Is body positivity toxic? Why Lizzo and Jameela Jamil are championing body neutrality, the movement that celebrates gratefulness over self-love

Celebrities Lizzo and Jameela Jamil are both championing the body neutrality movement over body positivity. Photos: @lizzobeeating; @jameelajamil/Instagram
You’ve likely heard of body positivity, but there’s a lesser-known movement gaining traction: body neutrality.

Earlier this month, Lizzo called out the body positivity movement, saying the term has been “co-opted by all bodies” and has become a trend of “celebrating medium and small girls and people who occasionally get rolls”.

“Fat people are still getting the short end of this movement,” she said. “We’re still getting talked about, memed, shamed,” she added, but “no one cares any more”.

Instead of preaching body positivity, some are practising body neutrality.

The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil shared her take on body neutrality with Glamour in 2019, saying: “I don’t think about my body ever … 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.”

Jameela Jamil described her approach to body neutrality: “I’m a floating head wandering through the world.” Photo: Instagram

What is body neutrality?

“The body positive movement urges people to love their bodies no matter what they look like, whereas body neutrality focuses on what your body can do for you rather than what it actually looks like,” said Chelsea Kronengold, the associate director of communications at the National Eating Disorders Association.

Someone who practices body neutrality might say, “I am grateful for my legs because they got me from point A to point B, or I’m grateful for my arms, because they allow me to hug my loved one,” Kronengold explained.

But she did note that body neutrality’s focus on how a body functions as opposed to how it looks does come with some able-bodied privilege.

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Meredith Nisbet, a supervisor at the Eating Recovery Center, added that body neutrality is also “the idea that we can still care for our bodies even if we don’t regard them positively”.

“I don’t have to be happy with my body, I don’t have to love my body, but I can still acknowledge that this is the one body that I have … and so I need to be caring for that,” she said.

Elizabeth Wassenaar, regional medical director at the Eating Recovery Center, said another cornerstone of body neutrality is avoiding telling someone how to view their body.

“It isn’t my place to tell you what your experience should be or how you should feel about your body or that you should feel good about your body or have lots of love for your body,” she said. “But I can hold a space for you to learn to sort of accept your body as it is or find gratitude in what your body can do for you.”

Lizzo is an advocate of the body neutrality movement. Photo: handout

Why is the body positivity movement being criticised?

As Lizzo pointed out, the body positivity movement has evolved over time.

The body positivity movement has roots in the fat acceptance movement from the 60s, Kronengold said, which “was created by and for people in marginalised bodies, especially fat, black, queer and disabled bodies”.

Now, the movement has been “commercialised” and “commandeered by smaller-bodied influencers”, Nisbet said. “Body positivity means very different things if you live in a larger body that has a lot of stigma associated with it and if you live in a smaller body that doesn’t have a lot of stigma associated with it,” she said.

The movement has also been criticised for pushing a type of toxic positivity. “There’s a lot of pressure and expectations that people put on themselves when you’re talking about body positivity in this more mainstream sense,” Kronengold says. “For example, there’s nothing wrong with having a bad body image day just like there’s nothing wrong with having a bad hair day or something like that.”

Plus-size models are becoming more common on fashion runways; here a model walks for Mac Duggal at New York Fashion Week in 2019. Photo: Getty Images

Is body neutrality better than body positivity?

There is room for both movements, experts say. “People can benefit from body neutrality and body positivity at different times in their lives or for different reasons,” Wassenaar explained.

And while finding community within a certain movement depends on the individual seeking it, Kronengold said either route is “better than diet culture” and “definitely a step in the right direction for people who are experiencing body image concerns, and even for the general public”.

But for people that are affected by eating disorders, Kronengold said body neutrality “can be a lot more helpful than this potentially toxic positivity”.

Nisbet agreed, stating body positivity may never feel accessible for some people. There are also options beyond positivity and body neutrality, including “body acceptance” and “body liberation”. Those communities are more in line with what body positivity used to be, Kronengold said.

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How do you practice body neutrality?

If you’re looking to try practising body neutrality, Wassenaar suggested starting with two steps:

1. Be honest about where you are in your journey and how you feel about your body. “You can’t know what to work toward if you don’t really know where you are right now.”

2. Identify what is important to you. “What are the things that make your life feel worth it? What are the values you’re working toward? And then, noticing how your body can help you move toward those values – and again, in a neutral way,” she says. “It allows you to realise what your body can do to move you towards that value.”

Wassenaar said body neutrality is an individualised journey: “Holding space for people to have their own journey and make their own meaning out of body neutrality is a critical piece of keeping it a safe space for people.”

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  • ‘Fat people are still getting the short end,’ says Lizzo of the body positivity movement, which has been criticised for pushing a tone of ‘toxic positivity’
  • Body neutrality focuses not on what your body looks like, but what it can do for you, and experts say it may be more helpful for those with eating disorders