This is the sixth article in the series Baring It All: Living Authentically From the Inside Out. If you are new to this series, check out our introduction here.
Body love is so empowering. So fulfilling. So liberating. So...completely unrealistic for so many of us.
Let’s face it; the old adage that you should love your body regardless of how it looks and feels because it’s “perfect in its own way” is a load of bull. We can’t force ourselves to feel something specific about someone, even ourselves. You can pretend, but eventually it comes out. And now that we’ve realized how much other people can influence how we think we feel, we’re going to have to grapple with the fact that our real opinions of ourselves may not be so bright and cheery. And that’s just as normal, and sometimes healthy, as loving yourself.
Quick caveat here before we begin. If you do love your body, if you are happy and see strength and beauty and wonder in it, then that is excellent and you should flaunt it with pride. However, for all of those who are struggling with chronic self loathing, this article could present a more attainable and sustainable alternative.
When Body Positivity is Negative
For a long time, the accepted way of treating one’s self image has been Body Positivity, which is the idea that every body is beautiful regardless of size, shape, color, ability, or configuration. If that comes naturally to you, then it can lead to increased self-confidence and deep positive regard for yourself. Unfortunately, if you have to really work at it, then Body Positivity can seem to have a few potentially problematic requirements:
- You will likely have to see beauty as an indicator of goodness or value
- Your appearance must fall in line with your concept of beauty
- You have to be willing to forego all external validation of your appearance
- You may need to “fake it until you make it”
This is a tall order for many people, especially those of us who have spent their lives being told that their bodies are undesirable, unattractive, or out of line with the cultural standards of beauty. And let’s be honest; the American cultural standards of beauty are racist, sexist, fatphobic, ableist, transphobic, heteronormative, and frighteningly myopic. They reflect the values of a society that by and large shares many of those toxic traits.
And in fact, the idea itself that beauty on the outside equates to beauty on the inside is just as damaging. It will come as no surprise that the media for centuries has placed a very high emphasis on gorgeous heroines, strapping heroes, and haggard or disfigured monsters. We can’t help it; when we see something desirable, we immediately project other desirable traits on it. And when something doesn’t match up to what we’ve been told is a sign of health and youth, we have an immediate revulsion to it.
Unfortunately, we are so fixated on the correlation that we’ve begun to see it as causation. If you are not what you or others consider physically attractive, it can be harder to see other positive qualities within yourself. Besides, it’s really hard to feel amazing about your body and love it when everything around you tells you that you are lazy, slovenly, diseased, or pitiful. Even self-esteem improvement plans often revolve around improving your physicality, with the idea that if you take care of your body and make it look its best, you’ll be happier. But that’s not always the case, and more often than not, it leads to issues of dysmorphia, dysphoria, negative body image, and disordered behaviors.
But what if we don’t have to say, “Fuck yeah!” but instead could say “Fuck it” and be better off?
The Case for Body Neutrality
In the past few years, the concept of Body Neutrality has begun circulating in communities that suffer from what the Body Positivity movement has unfortunately evolved into. Originally a rallying cry for women of color to stand proud and assert themselves as beautiful and feminine, the movement has gotten whitewashed in recent years and has fallen prey to toxic positivity.
In a reaction to that turnabout, fat people, trans people, people of color, those with skin disorders, amputations, or undergoing chemotherapy, and many other types of “less desirable” folks have found solace in the idea that you don’t have to love the way you look; you just have to accept that it is what it is.
This idea of a more neutral stance is focused not on changing your thoughts and feelings regarding your appearance, but shifting your focus about what matters and brings you value. It is not the same as Body Apathy, where you try to detach yourself from feeling anything about your looks, positive or negative. That sort of dissociation can be damaging to your mental health, and can lead to issues related to hygiene and personal safety.
With body neutrality, you are only asked to:
- Accept that your body is what it is, and that maybe you can change it but don’t have to
- Recognize that your life is valuable and worthy regardless of appearance
- Work towards goals you put for yourself, not that you “should” have
Now I know even that can be a tall order, but as you continue to recognize where painful and judgmental thoughts originate, you may also find that your priorities are only focused on physical appearance because you’ve been told that they have to.
Luckily, Body Neutrality is often an easier process than Body Positivity. Try these tips next time you’re struggling with image issues.
- Look at yourself in the mirror or in a photo and say “So what?” Don’t answer the question; it’s rhetorical. Just...”So what?” Practice it. “I don’t like my chin in this. So what?” Throw in a shrug if you want some extra oomph.
- The next time you say “I should lose weight/wear more makeup/get swole,” stop and rephrase. Change “I should X” to “I want to X because...” If you can’t come up with a reason that isn’t another should or that is just to appease someone else, you may want to reconsider the statement.
- Make a list of the qualities and habits that you want to allot more mental energy towards (for example, improving your singing voice or being more vocal about an important cause). Then, keep track of how many times you think about those vs. how many times you think about your appearance. Over time, try to increase how many times you focus on the things you want and less on your looks, perhaps with a behavioral cue, such as getting out a songbook or signing a petition whenever you get down on your hair color.
As always, if your struggle causes you significant distress or interferes with your wellbeing, consider working with a therapist or specialist who can help you build a healthier relationship with your body. Professionals who work with eating disorders, gender affirmation, and disabilities can all be good resources based on your needs.
What Does This Have to Do With Boudoir?
Bodies play a huge role in boudoir photography, as well as our opinions of them. When we have an idealized version of ourselves that don’t line up with what we see in print, it does nothing but harm our mental health and increase our body anxiety.
With a more neutral take on your appearance, it’s easier to accept that not every shot is going to be perfect. It also means that you can be discerning, looking for the angles and images that really capture what you’re going for, rather than forcing yourself to like something that really isn’t jiving with you.
At Lightfox, we believe that every body is worthy and can be presented in a way that makes you feel good. We want you to start from a place of peaceful acceptance, which can evolve into pleasure and hopefully self-love. But if it doesn’t, that’s alright too. The feelings you have in the moment, the pride and fun and abandon and poise that are often prevalent in intimate photography sessions are just as important as the results.