“Making choices for ourselves (including whether or not to lose weight) without the influence of problematic beauty ideals is possible, but requires a lot of introspective work,” says body activist Erin Brown in her book Sovereign: Autonomy, Accountability, and Other Queen Shit.
Introspection—why do I need to lose weight? Do I want to lose weight or be fit? What happens if I don’t want to do either?—is beginning to be an important part of how we view fitness. Questioning reflexive attitudes (‘everyone needs exercise!’), the body-neutrality movement promotes a view of fitness that means moving your body because it feels good and you enjoy the movement, not to “burn off” calories, and listening to your body when it wants to skip a workout day.
While the idea started gaining traction in the West around 2015, with posts by bloggers and Instagram influencers such as Gabi Gregg and Stephanie Yeboah, wellness and intuitive-eating coach Anne Poirier furthered the conversation when she created her Body-Neutrality Workshop, a programme designed to help women make peace with their bodies. Today, the idea is catching on in India too.
While both body-neutrality and its predecessor, the body-positivity movement, have been responsible for starting and building consensus for these conversations, what is the difference between the two?
The body-positivity movement encourages people to love and celebrate their bodies, no matter what they may look like. It may sound like a lovely concept, but it has its detractors, who say that with body-positivity, the body remains the focus of the conversation, and in a world where people have to deal with systemic scrutiny from a very young age, it is a dubious way to transcend appearance and focus on fitness.
As body-positivity has grown in its impact, women of colour, women with disabilities and trans women have been pushed out of the spotlight. Caucasian women with hourglass figures and ideal dress sizes (think Kim Kardashian and her perfectly sculpted booty) are idolized as radical role models.
This led to a conversation around body-neutrality—the core focus of which is appreciating what your body can do as opposed to what it looks like. It is a holistic approach to your fitness journey, which can help you get in tune with your physical and emotional well-being.
The idea is that you can accept your body for what it is, even on the days you don’t love it. Sahiba Singh, 35, founder of Flux, a movement, art and performance space in Bengaluru, is a big believer in body-neutrality. A contemporary dancer who has been facilitating movement and holistic fitness routines for 16 years, Singh works with the psycho-somatic body, wherein the belief is that the body is a primary tool for healing. Singh looks at her practice as a way to effect systemic and personal change through inclusivity, body-neutrality, and breaking misogynistic mental models.
“When I’m facilitating sessions, initially a lot of people who come want to lose weight. I do let them know that they’re not being judged, and I try to create a safe and brave space. The classes are collaborative and not competitive, there’s no adrenaline rush of looking into the mirror or at the person next to you,” says Singh.
With less pressure on physical appearance or the need to lose weight, motivation to show up for a workout is likely to increase.
Body-neutrality offers a more realistic mindset towards working out and a change from the relentless self-affirmation and aggressive positivity of many forms of group workouts. It also gives us a break from the often spurious self-love of body-positivity, which research has shown can be harmful if you don’t really believe it, and are just chanting it as a mantra.
“My focus has shifted from how my body looks to the state of my mental health,” says Dubai-based Bhoomika Ghaghada, writer and co-founder of the Gulf Creative Collective. “The way that I approach my workouts now is that I ask myself: do I want to do this because I will enjoy it or am I doing it from a place of shame?” she says.
Ghaghada has recently taken up boxing in order to expel energy and work through any anger and frustration she may be feeling. “If my intention is to learn more and enjoy the class, I go. If I feel like I’m shaming myself into doing something, I avoid doing it,” she says.
Aditi (who did not want to reveal her surname), a model and actor based in Mumbai, says body-neutrality has changed her relationship with her body. “I have had chronic gut issues and a back injury, which have been linked to stress. I’ve had to adjust my diet and workouts accordingly. I have to put functionality and health over aesthetics, till I get to a place where I’m healthy and strong,” says Aditi. It is hard to take this decision in her profession. “I remember going for an audition and they didn’t have any sizes above S. That immediately disqualified me. I was signed for a shoot for a fashion brand but was asked not to do the bikini shoot once they saw me in a bikini,” she says.
“Recently, I was asked to audition for a popular swimsuit calendar shoot where they asked me to lose belly fat in a month. I told them it wasn’t healthy,” says Aditi.
So what kind of fitness routine can you subscribe to if body-neutrality sounds like something you can get behind? Calisthenics, which reduces the impact on the heart, and workouts that are more intuitive and make you follow the cues of the body, such as aerial yoga and Animal Flow, are in keeping with a body-neutral attitude.
“Women and men who are on the heavier side integrate themselves naturally into aerial yoga, calisthenics and dance movement. We don’t have a weighing scale, nor do we talk about weight in any way. It’s only about movements and how they help tone the body,” Singh explains.
About intense cardio programmes like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and aerobics, Singh says: “I struggle with extreme cardio burnout. Whenever I’ve taken such a class, I’ve felt the teachers had no background in movement. A lot of people suffer knee injuries from such workouts, and it feels traumatic for the body. There are no stretching breaks in-between, no acknowledgement of fatigue.” This, she says, doesn’t fit in with the idea of body-neutrality, and so she recommends yoga and pranayama under supervision rather than intense cardio workouts.
One of the main benefits of cardio is that it gets the heart rate up, and then, after the rest period, slows it more than usual. The same can be achieved through pranayama and vinyasas, says Singh. “When we stop doing a regular cardio routine, we immediately gain weight because we’ve created a feedback loop for our bodies. But the real idea behind exercise should be to make the body more intelligent and enjoy every moment of the workout,” she says. “Body-neutrality is an awareness that the body is a vessel through which life flows. One must treat it that way. Holding yourself to unrealistic, airbrushed standards prevalent in commercial media leads to a distorted sense of self,” says Nikita Arora, a lawyer and yoga teacher based in Bengaluru who runs her own teaching practice Nada Yoga & Wellness.
“Body-neutrality is experiential—it builds incremental awareness, one thought at a time. Fitness gurus and coaches, for too long, have focused on working against the body as opposed to with it. This is changing now.”
Alina Gufran is a Goa-based wellness writer and podcaster