Body neutrality may feel like an abstract concept, says body-image coach Anne Poirier, author of The Body Joyful: My Journey From Self-Loathing to Self-Acceptance. Though its nebulous qualities can seem like a drawback at first, especially if you like rules and programs, the upside is that body neutrality offers a framework that’s easily modified based on your needs. Give it a try with these mindset-shifting habits and behaviors.
1) Practice body scans.
Mindfulness meditation can help you truly feel your body, says Anjali Ferguson, PhD, a Virginia-based clinical psychologist who focuses on social equity, racial trauma, and early childhood mental health. Some guided meditations involve a “body scan,” in which you focus on feeling your toes, then your feet, then your ankles, and so on. If you’ve been disconnected from your body for some time, just sensing your breath in your chest and feeling how your chest rises and falls can be a profound experience.
“When you get into your body this way,” she explains, “it’s easier to let your thoughts come and go, which is another way meditation can help.” Extend this to practice nonattachment to your thoughts about your body, letting them flow without judgment or fixation.
2) Get specific with gratitude.
Poirier expresses gratitude to her body daily as part of her neutrality practice. She thanks her eyes for allowing her to see the sunset, her arms for letting her hug her daughter, her legs for taking her on a long walk.
“It sounds silly to say things like that out loud,” she admits. “Like, ‘Thank you, fingers, for helping me type.’ But your brain doesn’t think it’s silly. It’s using that appreciation to rewire your perspective.”
That gratitude applies to her changes as well, she adds. For example, instead of feeling discouraged when her pants feel tighter than they were a few weeks before, she appreciates the solidity of her thighs and the feeling of strength that brings.
3) Move in new ways.
When Natalie Horn, a University of Washington business major, began her introspection about body neutrality, she noticed that going to the gym often felt like a chore, so she replaced some of her gym time with roller skating and hiking because she loves how those activities make her body feel.
Even for those who feel like the gym is their happy place, finding new ways to move can reveal unknown capacities, suggests functional-medicine coach Mark Schneider, CPT, whose Retreat Strength Gym offers trauma-informed strength training.
“Maybe you explore being able to do things you didn’t think were possible before, and study the effects of that,” he says. “That could allow you to relate differently to yourself.”
4) Take your time.
Poirier suggests approaching body neutrality as you would any new relationship, allowing for a getting-to-know-you period. It takes time, curiosity, openness, vulnerability, and appreciation to create layers of trust and understanding.
The same is true when you’re cultivating a fresh way to relate to your body — particularly if you’ve spent years or even decades considering it an enemy to be thwarted.
Those negative attitudes don’t disappear overnight, adds body-image coach and podcast host Jessi Kneeland. “You’re dealing with layers of meaning you’ve put on your body, and you’re likely dealing with subconscious emotional needs that may be driving your behavior,” she says.
“In some cases, you may be starting with learning how to feel worthy of pleasure. Don’t add stress by trying to shorten the timeline for all this. Body image can be a huge block. It takes time to chip away at it.”
5) Listen to yourself.
Body neutrality involves developing a greater awareness of what you’re thinking, feeling, and communicating, says Ferguson. Noticing how you feel in your body is crucial, but it’s also important to listen to what you’re saying about the bodies of other people — even celebrities.
That’s challenging. Casual conversations frequently include references to appearance. But starting to notice your inner monologue as well as conversations with others can be helpful. Once you begin recognizing how language affects how you feel in your body, you can take a significant step toward neutrality.
6) Expect a ripple effect.
Adopting just one or two of these behaviors for a couple of weeks can help you navigate toward a more neutral mindset. And don’t be surprised if this creates changes you didn’t anticipate.
When Horn began to include more neutral self-talk in her mindfulness practice, for example, she also decided to stop straightening her hair — she realized she was responding to other people’s expectations. That saved her an hour every morning, so she began sleeping in, and found she woke up feeling much more energized.
She also began wearing looser and softer clothes, which made her feel like she could move with greater ease.
Horn’s body-neutrality project offered one more unexpected benefit: She decided to switch her professional focus from business to sociology, allowing her to bring these insights to a wider audience.
“My comfort and enjoyment now come before anything else, and I want other people to feel like this,” she says. “I don’t practice body neutrality 100 percent of the time — I’m not sure anybody could. But in making these small changes and embracing how I feel, not how I look, I’m letting my body be itself a little more, and that’s powerful.”
This was excerpted from “What Is Body Neutrality and How Can I Embrace It?” which was published in Experience Life magazine.