by Lindsay | Jun 18, 2017
Women and girls are more than just bodies. But you wouldn’t know that if you looked to media, or even sometimes well-meaning religious* rhetoric, for the truth about females. And you wouldn’t know that if you listened to the way so many of us discuss the topic of appropriate dress, or “modesty,” today. We are growing up and growing older surrounded by profit-driven media’s fixation on bodies – from “Perfect Your Parts, Perfect Your Life!” billboards to always-Photoshopped magazines and TV obsessed with judging what women wear and how much cellulite they have. In an inescapable media world that pans up and down women’s bodies and focuses so much attention on their parts, no wonder girls learn to display their bodies as something to be looked at. No wonder girls learn to survey their bodies at all times, and in all things they are wearing, and in all places they are going.
Today in many circles, issues of female “modesty” are very popular. From many religions’ focus on appropriate dress to schools having rules on how high above the knee girls’ shorts can and can’t be or how much bare shoulder is too much – modesty is a trending topic. Fashion boutiques have crazy names like “Sexy Modest” and “Modest is Hottest!” is a popular phrase endorsing full-coverage clothing. While reasons for suggesting modesty vary greatly, we at Beauty Redefined can attest that far too much emphasis is being placed on arbitrary standards that are harming females from a very young age and keeping us fixated on females as bodies alone.
If you’re pro-modesty (by whatever definition that means to you), then live it and teach it as a means for empowerment and benefit to yourself, not as a service or protection for men. You are capable of much more than being looked at, and your clothing decisions can reflect that. Simultaneously, let’s make sure we’re not shaming or blaming any girl or woman for what she chooses to wear. We’re in this fight together!
From a research-driven point of view, there is power in modesty. Many cultures and religions echo that sentiment to varying degrees — that covering up your parts is crucial to respecting bodies, which are viewed as sacred. Regardless of your spiritual orientation, an open discussion about modesty from the perspective of our research can get us somewhere much more powerful and valuable than the shallow “modest is hottest” mentality so prevalent today. Here’s the truth you can stand behind:
We are more than bodies to be looked at. Self-objectification is an epidemic among females today, as our research can attest, and it keeps females “in their place” as bodies in need of constant preoccupation and perfection. It takes place when we internalize an outsider’s perspective of ourselves. We literally picture ourselves being looked at as we go throughout our days, and research shows it gets in the way of everything we do. Everything. When we have to accomplish a task while also thinking about what we look like while doing it, we’re at a major disadvantage.
When we live “to be looked at,” self-conscious of our bodies, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness. We perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, have lower sexual assertiveness (including the ability to say “no” when needed), and we are left unfulfilled and unhappy. When we self-objectify, which is the norm today for little girls all the way up to older women, disordered eating and cosmetic surgery procedures increase, we stop raising our hands in class, and we quit pursuits of math and science degrees at greater rates. We experience immense body shame, anxiety and depression, and fixate on our bodies enough that we never get on to the great things we can and should be doing.** Girls and women LOSE — and so do the men all around us — when we fixate on bodies.
If modesty is a concept you subscribe to, there is great power in changing the modesty conversation from what you LOOK like to others to what you FEEL like inside. Studies on the epidemic of 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 (the latest study of this kind was just published in May 2012’s Sex Roles academic journal)***. 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 is revealing or emphasizing our parts, we become very self-aware of those parts that are being looked at. We self-objectify and are in a near-constant state of adjusting our clothing, fixating on 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 for many — we’ve got to move on to being more than an object to be looked at. Research shows a level of modesty can be an important tool in safe-guarding ourselves and our daughters from being in a constant state of self-objectification.
