Yes, you *can* be body neutral and still work toward health/fitness goals!
Around this time of year, people always ask me if working toward body neutrality/self-acceptance is mutually exclusive with working toward health/fitness goals. Is it possible to work on both?
The answer to this is a resounding yes — but not the way most people think!
In my experience, body neutrality is mutually exclusive with attempting to change the shape or size of the body, but honestly attempting to change the shape or size of the body tends to be bad for most people’s health anyway! (After all, health includes mental and emotional health, as well as physical health.)
So yes, you can work to improve your health and fitness levels from a place of body neutrality, but it requires a significant amount of internal healing, divesting from diet culture, and shifting your perspective.
For that reason, I’ve come up with the term “health/fitness neutrality” to refer to an approach to health and fitness in which you see all health and fitness choices, behaviors, and habits through an unbiased and objective lens, without attaching any meaning, moral judgment, interpretation, or significance to them.
In other words, you recognize that your health and fitness behaviors (or lack thereof) have nothing whatsoever to do with your worth, character, or what you deserve. From a place of health/fitness neutrality, you might decide to eat more vegetables, drink more water, or move your body more, but because you know those behaviors have no moral value or power, whether or not you actually do them will have zero impact on your sense of identity, self-worth, or body image.
Like body neutrality, I believe health/fitness neutrality is our natural state; it’s how we’re all born. But thanks to the world we live in — the systems of body-based social hierarchies, a morality model for what makes a person “worthy” that’s rooted in Victorian values, and the non-stop diet culture messages we’re exposed to over a lifetime — most people can no longer access it.
In other words, achieving health/fitness neutrality isn’t about adding something new, it’s about stripping away something old. It’s about dismantling the blocks to neutrality that you’ve picked up along the way, and the meaning you’ve learned to assign to various health and fitness behaviors, which have interrupted and corrupted your relationship to health and fitness. That’s why, today, I want to introduce you to the three most common blocks to health and fitness neutrality, and what you can do about them!
3 Major Blocks to Health/Fitness Neutrality
You think of exercise as a weight loss tool. Because exercise is so often prescribed as a weight loss strategy, and weight is so moralized and stigmatized, many folks think of exercise as a sort of punishment for being lazy, bad, or out of control, or a way of “making up for” what they’ve eaten. This perspective automatically creates an association between exercise and unpleasant feelings like shame, guilt, self-disgust, or self-loathing. This perspective frames exercise as an obligation with a lot of moral power. If you exercise, you’re a good and worthy person, if you don’t you’re a bad and undeserving person. It also encourages people to move in ways that feel boring, painful, joyless, or otherwise unpleasant, instead of in ways that feel good, joyful, or meaningful, which makes people associate exercise with misery. And on top of that, this approach demands that you measure “success” by the number of pounds lost, which means people are far more likely to feel like failures and quit if the number isn’t going down quickly enough, even if their exercise habit is benefiting them in other ways. Plus, over 95% of intentional weight loss attempts fail to achieve long-term weight loss, even if someone “succeeds” at losing weight this way. Within two years, they have a 95% chance of feeling like a failure again when the weight comes back. (Is it any wonder so many people hate or avoid exercise?) How to address it: If you’ve learned to think of exercise as primarily or exclusively a strategy for weight loss or management, you’ll need to challenge and dismantle this association in order to access fitness neutrality. Here are some strategies and tools I recommend:
Stop trying to lose weight, and work on body neutrality.
Dismantle your current understanding of weight, health, and exercise (which are rooted in the anti-fat bias) through a process of intentional exposure and conscious reeducation. I suggest the books Anti Diet by Christy Harrison, The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner, and What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk about Fat by Aubrey Gordon. I also suggest the Maintenance Phase podcast and Food Psych podcast, and following fat justice leaders on social media, like Virgie Tovar, Aubrey Gorden, Christy Harrison, and Bri Campos.
Expand your understanding of what movement can do and be beyond weight loss by taking up non-exercise forms of movement (like rock climbing, salsa dance, or bowling), and connecting with communities of people who move in non-exercise ways.
Replace your weight-focused exercise with a type of movement that feels fun, joyful, pleasurable, interesting, or satisfying to you!
Get in touch with your “why” for moving your body outside of weight. What’s the higher purpose or meaning of movement for you? And if it’s just about health, what’s the higher purpose or meaning of being healthy?
2. You think of exercise as a way to change your appearance.
Many of us first learned about fitness as a way to change something about our appearance, or make ourselves more attractive. “Getting into shape,” which really just means “losing some body fat and gaining some muscle,” is considered the best way to turn heads and attract romantic or sexual partners, which is to say: to conform more closely to conventional beauty and body ideals, according to one’s gender. This view of exercise is so widespread that most people never even think to challenge it. It just feels obvious, right? Everyone wants to be better looking, and working out makes people more attractive, so naturally we work out to change our appearance! Unfortunately however, this perspective makes it damn near impossible to access fitness neutrality. Similar to weight loss, focusing on “looking better” tends to automatically create negative associations with health-promoting behaviors like exercise. This perspective tends to go hand in hand with body insecurity, body anxiety, body hatred, body dysphoria, body obsession, or body dysmorphia, and feeling disgusting or worthless makes people feel desperate to change their appearance as quickly as possible. So instead of developing a movement practice they enjoy, these folks tend to force themselves to move in ways they don’t like, push themselves too hard, not eat enough, and measure their “success” based exclusively on what they see in the mirror. In other words: it leads to a lot of strong associations between exercise and shame, fear, resentment, guilt, and self-loathing. Plus, while I know there are people out there who can exercise to change their appearance from a place of fitness neutrality, the vast majority of people with this perspective on exercise are, in my experience, trying to use their body to fix a body image or self-worth issue — which means they’re set up to fail from the beginning. How to address it: If you’ve learned to think of exercise as primarily or exclusively as a strategy for changing your appearance or improving your body image, here are some strategies and tools I recommend:
Practice body neutrality until you can fully recognize that how you look is the least interesting and important thing about you.
