the days when my self-esteem is low. As it turns out, there’s actually a term for this way of thinking: body neutrality.
What is body neutrality?
Sarah McMahon, a psychologist and the director of BodyMatters Australasia, a service that provides counselling and treatment for eating disorders and body image issues, describes body neutrality as reaching a state where we don’t feel “overly concerned” by our body. That is, we accept our body as it is and respect it for what it does.
"Offering body neutrality as an alternative framework creates the opportunity for us to get on with life, regardless of our relationship with our body, and that is extremely liberating," she says. “It bridges the chasm between body negativity and body positivity."
Body positivity isn't one-size-fits-all
While we know that body negativity is detrimental to both our physical and mental wellbeing, body positivity can be hard to achieve.
Although body positivity originated from the fat acceptance movement in the 1960s and was created by (and for) people in marginalised bodies such as fat, Black, disabled, and queer bodies, the rise of social media in the 2010s saw it co-opted by people that already fit into patriarchal standards of beauty.
Slim, white creators began to take over the hashtags (and take up space) in the body positivity movement, steering the ship away from radical body acceptance by marginalised communities and towards a more general form of self-love. Over time, fashion and beauty brands have capitalised on the movement further to sell us products, and the phrase all but lost its original meaning.
"Body positivity is an aspirational concept, where we love our body all the time. For many people, this concept simply does not resonate and is, indeed, impossible to achieve," says McMahon.
"Unfortunately, many people can not and will not ever feel beautiful for a host of reasons — most notably, not aligning to the narrow and homogenised beauty ideal that our society upholds."
McMahon explains that this idea is amplified by the fact that body positivity remains heavily steeped in notions of “beauty”. For example, some of the catchphrases we see in body positivity include, “Everybody is beautiful” or “You're beautiful just as you are”.
"There are many people who will never identify with being beautiful, and so they are immediately excluded from the body positive movement."
So how do we get closer to body neutrality?
According to McMahon, body neutrality is more achievable than body positivity for many people.
"One of the fantastic things about body neutrality is that it is a far more dynamic concept and one that most people feel they can work towards. It enables a shift from form to function, and 'beauty' becomes irrelevant."
To achieve body positivity (or at least get closer to it), McMahon recommends appreciating what our bodies do for us. From waking us up in the morning to having whole subconscious systems working to keep us alive, when you take the time to find gratitude for your body, it can help to reframe those moments of poor self-esteem.
McMahon also suggests finding a physical activity that you enjoy rather than using exercise as a punishment and engaging with media that exposes you to diversity in body types. She also suggests avoiding social media exposure that makes you feel bad about your body.
When it comes to body neutrality, McMahon says that we can work on how we speak about our own and other people's bodies. "Avoid engaging in negative talk about bodies," says McMahon. "Yours and other people's. 'Fat talk' and 'diet talk' are not your friends."
Just like body positivity, the journey to body neutrality can be a work in progress. It’s a privilege to be able to reach body neutrality, and I acknowledge that it was relatively easy for me, given that I exist in a white, cis-gendered, straight-sized body. For marginalised people, the journey may not be so easy.
“The heart of this issue is privilege,” says McMahon. She explains that since body positivity is closely intertwined with the concept of beauty, even people who fit the prevailing societal ideals end up having a fraught relationship with their bodies. "The concept of body neutrality, however, is far more achievable and thankfully, separate from notions of beauty. However, an element of privilege is still required.”
In a beauty-obsessed society, it can be hard to think of your body neutrally when so many people’s existences are politicised. But by appreciating what your body can do, how it works to keep you alive, and the fact that it lets you experience everything the world has to offer, body neutrality offers a much-needed paradigm shift in the way we view our bodies.