Many discussions of modesty, from diverse cultural or religious perspectives, revolve around the idea of keeping sinful and unholy female bodies and body parts from the gaze of others — particularly men. This privileges the male gaze, in a backward sort of way, and puts females at a disadvantage for being the ones in control of what others think or feel when seeing their bodies. When we speak of modesty strictly in terms of covering our bodies from the sexual gaze of others, we are keeping the level of discourse at the shallow waters of women and girls as bodies alone. We have very little control of what other people think when they look at us. 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. Covering up has no bearing on men’s ability to control themselves. If we are teaching the girls in our lives that the primary objective of modesty 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 and they are primarily sexual objects in need of covering. (See our thoughts about the massive debate on leggings here). No girl or woman’s body is sinful, and no one should be taught that. Modesty, as an ideal, can be about so much more than shaming females into covering up.
We complicate it even further when we throw in phrases like, “modest is hottest,” which again teaches that girls should dress modestly for the benefit and approval of others, and not for themselves. Modesty can be a powerful concept when we believe we are more than bodies. And when you believe that you are capable of more than looking hot, then you might dress differently than someone who perceives her value comes from her appearance, or the amount of attention she gets from men. Someone who sees herself as a capable and powerful person with a body that can help her achieve great things might act differently than someone who exists solely to look “hot.” She’ll treat her body differently and think about it differently. If you believe your power comes from your words, your unique contributions, your mind, your service, then you don’t need to seek attention and power by emphasizing your parts and minimizing yourself to your body.
We see why suggestions regarding the length of hemlines and the depth of necklines are important, because we live in a sexual world where even the youngest of girls are sexualized to an extreme degree and they are told their “sexiness” will bring them popularity, love, and happiness. Studies show girls as young as 6 years old are sexualizing themselves because media messages show them being sexy yields rewards (a July 2012 study in Sex Roles reveals the latest). As we‘ve written about before, even girls’ TOYS and cartoon characters are sexualized to the extreme these days. But when we fixate on the inches showing we are missing the point. When we judge girls and women for the skin they are or are not showing, we are minimizing them to their bodies and repeating the same lies that females are only bodies in need of judgment and fixing. We are even perpetuating the shame-inducing belief that female bodies are sinful and impure, and must be covered to protect boys and men who can’t be held responsible for their thoughts or actions.
Modesty is defined differently by different cultures – even different families – and it’s time to stop shaming people into covering themselves and start teaching truths that need shouted from the rooftop: We are more than just bodies to be looked at. When we begin believing that, we begin acting like it, and female progress in every imaginable way will move forward. We will spend less money on cosmetic surgery (up 500% in the last decade with 92% of the surgeries performed on women) and every other product we need to “fix” our flaws. We will spend less time hiding and fixing and obsessing over our insecurities beneath our clothes. We will spend less time emphasizing and obsessing over our favorite parts on display in our clothes. We will perform better academically, athletically, and in our careers. We will love other women more and feel more compassion toward them because we will not be judging them as bodies. We will feel greater self-love, happiness, and power to live authentically chosen lives. We will pass along all of these powerful truths to the little girls growing up in an increasingly sexualized world.
Please pass this along. Let’s change the conversation currently steeped in the negativism of “cover yourself” to “you are capable of so much more than being looked at” and positive, powerful outcomes will follow.
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.
**For a comprehensive list of self-objectification’s many negative consequences, see the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.
***Tiggemann, M. & Andrew, R. (2012). Clothes Make a Difference: The Role of Self-Objectification. Sex Roles. Vol. 66 Issue 9/10, p646
by Lindsay Kite | Mar 24, 2017
By Lexie Kite, PhD
My amazing baby girl, Logan, turned one this week. Having been fed a lifelong diet of how humiliating “bodies after babies” are and how important it is to “get your body back” after birth, I was not thrilled about living a life with a post-baby bod. Despite my last 10 years of body image research and public activism, in the back of my mind I secretly worried that maybe all Lindsay and I know and teach through our hard work at Beauty Redefined wouldn’t hold up through the scary disruption of pregnancy and “body after baby.” What if I couldn’t honestly live what I preach?
