5 Ways to Practice Body Neutrality as You Age
Our bodies are meant to change as we change. And so it’s only natural for them to feel and look different as we age. But instead of embracing nature, so often we’re sent the message that we shouldn’t “let ourselves go.” That we should try to look younger at all costs—literal and figurative.
“Everywhere we look, we see diet, beauty, and wellness cultures telling us we need to look younger and that our value decreases [as we age],” says psychotherapist Amanda Marks, owner and founder of Resilient Counseling. “Those industries spend trillions of dollars a year to increase our anxiety about our appearance.”
Isn’t pursuing a positive image of one’s body and appearance a way to fight back against that negativity? This is where a helpful third path opens up: body neutrality.
What Is Body Neutrality?
In my own work as a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist, I find clients are frustrated and pressured when the goal for our healing work is body love. Body neutrality is a concept that often feels more realistic and attainable.
“Body neutrality is a way of seeing the body not as an object that is judged against subjective standards but as your body that has carried you through this life and is inherently good, and on your side,” says Tracy Brown, a somatic nutrition therapist and dietitian. “It is normal to grieve changes, but acceptance is good for our mental and emotional health, as well as for the physical health of an aging body.”
Sounds way more peaceful than body hatred or feeling the pressure of loving your body all the time, right?
Your Five Ways to Practice Body Neutrality
1. Focus on your body’s functions.
To move closer towards neutrality, first recognize everything your body allows you to do in life. According to Brown, regularly acknowledging body functions and letting that overpower a focus on aesthetics can help you shift away from feeling like your body is an object to be scrutinized and instead lean into feeling like it’s an instrument for living a meaningful life. “Focusing more on what your body can do and how it holds space to care for others, versus seeing the body as an object, also leads to a sense of purpose in life,” she says.
A simple way to start is to find a blank sheet of paper and start writing down body parts, from head to toe, and name at least one function each one allows you to do. It could be as simple as your heart beating so you can live, or more unique like your arms working so you can haul dirt to plant tomatoes or to hug your partner or friend.
2. Remember—you are in a relationship with your body.
It’s easy to forget this. And even if we acknowledge it, we can be in constant resistance or battle with a body that is destined to change as we do, or we can choose to show up for the relationship differently to create a more peaceful aging experience.
Take some time to consider the most resilient and nourishing relationship (or several relationships) in your life and the unwavering values that make it strong in that way. It may be sustained loyalty, mutual respect, or radical acceptance. Then, consider ways you can foster the same values in relationship to your body. For example, if one of your relationship values is respect, you might consider speaking, inwardly and outwardly, more respectfully towards and about your body, even if you are not on the best terms with it. “It’s okay to not love every aspect of one’s body … but neutrality is a position of integrity in values of how one treats others and themselves,” says Brown.
3. Look into the mirror with kindness.
Marks and Brown suggest practicing self-kindness and gentleness when looking at your body’s reflection in the mirror. One of Marks’s favorite tools to share with clients is self-kindness in self-talk, which is one of the three aspects of self-compassion, according to psychologist and researcher Kristin Neff. “When you find yourself being harsh or critical to yourself, ask if you would say that to a good friend or your child, then re-rame the thought in a more kind and accepting way,” says Marks. (If you need some ideas on how to reframe, check out the affirmations below, pick the one that resonates, and write it on a sticky note to stick on your mirror.)
“Being able to look in the mirror with ‘soft eyes’ elicits a sense of love and appreciation,” Brown said. “Looking at yourself in the mirror with critical eyes puts us in a physiologic state of threat.” This state of threat can cause or increase mental stories of fear, dread, anger, and shame, she notes, and creates or reinforces neglectful behaviors towards the body or fear of rejection from others, leading to disconnection. “How we speak to ourselves matters,” says Brown. “‘Hello darling’ is more loving than ‘Yuck, look at those wrinkles.’”
4. Practice body-scan meditations.
Body scans involve bringing gentle awareness to different parts of the body with an attitude of nonjudgment and kindness. When I lead body scans with my clients, some find it helpful to use a repetitive affirmation throughout the practice, such as “My body does not want me to suffer,” or something similar. Neff’s guided “compassionate body scan” meditation is available here.
5. Use your body as a resource.
Marks recommends viewing our bodies as resources—not as something to fight against. And Brown specifically suggests engaging sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell as body resources to “take in the good and help us reset when we catch ourselves bemoaning the aging process.” For example, bringing awareness to your feet on the floor and the connection of the body’s backside to your seat can help. “Notice that the chair you are sitting in has ‘got your back’ and doesn’t need you to perform to exist and be seen,” Brown says. “It’s another way to see yourself as a human being, not just a body.”
At the end of the day, body neutrality is about moving away from hatred and fighting our bodies and moving closer to acceptance and respect—without the added pressure of loving them. “If we practice and aim for body neutrality,” Marks instructs, “then we accept changes [to the body] and know they don’t change our inherent worth and value.”
10 Body Neutrality Affirmations
- My body is an instrument, not an ornament.
- My body does not define my worth.
- My body is my earth suit and I choose to take care of it.
- It is natural for my body to change.
- My body is on my side.
- My body is not currency.
- My body is OK as it is.
- I will treat my body with respect.
- I do not have to love my body, but it’s hard to care for something I hate.
- I am so much more than a body.
- by Caroline L. Young