Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Let’s Misbehave!

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Many big industries want us to behave. They want us to be live “stylishly ever after,” they want our “girl power” to come from marketing that phrase on our push-up bras, they want our health to be defined by how good we can look from behind, they want to empower us by telling us how to become more beautiful, and comfort us by saying “beauty hurts” and it’s up to us to push through the pain and work forever trying to obtain it. But if any of our work resonates with you, you know it’s time we stop being so “well-behaved.” It’s high time we stop behaving – looking, acting, speaking, buying, thinking – how the ever-so-powerful beauty, diet, cosmetic surgery, fashion, and media industries would have us behave. 

That’s why we work to constantly remind females how powerful, valuable, and beautiful they are in a media-saturated world that profits from them forgetting that truth. Because when you begin to grasp your potential for good, your power in this world, where real happiness is found, and the beauty you’ve already got going on, you stop “behaving” as these big industries would have you behave.

One of the ways we at BR misbehave regularly is by speaking out against all kinds of normalized pressures women face regarding their appearance: the cultural phenomenon that is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Victoria’s Secret’s inescapable images, trendy new beauty ideals like those magic body wraps, the normalization of breast implants, the ways we teach “modesty,” and female objectification at every turn. What started as a gut feeling that much of what appears so normal to us is actually so dangerous sparked our doctoral research to teach people how and why to recognize and reject this level of normalized objectification of women.

What’s most interesting to us about our work is that many, many people see our speaking out as wildly misbehaving. Saying publicly celebrated displays of female objectification and sexualization is degrading or harmful in any way is apparently censorship, prudishness, neo-Nazi conservativism, jealousy, disgusting and just plain evil. What this backlash against our work tells us is that seeing and treating women as objects to be consumed, judged and ogled above all else is absolutely the status quo. It is the norm. It is invisible. When we call it out for what it is, for what effects it has, with years of research to back it up, we see ourselves as behaving very nicely. Others who are perfectly comfortable inside the oppressive status quo (both men and women) are often extremely hesitant to have their worldview shaken. Those are the people who perceive our work as misbehavior (to put it lightly).

The awesome Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

The woman who coined that crazy popular phrase, had no idea SHE would be making the history books when she wrote that.  In fact, this conservative woman was writing a history book in the 1970s about 19th century women who were by all accounts just regular women, going about their lives. She was writing about the ways well-behaved women were overlooked in our knowledge of history because they weren’t doing anything historians considered “extraordinary.” But this author went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, among many other honors, and her work has been made into documentaries and television series.  Her name is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and we happen to feel a special connection to this Pultizer-Prize-winning, Distinguished Harvard Professor because she grew up in small-town Idaho (just like us!), graduated from the University of Utah (just like us!), and has gone on to be a powerful, feminist voice for good in a world that needs her and her catchy statement: “Well-behaved women seldom make history!” By all accounts, she had no idea how much her work would change history. And neither do you.

We (Lindsay and Lexie Kite) started our version of “misbehaving” when we were 18 years old. We sat in a college classroom and learned for the first time how powerful media is in shaping our view of ourselves and distorting our perceptions of reality, beauty, and health. We both decided we were no longer going to “behave” for industries that profited off us hating our bodies and spending our time, money and energy finding ways to fix our flaws. And so then, in 2003, we decided we wanted to be the kind of women that made history. We’ve done nothing too exceptional, but we earned Ph.D.s in the study of media and body image in 2013 and have remained committed to helping women understand their worth as more than objects to be looked at.

Today, we are thrilled to use Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s truthful phrase a little differently than she may have intended it (but check out the comment below from her niece Rachel!). Today, we stand alongside every other person willing to misbehave in the face of powerful industries that profit from our losses. They win when we lose our self-worth and try to find it where it cannot be found – beauty products, cosmetic procedures, sexual objectification, disordered eating, diet pills, etc. The truth is all around you: You are capable of much more than looking hot. Your reflection does not define your worth. Women are more than just bodies. See more. Be more. If any of those statements resonate with you, you can misbehave by choosing to turn away from media that hurts you, spending your money on things that reflect what you value, speaking out against the status quo that maintains a view of women as bodies and nothing more, spending your time progressing in ways that matter – school, service, hobbies, health, and relationships. THAT is how we will make history. THAT is real empowerment. Are you ready to make history? Let’s misbehave!

Female Objectification: Who’s Really to Blame

Women are constantly being dehumanized and reduced to objects to be groped, harassed, catcalled and evaluated — and some men feel comfortable doing all of those things and then boasting about it, or deny it by mocking the appearance of the women as unworthy of their assaults. In a culture that routinely portrays and values women as objects, who is really to blame when real-life women are reduced to objects? How do we stop objectification?

Let’s get this out of the way up front: objectification is not the same thing as admiring someone’s appearance. We all instinctively notice and evaluate appearance on some level, and it is perfectly natural and good. No shame necessary. Since objectification starts as a mental process, the only person who can determine if they’re objectifying someone is the person doing the potential objectifying. However, there are some signs that you’re perceiving someone as an object rather than a full-fledged human being. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Am I viewing that person primarily as a tool for my sexual gratification?
  • Am I catcalling or harassing people  with comments about their appearance or sex appeal?
  • Am I talking about these people primarily in terms of their appearance or sex appeal?
  • Am I considering these people as my equals and as active agents of their own lives, or am I considering them as passive objects or ornaments for my evaluation/consumption/use?

Obviously, “yes” answers = likely objectification happening. This is effectively viewing someone as less than human. This is bad. Let’s fix it.

Lots of people would have you believe that women, and their appearance or clothing choices, are the ones at fault for being objectified. After all, if your clothes are tighter or shorter or flashier or anything-er than someone else thinks is acceptable, then you intended for others to think of you as more of an object than a person, right? So wrong. Dang, it would be SO easy if objectification worked this way! If this was true, then we could stop objectification in its tracks by simply dressing more appropriately (as has been suggested by many a viral blog post). But, alas, there are 3 fatal flaws with this philosophy:

It embraces a distinct victim-blaming mentality that puts the responsibility for how one is perceived on the shoulders of the one being perceived, rather than the one doing the perceiving. Here’s a hard truth for some: Regardless of what you wear or how you look, you can never sufficiently defend yourself from objectification. Leggings or no leggings, you don’t get to decide whether people perceive you as a sex object or a person. You could wear the most appropriate outfit you could fathom and someone could still see that flash of wrist or ankle or outline of your body and blame you for sparking sexual thoughts. If we are teaching the girls in our lives that the primary objective of appropriate clothing is to keep themselves covered so boys and men don’t think sexual thoughts about them, then we are teaching girls they are responsible for other peoples’ thoughts. That’s a burden no one should feel like they need to bear. Keep reading for our ideas on how you could teach girls and women (and boys and men) to consider their own clothing choices.

