Let’s Talk About It: Body Neutrality

10 min read

We believe the health and fitness space should be a welcoming one; being healthy is a journey, not always a destination after all. Everyone should feel able to explore and find what works to help them live a happier, healthier life so we’re kicking off a series of conversations with people with different perspectives on all things health, nutrition and fitness. It might challenge your assumptions, or even inspire you to try something you previously thought you never would! So, let’s talk about it.

Body Positivity has been a big topic for the last few years, originality a movement for increasing representation of marginalised bodies. However for some, this doesn't fit and conversations around Body Neutrality are on the rise. We chatted to @bemorebon, a Body Neutrality advocate, all about it and how it might help people struggling with their relationship to their body.

MF – Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey so far?

I’m Bon. I spent 20 years of my adult life, from the age of 18 onwards, on a diet. I have Polycystic Ovaries so I had put on a bit of weight in my late teens, early twenties. If you name I diet, I could tell you what it’s like to try it because I’ve literally tried them all.

I like to say now that it was 20 years of market research for my final career because now I can understand when people are choosing those options or thinking that it’s a good idea, I understand the psychology behind it because I’ve been there.

So, I did that for 20 years and shockingly at the end of it I was actually 13 stone heavier than when I started because what I never addressed in any of those diets was how I felt in myself, how my brain worked and addressed those things and why I wasn’t taking care of myself. You know, I could be quite successful on them for 4-6 weeks and then I was so sad and depressed at eating dust or whatever it was I chose to do that week.

I just had this moment; for me as a woman it has been incredibly difficult to love my body. So that’s kind of where I was at. I didn’t like my body because it couldn’t do what I wanted it to do. I had tried everything and I had literally just gone and had my consultation for gastric surgery. I was thinking, that’s it, I’m broken, I’m not going to be able to fix this, I’m just going to have to have that and live whatever the life it afterwards.

I went and had the consultation and all the check ups ready and as they were talking to me about the changes to my life in having that and kind of what it would be like.

I sat there thinking ‘Ah crap! That surgery is on my stomach but what about my brain? That’s not going to change. I’m still going to be me, I’m still going to be thinking I’m really hungry in the evening.’

So for the first time ever, I started looking beyond social media at fitness stuff and what it was like.  I came across Mr Andrew Tracey, the Men’s Health and Fitness editor on social media and he was just having so much fun doing stuff and I was like that’s nothing like running, look how happy he is! I was like, I want to feel like this.

Then about 3, 3 and half years ago is where the conversation around a calorie deficit started to really kick off. So, I was really lucky really, to be exploring it at a time where those were things that we had started to talk about. So I decided, right I am going to follow a calorie deficit whilst having a life, like I’m not going to be on it 100% of the time and I think that was really important, was recognising that consistency doesn’t mean 100% doing well at everything and actually for me, consistency is about 85%/15%. You know, 85% of the time I’m doing alright and 15% of the time I can stuff my face and I’m still going to make progress overall.

So I did get a place in the London Marathon that year and that gave me a focus (A tiny bit of my back story is I have a chronic disease and back in 2009 I landed in a wheelchair for a few years and was told it was quite possible I wouldn’t be walking again. So now I do this stuff just as 2 fingers up at my health and all the rest of it.)

I did the half marathon and in the half marathon a sustained a stress fracture. Which you would, if you weighed 23 stone and you tried to run 13 and a bit miles, you’re going to hurt yourself and I learnt that the hard way. But that meant actually, in my recovery they were saying don’t run and I was like someone’s said it, now I don’t have to do it. So I ended up going into the gym and started to lift some weights and it was very quickly recognised that I was strong.

It kind of snowballed from there. I fell in love with lifting and it was interesting because as I kind of got into that I did some of those novice strong women things and they are actually quite fun but then people would be like so are you going to compete? And in my brain I was like why do I have to be the best at something to enjoy it.

So that’s probably it in a nutshell really. 3 years later I am a recognised endurance athlete they say and yeah, a very different life.

MF – So kick off our body neutrality talk, can you explain what you see as the key differences between body positivity and body neutrality?

Yeah, absolutely! Body positivity as it was, was about more representation of different kinds of bodies in the media and in film. Obviously as we know it now, there is that added element of feeling positive about your body.

The difference with body neutrality is that is recognises if we take a neutral stance on our body, so we don’t think about whether or not we love it or hate it, but we instead focus on what it does for us. So like ‘thank you heart for beating all day long, pumping my blood around my body and keeping me alive’ or ‘my legs, they carry me to places’ so it’s looking at the function of it rather than the aesthetic appearance of it.

It recognises that we will have positive and negative feelings about our body but if we take them out of the equation when we think about taking care of it, it makes it much easier to do so.

On top of that, our value as human beings is so much more than what we look like. We will judge ourselves day in, day out because of how we look and will think we don’t have value and but don’t have to be a supermodel to have great value and I think people need to understand that more.

MF – So why do you prefer the idea of body neutrality?

It is that thing of you know, I spent so long doing different diets and stuff because I didn’t value myself as a human being enough to kind of appreciate that it wasn’t just how I looked that gave me value and it really helped me to focus away from that. So instead of being mad at my body for the bits it couldn’t do, even down the movements it may not be able to do as well, I can focus on what it can do and celebrate that and understand that can change.

