The first time Bethany C. Meyers heard the term “body neutrality,” it didn’t sit well. “I genuinely felt enraged — I felt so mad about the idea, I think because I had been trying to get to this positive place with my body,” the New York-based fitness instructor said. Then Meyers, who was recovering from an eating disorder, spent some time researching the concept — and it clicked. “There was quite literally a moment for me where it was like, aha, the lightbulb went off, and it felt so safe and so peaceful.”
Now, Meyers, 35, is a champion of body neutrality: the idea that we can accept our bodies as vessels that carry us through life, and not attach positive or negative feelings to our physicality. “It’s really helped me take away the pressure of the physical self and focus more on the mental self, the spiritual self — all these other things that make up who I am,” Meyers said, describing body neutrality as “an active rebellion.” “It’s rebellious to be like, ‘No, my body is not the most important thing,’ when most everything we see, hear and read is like, ‘If you don’t look a certain way, then you’re not enough.’ And a lot of body neutrality is dismantling that idea.”
Indeed, body neutrality focuses on what your body can do for you, not on what shape it takes, said Anne Poirier, a body-image coach and author of “The Body Joyful,” who is credited with helping popularize the term in 2016. Poirier thinks of body image on a continuum: “On one side is body hatred, and on the other is body love,” she said. “I call body neutrality a resting place from the chaos of your mind, and from the external voices of societal pressure. This is a place where you don’t have to love your body, but you don’t have to hate it, either.”
The philosophy has gained celebrity adherents. One early advocate, actress Jameela Jamil, said in a 2019 interview with Glamour magazine: “Imagine just not thinking about your body. You’re not hating it. You’re not loving it. You’re just a floating head. I’m a floating head wandering through the world.” Taylor Swift has spoken appreciatively of Jamil’s efforts: “We have amazing women out there like Jameela Jamil saying, ‘I’m not trying to spread body positivity. I’m trying to spread body neutrality where I can sit here and not think about what my body is looking like.’ ”
So what does that look like in practice? As Poirier explains, you’ll take a holistic approach to your body and, for example, think about your stomach as the reason you’re able to digest delicious food — and, in turn, have energy throughout the day — instead of worrying that it’s too big. You’ll consider the way you look as one small part of who you are, and accept that your weight doesn’t define your worth. You’ll respect your body, even if you don’t necessarily admire it. And you’ll trust its signals, eating what sounds most satisfying to you whenever you feel hungry. Poirier suggested you might ask yourself: “What would settle well in my body? What would give me energy for the things I want to do? What’s going to taste good, and what’s going to nourish me?”
None of that means you have to celebrate your appearance, Poirier said. Having a positive body image and feeling good about how you look all the time simply isn’t realistic for many people, who sometimes feel as if they’ve failed when they don’t like the reflection staring back at them in the mirror. Body neutrality turns the focus to not thinking about appearance at all, instead observing your body with no judgment.
In 2018, Meyers founded the be.come project, a boutique fitness company that approaches exercise through a body-neutral lens. Most routines combine Pilates, yoga and dance, and instructors encourage participants, easing them into various moves. The goal is to move your body because it feels good, not to burn off the Frappuccino you had with breakfast.
“I think it makes a really big difference when you’re doing a workout and you don’t have an instructor constantly throwing it back to getting six-pack abs, or getting bikini-body-ready,” Meyers said. “It really means something when your instructor is saying, ‘How does this move feel for you? Do we need to make some changes?’ ” Participants are asked how they feel before each session, and again afterward, and their responses are typically inspiring. Personally, Meyers said, “my pre-movement most common emotion is ‘anxious,’ and post-movement it’s ‘thankful.’ ”
Charlotte Markey, a psychology professor at Rutgers University at Camden and founder of its Health Sciences Center, thinks of body neutrality as “understanding that it’s important to respect and care for your body, and to divorce that from your evaluation of your physical appearance.” Research on the practice is sparse, but anecdotally, she said, many people find body neutrality “valuable and just kind of a relief.” Although she’d certainly like her patients to feel good about themselves, and consider themselves attractive, “I think our cultural overemphasis on those things obscures more important things,” Markey said. “For some people, this is a steppingstone toward a more positive body image, and for others, it may be the endpoint.”
If you’re interested in working toward body neutrality, here are tips from experts on how to get started:
Focus on what your body can do for you. The more we spotlight things we dislike about ourselves, “the bigger they get, and the louder the voices become,” Poirier said. Instead, she suggested adopting a new motto: “My body is a vessel that I get to experience my life in.” For example, think: “If it wasn’t for my body, I wouldn’t be able to experience going to a concert, or riding in a boat, or taking a walk.” That can be a helpful step away from body negativity and toward appreciating what your body does for you.
Cut off ruminations. If you start spiraling — your thighs are too big, your arms too flabby — pause and ask yourself: “Are these thoughts really helping me right now? Am I going to continue to engage with them?” If your brain is screaming, “I look terrible,” counteract that with: “I am having the thought that I look terrible.” As Poirier said: “You can make a choice. Do you choose to buy in and follow that train, or do you pause and stop and think of something neutral?”
Spend less time getting ready. When we linger in front of the mirror, we tend to fixate on our flaws. If you want to work toward body neutrality, “that means intentionally trying to spend less time getting ready, or less time in front of the mirror,” Markey said. Expedite the process, and if you need to check how you look, glance in the mirror while, say, you’re brushing your teeth. Some body-neutrality advocates even cover up their mirrors.
Wear comfortable clothes. Trying to squeeze into clothes that are too tight can be a shortcut to body shame, Poirier said. Rather than pulling and tugging at your outfit all day, select whatever you feel most comfortable in — and if that means a T-shirt and sweatpants, that’s perfectly fine.
Reframe why exercise is important to you. Rather than hoping you’ll lose five pounds if you run every day, think about how that movement will make you feel. Does exercise lift your mood, or distract you from work stress? “I had this period of time where I didn’t allow myself to do a workout unless I could come up with a nonphysical reason why I was doing it,” Meyers said. “At the beginning, it was really tough, because I couldn’t think of anything, so I wasn’t doing any workouts for a hot second. Then I noticed, ‘Wow, my mood isn’t great, I’m feeling really tight,’ and I started craving movement.”
Sarah Landry, 37, a blogger based in Ontario, has another suggestion: She likes putting sticky notes over the calorie trackers on exercise machines. “That makes it less about how much you do and how far you go,” she said; instead, it becomes an “act of love” you’re doing for yourself.
Shut down unwanted conversations. Inevitably, you’ll be pulled into a diet- or body-oriented conversation — and it’s best to either redirect or not engage. “I’ve had some moments where I’ve simply said, ‘That’s not a conversation I’m able to have right now,’ ” Meyers said. Or, if someone is urging you to exercise to shed a few pounds, you could explain that you work out because you like the way it makes you feel, not because you’re hoping it will change your appearance.
Be patient. Body neutrality isn’t a destination, or something we achieve; it’s “a work in progress and something that we constantly have to bring ourselves back toward,” Meyers said. If it takes you a while to get there, be gentle and patient with yourself. As Meyers said: “It’s never too late to begin to unlearn some of the things that we’ve been taught for so long.”