One in three adults in America is considered overweight, according to the National Institute of Health. But how is this measured? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses body mass index (or BMI), a number calculated by analyzing your weight and height. But, of course, it’s much more complicated than that.
For starters, not everyone who is considered “obese” by BMI really is. Bodybuilders, for example, may have muscle mass that qualifies them as “obese,” even though they have very little body fat. But BMI has become such a societal standard that even the medical industry has struggled to part with it.
“You can’t determine someone’s health by their body shape,” says Tara Allison of Bradenton, a TikTok fitness influencer with more than 125,000 followers who goes by the name FatGirl.Fit. “Your body fat and the space you occupy on this planet should be neutral.”
Nutritionist Grace Lopez agrees. She worked as a dietetic intern for Sarasota County Schools and now has a private practice in Tampa. She works with clients between the ages of 20 and 30 who struggle with their eating habits and body image.
“A thin person could be at the doctor and be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and they’ll tell you it’s genetic,” says Lopez. “But a fat person will go, and the doctors will immediately say it’s because of the weight, regardless of other factors.”
Even the words we choose matter. “Overweight” and “fat” are often used interchangeably, but are not the same. According to the National Institute of Health, “overweight” refers to excess total body weight, which includes fat, muscle, and bone. The term “fat” is more subjective – colloquialism that can have negative connotations. But for the community trying to positively reclaim the word, “bold” is the preferred adjective.
It is true that overweight people have a harder time finding proper medical care due to the misconception that all fat people must be unhealthy. Physicians spend 28% less time with obese patients during appointments and more than half of physicians surveyed in a 2003 survey viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly and unconforming,” says Athena Nair, a body positivity activist.
In fact, the BMI was also created from misconceptions and prejudices. In the 1830s, Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetelet invented the index out of interest in statistics, not health. He used it to monitor the weight of upper-class white Europeans. The scale was never created to accommodate the bodies of other types of people.
To replace what many consider to be outdated vocabulary, a number of new approaches to talking about weight and health have arisen. One is called body positivity.
“Body positivity is a move toward loving and accepting your body for how it looks,” says Lopez. “It helps to advocate for equality, end discrimination, and publicize health outcomes driven by social, economic, or environmental factors.”
However, according to Lopez, body positivity can still perpetuate a system in which feelings of self-esteem are based on one’s appearance. We feel shame if we can’t find love for what we see in the mirror.
To solve this problem, a new movement called body neutrality has emerged. Body neutrality is a concept in which people do not belittle or praise their body, but rather appreciate it for what it can accomplish.
“When I’m in the gym, I focus on goals like lifting heavier weights and overall body performance, not how it looks,” says Allison. “Because of this self-care and self-love, I lost 100 pounds and gained so much strength.”
Lopez teaches the concept of neutrality to her clients when they are struggling to accept their bodies. For example, if postpartum or breastfeeding mothers come into her office feeling down about their figure, Lopez reminds them of all the amazing things their bodies have done.
“I remind them of their identity beyond their appearance,” says Lopez. “We ask, ‘How did I take care of myself today?’ If you have nourished your body, moved and hydrated it, and provided it with adequate rest, we are treating our body with respect.
This ties in with Lopez’s intuitive food approach that she practices with clients, which focuses on instinct, emotion and rational thinking. He doesn’t follow restrictive diets or rigid meal plans, which can lead to unhealthy yo-yo dieting and poor self-image. Instead, it incorporates another type of neutrality: food neutrality.
“We can make peace with all foods,” Lopez says. “When we label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we can fall into restrictive and excessive patterns. You lose control of these “bad” foods. By removing these labels, we understand that no food will derail your health and change the trajectory of your body’s functioning.
According to Lopez, there are no “bad” foods, just negative eating habits. For example, if ice cream is a food that is still off-limits, you may go overboard and binge if you get the chance, because you don’t know when you’ll allow yourself ice cream again.
In the end, while it’s good to look in the mirror and like what you see, it’s even better to respect your body for what it’s capable of. This is why body neutrality continues to become popular in nutrition, in the fitness community and on social media.
Everyone can benefit from the practice, whether it’s with body image, fitness, or food.
” I am a baker. I like to eat sweets,” says Allison. “I’m not going to give up the things that make me happy just because the food industry or social media tells me to. We can enjoy all aspects of our lives.
Ways to Practice Body Neutrality
Look in the mirror and recite the ways you took care of yourself that day. Whether you eat a nutritious lunch, go for a walk or meditate, everything is beneficial.
Make a list of what your body is capable of. This can include walking, laughing, picking up your children or grandchildren, or getting a good night’s sleep.
Don’t make comments based on appearance (positive or negative) on your body or that of others.
Define aims with a personal trainer or alone with a fitness routine.
Ask for advice a dietitian if you feel stuck.