To the Mom Who Taught Me Everything: A Body Image Breakthrough

The mother-daughter relationship can be either incredibly helpful or dangerously harmful to a daughter’s body image. We stress the message that we are all more powerful than we realize and our influences matter. When a mother, grandma, sister, friend, or teacher speaks negatively about her own body or the bodies of others, she is teaching those under her influence more than she knows. The lesson she reminds others of is this: We are all bodies to be looked at, fixed, and judged. And while we cannot shame or blame anyone for perpetuating that profit-driven lie that surrounds us our whole lives, we know there is a better way. For every girl or woman, please you know you are capable of much more than being looked at. It’s a message that will change your life and allow you to do and be and live in a world that needs you. Once you believe it, you will radiate that truth to those around you.

One of our colleagues across the world in body image advocacy, Kasey Edwards, is radiating that truth and sharing it with so many moms and daughters that need it. So many of you shared her message with us that we had to ask her permission if we could share it with you here. She said yes (and that she’s a big fan of Beauty Redefined!!), so here you go. It’s perfect. Below are her words:

Dear Mum,

I was seven when I discovered that you were fat, ugly and horrible. Up until that point I had believed that you were beautiful — in every sense of the word. I remember flicking through old photo albums and staring at pictures of you standing on the deck of a boat. Your white strapless bathing suit looked so glamorous, just like a movie star. Whenever I had the chance I’d pull out that wondrous white bathing suit hidden in your bottom drawer and imagine a time when I’d be big enough to wear it; when I’d be like you.

But all of that changed when, one night, we were dressed up for a party and you said to me, ”Look at you, so thin, beautiful and lovely. And look at me, fat, ugly and horrible.”

At first I didn’t understand what you meant.

”You’re not fat,” I said earnestly and innocently, and you replied, ”Yes I am, darling. I’ve always been fat; even as a child.”

In the days that followed I had some painful revelations that have shaped my whole life. I learned that:

1. You must be fat because mothers don’t lie.

2. Fat is ugly and horrible.

3. When I grow up I’ll look like you and therefore I will be fat, ugly and horrible too.

Years later, I looked back on this conversation and the hundreds that followed and cursed you for feeling so unattractive, insecure and unworthy. Because, as my first and most influential role model, you taught me to believe the same thing about myself.

With every grimace at your reflection in the mirror, every new wonder diet that was going to change your life, and every guilty spoon of ”Oh-I-really-shouldn’t,” I learned that women must be thin to be valid and worthy. Girls must go without because their greatest contribution to the world is their physical beauty.

Just like you, I have spent my whole life feeling fat. When did fat become a feeling anyway? And because I believed I was fat, I knew I was no good. But now that I am older, and a mother myself, I know that blaming you for my body hatred is unhelpful and unfair. I now understand that you too are a product of a long and rich lineage of women who were taught to loathe themselves.

Before Dad left, he provided no balm for your body-image torment either. ‘‘Jesus, Jan,” I overheard him say to you. ”It’s not that hard. Energy in versus energy out. If you want to lose weight you just have to eat less.” That night at dinner I watched you implement Dad’s ”Energy In, Energy Out: Jesus, Jan, Just Eat Less” weight-loss cure. You served up chow mein for dinner. (Remember how in 1980s Australian suburbia, a combination of mince, cabbage, and soy sauce was considered the height of exotic gourmet?) Everyone else’s food was on a dinner plate except yours. You served your chow mein on a tiny bread-and-butter plate.

As you sat in front of that pathetic scoop of mince, silent tears streamed down your face. I said nothing. Not even when your shoulders started heaving from your distress. We all ate our dinner in silence. Nobody comforted you. Nobody told you to stop being ridiculous and get a proper plate. Nobody told you that you were already loved and already good enough. Your achievements and your worth — as a teacher of children with special needs and a devoted mother of three of your own — paled into insignificance when compared with the centimetres you couldn’t lose from your waist.

It broke my heart to witness your despair and I’m sorry that I didn’t rush to your defence. I’d already learned that it was your fault that you were fat. I’d even heard Dad describe losing weight as a ”simple” process — yet one that you still couldn’t come to grips with. The lesson: you didn’t deserve any food and you certainly didn’t deserve any sympathy.But I was wrong, Mum. Now I understand what it’s like to grow up in a society that tells women that their beauty matters most, and at the same time defines a standard of beauty that is perpetually out of our reach. I also know the pain of internalising these messages. We have become our own jailors and we inflict our own punishments for failing to measure up. No one is crueller to us than we are to ourselves.

But this madness has to stop, Mum. It stops with you, it stops with me and it stops now. We deserve better — better than to have our days brought to ruin by bad body thoughts, wishing we were otherwise. And it’s not just about you and me any more. It’s also about Violet. Your granddaughter is only 3 and I do not want body hatred to take root inside her and strangle her happiness, her confidence and her potential. I don’t want Violet to believe that her beauty is her most important asset; that it will define her worth in the world. When Violet looks to us to learn how to be a woman, we need to be the best role models we can. We need to show her with our words and our actions that women are good enough just the way they are. And for her to believe us, we need to believe it ourselves.