But you know what? Our research on how to continuously attain body image resilience because of difficult things we experience in our bodies – not in spite of those things –absolutely did hold up. I am grateful to feel that I have internalized the foundations of positive body image to the point that these thought processes are second nature, and I know it is possible for anyone. This last year has been amazing. It’s been amazing because I haven’t lived my days as a “body after baby.” I’ve been a person, a woman, a director, a wife, a sister, an activist, a mom. I haven’t been a body – I’ve been so much more than a body.
My changed body hasn’t consumed my thoughts like media and peers and cultural ideals have so often taught me it should. Instead, the very dramatic experience of growing a baby (and having a c-section because she wanted to sit straight up, and having mastitis, and not producing enough milk to sustain her, and having a body that is softer than it used to be) has absolutely not caused me to hate my body or fixate upon my body, but to appreciate it even more than I could have without those hard experiences. Yes, I’m still self-conscious some of the time, and no, I’m not going to rock a bikini on Instagram (or anywhere) to prove how much I love my body. But I have survived pregnancy and childbirth and become more resilient in my feelings about my body in the face of those difficulties and changes.
I am absolutely living, breathing proof that believing you are more than a body – that learning to SEE MORE in yourself and the world’s cultural ideals and BE MORE than a body to be looked at – is an absolute game changer.
Every one of us are on a lifelong body image rollercoaster. There’s no getting off of it. Harmful beliefs and messages about women’s bodies are deeply ingrained in our culture. But the knowledge and expertise that informs all the work we do at Beauty Redefined has made that roller coaster so much less extreme and scary for me – it’s more like a bumpy ride than a life of really high highs and really low lows when it comes to how I feel about my body. I can absolutely testify that the strategies for resilience we have identified and teach consistently, and the new patterns of thinking we recommend work beautifully.
For moms, future moms, or anyone with a body on this lifelong body image rollercoaster, I want to offer a few personally proven and research-driven tips to experience the paradigm shift from “body after baby” to “more than a body after baby.” If you haven’t had a baby or aren’t planning to have a baby, insert “baby” for the life event of your choice (example: “body after surgery,” “body after breakup,” “body after cancer,” “body after weight gain/loss,” etc).
I am not a “before” or an “after.” Our bodies are constantly changing. We age, grow, shrink, hurt, heal, and change every minute. Recognizing that I am on a lifelong journey in this body helps me be compassionate and loving toward myself. I am not a before or an after – I’m “during” and enduring a million moments in between my “before” and “after.”
My body is an instrument, not an ornament. Despite the very normal and stifling anxiety I often feel when thinking about wearing a swimsuit, I have found immense happiness by actually putting on a swimsuit and getting in the water. Repeating and living our mantra, “My body is an instrument, not an ornament,” opens up your life to the freedom of living outside the confines of being looked at. Try these tips for incorporating body positive exercise or fitness strategies that improve your health and your body image. I LOVE swimming and being in the water. We took our baby to the lake or the pool most weekends last summer when she was just tiny, and it was a transformative experience to just LIVE and prove to myself again and again that it doesn’t matter what I look like in a swimsuit. We all qualify to enjoy the world in our bodies, regardless of how we think those bodies might appear.
Bag the body talk. Maybe I’ve just trained the people in my life well, but I have been blessed to be surrounded by people who have not commented on my body – for good or bad – and that’s a great thing. My extended family and my coworkers did an incredible job of bagging the body-related comments all together and instead doing things like asking me how I feel and how my baby is. Even those intended to be positive comments (“You look so good for having just had a baby!” or “You look even better now than before!” or “I can hardly tell you had a kid!”) can cause us to fixate on our looks in new ways and start to question how we appear to others (“Did I look gross before?” “I need to keep losing weight so I can keep getting these awesome comments!”). The best thing you can do if you are getting a lot of looks-based comments or compliments is to change the conversation. Depending on how well you know the person, that can be a quick “thanks” or “I feel great too” and then diverting attention elsewhere, or you could consider saying something like, “I’m actually working on not thinking about my weight or looks so much, and focusing on more in other women too. You should try it with me! It’s harder than it seems!” or “If I can be honest, those comments about my body actually make me really self conscious and hyper-aware of my looks. Can we talk about anything else?”