Everyone’s definition of “appropriate” is different. Everyone’s. One person’s sophisticated sleeveless blouse is another person’s lingerie. One person’s comfy, inexpensive, covered-up leggings are another person’s too-hot-for-TV sexy pants. (Obviously, we’re referring to definitions of appropriate that can vary significantly but still fall within legal, common public attire and that fit dress codes for certain venues.) And the context! Oh the context. If objectification is really determined by what a woman is wearing, then the context in which she’s wearing those clothes is totally irrelevant. You can’t say, “She shouldn’t wear leggings on the street if she doesn’t want to be objectified,” and also flip-flop to believe she doesn’t deserve to be viewed as an object if she’s wearing those leggings at the gym or training for a marathon. You also can’t say, “She shouldn’t wear that short skirt at dinner if she doesn’t want to be objectified,” and simultaneously believe she’s not at fault for being objectified while wearing the same skirt playing tennis or using it to cover up a swimsuit at the pool.  If “inappropriate” clothing choices directly result in objectification, then there can be no on/off switch for the context of those clothing choices. They cause women to be viewed as objects or they don’t. 

The evidence of objectification in action (catcalling, sexual abuse and assault, etc.) is not determined or dissuaded by the clothing the objectified person (victim) is wearing. Girls and women across the world are raped and assaulted and hollered at while wearing flannel pajamas and cold-weather running gear and clubbing dresses and everything in between. Even in cultures where women are required to or choose to cover up a great deal, there is still an incredibly high incidence of rape and sexual violence. And in some cultures where clothing is optional (ex: some African tribes), rape and sexual violence are reportedly very low. I am very regularly catcalled (in explicit, anger-inducing ways) while wearing a winter coat and jeans or a skirt below the knee while walking in downtown Salt Lake City. Why? Not because of my sexy clothes, I can assure you. See this link for a bunch of examples to dispel the myth that scantily-clad women are more likely to be catcalled or assaulted. Harassment, sexual abuse, and assault are often about power, and men assert their power over women by publicly degrading them and/or abusing them as sexual objects for their own gratification.

In summary: you could never be clothed perfectly enough to ensure everyone perceives you the way you intend to be perceived. You could never obscure your shape or essence or beauty enough to prevent someone from having sexual thoughts about you and blaming you for those thoughts. That is because objectification happens in the eye and mind of the beholder. You are the only one who can control whether you objectify another person. Yes, it can be triggered by images and messages we have learned to view as sexual and suggestive. No, that doesn’t mean it is unavoidable. And NO, that does not mean you can blame anyone else when you view her/him as an object. We must take responsibility for ourselves – our own thoughts, our own intentions, and our own actions. [Please note: we are referring to face-to-face or person-to-person judgments and perceptions, not perceptions of media. Obviously, media purposefully and blatantly presents women as objects. We’re not letting them off the hook for that. We need to cut objectifying media out of our visual diets and re-train our minds to see people instead of objects in both media and face to face. More on that in a second.]

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

By and large, it is girls and women who are being sexually objectified.* Many women even voluntarily sign up to be portrayed as objects and accept huge paychecks in return (think any men’s magazine, commercials for hundreds of otherwise non-sexual products, etc.). Being valued as an object is glamorized and sold as the highest form of power a woman can wield. Of course, that is a lie, and that faux “power” is at the mercy of others’ (usually men’s) preferences, appetites and money. The dangerous and normalized act of female objectification teaches men and boys that females are sexual objects above all else — that women exist to be looked at, consumed, and discarded. No wonder the dehumanization and devaluation of women is often so invisible to men. It’s normal. It’s comfortable. It sucks that we might have to battle this devaluation our entire lives while also having to convince men (and other women) that objectification not only exists, but that it is incredibly dangerous, and it needs to be fought against — not just by us gals, but by all of us.

We all learned how to view people as objects from the same sources — our shared media landscape. We live in a world where the objectification of women is so standard that it is invisible and unquestioned. But the only way to fight it is to see it and question it. Sexualized female bodies are inescapable in media. Consider 90% of movies that have come out in the last decade and how they pan up and down women’s bodies and zoom in on their parts; Victoria’s Secret’s inescapable advertising in mailboxes, storefront windows and TV; the good ol’ SI Swimsuit Issue celebrated on TV news programs and late shows, as well as public displays all across the country; Carl’s Jr.’s insanely sexist commercials, the list goes on and on and on. Last but not least, one of the most profitable industries in the world is the absolute biggest perpetrator of female objectification: the porn industry. Hopefully this doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but if it does, please know that it isn’t sexual shame, prudishness or religious beliefs that tell us pornography is the guiltiest culprit in this fight against objectification. Since porn is a topic all its own, we devoted a whole post to it here.

While the porn industry has infiltrated all aspects of pop culture in the last couple of decades – leading us to barely flinch at images and acts on primetime TV that we would have been totally shocked by before, we have learned to view female sexuality as something to be viewed, purchased, and even stolen. Female bodies have become objects to be bought and sold, both literally and figuratively, and with that commodification, girls and women have become devalued and dehumanized. In other words, objectified.

This not only affects the way men view women and the way we as women view and evaluate each other – it also deeply affects the way we view ourselves.

This sexually objectifying culture persuades women to self-objectify by evaluating and controlling themselves in terms of their sexual appeal to others, rather than in terms of their own health, happiness, and desires. They literally picture themselves being looked at while they move throughout life. And what do you know? Girls and women suffer in very literal ways when sexualized female bodies inundate our media landscape. Adolescent girls with a self-objectified outsider’s view of their bodies have diminished sexual health, measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no”), and decreased cognitive and physical abilites, including math, logical reasoning, and athletic performance.* Add to that the fact that industries beg women to surgically implant things in their breasts and buttocks and lips to enhance their sexual appeal, and every year hundreds of thousands of women go under the knife, with 92% of those procedures – mostly breast augmentation and liposuction – performed on girls and women. Self-objectification works as a harmful tool to keep girls and women “in their place” as objects of sexual appeal and beauty, which seriously limits their ability to think freely and understand their value in a world so in need of their unique contributions and insight.

Though you cannot protect yourself from being objectified by others, please know that you CAN protect yourself from self-objectification.

You are more than your body and you’re capable of more than looking hot for others’ approval. You get the opportunity to reflect that truth every day in the way you carry yourself, what you do and what you say. We’ve written and talked extensively about this topic here and here, but today we’re going to highlight one aspect we addressed previously in this post, but in a totally different light: how we choose to dress ourselves.

Studies on self-objectification show us that “clothing represents an important contributor to the body and emotional experience of contemporary young women” because body-baring clothing leads to greater states of self-objectification, body shame, body dissatisfaction, and negative mood**. What this tells us (and what our own experience living in female bodies tells us is a no-brainer) is that when we wear clothing that feels revealing or that overtly emphasizes our parts, we become very self-aware of those parts that are being (or could potentially be) looked at. We self-objectify and are in a near-constant state of adjusting our clothing, thinking about what we look like, and looking at other people looking at us. It’s OK to like being looked at, and even to like attention from others for our looks, but if it’s getting in the way of progress, happiness, and health — as so much research confirms that it is — we’ve got to make some changes.