The older we get, the more loved ones we lose to accidents and illness. Their passing is always tragic and far too soon. I sometimes think about what these friends — and the people who love them — wouldn’t give for more time in a body that was healthy. A body that would allow them to live just a little longer. The size of that body’s thighs or the lines on its face wouldn’t matter. It would be alive and therefore it would be perfect.

Your body is perfect too. It allows you to disarm a room with your smile and infect everyone with your laugh. It gives you arms to wrap around Violet and squeeze her until she giggles. Every moment we spend worrying about our physical ”flaws” is a moment wasted, a precious slice of life that we will never get back.

Let us honour and respect our bodies for what they do instead of despising them for how they appear. Focus on living healthy and active lives, let our weight fall where it may, and consign our body hatred in the past where it belongs. When I looked at that photo of you in the white bathing suit all those years ago, my innocent young eyes saw the truth. I saw unconditional love, beauty and wisdom. I saw my Mum.

Love, Kasey xx

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.

If You Must Think About Your Weight, Think These 10 Things

By Tracy Moore, originally posted at Jezebel.com

Another day, another opportunity to think about how much space you, as a woman, take up. That’s how it feels when you can’t throw a fat-burning supplement without hitting a visual about the losing of the weight or the gaining of the weight, and who gained what, how they look, how they lost it, and how you can, too. You can’t control these images, but you can control the narrative in your own head. And while we wish we could take credit for this crazy awesome post, our thanks go to Tracy Moore at Jezebel for letting us share her genius with you. Tracy is speaking our language here, and we are so glad awesome women the whole world over are fighting to take back beauty and health right alongside us. 

So the next time you get yet another message about weight that implies or outright demands that you consider your own, we’ve got 10 things for you to think instead:

This is some total baloney right here.

When it comes to media pushing perfect people, if you’re not skeptical, you’re doing it wrong. The only right way to do it is with deep, trigger-happy skepticism. It’s advertising — which means it’s supposed to make you want something. That alone makes it squirrelly. If you don’t train your brain to see that first and foremost, and to move cautiously forward if at all, then you may as well just hand over your wallet, dump it out, throw yourself onto the floor and ask someone to pelt you with rotten vegetables. So instead of feeling bad or even mesmerized by the flawless images, messages, and prescriptions for thinning yourself away, see it all as a super sad, cynical cash grab. Because that’s what it is.

Do men have to put up with this?

Lean on Caitlin Moran’s rule of thumb for whether something is worth getting all worked up about: Are the men worrying about this as well? When it comes to weight concerns, men are not advised to shrink themselves away. However, it’s worth noting what they are bombarded with: images of pumping up, boning up, manning up, dude-bro-ing it up. They inflate, we minimize. Viewed that way, it’s even more cartoonish, and everything is dumb, and it’s super dumb to do anything but laugh at it. Laugh at the little spectacle of capitalism trying to take your money.

Is this making me think about my weight or my health?

Simple question. Hard to put in practice. If, like anyone, you would like to be healthier (ACTUALLY healthy, as in stronger, fitter, better fed, able to do more physical things) and the message is helping you work toward that or inspiring you to that end with information or good facts, fine. Being healthy feels good. It makes you like your body! But that isn’t about a number. If you’re just wondering how much shrinkier you have to shrink to be considered more attractive based on the models you see doing Pilates on the beach, nope.

Why do I care?

Seriously, why DO you care? Are you paid to care? By that I mean, are you in a sexist, lookist industry where it behooves you to maintain a certain weight and so Allure can broadcast that you only weigh 115 pounds? If so, are you able to separate that from your own personal feelings of self-worth? Do you still feel like a worthwhile person when you are not a perfect size -.5 or whatever that is?

If you’re not in an industry where it is literally your job to maintain a weight, which is most of the rest of us, do you simply feel as a woman that your actual livelihood and well-being depends on weighing less than you do right now? Is that a valid conclusion you can put through the paces? Or does it fall apart with the slightest critical thinking? Because feeling good and liking yourself happens across all body types at all weight levels. Confidence and genuine appreciation of yourself is not a switch that flicks on at a certain number. It is not a “goal weight.” This is a dumb trap so many people fall into: I just feel better when I’m X number of pounds. That’s psychological. There’s probably a range of weight where you would feel the most fit, but you’re just assigning some arbitrary sounds-skinny number to that that has been culturally conditioned to feel OK about announcing out loud in earshot of other women.

What exactly is going to happen when I reach magical X pounds?

Ask yourself when you felt your best. Was it really when you weighed 135 pounds? Or was it when you were the most validated about your looks? Consider that your nostalgia for a past existence and the positive attention it brought you might have been more about the confidence you projected than a number. Force yourself to imagine the perfect life you think the perfect weight will bring you. What does it look like? You never argue with your husband? That guy you like at work will ask you out? The woman you’ve been in love with since college will suddenly want you? The beauty of working toward real confidence by actually liking yourself is that it doesn’t disappear the moment you gain weight, it is always there, and anyone worthwhile is drawn to you because of that aura, not the fact that you’re at some specific number.

