The Problem with Body Positivity

Let me start by saying that this is not a hit piece. I’d also like to give a considerable content warning; this post is going to discuss body image and disordered eating/exercising.

The body positivity movement is a beautiful and necessary thing. It exists to push back against the impossible beauty standards of our society, proclaiming boldly that all bodies are different, and every person deserves to love her body exactly as it is.

All I’m saying is that I can’t seem to apply the philosophy to myself.

Looking back on my youth, I think it’s safe to say I probably had a disordered relationship with my body. I was a gymnast, and I heard a lot of really unhelpful shit about my body from an incredibly young age. In high school, at around 90 pounds (40.82 kg), I thought I was overweight. When my body naturally broke the 100 pound (45.36 kg) mark, I almost plunged into a depression.

I dabbled in food restriction and binging to control my weight, but quickly realized I didn’t like feeling hungry and was too squeamish to make myself purge. So, I settled on what I now know is called exercise bulimia. I remember staying up until 2:00am on school nights doing hundreds of squats and sit-ups until my muscles gave up on me. It was an almost nightly ritual, my little secret.

Now, at 38 years old and after having two children, I’ve gained a much healthier attitude about my body. I had to accept that my body is different now. And mercifully, I’ve stopped punishing my body the way I used to. But I’m a far cry from unconditional love and acceptance of my body.

The body positivity movement has undoubtedly made significant strides in promoting self-acceptance and challenging societal beauty standards. However, it’s important to acknowledge that not every woman will find complete solace in embracing her body exactly as it is.

It is unrealistic to expect everyone to reach a state of unwavering self-love without any desire for change.

I think an unintended consequence of the body positivity movement is that it has left women like me feeling like failures. We cannot achieve the unconditional love of our bodies that other women can, so we become discouraged. In my personal pursuit of body positivity, I decided to stop worrying over my diet or exercise. I was happy for a while, but eventually, I put on 25 pounds (11.34 kg) and became completely depressed. I spoke terrible, humiliating words to myself every day in the mirror. It was a very dark time.

I’ve had to learn to strike a balance between embracing my body exactly as it is, while also embracing and aspiring toward my personal ideals. Rather than striving to love my body every single day, I am learning to let myself be in an and/both situation:

I accept my body as it is at this moment, and through self-compassion I am working toward the body I want to have.

My search for other women who were trying to find this balance led me to a lesser known movement called body neutrality. Body neutrality offers an alternative approach to self-love and acceptance that is more attainable for people like me. While body positivity focuses on actively loving and embracing one’s body, body neutrality shifts the emphasis to neutrality and acceptance without necessarily needing to love or celebrate it. This approach recognizes that not everyone may feel an immediate or unconditional love for their bodies, and that’s okay. Body neutrality encourages individuals to prioritize self-care, focusing on how their bodies feel and function rather than solely on appearance.

Since letting go of the idea of body positivity, and embracing body neutrality instead, I’ve found such a healthier relationship with my body and my mental health. I get to see myself as a work in progress — allowing me to have a more flexible and self-compassionate attitude toward my body and my goals. I no longer feel like a failure for not embracing my body exactly the way it is. I’m also free to pursue my goals for my body, while working on my self-acceptance as I go.

The concept of body neutrality allowed me to define my own relationship with my body. And truly, that is what I needed all along — permission to have an ideal for how my body looks, and permission to pursue that ideal without celebrating or belittling my body along the way.

People are entitled to have their own personal ideals and aspirations, which may include physical transformations that align with their self-image. So please, if you struggle with acceptance of your body as it is, know that you’re not alone. Give yourself permission to stop striving for body positivity. Work toward body neutrality instead.

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