Body Neutrality: A New Way to View Your Body

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

By Haley Wen, Swimming World College Intern.

The body of a swimmer is incredible.

It wakes up before the sun is up, works out crazy hard for three hours, then comes back for another three grueling hours later that same afternoon. We spend so much time training and honing our athletic ability in order to achieve lofty goals. When we finally reach them, we use our bodies to celebrate. Unfortunately, due to outside pressures, sometimes it can be hard to live in the body of a swimmer. The ideal pushed by the media doesn’t always align with the reality of a swimmer’s body. Negative body image can affect all people, and swimmers are no exception.

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Photo Courtesy: Dennis Wen

In the past few years, swimmers at the highest level have spoken out about the pressure they feel to have a certain body type. Athletes’ bodies are constantly scrutinized by coaches, teammates, and themselves. Being a swimmer means that your body is particularly on display, thanks to skin-tight swim suits. Female swimmers in particular are more likely to have broader shoulders and higher muscle mass than the average expectation society has of women. But this issue doesn’t just affect women – men also deal with this pressure. Athletes are put in a precarious position. This body-consciousness can mean success in swimming also comes with feeling uncomfortable in your own body.

The worst case scenario is that this discomfort could lead to an eating disorder. A study conducted on Division I athletes found that over one third of female athletes were at risk for developing anorexia nervosa. This is just one of the eating disorders that can stem from the stresses and pressures of being a performance athlete. An eating disorder could be catastrophic not just to your performance in the pool but also your life overall. It is incredibly important to maintain a healthy relationship with your body, no matter how it looks.

Body Neutrality

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Photo Courtesy: Em Bhoo

Body positivity – or loving your body’s appearance the way it is – has been preached by many well-meaning people over the years. However, another trend has risen recently that may be even more helpful. That trend is called body neutrality. Body neutrality is all about focusing on what your body does rather than how it appears. It shifts any focus whatsoever about appearance onto function. Not only is the pressure to reach an unattainable body type lessened, but so is the pressure to care so much about how your body looks. 

According to an article written by Leigh Weingus in HuffPost, the concept of body neutrality first appeared in blogs and online searches in 2015 but gained momentum when Anne Poirier – BS, CSCS, and CIEC – started started leading programs on it at the Vermont wellness retreat Green Mountain at Fox Run in 2016.

“Poirier’s goal is to help participants acknowledge that loving their bodies isn’t always realistic. Sometimes, it’s OK to land somewhere in between ― in a more neutral place. Body neutrality is about seeing your body as a vehicle that, when treated with care, can help you move about the world in a way that brings you joy. That’s it. No thinking about how you look, either good or bad.” -Leigh Weingus

Mindfulness to the Rescue

Body neutrality also goes hand in hand with mindfulness. Mindfulness is the mental practice of awareness of your thoughts and feelings on a day to day and moment to moment basis. Meditation has been practiced for hundreds of years, with its roots in Eastern and Asian Buddhist practices. In more recent decades, the mindfulness movement has extended beyond religious affiliations and into the broader population. Thanks to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn – Ph.D., founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School – the general public has been able to accept mindfulness practice not only as a secular but also scientific practice.

Whether you’re an elite athlete or a novice, a stressed parent or the CEO of a company, mindfulness practices can be helpful. It can reduce stress, decrease physical suffering, reframe your perspective in the present, along with many other benefits. Mindfulness helps you take note of the emotions you experience, whether negative or positive, without judgement. It can be helpful in many areas of life, including swimming, but it is very important for practicing body neutrality.

Most people are not going to be able to simply change the way they think and feel about their body right away. They key is to begin with awareness: noticing how you feel about your body. Then, you are free to remind yourself that your body allows you to live the amazing lifestyle that you do. You’ve spent your swimming career crafting this body, and there’s nothing wrong with the way that it looks.

The Takeaway

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Photo Courtesy: Brooke Wright

You don’t have to feel pressured to feel positively or negatively about how you look. You can simply feel neutral and think of your body as a tool you use to accomplish your goals. That could mean going under 5 minutes in the 500 for the first time or hitting a new squat max. Your body allows you to reach new athletic heights. It allows you to scream and wave as you cheer for your teammates, and it allows you to hug your parents after your race. It doesn’t have to look any type of way to accomplish all of that.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

6 comments

  1. Neil Morgan

    It’s hardly new. I’ve never really thought any other way than about improving the function of my body for sport. I don’t really care what people think about how I look, and looking at the general population, I don’t have a lot to worry about. It’s probably harder for some swimmers because the people they see without clothes on are other swimmers, so they might think that most people have a great physique when that’s not really true.

  2. Kristen Kinzer

    I absolutely think this is an important topic to share with the public. As a coach, swimmer and triathlete, I speak with hundreds of athletes on a regular basis. I’d say 90% of them have spoken about body image issues or struggles with that in some way. This perspective is helpful, and while there really aren’t many completely novel ways to look at many topics these days, this is for sure a new movement that’s gaining momentum. Why wouldn’t you want to spread this message? It’s important to look at it from a broader perspective than just your own experience.

  3. Lyndsay Watts

    I was an elite swimmer almost 20 years ago and I felt all of the pressures to have that societal “ideal” body, but I knew that in. Order to accomplish my goals, it wasn’t a realistic expectation for me. My body was always a tool used to chase my dreams. Now, as an adult and mom, I struggle…but it’s all about taking care of my body and continuing to use this tool to help me live my best life as I age.