Numbers are misleading.

It shouldn’t have to be said but apparently it has to be said a thousand times over: Weighing X weight doesn’t mean you’re healthy, or attractive, or “better.” Changing your relationship to food in a positive way — eating more of what’s good for you and less of what’s bad, may actually mean that you lose no weight at all. For some people, gaining weight could actually signal better health. There is no magic number for anyone, there is a range, and even within that range there are exceptions. Paying attention to some perfect goal weight, at which point you imagine yourself to no longer have problems or somehow transcend the issues you faced with 20 more pounds is a complete and utter illusion. And a waste of time. And probably really about something else.

What is this REALLY about?

It is almost always really about how you feel about yourself. The rest of it is about simply processing an endless onslaught of images and ads with tons of money and Machiavellian calculation behind them. I’m not saying those images are so easy to blot out, but, real self-worth can go a long way toward obliterating them. That comes from doing and being a good, accomplished person that you want to be, and be alone with. A person you like. A person who adds something to the world, does a thing that makes the world a nicer or better or more interesting place, is a good friend. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look nice, and feel nice, and like your body. But if you can’t get out of the rabbit hole of thinking that is entirely wrapped up in your weight, you’re out of luck.

What am I wasting time NOT thinking about that’s more important?

We have to have idle, pointless or superficial thoughts — our brains cannot be deep and calculating every second. But it really does help to know when you’re having idle, pointless thoughts, and when they are doing you no favors. And it really helps to not confuse them with meaningful thoughts that enhance our lives. The sickening ability to take instant inventory of our bodies at a glance and superimpose some better, thinner self onto our bodies is a trap of idle thinking. It is the illusion of control. It is not reasonable. The idea that anyone who weighs less is happier is pure farce. You know it to be true; stop subscribing to this myth. And really, aren’t you bored with it? Aren’t you bored thinking about it? Isn’t it the most soul-deadening thing in the world to think about it?

I am not a pawn.

Get pissed. Get really good and pissed. Think about it: You’re a woman, a clearly more complex biological specimen who does miraculous and mind-boggling things with your body, whose systems and reproductive organs have been hotly debated and controlled since the dawn of time (and which are still only dimly understood at best), whose powers have historically been viewed as highly suspect if not outright demonic, whose energy and rhythmic connection to the universe is mystifying and awe-inspiring, and who is so often reduced in modern times to a fretting, insecure, body-shrinking worrywart convinced she should probably take up less space because she definitely isn’t hot enough. Do you really want to play into a set of steps already laid out for you? Do you really want to be a complete and utter product of a system designed to make you feel terrible directly for its own gain? Does’t that burn you to the core? It does me. No thanks!

Remind yourself of what real human beauty is again.

If all else fails, just get out of your head. Look around and ask yourself what moves you about the human form, historically, contemporarily, artistically. Remind yourself that bodies in all shapes and sizes of all ages are interesting, unique, strong, useful. That we are nothing if not utilitarian creatures. That our bodies are meant to do things and show it. Anyone who tries to make you feel that ALL you are is an object to be weighed, when in fact you are object, subject, protagonist, antagonist, villain, hero and especially the NARRATOR of this story you call your existence, is not on your side. Including when that person is you. Flip the script.

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.

Cellulite, Rimples and Dimples: A Beautiful Reality Check

It’s everywhere in real life and absolutely nowhere in TV, movies or magazines. It’s unrelated to health, yet constantly depicted as a sure sign of lazy slobbiness. Large or small, the vast majority of women have it, but it gets depicted as shocking headline news in media non-stop. A multi-million dollar industry has claimed for decades to have the keys to cure it, but it’s just as prevalent today as it ever has been. What is this mysterious ailment?

CELLULITE!

Edited to protect the guilty. Right here in Salt Lake City.

Call me crazy, but I love it when I catch a glimpse of a few thigh dimples when a beautiful actress or model crosses her legs on a TV talk show or gets photographed on a beach. It’s refreshing to see a few unretouched rimples or skin puckers in all their human, realistic glory! Seeing your own seemingly inhuman, humiliating “flaws” reflected back to you in mainstream media is a surprisingly comforting experience. But that should NOT be the case! How has something found on at least 80% of women’s bodies (and some mens’) come to be SO vilified? How has one of the most natural, commonly found characteristics of even fit and healthy women’s bums, thighs and stomachs been turned into a secret shame? Just follow the money trail.

The trail leads directly to “body contouring,” “laser lipo,” “firming creams,” “skin tightening solutions,” fitness magazine headline claims, shapewear of every kind, and so many more. Countless companies and industries claim to hold the keys to “fixing” the “flaws” of dimply bums and cottage cheese thighs and they pay HUGE money for media advertising, so it’s incredibly risky and unprofitable for any media outlet to showcase a woman who isn’t looking perfectly ideal – especially in a positive light, like as a protagonist, love interest, or successful in any arena. Honestly, can you think of any mass media examples showing otherwise? We can’t.