Helpful Sorta “Post-Partum” Tip from Lindsay: I went to a midwife appointment with Lexie while she was pregnant and when the nurse asked me if I have any kids, I responded, “Nope, this is our first!” So yeah, this baby feels like mine. I should also note that not having any kids of my own hasn’t held me back from experiencing the pregnancy weight gain right alongside my sister. I’m honestly not sure if it was sympathy gain or an unavoidable side effect of our twin connection, but it was real. I also realized how much I love baby legs. Their little dimples and thigh rolls and chubby ankles — all the varieties and shapes are perfect and NO ONE can argue that. I love them so much I can’t even call them legs — I have to call them “leggies.” Then one day, I referred to my own legs as “my leggies.” Game-changer. It’s adorable, hilarious, endearing, and you can’t feel negatively about something you refer to in such a painfully cute way. If you love baby leggies of every shape, size and color, think of your own precious leggies on those terms and feel the love!
What doesn’t help:
Comparison is the thief of joy. Scrolling through old pictures of yourself when you were thinner, younger, more curvaceous, etc., is the kiss of death for your self-esteem. Looking at bloggers and social media starlets who have just had babies and are suddenly posting swimsuit pics and skinny jeans pics is no better for you, either. Studies and real-life experience show that comparing yourself to pictures of yourself or other women online or in real life is not going to do you any good. It’s actually proven to destroy your self-esteem and lead to loneliness, envy, anxiety, and body shame. Staring at your phone or laptop when you’re up at weird hours with a baby is inevitable, but it’s important to screen your screen time by being super aware of what and who you are viewing. Consider a short but incredibly powerful media cleanse. If you feel even a tiny bit of that yucky sinking feeling of envy or body shame when you see pictures of women online, click away. Unfollow. Hide. Block. Do whatever you have to do to be compassionate with yourself. I caught myself several times scrolling through popular fashion/lifestyle bloggers’ Instagram accounts and feeling worse about myself, and I have learned to click away. Even the most well-meaning, really nice-seeming social media influencer is making big money to sell you aspirational images that aren’t entirely real. They are perfectly lit, flatteringly posed, filtered, cropped, styled, and designed to sell an ideal. If their pictures trigger you toward self-comparison or push you to fixate on your body, it is perfectly healthy and compassionate toward yourself to unfollow. I did it, and I promise you it’ll help you tremendously.
Don’t conflate happiness with thinness. Your happiest times are not necessarily your thinnest times, and neither are mine. Life doesn’t work like that, even though happiness and thinness are ALWAYS conflated in advertising, magazines, #transformation photos, and any entertainment news show. Happiness just absolutely does not equal thinness. They are two very different things. My thinnest times have often been consumed by self-objectifying thoughts of how I appear to others and food-obsessed thoughts about how many carbs I am consuming. My happiest times have been times in my life where strict carb counting or exercising to lose weight takes a backseat to cuddling on the couch with my husband, sharing a birthday cupcake with my baby, going on walks in the park, and not letting my weight or shape consume me. Body size just can’t equate with joy, and a changing body can remind you of that truth.
“I’ll be happy when…” is a mean mindset. Any mindset that requires you to change your body before you can appreciate it or feel happy with it or shop for new clothes or take family pictures or go swimming or anything else is a mean mindset. Don’t be so harsh on yourself. You qualify to live your life happily right now! Do you believe that? It’s true. Instead of setting arbitrary goals like, “it took me nine months to grow this baby and I’m giving myself nine months to look like I did before having her” isn’t super helpful. What if you don’t hit your goal? What if you hit your goal by using unhealthy means like starving, binging, over-exercising, unsafe diet pills, etc.? Be compassionate with yourself. Set goals to do the things you want to do right now, regardless of your looks or how you think other people think you look. Want a new pair of jeans? Find a pair you love and don’t let the size hold you back. Want to go to the gym? Wear whatever you feel comfortable in and go use do your favorite exercises. Want to take family pictures? Book that photographer even though you’re scared. You qualify to be in photos with your loved ones.
