Cultivating Body Neutrality in Young People

Cultivating Body Neutrality in Young People

Editor’s note: The majority of eating disorder research is conducted based on cisnormative standards and may not account for the experiences of trans and nonbinary individuals. As a result, some data in this article may only represent cis men and women.

As people spent more time scanning social media during the pandemic, teens and young adults were more exposed to content that carried the potential to degrade their body image and trigger or exacerbate eating disorders. Videos chronicling trends like “#fitspiration,” “#cleaneating,” and “#WhatIEatInADay” were just a few of the topics circulating on social platforms while COVID-19 drove more teens and young adults to TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat — and in some cases, to hospitals.

Although body image affects quality of life, disordered eating, and other individual health outcomes, body image issues carry broader social and public health implications. These were amplified during the pandemic as admissions for young patients with eating disorders more than doubled at some hospitals — heightening stress on healthcare facilities that were already strained.

Public health professionals can help develop systems and policies that support all bodies. And on the individual level, body neutrality is one lens that can help teens and adults develop a healthy body image and accept their bodies regardless of appearance. Read on to learn about practices to cultivate body neutrality, even when facing a challenging social media landscape.

What Is Body Neutrality?

Approaches to cultivating a healthy body image continue to evolve, and body neutrality is among the latest perspectives. The body neutrality movement places value on what a body can do over what it looks like. Unlike body positivity, which calls for loving your body regardless of its appearance, body neutrality emphasizes accepting and caring for your body regardless of how you feel about it. Body image coach Anne Poirier, who authored The Body Joyful, helped popularize the body neutrality movement beginning in 2015.

Glossary: Body Image Terms and Concepts

  • Body acceptance: accepting one’s body regardless of satisfaction with it. 
  • Body dissatisfaction: negative attitude toward one’s physical appearance.
  • Body image: perceptions and attitudes toward one’s body, especially physical appearance.
  • Body neutrality: mindset that places value on what a body can do rather than how it appears.
  • Body positivity: movement that encourages people to love and feel good about their bodies, regardless of appearance.
  • Fat acceptance: movement to reclaim the word “fat,” normalize larger bodies, and promote acceptance of fat bodies of all sizes.

What Is Body Image?

There are four factors that play into how a person conceptualizes their body:

Perceptual body image
how an individual sees their body

Affective body image
how an individual feels about their body

Cognitive body image
how an individual thinks about their body

Behavioral body image
behaviors an individual engages in as a result of their body image

Diet Culture and Altered Images on Social Media

The presence of diet culture on social media is not new, but it continues to manifest in problematic ways. TikTok trends, such as “What I Eat in a Day” videos, often show users engaging in extreme under- or overeating. Apps like FaceTune and photo filters built into social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat can create thinner faces and correct physical imperfections, causing some people to seek plastic surgery to resemble altered images of themselves — a phenomenon known as “Snapchat Dysmorphia.” And researchers found that much of the diet discourse on Twitter was dominated by influencers rather than health professionals.

An estimated 1 in 7 men and 1 in 5 women will have experienced an eating disorder by age 40, and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are associated with high mortality rates.

And increasingly, the imagery that appears on social media platforms does not reflect reality: 90 percent of participants in one study reported using photo editing software to retouch their photos (PDF, 827KB) before posting them. Such altered images have a negative impact on the body image of adolescent girls, researchers found.

Edited images that promote unrealistic standards — alongside social media content that includes disordered eating, restrictive diets, and exercise — can be triggering for individuals struggling with eating disorders, body image issues, and relationships with food. An estimated 1 in 7 men and 1 in 5 women will have experienced an eating disorder by age 40, and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are associated with high mortality rates.

How to Model Body Neutrality for Children and Teens

The tips below can help parents and caregivers practice body neutrality and model a healthy relationship between body image, food, and social media use for their children.

