The problem with Body Positivity and Body Neutrality

Caroline Pattenden has struggled with negative feelings about her body for as long as she can remember. She explains why the current trends of Body Positivity and Body Neutrality contain some truth, but fall short of the Bible’s life-changing message 

By the time I reached the age of five I knew that my body was wrong. An influx of information from home and school had me pondering the best ways to lose my wobbly tummy. I was a problem that needed to be solved. I listened carefully as my mother embarked on the latest fad diet to change her life. I watched closely as she tutted and sighed over yet another failed attempt. 

Naturally, as the teenage years hit I walked a path that led to eating disorders and the kind of obsessional thinking that would take decades to manage and eventually be free from. This mindset became a kind of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I'd hate to look at or think about my gross body, on the other, I couldn't stop thinking about it and how to fixits flaws. It’s a wonder I had time to learn to smoke and drink, let alone find boyfriends and a Saturday job. 

By the age of 13 I was a nominal Christian. I’d started going to church after my best friend invited me. I loved the safety and the interest people showed in me, but I was terrified they’d learn about my active inner thought life.  

It was at church that I discovered a biblical perspective on creation, where my body is part of that complex, life-affirming, God-breathed multitude of atoms and cells. It was here Psalm 139 found me: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (v14). Unfortunately, like my ongoing mental health battle, I understood that knowing and believing were two very different things. 

Love your body 

Since my teenage years, I’ve thought a lot about our society’s perception of beauty, particularly after becoming a mum to daughters. I have followed with interest the different theories out there that attempt to counteract the dominant narrative that thinner is better.

One school of thought that asks its followers to firmly believe in the beauty of their own bodies is the Body Positivity movement, championed by celebrities such as singers Lizzo and Demi Lovato. Rightly, the community adopts an all-embracing attitude that condemns the practise of techniques like airbrushing and filtering out imperfections, and pays particular attention to discrimination based on size, ethnicity and disability. 

Actor and activist Jameela Jamil has taken the movement further by setting up her @I_Weigh community on Instagram, which shares positive slogans, such as “Aim for progress, forget about perfection” and “You deserve to wear clothes you like (no matter the size on the tag)”. The account asks people of all shapes to share images of their bodies, coupled with words that tell the viewer what else makes them who they are – a painter, dancer, sister, for example. 

The Body Positivity movement began as a backlash against popular culture that mocked and jeered at primarily women whose bodies didn’t fit into the dominant cultural label of ‘attractive’: fat bodies, black bodies, queer bodies and disabled bodies. The movement encouraged self-love; loving your body precisely because it is different and not trying to squeeze it into a narrow set of acceptable norms. 

The movement is active and engaging, yet I don’t think embracing this way of thinking can beat negative self-perception and eating disorders. Let me be clear, I’m not for a second suggesting we shouldn’t talk or think positively about our bodies. I have two young daughters and I ooze body positivity towards them. It’s these verbal and non-verbal cues that I hope are going to divert them away from the long, lonely path their mother trod. I think also of Paul's compelling argument to honour God with our bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Bodies that were bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Biblically, it’s clearly OK to talk about your body in a positive light. It’s an incredible piece of biological engineering. It’s fearfully and wonderfully made and it’s OK to know and to celebrate that. So what’s the problem? 

Put simply: for some it’s just impossible to genuinely feel love for their body. It requires the kind of mental gymnastics that just can’t be done with any degree of integrity. There’s also a dangerous tipping point: where does body positivity and self-love end, and idolatry begin?  

Unless you’re on guard against your own thoughts night and day, policing this fine line is impossible. That’s why this movement, even with the best of intentions, can’t answer the question of how we think about our bodies in the long-term. 

Think less about your body 

Which brings us to the alternative, Body Neutrality. This movement started gaining traction in 2015 and seems to be a popular trend now on social media. Experts treating eating disorders began embracing the idea of shifting thoughts away from the body to what makes them feel good – a walk, a piece of cake, some time spent outside in nature, for example. 

