Is Body Neutrality The Answer To Gen Z's Diet Culture Problem?

·5-min read
Photo credit: Issy Muir
Photo credit: Issy Muir
Photo credit: Issy Muir
Photo credit: Issy Muir

*Trigger warning: eating disorders and self harm.

For teenagers of the 2010s, as well as bustling bus journeys soundtracked by high tempo new releases, and the constant beeping of zip card passes as we swiped in and out of school, the decade was also epitomised by the rise of 'new' social media websites.

Unlike pixilated Piczo, MySpace or extended family-filled Facebook - Twitter and Tumblr were an ‘off the radar’ social media space for me and my friends. Their diary style platform allowed us to visualise dream tattoos, places to visit and, more damagingly, the dream body.

Anorexia (often abbreviated to 'Ana') Clubs, with clever jargon words like ‘thinspiration’ and ‘wannarexics’ reigned supreme across these initially under-regulated platforms. For the first time ever, social media was enabling a new generation of teenagers to access restrictive diet threads providing dangerously encouraging advice and a community of like-minded teenagers at the tap of a button.

Since the emergence of these havens for unhealthy body image, which were compounded by global hashtag trends like #cutforbieber - a movement that encouraged participants to self-harm in order to show their support for Justin Bieber – social platforms have taken great pains to limit their proliferation. But, with a quick scroll through the now archived posts of my teenage years, sight of slogans like #notevenclosetoathighgap or #skinny4summer is a reminder of how wedded we were to these ruinous ideals.

Social media may look different in 2021, thanks in large part to stricter user guidelines, but over the past few years emphasis on body image has regained prevalence. The burgeoning body positivity movement, although a rational response to the 'nothing tastes as good as skinny feels' generation, is at times an equally drastic stance on the body beautiful. 'The ideal that pushes for positive thinking about your body all the time is one that can easily become another toxic goal, one that I definitely found myself feeling constrained by when I first was introduced to the self-love movement that I'm part of,' explains anti-diet activist Katie Budenberg, who credits the body neutrality movement in her work.

Instead of body positivity, it's the evolution of something called 'body neutrality' which may actually provide the antidote to 'wannarexia'. An offshoot that grew initially out of the body positivity movement, body neutrality aims to place emphasis on what your body can do rather than what it looks like. Unlike the body positivity movement, which passionately advocates for unflinching self-love and slogans like 'strong not skinny', body neutrality centres your thinking around acceptance of your body, rather than radical affection.

For myself and other Gen Z women like me, adopting this stance has been a vital part of unpacking body perception in a post-Tumblr stage of life. Prior to the pandemic, Budenberg describes her relationship with her body as ‘pretty abysmal’, telling me that, ‘It was constant war to feel good about myself, and that was only possible on a day when I wasn't bloated, or my stretch marks weren't showing as much. ' Lockdown itself, and the pressures of being stuck indoors with most normal activity suspended, only compounded the issue; 'Nobody had taught me how to deal with a changing body other than to want to change it back.

Much like myself, Budenberg's first encounters with harmful messaging about dieting came as a result of time spent on Tumblr. ‘I very rarely see it spoken about, but it affected me so much. I was in a bad place to start with, but [these messaging boards] upheld these ideals throughout secondary school [...] Back then, you could go on Tumblr and search '#proAna' and discover relevant memes, images of thin women and self-harming, along with a community that has the same mindset.’

The unmonitored environment led to the creation of ‘motivational communities,’ says the anti-diet campaigner. A place in which people didn't say 'Maybe you should get help or reach out to your parents,' but just, 'Here's how to compete with your friends' weight loss' and 'Here's how to hide the fact that you're not eating from your mum.'

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Spurred on by the impact of the body positive movement - a call-to-arms that Budenberg credits to 'fat, black, brown, queer and disabled people that have long been censored and marginalised'- the anti-diet activist turned to social media again, this time TikTok and Instagram, to start championing body acceptance and neutrality. ‘Body neutrality', says Budenberg, 'is about acceptance through all changes, being able to look in the mirror and go: "that looks different today," but instead feeling any sadness with it, just being able to go about your day.'

In spite of Budenberg's work and that of other body-neutral activists like Morgan Lynzi, Keah Brown and 'Fattily Ever After' author Stephanie Yeboah, harmful 'pro Ana' threads do still exist, especially on newer platforms at which the chief operators haven't yet developed effective technology for tackling them. So what's the next move? How can we change the conversation once and for all? For counsellor Delores McPherson from Embrace Counselling McPherson, it's about education. 'These forms of bad body imagery can be combated through self esteem and body neutral education that focuses on support for body dysmorphia, anorexia and eating disorders, from a family member or a PSHRE teacher at school.'

McPherson describes current body neutral and positive stances online as a 'benchmark' for true progress, adding that, ‘we are now in a place where it's up to us to provide role models, programmes and the framework to affirm the wealth of beauty that there is out there.'

A recent survey conducted by the UK Women and Equalities Committee into body image in July 2020, showed that 78% of young people now want to learn more about positive body image and acceptance at school.

TikTok has imposed new restrictions on weight-loss ads for promoting dangerous diets as of December 2020.

For more help and support for eating disorders visit Beat.

When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.

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