It isn’t rare for different marginalized identities to have a lot in common. This can be true because some members of one marginalized group are members of another marginalized community, but it can also be true because different marginalized identities have shared histories of oppression. This is especially true of the many of the forms of oppression that fat communities and physically disabled communities face. These communities most often face discrimination based on similar factors related to perceived body capabilities and health, and the two groups have shared many parallel struggles and protests throughout history. Today I want to highlight a recent movement that has risen in popularity due to the efforts of both of these communities: the shift from body positivity to body neutrality. 

To talk about this shift towards body neutrality, it helps to first understand how we got to the point of body positivity in the fat and disability acceptance movements. Many people have probably heard of the term “body positivity,” and it may bring to mind the idea of loving oneself, flaws and all, but it did not always have this association. Body positivity actually started not as a personal outlook, but as a 1960s campaign in the public and political sphere to accept diverse bodies, mainly those that were fat or disabled. This campaign of body positivity worked to destigmatize bodies that were outside the norm, changing the implicit biases of the public by showing that fat and disabled people weren’t the stereotypes everyone assumed they were, and by working to eliminate legal discrimination based on size or ability. Multiple nonprofits were created in the fight against body discrimination, including The National Association to Increase Fat Acceptance, which is still fighting against discrimination today. In the early fight for body acceptance, the phrase “body positivity” could be summarized as something like “any person’s body can be a good body, and every body deserves respect.” For more information about the historical body positivity movement, check out this article.

Despite its beginnings, the term body positivity did not continue to mean “deserving of equality and respect,” at least not long term. As the term slowly became more mainstream, then especially with the rise of social media in the late 2000s, the definition shifted away from bodies outside the norm being valued and worthy of equal treatment, and towards the idea that all bodies were beautiful, and one should love their own body despite any flaws. In fact, what were once perceived as flaws were being rebranded as beautiful, too. In some ways this shift was beneficial, with a new appreciation for fat representation and acceptance. That being said, this shift now placed all the focus on beauty and physical appearance, which deprioritized the acceptance and destigmatization of disabled people, whose discrimination rarely had anything to do with appearance, and much more to do with ability and function. And despite the growing popularity of body positivity as a form of loving oneself, many communities criticized this new movement as being too focused on physical appearance and self-acceptance rather than breaking down societal barriers, and not at all inclusive of the disabled people that helped start the movement in the first place. Similarly, many argue that body positivity is a form of toxic positivity, where people are shamed into hiding or ignoring their frustrations, fears, or dislike of their body in favor of forcing themselves to love the body they’re in. For more information about present day body positivity and its influence on society, check out this article, which collects a series of mini interviews on USA Today

But what if someone doesn’t love their body? What if someone doesn’t love the way they look, or the limitations that they have due to their disability? This is where body neutrality comes in. Body neutrality is the idea that instead of saying all bodies are beautiful, we can instead say all bodies are worthy of respect and equal treatment, regardless of beauty, and even regardless of ability. In some ways, body neutrality is a rebranding of the original concept of body positivity, with the importance placed on worth, rather than attractiveness. This new body neutral movement differs though, in that it also stresses the inherent worth of people, regardless of ability. Simply put, some bodies — for whatever reason — are not so great, and body neutrality allows someone to acknowledge their frustrations about their own body without feeling like they must stay positive all the time, and without feeling like they are lesser because they don’t love every aspect of their bodies. Body neutrality removes the focus on one’s body at all, and attempts to place worth on other aspects of one’s life and sense of self. The push to switch from body positivity to neutrality has largely been encouraged by disabled and fat activists as a more inclusive, understanding way to treat ourselves. For more information about the rise of body neutrality, check out this article.

There is no one perfect way to view our bodies, but ultimately, we can strive to be kind to ourselves, kind to others who are different than we are, and inclusive of those around us. To learn more about body image and activism, check out this list!