Like I still hate photos of myself but if you showed me pictures of me doing exercise, I love them! It is the most bizarre thing because 3 years ago, if you’d have shown a picture of me running, I’d have been like ‘oh my god put it away’ but now I’m just like ‘yes, that was the best day’ because I attach more thought of how I felt in that moment rather than what I look like and I think the more people that can embrace that, the people will access fitness as a whole.

MF – Can you tell us a little bit more of how it’s been part of your weight loss experience? How shifting your mentality to let’s think about what my body can achieve, rather than what it looks like and how that’s helped you?

A lot of the posts I see from you guys are about how people feel within themselves when they’re doing their stuff and that’s the important bit. I think previously we would always set ourselves goals and it is that thing of ‘I will feel better when I’m a size 10’ ‘when I weigh this amount’ and that was me literally for those 20 years of my market research. I was like I need to be a size 10 and I need to weigh less than 10 stone.

Now, I am never going to be a size 10, that was a ridiculous goal to have because it wasn’t achievable, and I would constantly feel sad because I hadn’t hit that point. When I let go of that and went, ok you’re not aesthetically exactly how you’d like to be but that’s ok but if you take steps each day to take care of yourself.

I now have this view that I want to be surfing when I am 90, like that’s how I look at it now. For me, I would have done this well if when I’m 90 I can get around and cause so much mischief.

Whereas before it was like ‘oh I have this party coming up’, ‘I need to look good for the summer’ or ‘I must look good for Christmas’ or whatever it is and I realised when I started thinking about that instead, I’d feel happy every day instead of feeling miserable because I wasn’t there yet.

I recently had this realisation in a session that every day is the fittest I’ve ever been because I am working on it bit by bit and it’s got nothing to do with what I look like. It's about how I feel in myself and that I’m taking care of my body and that it can do more than what it did before.

I think it’s a powerful tool for allowing you to stick at it because that 20 years of market research consisted of lots of chunks of 4-6 weeks at most. Whereas this is 3 and a bit years and I haven’t stopped or gone backwards at any point, it’s just a forward motion and I just think it’s a really powerful tool, particularly if you’ve got a long road ahead.

When I started this out, I weight 322lbs, and when I first started out people would be like how much have you lost and I’d be like ‘oh this much.’ Now I only get weighed when I go to the hospital for a check-up and if I were to be competing and if I really needed to know what I weighed otherwise I know each day I am taking steps to take care of myself, so I don’t need to rely on that metric of what do I weigh?

People judge themselves on what’s on the scales whereas you could put 2 people next to each other that weigh the same but have different body fat percentage and different muscle percentage and you wouldn’t know. So again, another reason why I think it is really important to have that neutral stance on your body.

You don’t have to be happy as an end result, you can be happy every day. And because you feel good at the start rather than an end result, you keep going.

MF – So with that, what are some things that you do or say each day in body neutrality instead and what would be one or two things you would say someone could try and do in their day to day?

In general, obviously I try to encourage people to think about their values that they have that aren’t about how they physically look. It’s uncomfortable and icky, because who wants to be nice to themselves and say something positive?

If I give you a compliment, you have to accept it. Give yourself things that you wouldn’t usually do. Another thing is thinking about one good thing that has happened, because when we think about what is happening instead of keep focusing on our appearance, we start to appreciate experiences more.

I’ve seen people have the best day ever and then they see the pictures afterwards and it ruins it. But they’ve still had the best day ever! So really separating how you feel about stuff from how you feel about your body is the key thing.

When it comes to things like food, I would say thinking about nourishing your body rather than just eating or being on a diet is really helpful for us not to associate it too much with our size and knowing that consistency doesn’t mean eating lettuce 100% of your meals.

You can go out for meals, you are allowed to eat chocolate and it isn’t a bad thing. In terms of exercise, think about what you enjoy. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing and you don’t have to do it to the intensity that other people are doing. Even if for you, one workout a week is all you can manage in whatever form you choose to do it in, that’s one more than you were doing.

MF – What are the three things in your life that make you feel your happiest and your healthiest?

My healthiest for me is just feeling better in myself and in general just being able to move more freely and appreciate what my body can do. Obviously when I’m at my absolute heathiest, it’s knowing that I’m going to get those challenges done that I set myself.

My happiest I think is just feeling comfortable to be myself. I think it’s taken a long time to get to that point and I think we get too used to trying to fit a mould and I’m really lucky to have people around me who encourage me to be the oversized child idiot that I am. So yeah, I would say just being able to be myself and be around people who appreciate me for who I am.

I would just reassure people to explore what works for them. You have a starting point, so often when people are thinking about undertaking fitness, they’ll aspire to be like someone else in fitness that’s so far removed from where they are. So I would say think of a friend that’s got a good fitness routine which is probably more achievable. If you made a list of 10 people, go down to number 8 as the person you want to aspire to be like first. The others can be future goals!

People also think that if they can’t do things as quickly or as well as others, that they’re not doing fitness but even if you need twice the rest as someone else in between sets, you’re still doing the same amount of exercise. So just let it go and stop judging yourself and just enjoy what you are doing.