There are many things I thank my dad for, from understanding the offside rule to ditching some questionable blokes in my twenties. But there’s one thing (well, two) that I’m less grateful he passed on – my sticky-out ears. They’re the reason I’ve hidden school portraits and almost developed a nervous tic making sure my hair covers them at the gym. Despite my husband telling me they look pretty when my hair’s scraped back at home, I simply cannot love them.
But according to a new movement called ‘body neutrality’, instead of forcing myself to love a part of me I’d sooner send to hell, I just need to accept what I have and stop obsessing: make peace with the fact that updos aren’t my friend, appreciate what my ears do for me instead, and leave it at that.
In a nutshell, it’s the middle ground between body bashing and body positivity. While the latter might sound like the ideal, embracing yourself – muffin-top and all – is not always easy, so it can become another thing to ‘fail’ at.
‘Body neutrality gives you the freedom to go about life without such a strong focus on critiquing the way you look – good or bad,’ explains Dr Haica Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist at Green Mountain at Fox Run* (a US retreat that pioneered body-neutrality workshops). Sure, you might need to work at it, but it’s seriously liberating! Get set to shift your body image into neutral…
‘When I ask clients and friends how they feel about their bodies, they say things like: “I have no self-control; I need to lose weight; my tummy is flabby”,’ reveals Harriet Frew**, an accredited counsellor who specialises in body image. And if such thoughts get stuck on a loop, they can become a real problem. Bas Verplanken, a professor of psychology at the University of Bath, has shown that a habit of negative thinking leads to lower self-esteem. Of course, traditional body-positivity advice would encourage you to flip those internal criticisms for cheers, but that’s easier said than done: research indicates that a positive thought can feel so inconceivable that you dismiss it, and so end up actually reinforcing the negative view of yourself.
Neutralise it: Be aware of negative thoughts about your body and question if they’re actually helping you (clue: nope), then distance yourself from them. ‘Engage less with the thoughts: step back from them and let them go. Try to move on to thinking about something that does matter to you [what inspires you and gives life meaning],’ urges Harriet. Put simply, neutrality is about noticing the negative thoughts popping up, then turning down their volume with a distraction technique such as thinking about something else. Clever.
Step away from the scales: a 10-year study of women from their teens to adulthood found that regular weighing was significantly related to reduced self-esteem. Sure, you might feel you have the body positivity thing down, and tell yourself you won’t be defined by a number – but it’s harder than you think. ‘That figure on the scales has more influence over your wellbeing than you realise,’ says Harriet. ‘It can affect what you wear, how happy you feel, how much you eat and how sociable you feel. If it has gone up, you might feel cross and confused. If it has gone down, you might feel pleased, but anxious: “How can I maintain this?” It’s rare to step off the scales and feel content.’
Neutralise it: When you feel the urge to do a body-focused activity (such as weighing yourself or counting calories), swap it for something that doesn’t make you think about your body at all. ‘Chat to a friend, watch an inspiring TED Talk (see ted.com for presentations by mindset-changing speakers) or read an article on a subject you’re passionate about,’ suggests Harriet. ‘Giving body-checking behaviours less airtime can have a profound impact.’
‘Donating my bathroom scales to a charity shop was the kindest thing I’ve done for my esteem,’ seconds Judy, 37, a teacher from Edinburgh.
We make comparisons as instinctively as we bat away compliments: ‘Her figure looks so amazing in that dress – I look so dumpy in mine.’ Guilty, right? Social media isn’t helping: a 2015 study in the journal Body Image found that for people prone to appearance comparison, just 10 minutes on Facebook increased concerns about their looks. Even seeing posts from body-positivity role models might make you feel guilty if being your own body-image cheerleader seems nigh on impossible.
Neutralise it: First, recognise your uniqueness as a human being, a friend, a mentor, a colleague – without focusing on your appearance. ‘What makes you special? What do others say about you that feels good? This exercise may take practice, but there’s something in everyone,’ assures Dr Rosenfeld. It’s not about heaping OTT praise on yourself; the word ‘nice’ is perfectly valid – for example, ‘I have a nice way with people.’ Second, stop assessing others. ‘Comparisons lock you in a cage of inadequacy,’ adds Harriet. Sara, 41, an office manager from Norwich, has found a clever way to neutralise her inner judge. ‘Whenever I catch myself seeing other women and thinking, for instance, “Oh, she’s got great calves,” I replace it with, “She’s got… calves. And so have I”,’ she explains. ‘Listing body parts – arms, legs – without praise or putting myself down is really freeing.’
The words ‘body’ and ‘looks’ have become so closely entwined that, much like Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, it’s hard to think of one without the other. But treating our bodies purely as something to look at sets us up for a fall. We can obsess: ‘What do I look like? Will I ever wear my “thin” jeans again?’ Even pushing ourselves to think positive thoughts about our looks is still setting great store by them.
Neutralise it: Time for a simple shift of perspective: the body isn’t something to look at – it’s somewhere to live. ‘It’s incredible and deserves to be acknowledged and respected for all it does for us,’ enthuses body-image specialist Holli Rubin†, who advises the government on how image can impact wellbeing and runs a private therapy practice. She suggests this daily appreciation exercise when you get out of bed: ‘Be aware of placing your feet firmly on the ground, and walking to the next room,’ she says. ‘Be aware of your body and its motion. Congratulate and thank it. Say, “I like my feet, because they take me from point A to point B.” It might sound strange, but it’s a powerful step to becoming comfortable in your own skin.’ Research indicates that practising gratitude doesn’t just improve emotional wellbeing – it’s also associated with better physical health.
For a double dose of self-kindness, before bed, try listing five things your body did for you today, such as hugging your children or going for a walk in the park. ‘It’s about appreciating how your body creates joy, rather than what it looks like,’ adds Dr Rosenfeld. Lisa, 39, a payroll officer in Leeds, started a body accomplishment journal in January, and now re-reads entries for a confidence boost. ‘Seeing a record of my achievements is a much more convincing reminder of my self-worth than looking in the mirror or pining over old photos where I have a slimmer face or blonder hair,’ she reveals.
So many of us have thoughts like: ‘If only my arms were less wobbly, and my legs were longer.’ Or, just as critical: ‘Other people find ways to be satisfied with their bodies just the way they are – why can’t I?’
Neutralise it: ‘One day you’ll long for the body you have today,’ says Harriet. ‘When you look back on your life, you’re simply not going to worry about the size of your thighs.’ She talks sense – but how to persuade yourself of it? Well, one reason we crave change is because we’re convinced the traits we like the least are the ones that everyone notices. My ears and your thighs are obviously why those women over there are giggling, right? Wrong! In fact, research has found that we tend to believe that 50% more people notice our appearance than actually do. It has been dubbed the ‘spotlight effect’ – we wrongly imagine there’s a whopping great floodlight drawing attention to us.
So if we’re not the target of other people’s observations, maybe it’s time we stopped being the target of our own? Not just the negative thoughts that put our body down, but the unreachably positive ones that only end up sending our mood down, too. When it comes to accepting our bodies, the middle ground – neither hate, nor forced love – really is the new hot spot. Happy neutral thoughts!