Research shows a level of “modesty” or less-revealing/more-covered clothing can be an important tool in safe-guarding ourselves from being in a constant state of self-objectification. This idea of “modesty” and less-revealing/more-covered clothing will inevitably vary from person to person and culture to culture — maybe even dramatically. That does not matter. We have got to stop worrying about everyone else’s choices and start focusing on our own. You get to decide what “modest” clothing means for you. For some, leggings will fit very squarely in the category of covered and comfortable. For others, leggings will make them feel exposed, uncovered and uncomfortable, which fuels self-objectification. You get to decide how leggings make you feel. Other people also get to decide how your leggings make them feel. But you don’t have to carry that burden. They need to do that.

What all of this comes down to is so simple: we all have to look out for ourselves. We have to be accountable to ourselves to recognize when we are objectifying others and work to shift our perceptions through conscious awareness. We can’t attribute our perceptions to anyone else, no matter what they are or aren’t wearing. And finally, though we can’t protect ourselves from being objectified by others, we absolutely can protect ourselves from our own self-objectification by recognizing our value as more than just objects to be looked at, and then thinking and acting accordingly.

Women are more than just bodies. And men are more than their bodies, too. We are all thinking, feeling humans who have the opportunity to learn to view ourselves and each other as such — even if those humans are showing more skin or wearing more makeup than we deem appropriate. When we can see more than just bodies in ourselves and others, we have the opportunity to be more. Let’s do this.

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

The beautiful illustrations above commissioned for Beauty Redefined by Michelle Christensen Illustration.

*Boys and men are sexually objectified as well, though to much lesser degrees than girls and women are. We acknowledge this and stress that our focus on the objectification of females in no way detracts from the reality that boys and men are degraded in similar ways.

**Tiggemann, M. & Andrew, R. (2012). Clothes Make a Difference: The Role of Self-Objectification. Sex Roles. Vol. 66 Issue 9/10, p646. For a comprehensive list of self-objectification’s many negative consequences, see the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls

Watching Women Want

Written by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano of The Beheld

The US beat Japan 5-2 to win the Women’s World Cup Final!

I’ve been watching a lot of the Women’s World Cup, with a fervor that surprises even me. I’m an unlikely soccer fan to begin with; sports, personally speaking, have traditionally been something to be avoided and/or feared. But after I shocked myself last summer by watching literally every single World Cup match—including dual-screening it for games that overlapped — I surrendered in full to the beautiful game. 

Women’s soccer, though? I didn’t follow it. I supported it politically, of course, but it was rare to find a women’s game on TV. Knowing that the Fox networks were going to broadcast all the games of the Women’s World Cup, I decided to give it a go, since the tournament would give me plenty of opportunities to become familiar with the players. I’d hoped to be as entertained as I was with the men’s version last year, and I have been. What I didn’t expect to be was moved.

The playing is excellent, of course; it’s the best female soccer players in the world, after all. But what moves me is not a beautiful pass, or a bad refereeing call, or even the players’ backstories. What moves me is the players’ faces, and watching women want. It’s not hard to find images of women in the public act of doing beyond what’s been allotted by tired stereotypes. We see women legislating, creating, speaking, protesting—images that weren’t available just a couple of generations ago. But we still don’t often see women in the act of wanting. And we need to see this, because when you’re in the act of wanting something badly enough, there isn’t room for self-consciousness. How you look, your stance, your hair, your makeup, whether you appear pretty, your sex appeal: all of these things that coalesce in my brain, and maybe yours, to form a hum so low and so constant that I take it as a state of being—and when you want, they disappear. When you want, the want goes to the fore. The you can take a backseat.

Celia Sasic

What do you look like when you want? In my case, I can’t really say. There are plenty of things in this world that I want, but most of my deepest desires make wanting a state, not an act: I want to do meaningful work, I want to be happy, I want to give and receive love. The closest I know to the act of wanting in the ways female athletes want is perhaps the state of flow. In those rare moments of flow, self-consciousness falls away. It’s a gift when it happens. But I’ve never had occasion to test how far the flow state really goes as far as lifting my own awareness of how I appear. Even when my entire being is focused on a desire, I’m probably not at risk of truly breaking any sort of code of feminine regulation.

When I watch the athletes of this World Cup, I see an entirely different way that desire becomes focused. Specifically, I see desire become externalized. Elite athletes have spent their entire lives articulating themselves through moving their bodies. To watch them want something is an exercise in watching desire become a visual, physical force. 

Hope Solo

These women are not thinking about how they look, how their faces are posed, how their bodies might be viewed. The face becomes a way of communicating to teammates; the body, as they have trained it to become through thousands of hours of practice, a vehicle for winning. Certainly there are plenty of times in every woman’s life when how she looks isn’t at the fore of her mind, but it’s rare to have proof—visual, unrefutable proof—that at that moment, she is absolutely not thinking about how she looks. To watch female athletes is to watch women not give a sh** when they look ugly. A lifelong soccer fan recently told me he feels guilty sometimes watching women’s sports because he catches himself being enthralled by their beauty, not just their skill. I told him to keep watching. Because as much as we’ve turned female athletes into spectacles of beauty and sexuality, the more that we watch women want in this particular way, the more we’ll get used to seeing women — beautiful women, odd-looking women, and perfectly pedestrian-looking women, and cute women and sexy women and butch women and girly-girl women — look not-pretty, even ugly sometimes, without apology. Whatever any particular athlete might have cared about before the game (don’t tell me some of those players aren’t wearing eyelash extensions) doesn’t matter. In the moment, she does not give a sh**. There is a power in that — a power that I find, without exaggeration, transcendental.

Lisa De Vanna

For about a year now, I’ve had a question written on the whiteboard where I keep random thoughts, blog-post ideas, notes to myself, the occasional phone number. The question is, What would have gotten me into gym class as a kid? My childhood was the perfect storm for hating physical activity: I was bookish, I was fat, and I didn’t like to do things I wasn’t immediately good at. There’s another factor that I now see loomed large in my rejection of any physical activity I wasn’t pretty much forced to do: I was desperately afraid of looking stupid. When I studied theater in college, that was the note teachers and directors repeatedly gave me — you’re afraid of looking stupid — and they were right. Save the occasional bully, nobody was telling me I looked stupid, nor was I looking at other kids on the kickball field and thinking they looked stupid when they were trying their best. What killed any curiosity I might have had about how my body moved was my own self-consciousness.