Breaking news! Un-Photoshopped bodies look different than Photoshopped ones!

When we are lucky enough to see unretouched photos of celebrities (which, unfortunately, are tasteless, invasive tabloid images), we see all the so-called unsightly aspects of having a female body. Some of those characteristics are natural and lifelong, and some are achieved with age and experience: stretchmarks, breasts of all shapes and sizes at all levels of perkiness and sagginess, loose skin, body fat anywhere and everywhere, wrinkles, spots, hair, etc., etc., etc. Despite our ability to look eye to eye and see those realities among even the most beautiful and successful of women, way too many of us have been driven to body shame, anxiety and scam “solutions” in order to feel and look acceptable.

Never-ending and cohesive depictions of smooth, flawless female perfection in all mass media have pushed women to silence. Rather than uniting in our shared set of otherwise-invisible physical traits, too many women let themselves be kept silent, lonely, and financially/emotionally drained by the embarrassment of feeling sub-par and abnormally unattractive.

It’s time for a rimply, dimply reality check!

The vast majority of us have got it! It’s a naturally occurring, built-in fact of the way women’s fat cells attach to skin’s connective tissue* – no matter how little fat or how much fat she may have. Women’s fat cells attach in a cube-like pattern, creating protrusions at the top that create a rough surface. Men’s fat cells attach in a criss-cross pattern that prevents any puckering. Men also have thicker epidermis and dermis tissue levels, leaving a smooth surface regardless of how much fat they have. The procedures and potions that claim to remove cellulite, and have the awful before-and-after pictures to “prove” it, have very temporary effects, if any. Many are simply BS. No large-scale study has ever proven the effectiveness of any cellulite-fixing anything. Slow weight loss (as opposed to fast weight loss that doesn’t give skin’s elasticity a chance to catch up) can make cellulite less pronounced, but does not remove it. Weight loss does not change the structure or shape of fat cell chambers. That means, regardless of how fit you are, cellulite is inevitable for most women. We’re going to have to work with what we’ve got.

So, if you’ve got the dreaded cellulite, you may have inherited it (really, there’s a huge genetic component to fat distribution), you may have earned it with age, you may have been born with it, and you may have done everything possible to remove or hide it. So now, lucky ladies, let’s OWN IT. That doesn’t mean we want you take pictures of your naked bums or thighs and post them on the Web. Really, we don’t. Let’s be more than collections of body parts to gaze at on the Internet. Even if they’re beautiful and real. Here’s what we can do: Be an example of your own beautiful reality by taking back beauty to its rightful place. Own your body – whether you’re rocking cellulite, stretchmarks, fat, no fat, wrinkles, whatever. Own it with your confidence – faked or otherwise. Treat it well. Exercise. Fuel it with healthy foods. Make improvements in your lifestyle if you need to, but remember that doing it for your health and happiness is the only lasting motivation.

Go about your days with confidence. Don’t avoid activities or opportunities because of not wanting to be looked at or judged. Swimming is so fun. I swear. Beaches are amazing – whether you look like Helen Mirren in a bikini or not. Zumba is super fun too. It ain’t pretty for most of us, but wow, it is worth it. Stop spending precious time and money on products, services and procedures that claim to remove or reduce cellulite. They don’t work. A new one will pop up tomorrow. It won’t work either. Liposuction even makes it worse, though it is regularly advertised as a fix for cellulite.

This doesn’t work. Promise.

Don’t hide in the back of every photo or volunteer to be the photographer just to avoid being seen. Get in there and work it for the camera! Don’t complain about how you can’t wear khakis because they show your bum dimples or how you’re too skinny for that form-fitting dress. Saying it aloud makes you internalize it further. Saying it aloud also reminds other people to fret about their own perceived imperfections. Act like you are more than just a body to be looked at.

Own what you’re working with! Do it for your daughters, your friends, your husband, your entire family, the people who see you out in the world and need an example of beauty and confidence to look up to. Your influence is more powerful than you recognize. Cellulite is literally headline news for some of the highest-selling magazines and highest-rated TV shows. “Celebrity Cellutlite,” “Dimples of the Stars,” “Worst Beach Body.” Rather than silently buying into the sensationalizing of a bodily fact that at least 80% of women (according to the Mayo Clinic) have, let’s normalize it!

You don’t need to put your parts on display, but maybe lose the sarong or the board shorts once in a while if you feel like it. Ditch the Spanx. They’re messing up your circulation and slowing down your potty breaks anyway. Talk about all those vilified body characteristics in a casual way with your daughters, your students, your friends, or your family. Talking about cellulite or stretchmarks or anything else invisible in media in a non-disgusted way is hugely powerful for people who have been taught to see it as an abnormal flaw. Self-disclosure with people you trust can be a really powerful way to break out of that shameful silence.

