Body Positive or Body Neutral? Does it Matter? How Words Can Detract From Fully Living Your Unique Life.

posted by 
Connie Sobczak
April 23, 2017

There is a rock in Berkeley that I used to go to regularly. I found it when I was 22 years old and just over my bulimic behaviors, but still completely lost and with a giant hole inside where my soul had been housed when I was a free-spirited child. I was seeing a therapist at the time who lived in the Berkeley Hills. One day after a session, I found the rock by accident while driving a different route home. I climbed to the top, looked out over the San Francisco Bay, and instantly knew that the commitment I had made to never go back to my eating disorder as a way to cope with all of the emotional issues bulimia had covered up, would stick. 

Being high up on the rock that day, with a big vista of one small part of the earth, gave me a clear perspective on my life. I visited this rock after nearly every one of my sessions during that year of therapy, the climb offering a moment to integrate what I had just processed in the previous 50 minutes. Some days I sat on my perch for hours and wrote in my journal. Other days I sat with nothing, allowing my mind to calm by connecting with nature.

Rarely on my regular visits over the following three decades would I meet another person at the top. Now, however, especially on weekends, it's covered with climbers using ropes and other equipment. Once, several years ago, I crested a section and a man said something like, "Wow, barefoot and X number difficulty. That's impressive." I deflected his comment immediately and grumbled something about not knowing anything about the numbers and that I only climb because my soul requires it.

It is not my place to judge the technical climbers, nor am I interested in doing so. But I don't like when people comment on how I climb a rock, just as I don't like when people comment on how/what I eat, or anything else about how I live in my body.

So…like the sport of rock climbing, “body positive” has become A Thing. I've been doing the work of The Body Positive, the nonprofit organization my colleague Elizabeth Scott and I founded in 1996, for more than two decades now. The once radical concepts we have been sharing all this time—recognizing size diversity as a social justice issue and promoting Health at Every Size, teaching intuitive self-care, helping people cultivate self-love, and encouraging all people to expand their definition of beauty to include themselves—are becoming mainstream ideas. This makes me happy!

What I see happening, however, is that as the Body Positive movement has become A Thing in the world, much of the original message has been lost.

Mixed messages about body positivity are now present, creating double binds and causing people to suffer. For example, there are professionals, “health” programs, and weight-loss corporations that tell their clients they will lose weight if they are body positive, meaning love their body as they participate in the prescribed weight-loss activities. This confusingly still sends the message that the person’s body will be “better” and they will be happier after losing weight. What is omitted in the message is that focusing on weight loss, instead of on positive self-care behaviors in and of themselves as a means to improving one’s health, causes 95 percent of people to fail in keeping off any weight lost while participating in these money-making schemes, and even leads to poorer overall health in the long-term.

This co-opting of body positivity has understandably resulted in some backlash against the term. I've read criticism that body positivity does not include marginalized groups of people, or that it implies that someone "should be happy" and in love with their body at all times, never ever again having a negative thought. Some people’s body positivity may include these messages, but they are not part of The Body Positive. Confusing, I know. Let me explain further…

What do we do at The Body Positive?

The Competencies we share through our Be Body Positive Model offer practical life skills that people who represent all sizes, ages, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, genders, and abilities have embraced. We offer a framework for making peace with one’s body and getting on with the business of living fully; five Competencies to practice—emphasis on the word “practice”—that help people cultivate a relationship with their unique bodies and whole selves that is guided by love, forgiveness, and humor.

Being body positive through our lens allows you to build a place to come home to where you are loved, even when you are being unkind to yourself. Everyone’s home gets messy from time to time and needs some attention. So when your critical voice comes up, just think of it as a closet that is in need of cleaning. You can’t ignore your closet after a certain point, so you open the door and dive into the mess. You can try to ignore or run away from your critical voice, which just causes it to grow in intensity, or you can turn to it, say hello, and find out how it is misguidedly trying to protect you.

With this approach, we offer you the opportunity to release the burdens of shame and self-loathing you may be carrying, and free up your energy to put towards what you are truly passionate about.

You get to be a beautiful, “flawed,” and perfectly imperfect human being. You can choose to go from being a victim to becoming the hero of your own life story. There is no room for failure at The Body Positive, because, after all, it is your story that you are living. You are the expert of your own body and life—not us, not anyone else.

I climb because my body, spirit, and mind get into alignment and I become one with the earth when I'm on a rock. I remember why I am alive when I climb. It's like going to church for me. Similarly, being Body Positive allows me to have deep compassion for myself when I make “mistakes,” to pick myself up when I fall down, and to see beauty in every person I encounter, including myself.

Please beware: words often get in the way of living. I fear that all this talk about what body positivity is and isn’t, or why body neutrality is better than body positivity, inhibits us from having a physical, sensing connection with our bodies. Focusing on semantics keeps us in our heads. It keeps us online, squabbling with others over who is right and who is wrong. Our bodies want us to feel, to experience life!

So if you like body positivity, be Body Positive. If you feel more comfortable with body neutrality or fat positivity, then be that. If you prefer to not have a label or identify with any movement at all, then walk your own path and remain label-free, or create one that fits for what you believe is right for your body and your unique experience as a human being.

If you're curious and want to learn more, check out the FAQ on our website, read Embody, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter (@thebodypositive), and/or Instagram (@thebodypositive) to get more of a sense of who we are and what we do. And remember, being Body Positive means you get to decide for yourself what works to enhance your relationship with your own beautiful and brilliant body, and put the rest aside. 

If you like what we’re doing and want to learn how to share it with others, check out our upcoming Be Body Positive trainings for professionals, students, and school staff.

Below is a very condensed version of this blog. Feel free to share it in conversations you have on this topic.

If you are working on making peace with your body or are confused about the origins of the body positive movement, I highly recommend you read the book Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!), by Connie Sobczak. Connie and Elizabeth Scott founded a non-profit called The Body Positive in 1996. This approach welcomes everybody, discourages policing what anyone else does with their body, encourages the pursuit of health and balance no matter your size, and teaches people that focusing on weight is detrimental not only to one's own health, but also the health of those around them. Body positivity is about embracing your unique body and doing what you need to do so that you can live your life without the burden of body dissatisfaction as much as possible, for as long as you have a body. Diets are dangerous. Celebrating weight loss encourages dieting. I hope you will read the book, then go out and live your life!  


Connie Sobczak
Connie Sobczak, author of Embody and Co-Founder of The Body Positive, loves to watch the light and power that emerge when people recognize and embrace their magnificent, authentic selves.Her favorite pleasure activities include eating delicious meals, and rock climbing and running as fast as she can down mountains with her daughter Carmen. She gets true rest by getting lost in a good book. She is currently in love with The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich, and The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri.
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