Stop telling me to love my body: What the body positive movement doesn't get

There's value in body positivity, but it's the body neutrality movement that could really liberate women.
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There's value in body positivity, but it's the body neutrality movement that could really liberate women.

OPINION: I don't like how I look. Actually, that's not true. I'm dissatisfied with how I look. This used to be a baseline assumption for 96 per cent of women, because, hey, societal expectations, media, the fashion industry, sexism, advertising – you get it.

But these days, it seems taboo to say you wish you looked different. When I tell people I wish I had a smaller tummy or thinner arms or fewer wrinkles, they look at me with pity – not for my body, but for my mind.

Talking about it is somehow disempowering, as if I'm admitting I'm not smart enough to realise how self-destructive and misogynistic my thoughts are and I'm not strong enough to overcome them.

Amy Schumer says she's the only one who gets to determine her beauty. Curve model Ashley Graham says she enjoys showing her cellulite, encouraging women to "love the skin you're in". Countless new mothers on countless threads brag about their stretchmarks, calling them everything from silvery scales to warrior marks.

I admire this line of thinking. I feel a surge of feminist pride whenever an ordinary woman posts an unfiltered photo of herself on Instagram. Body diversity still has a way to go, but the widening definition of beauty we've got going on is nonetheless revolutionary.

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And yet, despite never having battled an official eating disorder, I just can't absorb it for myself. I've tried to love my body, but it's a highly conditional love, usually based on the compliments I receive from other people. Amy Schumer would not approve.

"My problem with body love, beside the fact that it's a high standard, is it's asking women to regulate their emotions, not just their bodies."

This is how Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives, explained it to New York Magazine recently, and when I read it, my feminist pride went into overdrive, (so did my relief).

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"I don't see the pressure on women really easing up, and then you're supposed to have this bulletproof self-esteem on top of all that. It's not something we can really live up to. Body love keeps the focus on the body. The times I'm happiest are when I'm not thinking about my body at all."

Ain't that the truth? It called body neutrality, and it's gaining momentum. It's seen by recovering anorexics as a halfway point between body hatred and acceptance. But others see it as a whole new paradigm. As clinical psychologist Bryan Karazsia puts it, "Body neutrality goes a step further [than body acceptance] to ask an important question: Why all the fuss about the body?"

Exactly. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, who said that a truly humble man will not be thinking about humility: a truly liberated woman is not reciting mantras about how much she loves her body.

Because some of us can't look at ourselves naked and whisper "thank you" to Gaia. Some of us can't go to the beach in a bikini like it's no big thing.

Since I was 12 I've tried, as much as I possibly can, to avoid looking at photos of myself. I'm aware that this mandate occurred when I entered puberty. It's not like I haven't been to therapy. But avoiding photos is my way around body hatred. If I don't see myself, then I can't feel bad about myself for the next 48 hours, sinking into a dark funk about what I'd like to change about myself.

When I had to have my headshot taken for this job I declared I'd rather have a pap smear, and I really do prefer them to photos. Nobody's telling you to smile when you have a pap smear.

I thought that after I had kids I'd start to see my body for the amazing life-giving force it is. I longed to emulate Sienna Miller, who publicly discussed how proud she was of her body for performing such a Herculean task. Many women are fortunate to feel this way; declaring their body battle over.

Body acceptance advocate and founder of The Body Image Movement in Australia, Taryn Brumfitt, had an epiphany after the birth of her daughter. She was booked in for a tummy tuck and a breast lift, but realised that having these surgeries was sending a message to her daughter about what it is to live as a female. So, she decided she would live differently. These days she has a book and talks at seminars.

I love her for this, and for the photos she shows of her normal body. But that's not how I feel. Don't get me wrong, I'm awestruck by what the human body can do, and I feel more detached from my own flesh than ever before, owing to the fact that so many doctors have seen so much of it. But, just like Whitefield-Madrano, I'm happiest when I can find other things to be proud of.

This is not to say I ignore my body; I'm so hyper-attuned to it I've been accused of hypochondria. Besides, living with an auto-immune disease makes that impossible. I just try not to think too deeply about the objectified ideal that it's supposed to be.

I don't "embrace" my curves, I don't think of at least three things I like about myself. And now, finally, instead of feeling bad about how I feel bad, I can feel neutral.

 - SMH

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