Overhaul your current understanding of conventional beauty ideals and systems of oppression through a process of intentional exposure to the voices and images of folks with diverse bodies, and conscious re-education. I suggest the books The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolfe, Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln, More Than a Body by Lexie and Lindsay Kite, Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings, and The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor.
Replace your aesthetic-focused exercise with a type of movement that feels fun, joyful, pleasurable, interesting, or satisfying to you!
Explore other reasons to move your body that have nothing whatsoever to do with changing your appearance.
3. You’ve assigned moral significance to certain health/fitness behaviors.
A culture of thin supremacy and anti-fatness has taught us to associate thin/lean bodies with health, beauty, hard work, discipline, self-control, purity, and intelligence. On the flip side, it’s taught us to associate fat bodies with the exact opposite: laziness, greediness, gluttony, and stupidity. (Curious to read some of the research on implicit bias and fatphobia? Check it out here.) Because of this anti-fat bias, most people in our culture believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that a thin body is a sign of the person’s high moral character, virtue, and goodness, and that a fat body is a sign of their poor character, lack of morality, and innate badness. Then — because diet culture messaging insists that the shape and size of a person's body is exclusively the result of the choices they make with food and exercise — they learn to apply the same lens of moral significance and character assessment to the health/fitness choices themselves. This is how we end up thinking of certain food and exercise behaviors as good and virtuous, and others as bad and shameful. Note: I want to explicitly state here that the shape and size of a person’s body cannot tell us anything about health, diet, or exercise habits, let alone their morality, character, value, or worthiness! There are many relevant factors that contribute to the size and shape of a person’s body other than diet and exercise habits, including medications, mental health, illnesses and injuries, geographic location, income, genetics, trauma, and just good old fashioned body diversity. (Fun fact: like height diversity, body size diversity would exist even if we all ate and exercised in exactly the same way.) And a person who exercises isn’t morally superior to someone who doesn’t; our movement habits are morally neutral. Anyway, assigning moral significance to certain types/amounts of movement makes fitness neutrality impossible, right? You literally can’t feel neutrally about your decision to work out or not, if you associate one choice with moral goodness, and the other with moral badness. Plus, placing a moral value on every little decision you make for your body is incredibly stressful, and creates a lot of guilt, shame, and negativity! If you believe the way you move your body, and for how long, has the power to make you worthy of (or not worthy of) respect, kindness, love, acceptance, or existential safety, you’re less likely to enjoy it, and more likely to develop an eating disorders, exercise addiction, or a disordered relationship to exercise. And if you connect exercise to your sense of your own character, value, or moral goodness/badness, you’re also more likely to eventually just give up on movement entirely. How to address it: If you’ve learned to associate certain health/fitness behaviors or choices with moral significance or meaning, you’ll need to challenge and dismantle that association. Here are some strategies and tools I recommend:
Challenge and dismantle the anti-fat bias inside yourself through exposure and education. (Again, and always.)
Practice body neutrality. (Again, and always.)
Consider unpacking your relationship with morality, character, and a person’s worth. Have you unconsciously bought into sexist, ableist, racist, or ageist beliefs about what gives a person value, or makes them worthy of respect? If so, what beliefs do you hold that need to be examined more closely? Do you believe in rugged individualism, or that we live in a fair and just meritocracy in which people more or less get what they deserve? Does it feel important to you to be special, impressive, or better than other people in some way? Do you make assumptions about a person’s character and worth based on their social status, income, or appearance? If so, explore each of these beliefs. Why does it seem true? Where did it come from, and who does it benefit? Can you think of an example that goes against or disproves it? How true is it, really? How does believing it impact your thoughts, feelings, behavior, or life?
If you currently have a strict exercise routine, challenge yourself to slowly cut back on it, or even give it up altogether. If you’re not ready to take some time away from it altogether, try decreasing its frequency or intensity, or replacing it with something you would normally judge as being “not hard enough” or “not counting,” like going for a walk, doing some light stretching, or playing in the yard with your kids. During the time that you’re challenging yourself in these ways, pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that come up. Do you feel anxious about gaining weight? Do you feel out of control, or like you’re being “bad”? Do you worry about people judging you for being lazy? There’s a lot of important information for you in these thoughts and feelings, so keep a journal to acknowledge and explore them as they come up.
Wanna learn more about health and fitness neutrality?? I wrote an entire seventy page ebook about it, called Sustainable Movement: A Body Neutral Guide to Health & Fitness, and it’ll be available for purchase on my website Friday morning!!