The Role of Body Neutrality in Poetry
The relationship between people and their bodies is often complicated. Early experiences, internal emotions, societal pressures, and many other factors may contribute to our body image. Movements like body positivity and body neutrality can help us understand and unpack some of the ideas we hold about our own bodies, as well as those that society has as a whole.
You may have heard the terms body positivity and body neutrality used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Body positivity encourages all people to have a positive body image, regardless of gender, size, ability, race, or appearance. The movement also helps us challenge how society views the body—and how that, in turn, affects our perspective. Body positivity reminds us to love the parts of ourselves that may not conform to the fixed standards of beauty we see in the media. A body-positive mantra might be, “I feel good about myself because I know I am beautiful.” “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou is a prime example of body-positive poetry.
Body neutrality, on the other hand, encourages us to shift focus away from the appearance of the body entirely by focusing on its achievements instead. Rather than questioning what we consider beautiful as a society, body neutrality asks us to consider why we’ve put beauty on a pedestal. It beckons us to untie our self-worth from our outward appearance. A body-neutral statement might be, “How I feel about myself is unrelated to my physical appearance.”
In poetry, body neutrality may take the shape of a poem that focuses on what the body can do, rather than its outward appearance. In lieu of physical descriptions, the poet may focus on experiences, feelings, and ideas that are enacted through the body. Certain parts of the body may create meaning, but only in connection with an experience that is more about the inward self than outer appearance. In short, it’s about what the body can do, not how it looks.
Transcendentalist poems that involve the body are a great entry-point for body-neutral poetry, as they often focus on experiences flowing through the body, rather than the body as an object. Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” is iconic for its exploration of the physical body as a conduit between the external world and the soul. He writes: “And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul? / And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” Throughout the poem, Whitman admires how our physicality connects us to the outside world. Toward the end of the poem, he goes on to name specific body parts alongside their emotional power. “Sympathies, heart-valves, palate valves, sexuality, maternity . . .” he writes. “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, / O I say now these are the soul!”
While “I Sing the Body Electric” offers an all-encompassing look at life, the body, and experience, other body-neutral poems may analyze a specific aspect of the human experience. For example, both “Body Remember” by C.P. Cavafy and “i like my body when it is with your” by e. e. cummings describe the body as a means for experiencing romance. Cavafy’s piece is a reflection on our physical responses to love, and our muscle memory of those experiences. e. e. cummings’ poem does the same, but with a further focus on the experience of closeness and intimacy with another person.
Stepping away from romance, body neutral poems can also be about agency and power. “When the Body” by Linda Hogan tells the story of agency through the body with visceral, spiraling imagery. “When the body wishes to speak, she will / reach into the night and pull back the rapture of this growing root . . .” beings Hogan. She goes on to describe fragmented memories experienced through the body, like bathing children, and how touch and connection make us human. “the body so finely a miracle of its own, created of the elements / and anything that lived on earth where everything that was / still is,” she writes.
Shifting your mindset away from the appearance of the body and instead toward what the body empowers us to do and feel may transform your poetry practice—whether you’re reading poems or writing your own. If you’d like to introduce the concept of body neutrality into your work, consider the following questions:
- What has my body allowed me to accomplish?
- How does my body feel when I experience joy, sadness, love, or anger?
- What cherished experiences has my body allowed me to feel?
- How has my body served me? How do I serve my body?
Remember, there is no limit to the subjects you can tackle or the themes you can analyze. Body neutrality isn’t about erasing all the feelings we have about our bodies. It’s about turning our focus away from outward our appearances and appreciating the things our bodies do for us.