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The Path to Body Neutrality

In a world of unrelenting beauty standards, is it possible to love your body? Emma Nuttall reflects on an alternative route to self-acceptance — body neutrality.

I spent most of my teens and early adulthood with an internalised belief that the size and shape of my body was inherent to my worth. I am not alone in feeling this way. From a young age, women receive subtle and overt messages regarding our bodies and appearance. The ideal body type that is communicated through these messages is often distinctly different from our own. If we feel that we have failed to meet these unrealistic, and often unrelenting standards, we may experience body dissatisfaction.

According to Dr. Zali Yager, a renowned body image researcher, body dissatisfaction can come from internal and external sources. Our peers, family and media all influence the way we feel about our appearance. We receive messages about what is “ideal” and “acceptable”.

“Sometimes people feel shame because they compare themselves to others, and feel dissatisfied as a result, or they beat themselves up about the way they look through negative self-talk”, says Dr Yager.

External influences can include stigmatising messages, harsh commentary and criticism from others. “Some of which might be direct, such as a doctor advising you to lose weight. Or indirect, such as seeing someone with a similar body size and shape to your own, being ridiculed and trolled online”, explains Yager.

Pressure to conform to narrow beauty ideals can perpetuate an unhealthy mindset. It reinforces the notion that self-worth is tied to appearance, sidelining the importance of our bodies’ intrinsic capabilities. Not to mention the spectrum of personal, innate qualities and talents we all possess. It also perpetuates the unhealthy belief that our bodies are objects that can, and should, be altered to gain the approval of others. For some people, experiencing body shame and striving towards unhealthy beauty standards can lead to symptoms of disordered eating, depression, anxiety, and other eating-related health conditions.

Body image dissatisfaction not limited to adolescents

Research demonstrates that women’s body image concerns, especially in relation to weight, tend to continue throughout adulthood. Pregnancy can result in changes to body shape and there are natural physiological variations in body fat distribution associated with ageing. In a society that promotes unrealistic beauty standards, it’s perhaps not surprising that this causes some women body dissatisfaction and distress.

In a study of 500 women aged 60–70 years, over 60 per cent reported general dissatisfaction with their appearance. In another study of 1800 women aged 50 years and over, 62 per cent reported that weight/shape negatively affected their lives at least occasionally. According to the research, dissatisfaction in adult years continues to predict elevated disordered eating symptoms and eating disorders. Adult women with body size dissatisfaction are also more likely to experience depressive symptoms.

The role of social media

The rise in social media use may have a part to play. Although social media platforms vary, many are highly visual and focus on the posting of idealised appearance images. The images are often posted by one’s peers which can lead to social appearance comparison and subsequent body dissatisfaction. Dr Mathew Marques from La Trobe University’s School of Psychology and Public Health was involved in a study that examined the impact of increased social media use on body image over a five-year period. Elevated social media use was associated with an increase in body dissatisfaction 12 months later, for women across a range of age demographics.

Social commentary and comparison

Although there is clear evidence around the role of mainstream media and social media in promoting unhealthy and often stigmatising messaging around weight and beauty norms, we also have a part to play. We influence, and are influenced by, our social networks. How many times have you heard a group of friends discussing their appearance, expressing unhappiness with their weight or an area of their body, or commenting on how another person looks. This is a social norm that we don’t give much thought to. We also spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others, even if we are not conscious that we are doing this.

The impact of dieting

For many women across a range of ages, the pressure to conform to a particular body size or shape can be overwhelming. Often women will have a number in mind that they would like to see on the scales or in their clothing size. This number can be unrealistic and at times, unhealthy. It drives people to restrict what they are eating. However, research has conclusively found that dieting is unsuccessful and can reinforce body dissatisfaction.

According to a significant number of studies, diets have a high rate of failure with 95-98 per cent of individuals who engage in dieting, regaining the weight. Diets typically revolve around calorie restriction and the elimination of specific foods. While they may achieve short-term results by reducing calorie intake and inducing weight loss, diets are ultimately unsustainable and isolating, leading individuals to revert to their pre-diet eating habits. Consequently, the weight lost during the diet inevitably returns.

This can also be attributed to biological factors with genetics playing a role in determining our body’s healthy weight. Everyone has a unique range, often referred to as their “set point”, that is influenced by factors such as body structure, bone density, metabolic rate, and the amount of lean muscle mass. Our bodies are finely tuned to maintain balance so we can function optimally. Similarly, to how our body regulates core temperature and blood pressure, it employs mechanisms to maintain our weight within a specific range. When we overeat or consume too few calories, hormonal and chemical signals are released that affect our metabolism, hunger and appetite. These regulatory measures cause our weight to naturally fluctuate within this predetermined set point – our body’s healthy weight range.