You are more than a body. You are also more than a “body after baby.” You have important work to do and people to love and goodness to contribute, regardless of what toll a baby (or your twin’s baby) has taken on your body.
Lindsay and Lexie Kite, PhDs, are co-directors of the Beauty Redefined foundation, founded in 2009, and identical twins with doctorates in the study of body image resilience. They travel the US speaking at universities, high schools, and conferences about how to identify objectifying ideals and overcome them to get to a more powerful, healthy place. Learn about our life-changing, research-backed online body image resilience course here. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter to stay up-to-date on this and all things Beauty Redefined!
by Lindsay | Jan 12, 2017
By Lindsay Kite, PhD, and Lexie Kite, PhD
In addition to the very young, very thin, surgically and digitally augmented and idealized bodies Sports Illustrated has always featured with or without swimsuits in its “Swimsuit Issue,” the leading sports magazine now deems larger supermodel bodies as worthy of objectification in its pages.
Many people are praising the magazine for this inclusive, revolutionary step toward empowerment for curvy women, but we see nothing to cheer about.
A men’s sports magazine allowing new female body types in its sexy swimsuit issue is NOT a sign of progress for women. Please don’t let the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue be your barometer for women’s advancement.
Expanding the boundaries for which bodies qualify to be objectified does not translate into actual empowerment for women. The sexual objectification of women reduces us to body parts, silences us, turns us into objects to be viewed and consumed, vessels for sexual pleasure, and less than fully human. Just as boys and men learn to view and value women primarily for our appearance and sexual appeal, girls and women learn to view and evaluate ourselves in the same terms, through the same outside perspective. We monitor our bodies constantly, consciously and unconsciously working to adjust our appearances to be most appealing to onlookers.
Objectification hurts us. It minimizes us, it distracts us, it drains us. It always has. Only now, we’ve learned to claim it as our own and fight for our own scraps of “power” in this system that only values our bodies at the expense of our humanity. And thus, we cheer when new female body types are deemed acceptable to be stripped down and posed for sexual consumption in a mainstream sports magazine.
If your idea of empowerment is indistinguishable from the sexist objectification that has always been used to devalue and degrade women, it might not be all that revolutionary. If we want women to be valued as equals to men, we can’t cheer for their objectification — no matter what those women look like. Individually and collectively, women’s progress is damaged by being valued as bodies alone.
And let’s be clear. Anyone who thinks the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is in the business of doing anything other than objectifying female bodies to provide sexual stimulation for a targeted male audience while making millions for corporations is kidding themselves.
- 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 swimsuit models aren’t posed or displayed to look merely beautiful, or strong, or to show off swimwear – they are posed and displayed to specifically emphasize their sexual appeal through all the typical poses found in Hustler or Penthouse — arched backs, down on all fours, lips open, legs splayed, chests protruding, etc.
People celebrate and cheer for women to be featured in the Swimsuit Issue as if they are being honored for their athletic accomplishments or any other achievements, and the magazine is doing a great service to humanity. However, the “honor” here is simply that this magazine has decided these new bodies will sell issues and subscriptions and get views on their videos and websites. All the while, regular everday women are doing the Swimsuit Issue’s unpaid PR and advertising work for them. Go look at the comments and posts about the heroic inclusion of “plus-sized” supermodel Ashley Graham, and the praise of SI’s 2018 co-opting of the #metoo movement with a spread that included writing words like “empowered” and “artist” on the nude bodies of several young women like Aly Raisman.