Christine Sinclair

As an adult, I’m not an athlete per se — I play one annual round of beach kadima each year and that’s it — but I shock myself with my interest in fitness that goes beyond its aesthetic rewards. I strength-train, and I train hard, and I love it, and every so often it hits me that the kid who used to play sick on track and field day now picks up heavy things of her own volition. At least a few times a month, I find myself giving a silent, spontaneous thanks that something shifted enough within me to start treating my body as a physical tool instead of just an inconvenient container for my head. What that shift tells me, though, is that there might have been something that could have flipped on that switch earlier in my life.

That something, I suspect, could have been the face of Abby Wambach, or Christine Sinclair, or Wendie Renard, or any of the women whose faces have moved me in the past few weeks. I’ve long known the basic facts about girls and sports: Girls who play sports have higher self-esteem, more resiliency, more leadership abilities, none of which should be surprising (it’s not hard to see how focusing on what your body can do instead of what it looks like would be A Good Thing). I’ve also long known of the power of role models: I grew up with the gift of parents who told me I could become anything I wanted to become (a pilot! a painter! a scientist! the president!), and they did their best to point out public role models for me. Until this World Cup, though, I never thought to put them together: that having role models who spoke to my extraordinary self-consciousness could have helped me reap the benefits of sports as a girl. 

The chances of me having gone on to become an actual athlete were always slim; that’s not how I’m wired, and nothing would have changed that. And team sports in particular would never have been my bag, I don’t think. But I wish I’d had some sort of template that could have earlier taught me the joys of inhabiting my body. I wish I’d seen more women be so focused on physical exertion that it silenced whatever hum of self-consciousness they might have had. I wish I’d had more visible proof that there were so many women out there who had the ability to not care how they looked, again and again and again, every training and scrimmage and game. I wish I’d seen more women want. 

I’m in awe of the athleticism on display in the Women’s World Cup. I watch the matches for the skill, the strategy, the stories. I watch it because, against all logical parts of my personal history, I somehow have come to understand why we call soccer the beautiful game. But the part I will remember is watching women want.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is a former copy-editor and writer for national woman’s magazines and currently writes the blog The Beheld, a site that examines cultural concepts of beauty. She is also the author of a yet-to-be-named book, to be published by Simon & Schuster in spring 2016. The goal of her blog, The Beheld, is to foster a larger conversation about beauty and what it means. She’d love for you to be a part of that conversation.

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Resilience Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, created and tested by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD.

Cleanse Your Mind, The Rest Will Follow: Transform Your Health With a Media Fast

Have you tried the latest health cleanse? It’s SO great. It’ll help you feel better about your body inside and out, and jump-start your healthy choices so you’ll have the motivation to be active and feel A-MA-ZING. THIS cleanse is brand new. None of the celebrity health gurus or fitspiration icons have tried this, and you’ll NEVER hear about it from an actress in US Weekly. You don’t have to drink cayenne pepper juice OR forego solid foods for days and you’ll STILL remove countless toxins from your body. But this time, the toxins are in your mind and they’re just as harmful to your health.

Those mental toxins have built up from years of taking in distorted, profit-driven messages about what it means to have a healthy and fit female body. Whether it’s health and fitness magazines featuring airbrushed celebrities in bikinis with the latest strategies to get “sleek and sexy” in 3 days without ever moving an inch, or fitspiration models with exposed buttocks, breasts and oiled-up abs all over Instagram and Facebook — you’ve likely got a pretty specific image in your mind of what it means to be a “fit” and “healthy” woman. (We’re not even going to show you an example here, because you already have it in your mind.) This is a trending beauty ideal that is parading as a fitness ideal — made to look attainable for any woman willing to put in enough effort, willpower and sacrifice.

But what about the vast majority of women who will never, ever have six-pack abs, jutting hip bones, cellulite-free thighs that don’t touch, and every other appearance ideal that is held up as a sure indicator of fitness — regardless of how many squats they do, how “clean” they eat, how many marathons they run, etc.? This image of what it looks like to be a fit woman is so ingrained in our cultural wallpaper that we are completely desensitized to it. It is so common and unquestioned that it has become natural and invisible. THIS cleanse will start to rid you of that numbness.

It’s called the media fast. Rather than cutting out food, you cut out media. You cleanse your mind in order to cleanse your body. Choose a time period — 3 days, a week, a month, or more — and avoid media as much as humanly possible. All of it. No Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, TV, Netflix, movies, blogs, radio, any advertising you can avoid. Without this never-ending stream of biased, $-driven, idealized, Photoshopped, self-promoting messages and images (even well-meaning ones from friends and family and people trying to encourage their version/depiction of health), you give your mind the opportunity to become more sensitive to the messages that don’t look like or feel like the truths you experience in real life, face to face, with real fit people and your own health choices. Without those messages, you can see how your life is different and how your feelings toward your own body are affected. When you return to viewing and reading popular media, you will be more sensitive to the messages that hurt you, that hurt your self-perception and those that are unrealistic for you. Then you can make personalized, critical, well-informed media choices for yourself and your household that will uplift and inspire, and promote health rather than objectification and unattainable appearance ideals that may shame you into poor health choices

The following is a personal story of a Beauty Redefined supporter and health blogger named Kate, who shared her health and fitness journey with a large community of fans at This is Not a Diet — It’s My Life. She has written about her experience with a media fast, and provides some fantastic insight into what makes this type of cleanse crucial for anyone genuinely seeking health and fitness — not just the appearance of health and fitness. Here is her story: 

I’ve been a larger person for the great majority of my life. I’ve never experienced being someone who has teeny little invisible-to-others flaws they pick apart in the mirror. In fact, for most of my adult life I thought it would just be fantastic to wear a size 14 so I could shop somewhere that sold clothes I liked. I never coveted a “thigh gap” or a stomach with so little fat you could see my abdominal muscles. I thought it would be great if my thighs didn’t chafe when I walked from all the rubbing. 

The closest I ever got to the nit-picking your body phase was at the end of my weight-loss and the year that followed. I flew past original goals, to wear that size 14 and be able to walk anywhere I wanted to without getting out of breath or chafing my thighs. I was wearing size 8, even 6 in some things. My thighs didn’t chafe. In fact, they didn’t touch at all. In clothes, my stomach looked flat. I lost most of my breast tissue and went from a DD-cup to a small C or even a large B. 

While I was deep in the process of obsessively losing weight, I became a consumer of a type of media I previously never knew existed: fitness and health. I started looking at pictures of fitness models. I started following them and reading about their workout routines and diets. I worked out at least 6 times a week, for 1-2 hours each time. It was all very intense. No walks in the park for me! I weighed myself every morning and I adjusted my diet accordingly. I was the thinnest I had ever been in my life and I kept it that way with constant vigilance. But I still didn’t look like the fitness models. There was a time when I thought I should, and could, look like them if I just tried a little harder. Why not? I lost 125 pounds. I could do anything. All it takes is enough “will-power” right? If I didn’t get the six-pack, I must be full of lazy-excuses. That’s what those fitness model types said, and look at them! It must be true…

Except that it’s not true at all. My body is my body. The reason I do not, and never will, look like one of those headless ab posters actually doesn’t have anything to do with laziness or excuses. It’s just not the way my body is going to look due to my genetics and personal history. It took me a long time to recognize and be able to accept that, especially with all the messaging telling you that if you just Tried a Little Harder, you could make all your perfect body dreams come true.

