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Taylor Swift’s Eating Disorder Centered Around Moral Language. Here’s Why Body Neutrality is So Important

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April 26, 2024
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Aaron Gilbert

In the documentary Miss AmericanaTaylor Swift vulnerably discusses her struggles with disordered eating. “…it’s only happened a few times, and I’m not in any way proud of it,” she says, describing how a photo or a comment will “just trigger me to just starve a little bit — just stop eating.”

It’s a common side effect of the modern era, where beauty standards are still wrapped in thinness and the digital age eggs on an obsession with image-comparison. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 40 to 60 percent of girls ages six to 12 are concerned about their weight. Unhealthy ways of controlling weight are commonplace among teenagers, including smoking, vomiting, or, like Swift, skipping meals.

Swift’s candid processing of her disordered eating in the documentary sheds important light on a common culprit of eating disorders — moralizing body size. She says, “…My relationship with food was exactly the same psychology that I applied to everything else in my life: If I was given a pat on the head, I registered that as good. If I was given a punishment, I registered that as bad.”

She goes on to explain all the ways she interpreted commentary on her size as either good or bad, praise or punishment. When someone would compliment her size as being thin, she says, “…I looked at that as a pat on the head. You register that enough times, and you just start to accommodate everything towards praise and punishment, including your own body.”

Pats on the head or punishments. These are, in true Taylor Swift fashion, meaningful images of what it’s like to interpret body commentary through a moral lens. Moralizing food and body size separates them from their primary purposes (food nourishing the body and the body functioning according to its ability) and twists them into concepts of good and badright and wrong.

If this all seems a little too conceptual, akin to a cryptic song lyric, that’s precisely the point. Food and body size should not be conceptualized. They should be accepted as the neutral realities that they are.

That’s where body neutrality comes in. Read on to explore why neutralizing moral thoughts about body image is so important.

What’s So Bad About Moralizing Body Image?

According to the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, eating disorders are defined as, “psychological conditions that affect your relationship with food.” Conceptualizing food as good or bad and body size as right and wrong can lead to problematic actions that can have detrimental effects on one’s health.

In Swift’s case, registering that looking thin equaled ‘a pat on the head,’ led to restrictive eating habits. As she continued to receive praise for her thinness, those habits were reinforced as good.

But a subjective look at restrictive eating in order to achieve extreme thinness confirms that these behaviors are anything but good. When people do not eat enough to sustain a healthy caloric intake, they can develop an array of health issues, including:

  • Weak or brittle bones
  • Low blood pressure
  • Infertility
  • Dehydration
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Heart damage
  • Digestive problems

As a therapist, I focus on the psychological conditions that lead to disordered eating. Swift cuts to the heart of the issue when she says that her relationship with food was part of a broader trend in her life of interpreting anything and everything through a moral lens. Stamping a good or bad label on a food or body size contorts the true nature of nourishment into a toxic battleground for self-worth and societal acceptance.

It’s important to note that body morality doesn’t just crop up from one’s own making. It is extremely pervasive in our image-obsessed culture. That’s why it can be so difficult to identify and change — we are all familiar with seeing certain foods as good and others as bad. We don’t need convincing that shame and body size often go hand-in-hand.

But that just means we need to change the narrative. We need a better way to approach food and body sizes.

We need to remove the conceptions and let them just exist.

We need to go neutral.

What is Body Neutrality?

Body neutrality seeks to strip away the social conceptualization around body shape, size, age, ability, race, or any other aspect to which we ascribe conceptual meaning. Simply put, your body is just your body. Body neutrality is distinct from body positivity — positivity is not a requirement of body neutrality. Instead, it invites you to experience your body as neither good nor bad but rather, simply as it is.

Specifically, body neutrality has been defined in the research as including three primary components:

  • Nonjudgmental thoughts — Body neutrality understands that thoughts and feelings about our body constantly change and simply observes those thoughts and feelings without judgment.
  • Functional focus — Body neutrality focuses on appreciating what our body enables us to do and caring for it accordingly.
  • Inherent self-worth — Body neutrality recognizes that self-worth is not dependent on appearance but is an inherent right of each person.

This is in stark contrast to the body moralization Swift fell prey to, as well as what societal commentary reinforces.

The idea is that by neutralizing the idea that there is a right or wrong way to look, or a good or bad size to be, the focus shifts instead to what your body does for you.

Importantly, conversations about body neutrality often leave out disabled and differently-abled bodies. As the culture continues to define body neutrality as a movement, it’s important to focus on finding acceptance of the body’s abilities and disabilities while seeking to nurture it the best we can in light of those things. This is a far more proactive use of time for everyone than berating one’s self because they don’t fit an ideal image.

Getting Started: Body Neutrality Affirmations

For Taylor Swift, practicing body neutrality might need to first separate the ‘praise and punishment’ language from outside commentary and her own thoughts about her appearance. Removing the moral lens is crucial.

So whatever lens you see your body image through, the first step is to remove it. When you notice a thought about your body or appearance cross your mind, hold it for a moment. Notice any emotive language, and try to remove it until only a mundane statement remains.

For example, I hate my flabby arms can become I have arms.

It might seem silly, but think about those two phrases for a moment. Feel the negative emotion spewing from the first, and then compare what the second statement conjures up for you. Think about all your arms do for you every day.

As you work to neutralize your existing thoughts, it’s also worth incorporating some new, neutral thoughts and affirmations into your consciousness.

Here are a few affirmations to get you started:

  • I appreciate what my body can do.
  • I accept what my body cannot do.
  • I treat my body with kindness.
  • I listen to my body’s signals.
  • I honor my body’s needs.
  • I nourish my body with loving care.
  • I am deserving of respect and dignity, regardless of my appearance.
  • I accept my body as it is.

If you find that negative thoughts about how you look are tough to stamp out, you’re certainly not alone. Again, messaging around body image is so pervasive that it’s difficult to see where it ends and our own thoughts begin. Jessi Kneeland, author of Body Neutral: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Body Image, suggests tacking on a helpful phrase to the end of them, such as: “…And that is not a problem, …And that makes sense and is okay, or, …And that doesn’t mean anything bad about me.

Here are a few examples:

  • I wish I wasn’t going gray, and that is not a problem.
  • I wish I looked the way I did before I had kids, and that makes sense and is okay.
  • I wish I looked like Taylor Swift, and that doesn’t mean anything bad about me.

Good, Inside and Out

While body neutrality is about removing good and bad from our vocabulary regarding body image, as a therapist I must include that internalizing your own innate goodness is one of the most important things you can do for your mental health. Your size, weight, age, or shape is neither good nor bad, but you, yourself, are good and worthy of honor, respect, and care, just as you are.

If you struggle to believe in your innate goodness, or can’t seem to dismantle the pervasive moral messaging about body image, working with a licensed therapist can help. If you struggle with disordered eating, look for therapists who specialize in eating disorders and body image issues.

Kneeland says that “when we recognize how reasonable it is to feel critical of our bodies, we have the power to invite compassion for ourselves and our suffering, instead of judgment.” If the best way to break a habit is to replace it with a better one, then working on replacing judgment against yourself and your body with compassion for yourself and your body is a great place to start.

Instead of self-criticism, self-compassion.

Instead of morality, neutrality.

Resources for Disordered Eating:

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