To be clear, we don’t blame Aly Raisman or Ashley Graham or anyone else for their participation in the Swimsuit Issue. We wish they wouldn’t do it, but we recognize the huge rewards our culture gives women who buy into objectification as if it is a great honor to be chosen for a magazine like this. They are paid handsomely, fawned over, given huge publicity, and validated with likes, comments, followers and new fans in men and women alike. However, while it may be personally beneficial for the women featured in the magazine, that does not mean those benefits extend to women in general.
This critique doesn’t mean we are against seeing body diversity in media. We will always continue to advocate for more diverse representations of all women in mainstream media, but we’ll know progress is happening when those same women aren’t required to take their clothes off in order to be included. We need regular roles and representation for women of all shapes, sizes, colors and ability levels that do not revolve around what they look like.
What does this mean for the #bodypositivity movement?
If you are applauding seeing more types of women’s bodies undressed in mainstream media
If you are an activist posting body-centric photos of yourself or others online
…we know you are likely doing that for the purpose of promoting body acceptance and freedom from body shame. We also know that the internet is now absolutely flooded with the most diverse array of body photos you could ever imagine. Sharing photos of your particular body online, regardless of how you might perceive your “flaws,” will not move this work forward in a meaningful way. We firmly believe that part of the work is done. Consider that as the work of the first generation of body positive activists. They diversified the representation of women’s bodies online to help girls and women see that their bodies are OK even if they don’t look like the ones we’ve always seen in media. But it can’t end there.
Now we must move on to the next generation of promoting positive body image. The second generation must move beyond the now-stagnant place of body photos with long captions about how those bodies are beautiful and worthy. Of course they are. But women are more than bodies, and we must back that up with the ways we choose to represent and value ourselves and all women, online or otherwise. Our objectifying culture silences women by putting the focus on their bodies at the expense of everything else about them.
Don’t be silenced.
We have to use our voices, our words, our talents, our creativity, and our unique skills — not just the appearance of our bodies — to be successful in teaching and encouraging others to feel good about themselves. If you are a scholar, activist, artist, or otherwise invested in promoting women’s empowerment, you already come into this work with a set of skills and viewpoints that can make your contributions impactful. We can’t and won’t tell you what to do or how to do it. We simply want you to consider this framework for determining whether or not something you are doing or something in mainstream media is promoting positive body image and empowerment, or if it is simply perpetuating the same old focus on women as bodies. That critical framework is summed up in the Beauty Redefined mantra: Women are more than bodies. See more. Be more.
Start with this criteria when evaluating a message created for the purpose of promoting positive body image and empowerment:
- Self-objectification, or constant fixation on appearance (whether you like your appearance or hate it), is stifling the potential of too many girls and women by sapping their mental and physical energy and their self-esteem. Ask yourself: Is this message inviting people to turn their focus toward their own or others’ appearance? If so, how could it be modified to take the focus off of appearance and turn it toward other aspects of a woman’s humanity?
- Having positive body image isn’t believing your body *looks* good, it is believing your body *is* good, regardless of how it looks. Ask yourself: Is this message perpetuating the idea that positive body image means just feeling good about the way your body looks? How could it be modified to encompass feeling positively about yourself and your body overall, not just what you look like? How could this message promote the idea of our bodies as instruments for our use, rather than ornaments to be looked at?
- Often, female “empowerment” is co-opted and re-appropriated by people and companies that have their own best interests in mind and not women’s. Is the supposedly “empowering” effect of a woman buying into this message (for example, by doing/buying this thing) solely related to her appearance or sex appeal? Who, other than the women themselves, might be receiving any benefits from women believing this message is empowering? Would a person who thinks women are garbage also want women to do this thing being portrayed as “empowering?” Again, if your idea of empowerment is indistinguishable from the sexist objectification that has always been used to devalue and degrade women, it might not be all that revolutionary.
The progress and power of women hinges on our ability to be discerning about what constitutes empowerment, as opposed to what maintains the body-centric status quo. The same obectifying status quo where women are bought and sold to men, abused, mutilated, murdered, silenced, devalued, not believed, not taken seriously, and compelled to keep beauty at the forefront of their thoughts.
