Siddharth Elango, a 26-year-old software engineer, was told he needed to lose weight because it had started affecting his health in ways that he hadn’t imagined. So, he started to work out, went on a keto diet, and rigorously researched all things nutrition and health.
“But when you start seeing the good results, you become obsessed with your body and you keep wanting more,” he told VICE. “It consumes you and you are worried about everything you put in your body. I started reading every food label and wanted to make sure I was making healthy choices at every stage of my life.”
But Elango was unaware of just how obsessed he was with his body and “keeping fit” until his friends pointed it out to him.
“I was living in a bubble,” he said. “And then, my friends told me that I needed to stop talking about my body and fitness every time, and that it wasn’t healthy to just obsess over it.”
At this point, Elango made a conscious choice of reeling it in and following a “body neutral” approach. For starters, he started dialling down on his obsession with fitness and food talk. He realised that he needn’t be frantically excited about every new discovery that he’d make in his weight loss journey. It was okay to just let things be while focusing on fitness in a controlled, neutral manner. It was just a part of his life, not his whole life.
“Body neutrality” is a movement to help individuals focus on accepting their bodies as they are, according to Anjali Ferguson, a cultural psychologist who studies how cultural practices, institutions, and meanings influence individuals and societies.
“It is an attempt to move away from placing judgement on our appearances, both positive and negative, and not centring our bodies in discussions of self-worth and identity,” she told VICE. “Body neutrality emphasises that our bodies should just be accepted as they are at a given point in time. It operates under the notion that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ body presentations, which moves away from ableist and colouristic expressions of beauty.”
The term was popularized in 2015 by Anne Poirier, a body-image coach. In her book The Body Joyful, she explains that “body neutrality prioritizes the body’s function, and what the body can do, rather than its appearance. You don’t have to love or hate it. You can feel neutral towards it.”
This is in sharp contrast to the perky refrains of the body positivity movement, which sounds like such a nice idea, until you realise how unidimensional it is. It promotes the idea that posting a picture of your stomach rolls on Instagram will suddenly make you fall in love with them. But tossing away a lifetime of body hang-ups is way more complex than adopting a few “empowering” hashtags. According to relationship counsellor Ruchi Ruuh, the streak of judgement inherent in the body positivity movement does more harm than good.
“If body positivity was meant to help us remain at peace with the self and others, I would’ve bought it,” said Ruuh. “But it doesn’t. There is still a lot of judgement in the body positivity movement, and nothing is good enough. It also promotes eating disorders in people.”
For those in recovery from eating disorders or those who’ve internalised years of body shaming, going from “I don’t like my body” to “I love my body” like the body positivity movement advocates can be a stretch. Body neutrality, however, takes away that toxic positivity and offers a safe space to just observe and respect our bodies without judgement.
Ruuh added that while acceptance and a good self-image are essential, ignoring one’s overall health in the garb of a “positive outlook” toward the body does more harm than good.
“So many people are genuinely unhappy with the way they look and want to change,” she said. “Applying the common balm of ‘you are beautiful the way you are’ doesn't work. We even end up shaming someone who was fat or obese, disliked it, and actively worked on losing some pounds to feel good.”
The same happened when popular British actor Rebel Wilson, who starred in Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect, was trolled online when she opened up about her weight loss journey – she’d lost over 60 pounds in eight months. In the BBC Breakfast podcast, she revealed how her own team didn’t want her to lose weight because they said she was “earning millions of dollars being the funny fat girl.”
“Suddenly you’re a hypocrite if you want to show your skin, and you’re easy and you’re a slut and you’re a whore,” the singer said in the Vogue story. “If I am, then I’m proud. Me and all the girls are hoes, and fuck it, y’know? Let’s turn it around and be empowered in that. Showing your body and showing your skin – or not – should not take any respect away from you.”
Movement coach Ritesh Shaiwal said that body neutrality must be viewed as a welcome “evolution” in how we understand ourselves.
“We’ve always been a very aesthetic-driven species,” he said. “With body neutrality, you accept the functionality of your body without pushing yourself too much or being too hard on yourself. So, in most cases, you don’t have to work out seven days a week. You need to accept what your body is inherently capable of.”
According to Delvin Davis, a 24-year-old engineer, one of the biggest problems with the body positivity movement is its inherent exclusion.
“I'd rather support the body positivity campaign if they actively included disabled people, victims of burns, victims of battery and assault who've faced permanent body damage, and individuals with skin disorders, because they went through body transformations that are irreversible,” he told VICE. “But the entire narrative of body positivity always revolves around fat individuals who don't wanna be called fat. This is cool, but a very unidimensional approach.”
For Davis, body neutrality allows the breathing room to just be, while focusing on being fit without letting it consume him.
“Body neutrality helps us in being comfortable in our skin while also not restricting us from attaining a better, healthier lifestyle just because an obese model or a skinny influencer tells us it’s alright to be happy with the status quo,” he said.
Ferguson, the psychologist, said that attaining body neutrality can be a hard mindset to adopt, considering how ingrained the focus on presenting our bodies is in many communities.
“We can start by avoiding conversation about someone’s body altogether,” she suggested. “Our bodies do not define our worth and therefore, should not be a focus of any discussion unless it’s relevant to the topic at hand.”
Not describing bodies in the binaries of “good” and “bad” is a critical step in adopting body neutrality, she said. Another important factor is listening to your body.
“Instead of trying to fit into a certain beauty standard, listen to what your body needs,” she explained. “Exercise because your body feels good when you move, not to lose weight for social media. Take a rest from exercise because your body is tired. Eat the sweets that your body may be craving, or have that extra helping when your body is hungry and avoid overcompensating later.”
In Elango’s case, his friends helped him realise his unhealthy obsession with his body in the wake of his weight loss. Ferguson said it’s important to be that kind of friend too. “If someone you know starts to obsessively discuss their body image, change the subject. We want individuals to move away from these discussions, so this may mean you have to correct others or help them focus on more meaningful topics of conversation.”
An important step to understanding and adopting the world of body neutrality is also being truly honest with oneself.
“Body neutrality doesn’t mean being overly positive; it means being honest,” said Ferguson. “So, if you dislike something, that’s okay too – as long as that dislike doesn’t consume you or become a preoccupation that impacts your behaviour.
Mohini Srishati, a lifestyle coach, told VICE that body neutrality is always our default setting when we are born – we weren’t ashamed of our bodies, we accepted who we were as children, but then, external insecurities crept in.
“The concept of what is ugly or good about our bodies is learned from our parents and others; we are not born with it,” she said.
But Srishati also clarified that body neutrality is not a free pass to not care about one’s body or actively work towards doing stuff that make you feel good.
“We must understand the intention behind being fit,” she said. “So, I need to introspect on whether I'm cycling and swimming because I genuinely feel energised, or if it’s because my friend told me I need to have a slimmer waist. Body neutrality is also about eliminating that external need.”