For a few decades, “body positivity” has been a dominant socio-cultural paradigm. According to this paradigm, we should be positive about our physical appearance, no matter how it looks. However, this ideal is increasingly criticized because it appears to be impossible for many to ban negative judgment on (parts of) their body. In reaction, a new movement called “body neutrality” is on the rise, stating that it is best to be neutral about your body, no matter how it looks.

Our observations

  • High, and for many unattainable, beauty standards are often the cause of low self-esteem and health issues, sometimes with fatal consequences. In the late 1990s, a young girl ‘s death from anorexia gave rise to a now widespread movement called “body positivity”. Body positivity encourages people to “love their looks”, regardless of whether they meet beauty standards – and with no exceptions. Dove was one of the first commercial parties to adopt this ideal in its ad campaigns, now famous for presenting all sorts of bodies as being beautiful.
  • The 2016 Global Beauty and Confidence Report, in which 10,500 females across 13 countries were interviewed, found that women’s confidence about their bodies is on a steady decline around the world – regardless of age or geography. Some results: 4% of women consider themselves beautiful; 11% of girls are comfortable describing themselves as beautiful, 72% of girls feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful, and more than half of the women agree that when it comes to how they look, they are their own worst critic.
  • “Body shaming”, the expression of negative judgment regarding how a body looks, has become taboo due to the body positivity movement. Recently, the new Netflix series Insatiable was accused of body shaming, because the main character is an overweight, high-school girl who changes into a “beautiful” girl over the summer, taking revenge on those who bullied her. Over 100,000 people have signed a petition calling on Netflix to cancel it for body shaming. Another example is Victoria’s Secret “The Perfect Body” campaign in 2014, which incited a social media firestorm for sending out a message to society about women’s bodies and how they ideally should look.
  • Although body positivity is still a dominant paradigm, criticism is slowly rising. Critics argue that it is not realistic to expect that everyone can love their body the way it is. “Body neutrality” proposes a more neutral attitude towards our looks.

Connecting the dots

According to Plato, every person has three wishes: to be healthy, to be rich by honest means, and to be beautiful. Plato’s protégé Aristotle stated that only blind people can ask why people desire physical beauty. In other words, physical beauty triggers us whether we want to or not. Indeed, meeting beauty standards seems to be of all times and places, from women’s tiny waists in Victorian fashion to the voluptuous ideal during the Renaissance. The fact that beauty is desirable is not problematic from an esthetic point of view: no matter if we consider buildings, environments, bodies or any other topic in which physical appearance is involved, it is evident that beauty is preferred and aimed for. However, in a moral sense, especially when some bodies are considered more desirable than others,  it causes inequality between people, often causing low self-esteem and sometimes health problems such as eating disorders or abuse of steroids.
Body positivity tries to solve this moral problem by proposing that all people are beautiful in their own way, encouraging people to love and embrace their bodies with no exceptions. This is an attempt to rewrite beauty standards towards an empty concept, devoid of fixed ideals: everyone is equally beautiful. Although body positivity addresses one of the moral issues of our focus on physical appearance by aiming for equality, the demand to change our view on esthetics has remained problematic. Not everyone is able to be positive about (every aspect of) their body, and this has become a point of critique on the body positivity movement. Body positivity does not address how to deal with negative feelings about the body other than to just be positive. Indeed, failing to be positive about your body has become taboo. This in turn has become a new source of frustration.

This frustration has given rise to a new movement, “body neutrality”. It also addresses the moral aspect of physical appearance: instead of trying to be positive about your body, body neutrality advises people to accept their bodies with no exceptions and have a more neutral attitude towards it. By putting less or no emphasis on beauty or looks, the body neutrality movement tries to eliminate the focus on physical appearance altogether. Body shaming, for example, will not be disapproved because it is a negative judgment about a body, but because it places too much emphasis on the body in general. According to its ambassadors, this is a more feasible goal for those who feel they do not meet certain beauty standards: they do not have to love their bodies in any case, acceptance and a neutral attitude are enough.
Both movements try to address the moral problem of inequality caused by differences in physical appearance. However, since these problems are partly caused by esthetic differences between people, our more unconscious attitude towards esthetics will remain problematic for both these paradigms. This becomes clear when we apply their ideals to other domains in which esthetics regarding physical appearance are deemed important. It is, for example, evident that being positive, accepting or even neutral without exception about every building or environment seems simply impossible.

Implications

  • The body positivity movement has become a great source of inspiration for many commercial parties, displaying all types of bodies in a positive and inspiring manner. The body neutrality movement is still in an early stage and it is questionable whether commercial parties who sell products in, for example, fashion, beauty or health can express this new ideal: being neutral or at best accepting about physical appearance. For looks, whether objected to fixed or diverse standards, have been a crucial factor in those areas, and any emphasis on looks is not in line with this new ideal. If these parties are to catch up with body neutrality, the focus will have to be on other aspects of our lives with little or no attention on how we look.
  • Trying to be positive or neutral/accepting about all types of bodies seems impossible. However, there is more to us than meets the eye, and body neutrality could inspire new ways to put more emphasis on other domains of our lives. A movement in architecture called functionalism, which was popular in the first half of the 20st century, is an example of how we might imagine such a shift: buildings were designed based solely on their purpose and function. Beauty standards that were based on non-functional/ purpose principles were ruled out.