Truth be told, I once had a friend with a notoriously nice bum pull down her pants just to prove to another friend she was not alone in her bum-dimpliness! Now that is true friendship. If you’re feeling especially crappy about some aspect of your body and you feel like it’s holding you back in some way, be brave enough to tell a friend or family member about it. Realizing or being reminded that you’re not alone is helpful — and occasionally letting people know you need a confidence boost is not a bad idea. (Just don’t be the friend who challenges a body complaint by one-upping it: “You’ve got nothing on me! Do you see these bags under my eyes??”)

Even though cellulite is sure to remain headline news for media and beauty industries, let’s make sure it is no longer headline news in our own lives. Don’t let your own dimples (or wrinkles, gray hair, sagging skin, small breasts, stretchmarks, insufficient lashes, unslightly armpits, or whatever else they come up with) hold you back from living a full and active and awesome life. Don’t let profit-driven media convince you that those body characteristics are shameful, gross, or anything other than 100% normal, healthy, and part of a truly beautiful reality. Let’s redefine beauty for ourselves by making it more inclusive of reality — warts, wrinkles, dimples, and all!

Ladies with cellulite, UNITE!

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.

*From Dr. Len Kravitz, PhD (no relation to Lenny, I’m assuming). Read this link for everything you ever wanted to know about cellulite from a non-profit-driven source. Notice how much the information varies between this doctor and any cosmetic surgery website: http://www.drlenkravitz.com/Articles/cellulite.html

Healthy Redefined Part 2: Forget About Fat and Get Fit!

*Trigger Warning for readers who struggle with overexercise or orthorexia. Please be cautious and mindful about how the discussion below might affect you. 

This is Part 2. Read Part 1 of this “Healthy  Redefined” Series HERE!

In a world where health successes and failures are too often measured entirely by weight loss or weight gain, we have to seriously reconsider this idea. Fitness researchers prove it: “There is a need to increase knowledge and understanding of the health benefits of exercise, and reduce the emphasis on weight loss. This agrees with the evidence that cardiorespiratory fitness is a more powerful predictor of risk than body weight” (1). How often do we see health advice that promises you will “Lose 10 lbs. by Friday!” or “Shrink your belly bulge!” if you’ll begin some exercise program or make healthier food choices? Constantly. This messed-up way of thinking – equating healthy choices with quick weight loss – is seriously hurting our health. It’s also making lots of people LOTS of money, while our health problems are still killing us.

Experts are warning against this profit-driven tendency to focus on thinness rather than actual indicators of health and fitness. In a fantastically-titled paper – “Beneficial effects of exercise: shifting the focus from body weight to other markers of health” – King et al. (2009) conclusively demonstrated that “significant and meaningful health benefits can be achieved even in the presence of lower-than-expected exercise-induced weight loss.”

Sounds crazy, right? It goes against anything most media will every tell you about health, but it’s true. Even when you don’t lose as much weight as you think you should (and as money-making media train you to think), you’re still likely gaining some serious health benefits. Doctors know this is true. When people with serious health issues like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues and high blood pressure start a meaningful exercise program, their health problems often  disappear or greatly improve – regardless of whether or not they remain overweight or obese.

The Society for Nutrition Education produced a report in 2002 promoting healthy weight in children, which emphasized the need to “set goals for health, not weight, as appropriate for growing children” and says that it is “unrealistic” to expect all children to be at an ideal weight range. Instead, this report defines “healthy weight” as “the natural weight the body adopts, given a healthy diet and meaningful level of physical activity,” which it later specifies to be one hour of physical activity each day.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated that poor nutrition and physical inactivity are the second leading causes of preventable morbidity and mortality, and are among the top priorities of Healthy People 2010 and beyond. Notice there is no mention of obesity or overweight in this statement. Along with this imperative, scholars, health educators and medical experts have begun a push toward a “health at any size” movement that encourages people to switch their focus away from weight loss and toward healthy behaviors that can increase physical and emotional health at any weight – even at weights currently considered medically compromising (2).  

This shift in health objectives toward activity rather than fat is founded upon a huge body of research that shows health and fitness often has very little correlation to body weight or even an individual’s BMI. There’s one impressive meta-analysis of medical studies since the 1970s that concluded overweight and active people may be healthier than those who are thin and sedentary (3). Understanding that activity level – rather than body weight – is a reliable indicator of a person’s health, is a key to dismantling an unhealthy ideology that defines health according to appearance-based measures.

In order for exercise-promoting campaigns to be effective, people need to be able to identify and remove barriers to physical activity in their lives – any excuses, real or imagined, that are holding them back from exercise. One of those barriers is feelings of previous failure at exercising – and this one is especially true for women. Health studies show women tend to associate weight loss with “success,” while many men who gained weight during a study period still considered themselves to have been successful at controlling their weight or managing their health (5). The researchers rightfully warned, “It is possible that women’s perceived lack of success in weight control when no changes in weight ensue may prompt the adoption of aggressive and possibly harmful weight-loss methods, and exacerbate negative body image and weight pre-occupation.” Yep, that’s exactly what happens.