The fitness and health world is not at all what it seems to be. My outlook on myself was far healthier before I ever started reading about health and fitness. Isn’t that just backwards? Shouldn’t the health industry be promoting actual health and fitness, not obsessive body re-composition?

I had long ago stopped looking at fashion magazines and models. I knew they were underweight and that it was crazy to think I would ever look like them. But the fitness look seemed so “healthy” and that’s how it was promoted. Anybody can do this, they tell you. You just have to want it bad enough. Just eat a “clean” diet, lift weights, and wake up one day looking like Jamie Eason!

Fast forward to now. My outlook is totally different. I’m never going to look like Jamie Eason. I’m me. I look like me. Kate. Hi! Nice to meet you. My thighs touch and my belly is not flat. I am strong and healthy. The 2013 picture was taken a few months ago. I’m wearing the same outfit today, so I must be a similar size. I don’t weigh myself anymore though, so I can’t say for sure.

I went on a new type of diet, you see. I went on a Media Diet. I already didn’t watch much TV or read magazines, but I do spend a lot of time online. Throughout my changing lifestyle I had managed to build up quite the repertoire of places to consume other people’s tight, toned, surgically and digitally enhanced bodies online and read about their endless nit-picking of their imperceptible flaws, Facebook being the most gluttonous. 

The most important tool of the Media Diet for me is the Facebook UNLIKE button. Does the page post fitspo? Unlike. Does it go on about counting carbs after 3 pm to get the flattest belly? Unlike. Does it tell me I’m not good enough the way I am? Unlike. Does it send me the message that if I don’t look like the model in the picture, I’m a lazy, full of excuses waste of space? UNLIKE at the speed of light! 

If it does not lift me up and support actual health and actual fitness, I don’t need to consume it. 

We are bombarded with messages about not being good enough every single day. You cannot completely escape this. I can’t stop going to the grocery store and seeing the headlines about which celebrities are too fat and which are too thin. But I can take an active role in many parts of my life. I can choose.  

You do not have to buy those magazines or follow those pages to be healthy. If you’re like me, you might be a lot saner and healthier without them.  My New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop reading weight/health/nutrition books. I am proud to say that in 2013 I have only read fiction and art books. Come to think of it, ever since I went on my Media Diet, I am doing a lot of things I enjoy that are important to me that I wasn’t doing before. I’m not working out 6 days a week anymore. I am walking in the park. I am hiking. I am practicing yoga. I only go to the gym 1 time a week, for BodyPump, which is just plain FUN. I have drawn in my sketchbook almost every day this year, something I kept telling myself I would do that I never did. I guess I needed to free up the mental space for it. When I get sick or am too exhausted, I do a crazy thing: I REST. I do not worry about what it might do to my weight the next day. 

I don’t track anything anymore, except my menstrual cycle. When I exercise, I do it for myself, for my mental and physical health, and because I want to, not for calories burned. I don’t do it to earn my dinner. I’m going to eat dinner either way. And sometimes it’s going to be pizza. I have allowed myself time and space to think about what is really important to me, how I really feel about my body, and to stop comparing myself to anyone else. Comparing yourself to other people is stupid. A person with my body and my history is never going to look like someone who has always been thin. That’s a great big “DUH.” right? But I think a lot of people still don’t get it. 

Many people would look at my body and find things to dislike about it, but I am not them, so it’s okay. My hips? They are glorious. My stomach and thighs that touch once more (but don’t chafe) — so nice, so comforting, so warm and soft. Fat is not an enemy, it is part of my body. It gives me my hourglass shape. It gives me my fabulous D-cups. I gives me warmth. I am no longer constantly cold. I don’t feel dizzy. I have a lot more energy. I am more comfortable sleeping. I feel more attractive and less self-conscious. 

Contrary to what I thought, being the thinnest ever didn’t make me happier. It didn’t make me better. It just made me look different. I remember how I felt when I took the middle picture you see above, and I kept staring at it thinking “Wow, I am actually thin.” It was strange and intriguing. It was an out of body experience for sure. When I look at the picture of me now, I see me. It’s not weird, it just is. Living the life I want to live naturally returned me to the body I was meant to have. The funny thing is, this is the body I probably would have had if I had never dieted at all. If I had just let my body mature as it was meant to. But everything told me I wasn’t okay the way I was, and I believed it. I don’t believe it now. And anyway, it’s not for anyone else to say. 

You shouldn’t consume things that make you feel like crap. That includes food and media. Are there people in real life or online in your life who treat you like crap? Do they talk down to you? Do they act like they know you better than you know yourself? Do they make you doubt yourself? Cut them out. You deserve better. And make sure you’re not one of them.

Thanks to Kate for sharing her work with us! Her original post appeared here. For more information on how Beauty Redefined seeks to turn the conversation from focusing on looking healthy to actually being healthy, see our two-part Healthy Redefined series on how health is traditionally defined and how we’re redefining it. See also our popular piece on how to tell if the fitspiration images/messages you’re viewing are helping or harming your health goals. For in-depth help to reframe  your health perceptions and improve your body image, check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Program!

Invisible Women Over 40: Anti-Aging and Symbolic Annihilation

If you lived on another planet and everything you knew about humans came from mainstream media, you’d be absolutely shocked to find out a couple of facts:

Female humans do not die or crawl into caves to disappear at age 40 while male humans live much longer, active lives.

As female humans age, they tend to develop lines on their faces where facial movements occur, as well as looser skin, darker spots from the sun, gray or white hair, and other features that distinguish them from teenagers as they progress throughout their lifetimes. This is NOT only true for men.

Thankfully, most people have the ability to see a variety of females face-to-face to disprove those laughable media myths of  women disappearing with age or perpetual teenage faces and bodies. Unfortunately, that ability to see reality hasn’t put a dent in the anti-aging industries that sell extreme appearance anxiety for record profits each year. But still, that’s what we want to focus on here: reality. Most notably, we want to emphasize how shockingly different reality looks from the ever-present and powerful media world, and how that impacts real, aging people. Once we recognize the effects of the anti-female-aging phenomenon that what we’re buying into by the billions, we can fight back. 

One of several awesome graphs from Vulture. See the rest by clicking the image.

From local or national nightly news to children’s cartoons, people over 40 are drastically underrepresented in all forms of media, despite the fact that they make up the majority of the population. A whopping 62 percent of the female population of the U.S. is over 40. But get this: Older men appear as much as 10 times more frequently than older women in media (1). Even when film depictions of relationships feature older men, their girlfriends and wives are most often decades younger (for more evidence, see this cool piece on how leading men age, but their ladies do not, including graphs documenting age differences). We could probably call this the Liam Neeson/Olivia Wilde phenomenon (see right side of graph). Men in all forms of media are featured well into their 70s while women tend to start becoming invisible in media right around age 40. Academics even have a name for this egregious level of under-representation: symbolic annihilation. Unfortunately, the effects of that annihilation on women’s  body image, feelings of self-worth and bank accounts aren’t so “symbolic.”

