The lexicon of how we feel about our bodies is brief and extreme. Body shame is walking past the mirror and talking negatively about yourself. It may sound like: My stomach looks gross. I hate my legs. These stretch marks are ugly. Body positivity is countering those thoughts with positivity: My stomach is beautiful. I love every inch of my legs. Stretch marks are my tiger stripes, and they are great.

So where does body neutrality fit into the equation? It could be described as the midpoint between body shame and toxic positivity—where the pendulum stops swinging. But I prefer to see it on a totally different track, because unlike the two poles, which are body-centered (bodily hate versus bodily love), neutrality takes the body out of the equation.

No matter how we feel on any given day about our body—whether our pendulum is swinging toward deep shame or extreme positivity—practicing body neutrality is to acknowledge the feelings we have, explore why those feelings may have shown up for us, and then reconnect with our self-worth. Here’s a breakdown of those three steps:

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Step 1: Acknowledge your feelings

Tune in to the way you speak about your body, and attempt to be a bystander to your thoughts: Wow, I am having a lot of feelings about my legs today. I’m listening to the things I’m saying about myself, and I’m being really hard on myself right now. The things I’m saying I would never say to a friend. The things I’m saying I would never say to my child. These are nasty, hurtful things to think and speak.

Giving space to your thoughts can be eye-opening, which is why writing them down can reveal the reality of your relationship with your body in ways you maybe hadn’t realized existed. Write down the thoughts you’re not supposed to tell anybody. Stare at them, no matter how much you’d like to look away.

I used to find this phase challenging because I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was having a hard time. I wanted to have an easy time. I wanted to be strong and doing great and love myself, no matter what. But it’s so important to tell yourself, on the days you can’t make it there, that it’s okay to not be okay. I repeat, it is okay to not be okay. There’s no shame in having a hard time—in the context of the world we live in, it’s almost inevitable.

It’s not that this first step makes you feel great, but it can help neutralize what’s going on and help you detach a little. Acknowledgment is about pulling yourself out of the situation, standing above yourself, looking down, and seeing what’s happening. Sometimes it helps me to view myself as different versions of myself. I’ll think, What age is feeling this right now? Which Bethany is showing up here? Am I acting as my teenage self or an earlier self? Then I try to recruit another part of myself to speak compassionately to that side of me. Often, adult Bethany shows up to comfort young Bethany. This reminds me that these feelings arise from former traumas or beliefs that I am now equipped to handle. The point of the acknowledgment phase is to allow space for you to really assess what’s going on and, hopefully, take the first step to seeing it from a different perspective.

Step 2: Explore where these feelings are coming from

Ask yourself: What else is really going on here? Am I extra stressed? Have I had an argument with my partner? Did I have to buy a bigger size in my jeans and that brought up something for me? Are my hormones influencing me strongly?

Say a relative made a comment about your body, and now you're spiraling. You stepped away and acknowledged the feelings you’re having. Now you're exploring what is going on that is causing them: the obvious (Aunt Sue commented on your weight) and the less obvious (it’s the holiday season, and you’re not grounded in your normal routine). There will likely be many factors you uncover in the explore phase. For example: Holidays bring up feelings of loneliness; work has been extra challenging; I am staying in a home that isn’t mine; I am experiencing a lack of control. Feeling out of control is a major factor when it comes to body dysmorphia, eating disorders, disordered eating, and overall body shame.

Feeling out of control is a major factor when it comes to body dysmorphia.

Whatever makes the list during your exploration phase, it is all valid. Some of the reasons that come up for you will just be unavoidable stuff going on in your life. Other times there are specific things you can eliminate from your life—standing on a scale, for example.

Another trigger for many people is trying on old clothes. If it’s available for you, it could be helpful to buy a few new items so you have clothing that fits and that you are already excited about. If you know an item is not going to fit, don’t try it on just to see how small it is. That item is a thing of your past, and your present self is your most important self.

Step 3: Reconnect with your self-worth through gratitude

A few months ago, I had a bad body image moment. So, as I got in the shower, I started going through the three steps. I acknowledged the nasty things I was telling myself, and then I started to explore why I was saying them.

My exploration brought up a million reasons, but I pinpointed the main source as feelings of failure and shame surrounding a miscarriage I’d had months prior. After that, it was time to focus on reconnecting with myself and summoning gratitude for all that my body can do. My body had battled infertility, become pregnant, lost the baby, gone through a D&C to remove the pregnancy tissue, bled, contracted, and screamed in pain—and still come out the other side. I’d had my first period post-miscarriage, and I was grateful for my bleed, which signified life. I was grateful for my soft tummy and even my hormones bouncing in every direction. I was grateful for the break we took from trying as my body healed, and I was grateful that my body was healing. I was resilient, a warrior, and a human still living, breathing, and experiencing life. I may not have been at my fittest, my happiest, or my strongest, but I was still me.

The reconnecting step will look different for everyone, but turning our focus to all that our body does for us, instead of the way it looks, can be transformative. In contrast to the body-positive mindset, where you might write down something you love about your body, the body-neutral practice doesn’t involve looking at your body from an aesthetic point of view at all. The reconnection phase of body neutrality is centered on what your body can do for you—or has done for you. It’s action-oriented. The body is magical simply because it keeps us alive and breathing and perceiving the world and others around us.

Reprinted from I Am More Than My Body: The Body Neutral Journey, by Bethany C. Meyers, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC copyright © 2023 by Bethany C. Meyers.

I Am More Than My Body: The Body Neutral Journey

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