It is up to each of us to learn and recognize the difference between faux empowerment that maintains our body fixation, and true empowerment that is self-determined, unable to be taken away by someone else, lasting, fulfilling, elevates our voices and contributions to the world, builds our confidence in our abilities and innate worth, and encourages us to see more in ourselves and others in order to be more.
Lindsay and Lexie Kite, PhDs, are co-directors of the Beauty Redefined foundation, founded in 2009, and identical twins with doctorates in the study of body image resilience. They travel the US speaking at universities, high schools, and conferences about how to identify objectifying ideals and overcome them to get to a more powerful, healthy place. They also host an online course to promote body image resilience in girls and women ages 14+. Learn more about it here.
by Lindsay | Apr 26, 2016
We are Lexie and Lindsay Kite, PhD, identical twins and co-directors of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit working to help girls and women improve their body image and self-worth as they wade through harmful cultural ideals. We want to tell you about our (very twin-like) path from self-conscious young women to body image scholars and activists. Our story is in Lindsay’s words, but it belongs to both of us. This is our story, and the transformation we have experienced can be part of your story, too.
Lexie and I were swimmers from Day 1. As participants on a competitive team starting at 6 years old, we practiced intensely every day. My favorite part was the excited, heart-racing feeling I’d get before every race. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before that anxious, heart-pounding started to stem from the way I thought I looked in my swimming suit, rather than my performance. In third grade, I stood in front of a full-length mirror, noticed one dimple in the side of my little girl thigh and desperately felt the need to cover up. I vowed to remind myself to keep my left hand covering the dimple on my left thigh at all possible moments I wasn’t in the water.
That is when my appearance started to creep to the forefront of my every thought.
My newly heightened awareness of my looks quickly gave way to a relentless preoccupation with weight loss, starting around age 11. Journals and notebooks filled with weight-loss goals, motivating thoughts and tips, food logs and my most depressing thoughts were lined up in my home bookshelf, stacked next to piles of teen magazines. For a long time, my weight defined my days – either successful or a waste. One step closer to happiness or another day of worthless disappointment.
I wasn’t alone. My friends suffered the same preoccupation with weight and appearance. Heather, the president of the ballroom dance team, could tell you her weight from any given day of the previous years. One of our most popular friends cut out dozens of lingerie models from Victoria’s Secret catalogs and stuck them all over the back of her door for “motivation.” Another friend, a cheerleader, bragged to everyone that all she had eaten in days was five Doritos. I wondered how she found the motivation to be so strong. We were all middle-class white girls form Idaho, with happy, successful families of all shapes and sizes, but we all shared the deep-seated idea that the only way to attain happiness, popularity and love was to be as thin and beautiful as possible.
What we truly shared, along with everyone else we knew, was easy access to media our entire lives, where Kelly Kapowski was always pursued, everyone pitied the chubby girl Zack agreed to take on a date, all the Disney princesses and TV stars were thin and chased after, while any average-sized or overweight characters (or characters with braces, glasses, acne, a ponytail, etc.) were mocked. Male characters were valued for humor, athleticism, intelligence and power, while female characters were almost exclusively valued for their beauty alone. Ads consistently reflected these differing measures of worth. I recognized it, but never ever thought to question it. That’s just the way things worked.
Freshman year at Utah State University, Lexie and I took an awesome required journalism class called “Media Smarts” on critically analyzing media for its implicit but powerful messages. Learning about the hugely imbalanced portrayals of gender — particularly the ways media sets the standards for what it means to be successful or worthwhile – changed me. No one in my life ever taught or demonstrated to me that thinness and body “perfection” equals happiness or success. But social media, TV, magazines and movies do it consistently. That creates a false reality that makes real-life bodies seem sub-par. I realized the first step to dispelling these myths that had held me and all my friends back for so many years was to point out that it’s all made up. Producers, casting directors, advertisers and media executives make specific decisions for specific economic reasons – they don’t simply reflect reality – they create it to sell unreachable ideals and the products to supposedly help us get there.