With an extremely low number of women over 40 represented in media at all, the WAY they’re represented becomes especially important. And once again, the news isn’t good. Headline #1: Older Women are Portrayed in Negative Ways Much More Often than Men. Think of the wise, funny, intelligent, “sexy” image represented by men in media well into their 50s, 60s and even later – Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood – it isn’t hard to think of a list of examples from past or present. Trying to come up with female equivalents is much more difficult. It’s rare to think of really positive portrayals of women over 40 – NOT the neurotic, crazy, evil, out-of-touch-with-reality characters that are most prominent. Betty White is one notable exception to this rule, as a truly funny, relatable, positive character in her many roles who isn’t simply the butt of jokes or the domineering mother-in-law.

Studies show the vast majority of any older mom, grandma, aunt, boss, teacher, queen or extraneous female character over 40 in any media fits a negative stereotype (2). And that sucks. The largest segment of the population is not seeing themselves represented, and when they do, it’s in negative ways*. What’s more, that information is only about white women. We don’t have any accurate information about how older women from other races are represented. Why? Because there aren’t enough examples to generate any significant findings. One study examined 835 TV characters and found only four African American characters over the age of 60. I’m no math whiz, but 4 out of 835 is a sad statistic. Interestingly, the most popular older woman of color in media happens to be played by a 42-year-old black man, Tyler Perry, as the much-loved “Madea.”

Vogue’s “Age Issue,” where perfectly normal signs of aging are not welcomed!

But aside from the monster oversight in under-representing and misrepresenting older women, mainstream media knows exactly what it is doing when it comes to that huge, money-packing demographic. Excellent business decision #1: Convince women their value entirely depends on their appearance, and that aging is the worst thing that could happen to their appearance. And don’t forget, older women are THE WORST – gross cougars, not hot, totally out of touch with the real world, neurotic … OR age-defying wonders! Then, convince them it’s possible to entirely stop aging and look 15 years younger with these products. Since people over age 50 own 70 percent of the total net worth of American households (4), targeting this powerful demographic is a strategic move — especially considering that women over 40 influence 80 percent of the purchasing decisions in the U.S. (5). I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the age-old “fountain of youth,” which has long been fabled to stop the aging process entirely, has been discovered! It’s being marketed and sold to women in the U.S. and raking in billions for several different industries each year. You can see it in countless magazines, billboards, commercials, TV shows or movies – you know, the 50+ year-old women with zero signs of aging. No lines or wrinkles, tight skin all over, no signs of silver hair sparkling through their thick, flowing brunette and blonde heads of hair. We rarely see an older woman in media, but when we do, she generally fits that description. These women have obviously partaken of the fountain of youth, but what did the trick?! We’ve discovered it!

Media’s totally normal-appearing ageless older women are the product of two tricks: cosmetic procedures and digital alteration. Whether we like it or not, we start to look different as we age. For men, those changes are most often** depicted as looking “distinguished” and aren’t something for men to be ashamed of. For women, those changes are to be immediately stopped, reversed and hidden at all costs. Seriously, ALL costs – financially, time-wise and health-wise. Because you’re worth it.

Let’s talk about Botox, baby. Plastic surgery is the most profitable industry in the U.S., and Botox is the No. 1 cosmetic treatment. Several million people have Botulinum Toxin injected into their facial muscles in order to paralyze them and conceal the appearance of wrinkles, which must be repeated every 3-6 months. About 92 percent of those who get Botox are women. The next most popular procedures were all also for “anti-aging,” including soft tissue fillers, hyaluronic acid and chemical peels.

While watching “The Bachelorette” a few years ago  (I know, I know, not the greatest choice), my beautiful, 27-year-old friend proclaimed that she had “the forehead of a 90-year-old woman.” What prompted that (extremely untrue) declaration? Emily, the beautiful bachelorette, who is our same age, has a perfectly smooth, line-less face. So does every other woman on TV, in movies or in magazines. Lineless and expression-free starts to look normal and ideal, while real-life, expression-ful(?) faces look abnormal and sub-par. Yikes. That’s why, in just the last 15 or so years, there has been a 446 percent increase in cosmetic procedures in the U.S., which raked in $12 billion in 2010 alone. The American Academy of Plastic Surgeons called laser de-wrinkling procedures “recession proof.” It’s a little startling that in the toughest economic times in decades, women are still sacrificing thousands of dollars for painful and temporary procedures to prevent the appearance of aging.

That brings us to the other fountain of youth trick: Digital Alteration. If a woman isn’t outrageously gorgeous, thin and young-looking for her age, she’s almost always either Photoshopped to look that way or is completely invisible in mainstream media. This DOES have an effect. These pervasive, nearly inescapably and strikingly consistent images of young-looking older women create not just a new ideal for female beauty, but a new normal for us.

Our Photoshop Phoniness Hall of Shame sheds some light on the extreme abnormality of those images by pairing before-and-after alteration shots. A couple of epic age-defying examples are Faith Hill on the cover of Redbook and Twiggy in Olay’s eye cream ads.

Faith Hill on the July 2007 Redbook cover. Right arm? Suddenly appeared on the cover. Left arm? Cut down by at least 1/3 of its original size. Wrinkles, normal complexion or any other signs of life on her face? Erased. Back? Sliced out almost entirely. Enough said.


A 2009 Oil of Olay eye cream ad featuring Twiggy — one of the world’s biggest modeling/fashion icons for more than a decade, now she’s relegated to the unglamorous realm of photoshopping disasters for beauty industries lies. Straight-up lies. Amazingly, this ad was banned by the UK’s advertising watchdog after more than 700 complaints were gathered for a campaign against airbrushing in ads by the Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson. The ad was deemed to be misleading. Um … yep!

These aren’t two freak accidents — these are daily deliberate decisions by media powerholders who profit from female anxiety about our faces and bodies. Keep in mind that Olay, the anti-aging skin care brand owned by Procter & Gamble, spent more than ANY OTHER COMPANY in the U.S. on advertising in 2011. That’s more than any company in any industry. They and many other companies claim to sell the keys to the fountain of youth at every drug store in the nation, but the only real solution to aging lies in the hands of their photo editors. Ever noticed the stark difference in the way men’s faces are portrayed compared to women’s faces in mass media — whether it’s the cover of GQ or a Chanel ad? Here’s an extremely telling example we pieced together, featuring about as comparable of a pairing as you could ever find: similar age, both major celebrities, both in ads for the same company from the same year. Just one major difference: one is a human face and one is a cartoon.