Interestingly – and perhaps not surprisingly to followers of Beauty Redefined – researchers have identified body dissatisfaction as one of the major barriers to regular exercise for women. One study found that one of the most significant barriers to exercise for obese people was their body image perception, with “feeling too fat to exercise” showing up as one of the most common stumbling blocks, particularly for females (6). Recent studies have found that body size satisfaction had a significant effect on whether a person performed regular physical activity, regardless of the individual’s actual weight (7). That is, those who were satisfied with their body – regardless of their size – were more likely to engage in physical activity regularly than those who were less satisfied.

This is scary, considering studies show women tend to overestimate their body weight and size, while men tend to underestimate their body weight and size (8). In one telling example, researchers found that 61 percent of normal weight women perceived themselves as overweight, while 92 percent of underweight women perceived themselves to be average or overweight. As media images of women’s bodies across advertising and entertainment of all genres have shrunk to extremely thin proportions over the past several decades, women’s perceptions of their own bodies has become just as distorted.

In a country where more than 50 percent of women say their bodies “disgust” them and a whopping 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their appearances (9), body shame needs to be viewed as a huge barrier to health and physical activity for women, and one that must be addressed in meaningful ways – NOW. This rampant self-loathing, which can be partially attributed to women’s self-comparisons to unrealistic and unattainable body ideals in mass media, may very well encourage women to give up on achieving healthy body weights altogether due to the perception that “healthy” or “average” is unreachable. Studies help to confirm this idea.

A 5-year study on a group of teen girls (10) found that girls who were more comfortable with their bodies — regardless of their weight or size — were actually healthier over time. They were more likely to be physically active and pay more attention to what they ate. Meanwhile, the girls who were the most dissatisfied with their size tended to become more sedentary over time and paid less attention to maintaining a healthy diet. This makes sense. When you are ashamed of your body, how likely are you to go to the gym or go outside and be active? How much more likely are you to shut yourself inside with the TV and food that will do you no good?

This truth is why Beauty Redefined exists and why people are eager to get behind our messages: promoting positive body image is crucial to promoting health. Increasing positive feelings about our bodies and being able to see them as more than objects to be measured, judged and looked at are key to helping people make healthy choices – especially increasing their physical activity. You are capable of much more than being looked at. This is the year to end body shame and get on to bigger and better things – especially real health and happiness.

From lost self-esteem, lost money and time spent fixing “flaws” and a well-documented preoccupation with thinness, the effects of profit-driven health information involve serious loss for women, while too many industries see huge economic gains.  From the life insurance industry collecting higher premiums for those they deem “overweight” based on a standard they set themselves, to major financial savings for medical experts and the government using the profit-driven BMI, to the diet and weight loss industry raking in more than $61 billion on Americans’ quest for thinness in 2011, those who make money off the discourse surrounding women’s health are thriving unlike ever before.

There is so much at stake in turning this health crisis around. With so many power holders with serious capitalist interests at stake in maintaining the force of beauty ideology in women’s beliefs about their bodies, it is unlikely that media distorting women’s health will change anytime soon.

But we can change.

Dismantling and revealing harmful ideas about health must become the responsibility of everyone who recognizes their existence: health educators and practitioners who know the difference between thin ideals and indicators of physical fitness; parents, teachers, friends and other influential individuals who see signs of low self-esteem, distorted body perceptions and disordered eating in girls; media consumers who recognize negative feelings about their own or others’ bodies after reading or viewing media that represents ideals as normal or “healthy;” media decision makers who can disrupt the steady stream of idealized bodies with positive representations of more normative shapes and sizes; and activists who are willing to visibly resist messages that repackage women’s health in power-laden terms in any way possible, whether through volunteering to speak out against harmful ideals for any audience who will listen, or by attracting attention toward the dangerous link between beauty ideals, low self-esteem and serious health consequences.

  • By pointing out the difference between media representations of women’s bodies and real-life women’s bodies while watching TV or flipping through a magazine with friends or family
  • By gaining better understanding of realistic and healthy standards of body weight and physical fitness for ourselves and others over whom we have influence (Reading Part 1 of this “Redefining Health” series is a great start)
  • By posting links or starting discussions on blogs and social networking sites to continuously spark conversation about the dangers thin ideals and those who profit from our allegiance to them (join us on Facebook for regular ways to do this!)
  • By reminding ourselves and encouraging others to engage in physical activity as a means for improving physical and mental health, rather than a strategy for achieving unattainable beauty ideals, among other practical options
  • By using any of our tried-and-tested strategies to take back female beauty and health for girls and women or for boys and men.

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.