I knew talking about women’s representation in media got my heart beating fast for a reason. The palpable excitement of it reminded me of my swimming days – the anxiety before a meet, the anticipation of putting all of my hard work to use. Media’s messages to women – including what we perpetuate on social media – enrage me and thrill me, and its implications are too real to accept and just move on. My heartbeat didn’t slow down – instead, the work became more and more personal as I identified that passion as the loaded term “feminism” and began to learn all I could about the ways beauty and weight are tied to women’s value and abilities to contribute to the world.
Being stifled by a preoccupation with my appearance was not a natural part of me. I learned to hate my body from sources surrounding me, including peers, family, media and cultural messages. When I became more worried about the dimple in my thigh than my race time, I stopped excelling as a swimmer. When I am fixated on keeping my clothes in the most flattering position and everything sucked in just right, I can’t concentrate on anything else at all. I was overwhelmed just thinking of the number of activities I could have excelled at, the relationships I could have cultivated, the goals I could have pursued, and the girls feeling the exact same way I did that I could have helped if I hadn’t spent so much of my life preoccupied with the way I looked.
Lexie and I knew we had work to do battling this obsession with female appearance and we received awesome fellowships to do our master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Utah, starting in 2007. I felt overwhelmed with the excitement and potential implications of this work I so wanted to accomplish. On August 19, 2007, I wrote the following in my journal:
“I KNOW this is going to be a hard but amazing time in my life. I can feel it. Lots of big things are going to happen, both academically and spiritually. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t even know exactly what that will entail – definitely something to do with helping people to become more critical media consumers – to question what they see in media and understand why it is that way, especially how women are portrayed. If we can forget how inadequate, fat, dumb and jealous we feel and concentrate on serving others and improving the world, the world be a much better place and women – and their families – will be so much more fulfilled and so much happier.”
(As a side note, most of my journal entries over the years focused on dating, roommate issues, and vacations — not changing the world. This is one of those rare exceptions.)
Flash forward to today. Since 2009, when we finished our co-authored master’s project that included a visual presentation on body image, Lexie and I have been traveling the country doing big Beauty Redefined speaking events for universities, high schools, middle schools, church congregations, treatment centers, etc. We finished our master’s degrees in 2009 and our PhDs in 2013, building and sharing our nonprofit all along, while being featured in major media outlets as we worked to spread the word. We reach millions online through our website and social media platforms every year and are consistently humbled by the feedback we receive from girls and women whose lives are changed by developing body image resilience through manageable strategies.
And wouldn’t you know – despite all my best teenage efforts – that dimple in my left thigh never disappeared, and it multiplied! But it hasn’t held me back from recognizing my worth and potential as a capable, awesome woman — or my potential to spread that truth to women everywhere. It also hasn’t held me back from swimming every chance I get and using my body as an instrument, not just looking at it as an ornament. I’m unbelievably grateful that the anxiety that came from becoming aware of my body’s “flaws” has continuously been replaced by this empowering knowledge about my worth.
If Lexie and I hadn’t experienced that deep body shame throughout our young lives, we wouldn’t have ever figured out our lives’ missions to combat it. That shame has transformed into an anxious, heart-racing desire to share this truth, and thankfully, it’s contagious! When people hear true messages that help us to see women as more than bodies, and capable of much more than being looked at, their hearts beat faster, too. Those people help share these truths — through blogs, social media, everyday conversation, and changed thoughts and actions in every facet of their lives. We share everything we’ve learned here at our website (morethanabody.org) and on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and developed an 8-week program (tested during our dissertations) to guide people toward body image resilience. We hope you’ll join us in helping our world see these myths about female power and value as they really are and continuously resist them together.
Our power lies in being able to SEE more than bodies in ourselves and others, and then to BE more than ornaments to decorate the world. We’ve got work to do!