Body positivity vs body neutrality: Titans tackle self love and its importance

Chloe Arciero and Maddie Cloutier

In an age where unrealistic, photoshopped, and unhealthy body standards are displayed on almost every type of media, it is no wonder that body image has become a persistent issue for many. According to the psychiatry organization EmotionsMatter, 88 percent of women and 65 percent of men compare themselves to images they see on social media. The effects can be seen in a study recently uncovered by the Wall Street Journal, where 13 percent of British teenagers who reported suicidal thoughts linked them to their use of Instagram. As a response to this, the movements of body positivity and body neutrality have gained popularity online to help combat body image issues.

Body positivity and body neutrality are closely related, but they have several key differences, VeryWell Mind, a mental health organization said. Despina Mandarino, Science teacher and sponsor of Self Appreciation for Everybody (SAFE), a club dedicated to body positivity, explained that body positivity focuses on loving yourself and appreciating the body that you have. 

“[Body positivity is about] being okay with who you are, and what you look like,” Mandarino said. “[It’s about] having a love for your body and feeling confident in your own skin.”

The body positivity movement emerged in the early 2010s, but it has roots that date back to the late 1960s, Kendra Cherry, a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, explained in a VeryWell Mind article. The goals of the modern movement are similar to those of the fat acceptance movement of the mid 20th century, and focus on ending discrimination based on size and challenging unrealistic beauty standards. The movement has gained popularity through the use of the Internet, Cherry wrote, and its effects can be seen throughout society. 

“Instagram played a pivotal role in the rise of the body positivity movement,” Cherry wrote. “In recent years, a number of magazines and companies have incorporated efforts to be more body positive in their publications and marketing efforts. Some magazines have stopped airbrushing models, while companies including Dove and Aerie have developed marketing campaigns incorporating body positivity messages.”

Although body positivity was created to emphasize self-love, it can sometimes have the opposite effect, according to physician Kristen Fuller in a 2021 VeryWell Mind article. Some people can become obsessed with the idea of body positivity, and thus feel guilt or shame if they don’t love their bodies at all times. 

“It can be difficult to love your body daily,” Fuller said. “Sometimes we feel down and tired, and we don’t feel good about our body shape and appearance.”

In a 2021 article on Byrdie, Elizabeth Wassenaar, the medical director of Eating Recovery Center, pointed out that body positivity can have some faults. Achieving positivity about one’s body can be difficult for a number of reasons, including a history of trauma, internalized stigma about weight, or feeling restricted by one’s body. Specifically, for those recovering or still struggling with eating disorders, it can be easier to go from negativity to neutrality, rather than negativity to positivity, Wassenaar explained.

“Sometimes body positivity can feel ‘fake’ and body neutrality feels more authentic, which is so important when you are working on living authentically and joyfully in the body you have,” Wassenar described.

As a reaction to some of these criticisms, body neutrality was created. It focuses on being less concerned with the physical appearance of your body, and more concerned about what it does for you, Fuller explained. Rather than encouraging people to love their bodies all the time, proponents of body neutrality encourage people to accept themselves and appreciate what their bodies help them do. For example, Fuller suggested rather than focusing on the physical appearance of one’s legs, they can instead appreciate how their legs help them run. 

“Body neutrality means taking a neutral perspective towards your body, meaning that you do not have to cultivate a love for your body or feel that you have to love your body every day,” Fuller wote. “You may not always love your body, but you may still live happily and appreciate everything your body can do.”

Both movements have the potential to help people, Elizabeth Wassenaar, regional medical director at the Eating Recovery Center, said in a 2021 interview with USA Today. Nobody has the same experiences as anyone else, so different strategies can be beneficial to a variety of people.

“People can benefit from body neutrality and body positivity at different times in their lives or for different reasons,” Wassenaar said.

One student who believes in the benefits of body positivity, senior Rachel Smith, said that because there are so many influences in popular culture that push beauty standards onto people, it is important to actively recognize that every body is beautiful. Because of this, Smith stated that she tries to incorporate body positivity into her own life.

“Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I do a power pose [and] I look in the mirror and know that I’m beautiful the way I am,” Smith explained. “I know sometimes it’s hard when you see that there are very specific ways you’re supposed to look on [television] or they have very specific ideas of what a ‘pretty girl’ is supposed to be, but it’s definitely good to see yourself and [think] ‘I look fine the way I am.’”

Senior Matthew Garvey said he also tries to incorporate body positivity into his own life, especially when speaking about potentially sensitive issues, like body image, with other people. He explained that you never know what someone else is struggling with, so it is important to be compassionate and encouraging.

“When [you’re] talking to someone you don’t know, or even someone you do know, [it is important to] understand that not everybody has the same history with their body or relationship with food [as you do],” Garvey said. 

While he believes that internal positivity is important, Garvey acknowledged that sometimes it is necessary to reach out for help. He said that his main piece of advice for anyone struggling with body image issues is to find someone to talk to.

“Go to someone,” Garvey said. “You don’t need to struggle on your own, and thinking about it on your own is just going to make you feel worse about yourself because then you’re stressing yourself out. Talking about it, working through it, and understanding yourself is the most important thing.”

The stress of body image issues can be exacerbated by the internet, which impacts people’s perceptions of their own bodies, Smith said. Comparing oneself to images online can negatively impact one’s mental health. It’s important to remember that what is online may not always be an honest representation of reality, she explained. 

“I know that a lot of things are edited to make people look a certain way, and the media doesn’t accurately portray all body types,” Smith said. “It’s definitely misleading.”

Recent studies that the Wall Street Journal revealed from researchers at Instagram also supports this idea. Teenage girls are particularly susceptible to this problem, with one in three developing or worsening body image issues as a result of using Instagram, said Christina Caron, a New York Times journalist in a 2021 article on the topic.  

“The study’s findings weren’t necessarily surprising given the platform’s preponderance of unattainable, altered images, but it raised an important question: what can we do to help our kids have a healthier relationship with social media?” Caron said.

Mandarino agreed that social media can be harmful for people struggling with body image issues, but she also believes that recent trends toward more diverse body representation have been beneficial for society. 

“With social media these days, there is a certain image that’s always projected, and I feel like people feel like they have to look a certain way, and that’s not true,” Mandarino stated. “I feel like everybody is unique and everybody is beautiful in their own way, and that should really be emphasized more. I’m loving the fact that now you’re seeing plus-sized models, and you’re seeing different body shapes.”

Although Smith believes that pop culture can contribute to harmful mentalities regarding body image, she said that the media has the potential to aid in some body image issues by highlighting diversity, and helping people see that they are beautiful the way they are. 

“I think that we need to do a better job of showing an accurate representation of what all people look like, [and that] we all come in different shapes and sizes,” Smith explained. “Our bodies and facial features are different because we all come from different cultures and races. I think we need to show a more diverse range of people to make everyone feel included.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image issues, the National Eating Disorders Association’s helpline is available by phone or text at 800-931-2237 or through the online chat at