References

1) King et al., 2009
2) Calvert Finn, 2001; Macias Aguayo et al., 2005:
Time Magazine, May 29, 2005: www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1066937,00.html.
3) Newsweek, Aug. 26, 2009: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/08/26/who-says-americans-are-too-fat.html
4) Song, 2011; Rimal, 2000; Baranowski, Anderson & Carmack, 1998; Oman & King, 1998
5) Timpiero & Hawkins, 2004; Hawks, 2008
6) Ball, Crawford and Owen, 2000
7) Kruger, Lee, Ainsworth, & Macera, 2008
8) Hawks, 2008; Timpiero & Hawkins, 2004; Adame, 1990
9) Dove International, 2004; Women’s Health Network, 2004
10) Van den Berg & Neumark-Sztainer, 2007

Healthy Redefined Part 1: Measuring the “Obesity Crisis”

Georgia’s “Strong4Life” Fat-Shaming Ad. “It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not.” Note: This young girl does not have any of the health problems the campaign i

s working to fight.

Trigger warning for readers struggling with overexercise or orthorexia. Please be mindful and cautious about how the discussion below may affect you.

From unfortunate fat-shaming in Georgia’s “Strong4Life” campaign put on by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to kids being graded on their weight in public schools across the country via their BMI score on their report cards, we see well-meaning people using harmful and ineffective strategies like crazy to try and counteract this country’s health problems. This overwhelming focus on body size has stolen the spotlight in mass media and scholarly research since the mid-‘90s, all citing an imperative to end an “obesity crisis” that has been championed by the federal health agencies.

With the health and fitness of the nation as the key justification for calling high levels of obesity a “crisis,” it is important to understand how bodily health is defined in research. How is health measured? What defines a healthy or physically fit body? In a country where both obesity and eating disorders have skyrocketed simultaneously, it is crucial to understand how physical health has been and is being understood, tested and promoted.

Scholars are concerned that very little evidence has been produced regarding the question of exactly how body fat is supposed to cause disease (1). With the exception of osteoarthritis, where increased body mass contributes to wear on joints, and a few cancers where estrogen originating in adipose tissue may contribute, causal links between body fat and disease remain hypothetical. Researchers are asking health professionals and policy makers to consider whether it makes sense to treat body weight as a barometer of public health. Despite this shaky foundation for defining physical health in terms of body fatness, much of current health and communication research measures health through simple measures of a person’s body fat, and that may be doing more harm than good for the health status of this country.

Defining Health: Body Fat = Body Health?

Researchers measuring health in terms of body fat generally rely on the American Council on Exercise’s guidelines to determine which percentages are healthy, with anything below 10% and above 31% in women (or below 2% and above 24% in men) considered a health risk. Direct measures of body composition estimate a person’s total body fat mass and fat-free or lean mass through MRI, underwater weighing, CAT scan, and other methods. Power, Lake & Cole (1997) said, “an ideal measure of body fat should be accurate in its estimation of body fat; precise, with small measurement error; accessible, in terms of simplicity, cost and ease of use; acceptable to the subject; and well-documented, with published reference values.” They go on to state that “no existing measure satisfies all these criteria.” Since these methods are expensive and invasive, they are rarely used in research. Because of this, scholars are much more likely to rely on indirect measures of body composition, including the most popular of them all: Body Mass Index (BMI).

Indirect techniques for measuring fat include all the most common ones: waist and hip measurements, skinfold thickness, and indexes of measured height and weight such as BMI. These measurements are only a surrogate measure of body fatness, yet they are commonly used to represent not only adiposity but also health and fitness in research and media discussion about healthy bodies. The life and health insurance industry, medical practitioners, researchers, health specialists and seemingly everyone else on the planet uses the BMI to measure people’s health. That’s because it is the international standard for judging healthy weight, as upheld and promoted by the CDC, NIH and WHO. This is bad.

Here are 10 quick reasons why the BMI is a shockingly terrible measure of health:

The equation used to calculate BMI (the ratio of an individual’s weight to height squared) was developed in the 19th century by Quetelet, a French scientist who warned the calculation was only meant to be used for large diagnostic studies on general populations and was not accurate for individuals.

The BMI’s height and weight tables used to tell you what your score means came from the life insurance industry. Yep. A standardized table of average weights and heights was developed first in 1908, when life insurance companies began looking for ways to charge higher premiums to applicants based on screening by their own medical examiners. By setting the thresholds for “ideal weight” and “overweight” lower than what mortality data showed as the actual healthy weight ranges, they were able to collect more money for those they deemed “overweight.” In 1985, the NIH began defining obesity according to BMI, which defined the 85th percentile for each sex as the official cutoff for what constitutes “obese,” based on the standards for underweight, average, overweight and obese that were set by the 1983 Metropolitan Life Insurance Company mortality tables (Williamson, 1993).

The NIH implemented the BMI standard under the theory that it would simply be used by doctors to warn patients who were at especially high risk for obesity-related problems (2). It was never meant for individuals to calculate their BMI and accept it as a diagnosis of whether or not their weight is healthy, yet that is EXACTLY how it is used today. Individuals are encouraged to easily diagnose their own BMI status through the NIH website-hosted BMI calculator.