Dieting and wellbeing

Restricting food can cause our weight to fall below the body’s natural set point range, just as overeating and consuming excess calories can lead to weight gain over time. However, it’s important to recognise that restriction comes with consequences. The body responds by intensifying hunger signals and reducing our metabolic rate. Consequently, we may find ourselves preoccupied with thoughts of food, as the deprivation and increased hunger becomes overwhelming. The body’s natural response to prolonged restriction is to eventually rebel, leading to cravings and sometimes the consumption of excess calories when one inevitably gives in to the cravings. This can result in weight gain, disordered eating patterns, and a strained relationship with food. The mental toll of this cycle can reinforce feelings of guilt, shame, and body dissatisfaction.

Severe caloric restriction slows down the metabolism as the body enters ‘starvation mode’, to conserve energy. This can make it increasingly difficult to lose weight and can lead to weight gain once normal eating resumes. It can also result in nutrient deficiencies. We need a range of nutrients to fuel our brain and body so we can function optimally. Certain nutrients are required to produce the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters that govern our mood, the hormones that regulate our metabolism and the cells that defend our body against pathogens. Overriding our body’s natural functioning and instincts can negatively impact our physical and emotional health. It can also further erode our self-worth.

Enabling change

Where does this leave those of us who’s healthy weight range is higher than we desire it to be? We know that dieting doesn’t work and can be detrimental to our health but what if loving our body feels like an impossible task? How do we move from feeling shame about our appearance to feeling good in our own skin? How do we make peace with our healthy weight?

According to Dr Zali Yager, the answer doesn’t lie in loving our bodies. In recent years, the focus has moved away from body positivity, towards a body neutrality mindset. This shift recognises the complexities around body image and

that it’s perfectly normal to have neutral feelings about your body. You can develop a healthier relationship with your body and achieve a level of acceptance without the pressure of having to constantly feel positive about it.

Body neutrality shifts the focus away from our appearance and towards the functionality and capabilities of our bodies. “We need to stop being critical of ourselves and start to appreciate all of the incredible things our bodies do for us and who we are and what we are doing in the world, rather than what we look like”, says Yager.

A good place to start is with self-compassion. Self-compassion involves acknowledging your suffering without judgment, recognising that you are not alone in feeling this way and showing yourself kindness. Every day, try placing your hand on your heart and say, “May I accept myself as I am”.

Consider what you value in others? Chances are, you don’t judge your friend’s worthiness by the size of their body. It might be their kindness, positivity, supportive nature, sense of humour, creativity, willingness to listen or how respectful and considerate they are. Now turn the focus to your own personal qualities and capabilities. Acknowledge that your worth is not determined by your weight but by your character, your actions, and the positive impact you have on others.

Make a concerted effort to not comment on your own, or another person’s appearance. Instead focus on the values you have identified and compliment others on how they show up and embody their values. It might be related to a goal they achieved, a courageous choice they made or how their words of kindness, or support, made you feel.

It can be helpful to gain a clear understanding of what constitutes a healthy weight for your body and aligns with your unique genetic makeup and lifestyle. What’s even more important is shifting your focus from weight loss as the primary goal to overall well-being and self-care. Engage in activities that make you feel good, such as regular movement that you enjoy, nourishing your body with nutritious food, and practicing mindfulness techniques like meditation or journaling. “Feeling shame around our bodies hasn’t helped us to be healthy. It doesn’t motivate positive behaviour change”, say Yager. “We need to refocus back on health.”

Surrounding yourself with positive influences such as diverse role models that encourage self-acceptance and body inclusivity, can also be helpful. Consider the social media platforms you use and accounts you follow. Pinterest for example, has recently introduced new body type technology that promotes inclusivity by using shape, size, and form to represent a range of body types. Research shows that looking at pictures of things other than people and bodies or seeing a wider range of body types online in our feeds, is much better for us than idealised, appearance- based content. Dr Marques recommends we focus on limiting social media use in general, “The overall picture suggests that this may have a positive effect on body satisfaction”, says Marques.

The turning point for me in overcoming body shame was when I turned away from dieting and started listening to my body through mindfulness and meditation. By connecting inwards, I found a way to calm some of the noise in my outer world. As my inner world expanded, so did my self-awareness and I found myself more in tune with what truly mattered to me and gave my life purpose.

Slowly my relationship with food began to improve. I started exercising consistently, in a way that I enjoyed and choosing foods that made my body feel good. I had more energy to focus on strengthening relationships and developing skills and knowledge in areas where my passions lay. I slowly re-established the mind-body connection that had been missing for so long. Over time, my body settled into a natural weight, and I felt stronger and healthier, both mentally and physically.

I may not love my body, but I have learnt to respect it. When you respect your body, you engage in healthy behaviours that support your physical and emotional wellbeing. By recognising and exploring the intricacies of your talents, personality, and capabilities, you develop a sense of self that is no longer reliant on appearance- based metrics. By turning your back on diet culture, discarding unrealistic beauty standards, and embracing body diversity, you too, can make peace with your healthy weight.

Article Featured in WellBeing 209

Emma Nuttall

Emma Nuttall

Emma Nuttall is a nutritionist (BHSc) and freelance writer. She combines evidence-based nutritional medicine with mindset strategies to support her clients in achieving their goals. You can find more about Emma here https://www.healthservedup.com/

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