  • Consider how you talk about bodies. Evaluate the language you use to discuss body image — both during self-talk and when talking about others, including your children. Focus on positive attributes that are not related to physical characteristics.
  • Establish healthy eating habits. Seek nutrition advice from registered dietitians and share what you learn with your kids. Discuss food as nourishment rather than labeling “good” and “bad” foods. 
  • Monitor media consumption. Notice your habits for using social media, as well as your children’s social media use. Have conversations about body image messaging in movies, shows, magazines, and social media.
  • Engage in and encourage movement. Participating in activities that do not promote a certain body type can be especially helpful in modeling body neutrality.

Tips for Building a Healthy Body Image for Adolescents and Young Adults 

How to Practice Body Neutrality

The eight strategies that follow can help teens and young adults develop and sustain a body-neutral mindset.

  1. Engage in a daily body-appreciation practice by writing down five things your body can do.
  2. Acknowledge the ways your body functions well and does not function well through self-talk.
  3. Participate in self-care activities only when they feel uplifting, not when they feel like a burden.
  4. Do not start conversations about bodies with others, and redirect if those conversations arise.
  5. Practice intuitive eating, which includes eating when you are hungry and respecting your body.
  6. Choose clothing that you like and that feels good on your body.
  7. Listen to your body and focus on movement rather than strict workout regimens when exercising.
  8. Set goals that are health-based rather than appearance-based.

How to Reframe Negative Thoughts into Body-Neutral Affirmations 

It can take practice to reframe negative body image thoughts into compassionate affirmations. Renee Engeln, author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, offers these four examples of transforming negative thoughts about one’s body into body-neutrality statements.

Instead of:
“I look awful.”

“How I feel about my appearance does not determine my worth.”

Instead of:
“I hate my body.”

“I will treat my body with compassion.”

Instead of:
“Everyone else looks better than me.”

“Today I will focus on things that have nothing to do with how I look.”

Instead of:
“My legs* look disgusting.”

“My legs allow me to move in the world.”

*can be replaced with any body part 

Social Media Tips to Support Body Neutrality 

Understanding what types of social media content serve your mental and physical health can help you curate your social media accounts to support a body-neutral mindset. The tips below can help individuals develop a healthy relationship with social media.

Best Practices on Social Media to Support Mental and Physical Health 

  • Know your triggers and the types of content that cause you to compare your appearance to others.
  • Be discerning in following “pro-recovery” accounts and look for credible organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association.
  • Hack your TikTok algorithm by following accounts and liking posts that promote body neutrality, clicking “I’m not interested” on those that do not, and searching for more registered dietitians’ accounts so that similar content shows up on your “For You” page.
  • Follow accounts or hashtags that promote body acceptance (e.g., #HealthAtEverySize) rather than those that may lead to body shaming.
  • Limit your time on social media. Using mobile apps and timers can help set limits on social media use on your phone and computer.

How to Determine Whether Diet Claims Are Credible

Claims around diets and nutrition are rampant across social media, and it can be difficult to discern which claims are reliable. For example, one UK study found that only 1 of the top 9 nutrition and weight-loss bloggers in the country shared information that was evidence-based, trustworthy, and aligned with national nutrition guidelines.

“This is potentially harmful, as these blogs reach such a wide audience,” said Christina Sabbagh, the study’s lead author.

These signals may help social media users understand whether diet-related claims on social media are credible

Signs that information may not be credible:

  • Personal opinions, anecdotes, or testimonials without scientific evidence.
  • Information that is part of a sales pitch.
  • Claims that are too complex or over-simplified. 

Signs that information may be credible:

  • Attribution to peer-reviewed research.
  • Information from a registered dietitian. 
  • Information from healthcare professionals within their specialty.

Additional Body Neutrality Resources and Eating Disorder Resources

The organizations and pages below offer more information on body image, social media, and eating disorders.

Please note that this article is for informational purposes only. Individuals should consult their healthcare provider before following any of the information provided.

Citation for this content: The MPH online program from Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.