I Struggled with Body Positivity, So I Found Body Neutrality Instead

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Photo: Courtesy of Velizar Ivanov

Last week, I went to the launch of a brand-new burlesque and cabaret class in Dubai. Burlesque, as the instructor explains, is as much about satire as it is about sensuality and, while it can often be seen as taboo, it’s really all about embracing yourself – literally and figuratively.

“The ‘official’ description [of burlesque] is ‘an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation, a parody or satire’, but it’s also synonymous with the kind of dancing that Dita Von Teese is famed for. Essentially, it’s a style of dance or movement with a multitude of sub-styles,” says my instructor and the founder of Velvet Burlesque, who goes by the stage name Bunty Beauford-Brown. “For me, it’s a way to escape the negative stresses and emotions that come with everyday life. When I’m dancing or teaching, I’m completely consumed with feeling good, just for me. There’s an excellent quote: ‘It’s not about seducing men; it’s about embracing womanhood’,” Bunty explains.

To sum it up, it’s not that I dislike my body; it’s just that I’m not always in love with it either.

Indeed, it is. Just two hours of strutting my stuff in an Al Quoz dance studio left me feeling more attractive than I had in months. But this class wasn’t just about dancing; even in the social media teases leading up to the event, Velvet Burlesque was presented as much a workshop in confidence as just a frolic and a boogie. “The way I see it, if you feel sexy, it boosts your confidence. If your confidence is up, you feel more sexy. It goes hand in hand. Body positivity is about more than just acceptance; it’s about a celebration of what makes us ‘different’ – all the little glories that make our bodies our own. It’s also about working in harmony with those things; the quirks, the flaws – whatever it is you call them. Even on those days when the bits we don’t like are working hard to make us feel bad, we focus on something we love to silence that,” Bunty says.

She was right. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a woman who is uncomfortable in my own skin – in fact, I’d say I’m normally pretty satisfied with the skin I live in – I’m also not someone who’d describe herself as body positive. I feel good about my body because I know that it’s relatively fit and strong, and I’ve spent years learning to focus on my positives, such as my womanly curves. I’m proud of my body for what it can do, rather than what it just looks like. It can surf, it can box, it can take me on hikes in jaw-dropping locations, and it can carry my suitcases in the airport no matter how overweight they are.

Having said that, I also have many, many days when I’ll stand in front of the mirror aghast before I go to bed, praying that this puffy and pregnant-looking distended belly I see before me is simply the result of bloating (or having had one too many slices of pizza on an indulgent food day). To sum it up, it’s not that I dislike my body; it’s just that I’m not always in love with it either. It’s not really what I’d call a love-hate relationship, but it’s more of a fickle, flakey, and disloyal one. Some days I like my shapely legs, some days I hate them. Some days I think my 32Ds are one of my best assets, other days I curse them for the inevitable gravity-enhanced sag that I constantly fear due to my love for high-impact (read: bounce-inducing) circuits and combat sports.

During that class, however, none of that mattered. I felt sexy. Sure, I could see my little “pizza belly” sticking out (Pinza and Deliveroo, I blame you). But I perched my heels atop that chair and smacked my thighs to the music with gusto, even when the instructor said that exhibiting much flair was entirely optional. “I think burlesque can help women because, despite its connotations, it’s very free from expectation. There’s no rigidity, no hard and fast rules, and women are encouraged to make their dancing very individual – it allows them to do what feels right for their body and emotions at each moment. The burlesque scene is itself very body positive – every size and shape is celebrated in equal measure and applauded. Burlesque also encourages women to look at their bodies differently; rather than being self-conscious about bits that are wobbling, we focus on them to get our shimmies and shakes,” explains Bunty.

I went home that night with a smile on my face, and I skipped my usual habit of over-analyzing. The next morning, for a paddleboarding session with a friend, I pulled out a swimsuit bearing revealing cutouts that I hadn’t dared to wear in months. To hell with the stomach-flattening one that would also make my legs look longer if only I managed to paddle without moving at all. And while I wouldn’t exactly say that I was now enamored with myself, I’d reached a new and deeply comfortable middle ground. This, my friends, is what I later realized is called “body neutrality”.

It’s a term that Bunty – my newfound guide and role model as far as body confidence is concerned – struggles with. “For me, neutrality feels like indifference, almost like ‘I can’t be positive and I don’t want to be negative, so I’ll just sit in the middle’. If you’re body neutral, are you just as “un-loving” as if you were body negative?” I see her point; indifference as a result of apathy isn’t going to get me anywhere. That being said, she also recognizes that body neutrality can be a huge step and an important stepping stone for certain people, and that’s exactly where I’m at – on my way to the greater self-love that lies ahead.

That’s exactly where I’m at – on my way to the greater self-love that lies ahead.

Body neutrality is a movement that is gaining traction with those who don’t quite feel ready to embrace the “I love the skin I’m in” movement yet, but are somewhere on their way there, those who allow the fluctuations of everyday life to impact the way they feel. For me, those are the days when I feel like I’ve flared up more than a pufferfish or when I don’t necessarily love my cellulite – it would be great if I did, but I’d be lying if I said that I do. And if I’m going to lie to myself about always feeling good in my own body, doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

For now, body neutrality is where I feel comfortable. It’s where I’ve not yet reached love, but I’ve arrived at surrender. I’ve accepted what I look like, and I’m so okay with it that it doesn’t hinder me from going about my day, living my life, or even wearing the occasional cutout swimsuit, peachy bikini, or body-con dress (sans Spanx) when I’m in the mood for it. I find it to be a friendlier space than that of body positivity, one where I’m allowed to say I have bad days but still be part of the confidence club. It’s more inclusive, and it allows me to make room for the mental, psychological, and emotional factors that affect my confidence when it comes to how I look and feel and how much I can love the skin I’m in. I’ve always strived to live my life with balance, and being in this space, in this part of the body-image spectrum, is surprisingly serene.

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