Wonder why you never see women with gray hair featured positively in any sort of mainstream media? Because gray hair doesn’t make anyone any money. A very telling example from the must-read “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf is of a fashion magazine in the ’90s that featured a spread of beautiful gray-haired older women in all the latest fashions. Despite positive feedback from readers, one of the magazine’s main advertisers, Clairol, threatened to pull all its advertising support if gray-haired women were ever featured positively again. Thus, no gray-haired women are ever featured positively in any magazine that depends on beauty advertising dollars (hint: all of them).

One scary fact is that those great lengths women are going to in order to achieve a youthful ideal are not limited to surgical procedures and magic creams — they also include disordered eating of all types. Our friend Michelle Konstantinovsky at HelloGiggles reported on a study from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, which found that in their sample of 1,900 women 50 and older, more than 60 percent of women said their body weight or shape negatively affected their lives and 13 percent admitted to having an eating disorder. We agree with Michelle in saying “duh” to the “surprising” new finding that older women also suffer from disordered eating.

But enough with the depressing stuff already. Let’s get to some solutions!

What can be done to break these body image issues? Importantly but not surprisingly, the researcher agrees with everything we preach at Beauty Redefined: The lead researcher’s main solution is to help women get themselves out of this “appearance focus.” She recommends instead of looking for flaws, women work on focusing on something positive about themselves — a characteristic that will endure long after their looks fade. Easier said than done, right? We can help you start with this list of totally doable strategies, including going on a media fast, complimenting others on more than their looks, shutting down negative thoughts, and many more. Please choose even just one, and start right now to change the way you perceive your own face and body. This isn’t an individual fight with individual effects. The way we feel about ourselves and treat our bodies has real influence on those around us, even if we aren’t aware of it.

Please consider your influence on the reality of the girls, women, boys and men in your life.

What would happen if confident, happy, beautiful women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, all-over hair removal or tanning regimens? How could that change the way their daughters, students, friends, nieces and coworkers perceived themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real faces? How could simply owning (and treating kindly and speaking nicely about) our so-called “imperfect” bodies affect not only our own lives, but those over whom we have influence? Is it possible to slowly but deliberately change the perception of these “flaws” as something to shame, hide and fix at any cost to something acceptable and embraceable in all their human, womanly real-ness? We say yes.

Yes, maybe every 30- to 80-year-old woman on TV or movies has a wrinkle-free, perfectly stiff and lifted face that appears ageless. The pressure to Photoshop ourselves into hopeful conformity with beauty ideals is intense, and backlash against female aging is unbelievable. At 29, I frankly don’t yet grasp the real pain and anxiety that accompanies aging and its effects on female faces and bodies that become invisible and worthless in some ways to a society that prizes youthful beauty above all else. But at any age, embracing your own beautiful reality and owning it for the others in your life is the epitome of redefining beauty. Media will continue to symbolically annihilate women who don’t fit money-making beauty ideals, but WE do not have to annihilate our own faces and bodies to fit those unreal standards. What we COULD annihilate is our allegiance to the idea that women have to look young forever, and that women who don’t look young forever aren’t worthwhile or beautiful. I promise that will be much more empowering and less painful. Let the anti-anti-aging annihilation begin!

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.
1) Peterson, 1973; Harwood, 2007; T. Robinson & Anderson, 2006; Raman, Harwood, Weis, Anderson, & Miller, 2006; Stern and Mastro, 2004; Miller et al., 2007
2) Signorielli, 2004
3) Harwood and Anderson, 2002
4) L. Davis, 2002, cited in Harwood, 2007
5) Invisible Women, 2010
6) U.S. Plastic Surgery Statistics, April 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jul/22/plastic-surgery-medicine#zoomed-picture 

*There’s a wonderful organization called Invisible Women that is working to fight against the under-representation and misrepresentation of older women in media through a documentary and education outreach.

**This may start to change as media capitalize on sparking men’s insecurities as well as women’s – but it’s rare. Key example: Those men’s hair color commercials with the little girls convincing Dad to dye his hair and beard in order to get back in the dating game. Ugh. We don’t endorse this tactic. Evening the playing field by bringing down both men and women with body shame and appearance focus helps no one.

Our 3 Issues with the Swimsuit Issue: Sports, Sexualization and Side-Effects

Since the debut of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is being celebrated on the Today Show and the Tonight Show and everywhere in between, we have to counter that excitement with a reality check about this supposed sports magazine’s serious blow to female equality, self-esteem and body image packaged as “safe” for newsstands and coffee tables everywhere.

Here are our 3 biggest issues with the “Swimsuit” Issue:

 The Sporty Source

The Swimsuit Issue is Sporty, Safe, Swimwear Fun!! Right? Nah, it’s just sexual objectification, repackaged in an unlikely source. Every week, 30 million people catch up on the latest sports news in SI, the self-proclaimed “foremost authority” and “most respected voice” in sports journalism. Published since 1964, the SI’s 200-plus pages of nude to semi-nude women is truly a cultural event, generating global mainstream media coverage, TV shows and memorabilia to push SI’s sales through the roof every spring. Since its birth, the Swimsuit Issue has earned more than $1 billion for SI’s parent company, Time Warner, which owns CNN, AOL, HBO, the CW, Time Inc., DC Comics and hundreds of others. Talk about a media powerholder! – and thus, the constant mainstream media plugs from shows and companies that probably wouldn’t normally celebrate voyeuristic magazines.

The source of this particular brand of objectification is crucial to our issue with SI, since SI is branded as a sports publication, which is openly displayed on newsstands everywhere, and is packaged as innocent and safe for all viewers. Magazines like Playboy, Hustler and Penthouse, on the other hand, are an obvious source for voyeurism, or the act of secretive looking at things of a sexual nature without being seen, and those sources do so without apology. Since they’re not selling their objectification (with only slightly more nudity) as sporty, safe, swimwear fun!!, they also required to be covered in opaque paper for mailing and can’t be displayed publicly like any other magazine deemed appropriate for all-ages public viewing, like, say, SI. The Swimsuit Issue is equally voyeuristic in nature, but does so under the guise of being “America’s foremost sports authority” and “most popular sports journalism magazine.” Duncan* put it best in 1993 when she said, “If they so desire, readers can sneak looks at the models while steadfastly denying that they buy and read the issue for pornographic content,” and she had no idea what SI would look like 20 years later, with the help of digital manipulation, surgical enhancements and reductions, and a global company owner with the power to publish and produce nearly any message and distribute it immediately.

The source of this blatant objectification also provides one extra slap in the face to female equality just in the fact that it is the #1 sports magazine, but very very very rarely features female athletes. Women appear on less than 5% of SI’s covers and the editorial content is similar. There’s no lack of female athletes to cover — those just aren’t the women SI values and they certainly aren’t doing the things SI values women for.   

