You’ve probably seen at least one “flaunt your curves” or “Winnie the Pooh wore a crop top and loved himself and so should you” meme on Instagram just during your morning scroll today. However, what our culture associates with “body positivity” isn’t necessarily how the framework of thought originated. Body positivity began as a political movement that had good intentions of countering oppression against marginalized bodies, but the “love every inch of your body” school of thought that it’s colloquially become via popular culture ultimately isn’t realistic for many people.
What if you don’t feel peachy about your body and don’t want to pose in a bikini or share workout videos on TikTok? Some body image health advocates, including Jessi Kneeland, body image coach, speaker, and author of the new book Body Neutral, are practicing what’s called body neutrality, a form of radical self-acceptance of the body and detachment from others’ opinions about one’s own body. “The way I think about body neutrality is stripping away false narratives and excess significance being associated with the body, including thoughts like ‘my body looking attractive is what gives me power and worth,’” Kneeland says. “This also applies to bigger social issues, like the idea that small bodies are ‘better’ than bigger bodies — another false narrative that suggests that your body means something about your character.”
Below, Kneeland shares more about their own nonbinary identity, the layered approach to body neutrality in a body that does not outwardly appear androgenous or traditionally “nonbinary,” and how they coach their clients to move toward body acceptance.
SheKnows: How did your work in the fitness industry as a personal trainer lead you away from a body positivity mindset and toward a body neutral perspective?
Jessi Kneeland: Watching my coworkers and trainer friends do physique competitions and still have body insecurity made me question the philosophy that personal training was built on—we get clients to “look better” and they “feel better.” I remember one client lost weight and it didn’t seem to make the tiniest bit of difference in how she saw herself. Intellectually, she was like “I feel better about myself”. There isn’t an end goal that is ever going to make you feel how you want to feel — there has to be other stuff going on, i.e. your own self-talk, self-image, narrative, and the systems of oppression that tell you one body is more worthy of love, respect, etc. She lived in a world that was fatphobic: She had taken ownership over her body by doing the “healthy thing,” but was still seen as less than in a world that literally just treated her badly and kept her in place of marginalization.
Body positivity kind of made some of my clients feel even worse, felt like they were failing to love and accept themselves. It’s a really nice idea, and if you can get there, awesome, but most of my clients couldn’t. Body neutrality felt like a relief a breath of fresh air, because it was about overcoming some of the suffering without the pressure to “love your body.”
She Knows: Could you share more about the origin of the body positivity movement and how it’s been co-opted, especially by social media?
JK: The body positivity movement started as a political and social movement started in fat acceptance movement in 1960’s. It intended to change policy and gain legal equality for people in marginalized bodies. When it started to go mainstream, it started to shift, and became about the individual “overcoming” society’s ideas of what is beautiful and worthy. With that shift came the loss of focus on the systemic issue of anti-fatness; it became about you having to choose not to mind if people discriminate against you, and that is dangerous. That starts to make more people feel ashamed and that it is a personal issue, and you’re no longer focused on centering the rights and dignity of people in marginalized bodies. Mantras like “love your curves” are nice sounding, but with body positivity there is the general sense that you’re supposed to be able to just love your body without a problem.
SheKnows: I appreciate your anti-oppression framework, recognizing that certain bodies, for being white, thin, non-disabled, traditionally feminine, etc. are considered the ideal and hold a certain amount of privilege. Can you expand on how that relates to body neutrality?
JK: Your body just is, it’s neutral, and it doesn’t mean anything about your value or worth or what you deserve. But the issue is that living in a society that’s going to treat you differently based on your appearance is that being body neutral doesn’t change that you are going to experience very different treatment and opportunities based on your body size, shape, and appearance. It’s about recognizing who is to blame for those negative experiences — most of us blame ourselves or our bodies, because that’s what we’ve been taught. This is an idea that’s like “If I’m fat, and people treat me badly, that’s my fault, because I’m fat.” But in reality with body neutrality work you can dismantle all that and be able to say, “I’m fat and being fat is okay, and normal. While I hate being treated negatively by people, any time I’m treated negatively, I recognize that that was their fault, the people themselves and the systems of oppression that they’re upholding.”
SheKnows: Thank you for sharing your own journey of gender identity in the first chapter of Body Neutral, and how this plays into others’ and your own perception of your body. Can you speak more about your nonbinary identity and how this affected your work with body neutrality?
JK: Some of the body neutrality work is about letting your identity be seen and expressed in a different way. That can look like telling people the kind of activities you do, and telling people about who you are instead of asking your body to do that for you, which can take pressure off your body.
For me, being nonbinary is very similar. I had a nonbinary client, right when the language was entering the mainstream — and we did all this work around why they hated their body and curves. It just came down to the fact that they wanted to look androgenous so people would understand their gender identity. Once we realized that, it became so easy to create assignments that would take the pressure off the body. They started to introduce themselves with their pronouns instead. I had that in my head by the time I came out — I feel like I blessedly got the skip the part where I had that feeling where I wished I was super curve-less and androgenous, because I came to terms with that before any of that language existed. It’s so cool to be able to just recognize, this is who I am and I can use my words to do that. I look particularly femme at the moment, but I recognize that that doesn’t mean anything — you just tell people who you are and ask them to respect it.
SheKnows: There has been much more visibility of trans and nonbinary people in our culture, which seems to be part of the reason why there have been so many attacks on trans rights and healthcare recently. When the right to make decisions about your health and your body is in question in certain states, how can folks practice healthy body neutrality and caring self-talk?
JK: When it comes to self-affirmation and self-care, it’s recognizing that “I am not the problem,” and not allowing it to become a source of shame, which can be really hard. Pride is all about is the same thing as body neutrality—I’m good and normal and healthy and deserve to exist and not hide myself, and the systems that exist are wrong and violent. Also, self-care involves setting boundaries of what kind of spaces you go to and what kind of treatment you tolerate.
The other thing I would say about it is getting back to the truth. It allows us to get curious about gender expression. Once you start really exploring, you see things falling apart really quickly. Why can’t men wear dresses? Nonbinary and trans people are doing the coolest work, playing and exploring, and it feels so much cooler than conforming to what they’re given. Body neutrality says that this aspect of your physical identity says nothing about you, that you just get to play and express yourself.
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