I’ve tried being totally neutral about my body, not worrying about the lumps and bumps, but honestly, I can't. There are times when I want to blast it into non-existence and times when I want to celebrate its incredible achievements (ahem, London Marathon 2019).

For the sake of my girls, I must think about it. I must be actively conscious about the messages I communicate when I talk about it. I must think about the language I use to describe people, how I use the word “fat”, not giving it too much power by demonising it, nor ignoring it as a legitimate adjective.  

In fairness, the Body Neutrality movement isn’t calling for total non-thought about ourselves. Instead it proposes that we feel at peace with who we are and how our bodies look and act. But what if our bodies feel like our enemies? It’s hard to feel good, or merely peaceful, about a body that stubbornly refuses to heal itself from long-term chronic illness, that has robbed you of freedom of movement or has failed to carry a child to full term. Try feeling neutral about that body.  

Like all secular movements, there will be areas that we, as a faith community, can’t fully get behind. Even the idea of ‘neutrality’ misses the mark. How can you be neutral about your body when it’s described as a “masterpiece” (Ephesians 2:10, NLT)? 

The body God loves 

In an ideal world, where our bodies are free from illness and where they function as they should all the time, body neutrality (and perhaps even body positivity) is possible. But in this fallen world, where we are broken, damaged, ill and exhausted, we need an altogether different movement. We need the countercultural, ego-free and liberating view of our Jesus. This Jesus who hung out with the rejected, the marginalised, those on the other side of normal. Those people who might look towards alternative movements today for acceptance.  

There's a clear call in the Bible to care for each other and ourselves: “Love the Lord your God and then love your neighbour as yourself” (see Matthew 22:37-39). Please note: Jesus said it’s OK to love yourself. The one and only place to find the kind of love that isn’t wrapped up in ego, isn’t dependent on weight, looks, achievements or any other standard we measure ourselves by is in Jesus. The love we are to show our neighbour as well as ourselves is uniquely demonstrated by the one who bought us and our bodies, at a great cost. 

The God who sees 

Seeing ourselves in the light of the gospel isn’t easy. Many of us will need support along the way; support from medical professionals, pastors and counsellors. From those who have wearily trodden this particular path and can give us their own insight. 

I’m on the road to recovery. It wasn't miraculous. It was, and is, hard work, and during lockdown it was a challenge not to spiral back into old thought patterns. 

I regularly check to make sure that my running is done out of the pleasure of movement (and collecting shiny medals) and not to drop hundreds of calories. I need to remember it’s OK not to run on days when my body needs to rest and recover, or just when I don’t really feel like it. So far my girls have a very different experience of their bodies than I did at their ages and I’m pleased. Daily, I battle to protect them from an aggressive culture that seeks to tell them they need to invest in products or beliefs that will help them fix problems that have been entirely created by a greedy beauty industry. 

These feel like constant struggles, but I cling on for dear life to Bible verses. I relate to Hagar (bear with me). She was impulsive, vulnerable and backed into a corner and all she really needed was someone to see her. What a story. To have a God who takes the time to see us as we really are and love us all the same. These verses and stories are the fuel that feeds and nourishes my mind and body. 

I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much of my precious time and given over so much of my mind to lies, creating mental pathways that had to be broken and reset. And yet, I’m grateful for so many of those experiences, as they forced me to dig deeper into God’s word and helped me discover the purest love. Love I still struggle to believe can really be for me.  

Even when we can’t possibly feel that our bodies are worthy of love, we can believe the Bible and we can trust what it says about us. This isn’t asking you to believe two contradictory things, as I’ve done in the past, it’s asking you to put your faith in something outside of yourself. What you know and what you believe are two very different things, but my prayer is that you take hold of what is true, noble, right, pure and lovely, and begin breaking down those patterns of negative thinking.  

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).  

If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this article, help is available from: Beat Eating Disorders (0808 8010677), Eating Disorders Support (01494 793223) and Premier Lifeline (0300 111 0101).

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