 The Sexualization

There’s no way around this one. SI is unapologetic in its increasingly explicit sexualization of women. Anyone who thinks this magazine is featuring models to display swimwear, or the models’ accomplishments (physical or otherwise), or anything other than just sexual stimulation for audiences is kidding themselves. Those models aren’t posed or displayed to look merely beautiful, or strong, or to show off their swimwear – they are posed and displayed to provide visual gratification to viewers. Let me be blunt here. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is the epitome of female objectification. It is only getting more extreme. In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the swimsuit models posed in what we’d now call mildly seductive positions. Posed with flirtatious smiles and hands on hips to emphasize the curve of their waists, these women were acting to accentuate their best features – the objects of men’s desire. But as years passed, the models seem to more fully act like they were turning themselves into objects. By 1988, the cover model, Elle Macpherson, is staring intently into the camera while pulling her swimsuit down to expose her cleavage. Because her goal is to attract and satisfy the male gaze, she is acting with herself as a male would act if he were present – a clear display of the mental act of self-objectification (more on that in #3).

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman in the 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

SI masks its pornographic presence by placing the models in foreign locations with sandy beaches and tropical jungles so as to appear to promote travel destinations and the appreciation of nature – but don’t forget their appreciation of nearly non-existent swimwear. The 2008 issue marked the beginning of a more naked era for SI, titled “Barely Bikinis,” is an understatement: the majority of the models appear naked, missing either the top or bottom of their bikini or are wearing completely translucent coverings with visible nipples. The latest issues feature topless models with string bikini bottoms only big enough to cover the necessary amount of skin to avoid censorship, and no cover model has worn both the top and bottom of her bikini in several years. When they do wear bathing suits, the most private of parts that are normally censored in mainstream media are repeatedly exposed in an “oops, I didn’t know that was showing” sort of fashion. These are not swimsuits on display, or even just bodies on display – the vast majority of the poses are reflective of exactly what is depicted in straight-up porn.  The 2015 cover is such an egregious example of a stereotypical pornographic pose meant to invite viewers to a sexualized view of her genitals more than anything else.

Though the swimsuit issue only shows up once a year, it fits into a much bigger picture of women being consistently displayed as sexualized ornaments to be looked at while men are featured and validated for so much more – like being featured for their athletic prowess in a sports mag rather than their oiled-up, mostly naked bodies! How novel. Objectification of women is inescapable in media from every genre for every audience, from G-rated children’s programming to network TV commercials to mall storefront windows to blockbuster movies. The SI Swimsuit Issue joins countless others in constructing men as active, women as passive; men as subjects, women as objects; men as actors, women as receivers; men as the lookers and women as the looked-at; and men as consumers and women as the objects to be consumed.

 The Side-Effects

Our culture, which focuses so intensely on female appearance over anything else, teaches little girls and grown women to see themselves through an internalized objectifying perspective called self-objectification, which turns them into both the spectators and the spectacles. They literally picture themselves being looked at while going about their lives, unconscious that they are devoting part of their mental capacity to constant appearance monitoring. When women are feeling self-conscious of their bodies, or self-objectifying, they perform worse on all types of tests – they can’t run as far or as fast, lift as heavy of weights, or do as well on math, reading and spatial skills tests as they can when they aren’t worrying about what they look like. This is a huge barrier to female progress and success, and it can only be stopped once we recognize that it is happening. For most girls and women, it is unquestioned and normal. We have to denormalize this internalized objectification.

The side effects of objectifying media like the Swimsuit Issue, whether unintended or designed for profit, are changing the way we view ourselves and women in general — and not in positive ways. As spectators of themselves, women learn from popular media, in this case the wildly popular Swimsuit Issue, to compare their appearances with the media’s feminine ideal – young, tan, very thin**, clear skin, white but not too white, tan but not too dark, curves in all the “right” places, and the list grows every day. We see the exact same look, and the same body type, over and over again. This isn’t a celebration of female beauty or fitness, this is a celebration of one ultra-narrowly defined idea of female beauty or fitness that drives many girls and women to unhealthy extremes to emulate. This belief forms the foundation for a lifetime of work for women trying to live up to these constructed ideals of beauty and value. The amount of money, time and energy women devote to chasing these often unreachable ideals throughout their lives is unbelievable. These same ideals about what is most valuable in women also leads boys and men to believe these appearance-focused qualities are essential (and attainable) in a romantic partner. What it comes down to is this: the more women’s bodies are represented as objects to be looked at, consumed and discarded, the more people view and treat women’s bodies in real life as objects to be looked at, consumed and discarded.

We are not asking you to sign a petition or anything else meant to force Sports Illustrated to change the way they represent women. That’s not how we operate.

We work from the bottom up, changing the perceptions of individuals who can spark change in their own circles of influence – not from the top down, by asking media to change. We hope people will reject the harmful messages sold by outlets like SI and let that send a financial message to the companies, but we aren’t banking on that. Instead, you can join us in pushing back against the celebration of objectification by doing a few things: 

  • When you see the Swimsuit Issue on display in airports, gas stations, grocery stores or other public places, respectfully ask a manager or other supervisor to move the display away from public view, just as they would other titles with similar covers, such as Penthouse and Playboy. We’ve had surprising success with this simple request, as store clerks and employees have readily agreed to rearrange magazine racks or place covers over the content.
  • Share our sticky notes with positive reminders like “Women are more than just bodies. See more, be more” in public places where people can see empowering messages to challenge the objectifying ones. We leave them on public bathroom mirrors, lockers, magazine racks (unless an employee asks you not to), public signs and ads, etc.
  • Talk openly to your family, friends, colleagues, students and others over whom you have influence about the harms of women being sexualized in such inescapable media outlets. Point it out when it is happening and ask questions about why. The answer is almost always money – someone is making money off those sexualized and objectified depictions of girls and women. We’re #notbuyingit.
  • This might be a no-brainer, but if you’ve got a subscription to SI, consider canceling it. Let them know via e-mail or even better, publicly on FB or Twitter, that you canceled because you are opposed to the objectification of women they bank on. Speak up with your spending habits. They always listen to that.
  • Use your body as an instrument rather than an ornament to be looked at. You are capable of much more than looking hot, and you can constantly remind yourself of that by caring for your body and using it as a tool to experience and enjoy life, rather than using it as a decoration for others’ viewing pleasure.  Avoid media like Sports Illustrated that seeks to convince you otherwise.

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

*Duncan, Margaret Carlisle (1993). Beyond Analyses of Sport Media Texts: An Argument for Formal Analyses of Institutional Structures. Sociology of Sport Journal. 10: pp. 353-372.

**We absolutely do not see the inclusion of one “plus-size” (6’2″, size 12) model in the 2015 issue as a victory. We see this is a slight expansion of who SI deems “objectifiable,” which still upholds dozens of beauty ideals sold through every other image, even if she embodies a size slightly larger than her objectified counterparts. Additionally, we absolutely do not see the inclusion of a plus-size model in a $455,000 paid advertisement as a victory. We are not equal opportunity objectifiers and we can’t applaud anyone who is.

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