Those weight tables are based on the unfounded idea that any weight gain after age 25 is unhealthy. Though weight tables before the mid-1900s allowed for increasing weight with age (which naturally occurs), the Metropolitan Life insurance Company became the first to deem an increase in weight after age 25 as undesirable and unhealthy – again, to collect higher premiums. Also, the BMI is advised to be used only for people older than 20, due to the changes young bodies undergo before that age, yet it is very often used to diagnose adolescents and teens. Researchers admit that it is unclear at what level of body fat health risks begin to rise for children (Denney-Wilson et al., 2003), so trying to define a standard of what constitutes overweight and obese for children is incredibly difficult.

Those weight tables also did not take into account body frame or build, unlike previous tables, which included “small,” “medium” or “large frame” due to demands from physicians who rightfully wanted to avoid serious miscalculations of body fat (Cziernawski, 2007).

Those same 1983 tables (and now our BMI) also failed to take gender into account, despite healthy levels of fat and weight distribution differing greatly between males and females (3).

BMI is based on a Caucasian standard. It is proven to be highly inaccurate for other races and ethnicities. In particular, in some Asian populations, a specific BMI reflects a higher percentage of body fat than in white or European Ppulations (James, 2002). Some Pacific populations and African Americans in general also have a lower percentage of body fat at a given BMI than do white or European populations (Stevens, 2002). Even the WHO has acknowledged the extensive evidence that “the associations between BMI, percentage of body fat, and body fat distribution differ across populations” (WHO, 2004).

In 1998, millions of people considered of “normal” weight were suddenly re-classified as “overweight” the next day when the NIH lowered the threshold for “overweight” and “obese” by 10 lbs. They based this change on the vague claim that studies linking extra weight to health problems warranted the changes (Cohen & McDermott, 1998). On June 16, 1998, the “average” woman was 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed 155 pounds. On June 17, a woman of that same height and weight became “overweight.” The requirement for “average” dropped 10 pounds to 145, and a person of the same height who weighed 175 pounds was considered “obese.”

9. Experts say it’s “useless.” Dr. David Haslam, the clinical director of Britain’s National Obesity Forum, said, “It is now widely accepted that the BMI is useless for assessing the healthy weight of individuals” (4). Despite extensive evidence proving the BMI lacks accuracy for calculating an individual’s body fat (4), A growing pool of evidence suggests that BMI is a “crude tool” for judging individual health that “fans fears of an obesity epidemic even as it fails as a reliable measure of an individual’s health” (Heimpel, 2009). Even the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded there is insufficient evidence to suggest BMI screening can be used to prevent adverse health outcomes (4). Prentice & Jebb (2001) illustrated a wide range of conditions in which “surrogate anthropometric measures, especially BMI, provide misleading information about body fat content, including infancy and childhood, aging, racial differences, athletes, military and civil forces personnel, weight loss with and without exercise, physical training and special clinical circumstances.” More and more studies are showing the fact that people in the “overweight” and even “obese” categories of the BMI are at much lower risk of death than those in the “underweight” and even “normal” categories. So why do we keep measuring health based on BMI?

Despite all the evidence against it, government health agencies defend the BMI as the national standard for judging healthy weight due to the fact that it is “inexpensive and easy for clinicians and for the general public” (CDC, 2010). That’s exactly why researchers use it so consistently as a stand-in for “health.”

It is imperative to keep in mind that the much-publicized U.S. obesity crisis has risen to the forefront of national attention only since the late ‘90s, after the NIH changed the standard for what constitutes overweight and obesity. Using data gathered from 1976-1980 and comparing it to data from 1999-2002, the CDC reported that obesity doubled from 15 to 31 percent between 1980 and 2002 (CDC, 2007). It is unclear whether the data was compared using the same standard for determining “obesity,” since the criteria for fitting into this category changed in 1998 to include many more people that were previously considered merely “overweight.” Though obesity remains at the forefront of national health concerns and media discourse of Americans’ health, the rate of obesity hasn’t changed in a decade. It plateaued since the most recent CDC report, with no change between 2003 and 2006, when the most recent national data was gathered (Heimpel, 2009; CDC, 2007).

Unfortunately, heart disease, cancers and diabetes remain serious threats to public health, and weight is considered a risk factor for these chronic illnesses. So if the BMI is worthless, then what do we use to measure or determine bodily health? The No. 1 step is to quit measuring and start moving. That brings us to the incredibly important Part 2 of this Healthy Redefined series.

The next step is to redefine what this crisis is really about. It’s about health, not body size. During the time the obesity crisis has been in the forefront of media and federal health agency initiatives, the diet and weight loss industries have thrived unlike ever before. Simultaneously, fat-shaming/thin-ideal-promoting media have also flourished, with female body image hitting an all-time low. With lost self-esteem, lost money and time spent fixing “flaws” and a well-documented preoccupation with thinness among females of all ages, the effects of profit-driven health information involve serious loss for women, while too many industries see huge economic gains. From the life insurance industry collecting higher premiums from those they deem “overweight” based on a standard they set themselves, to major financial savings for medical experts and the government using the profit-driven BMI, to the diet and weight loss industry raking in more than $61 billion on Americans’ quest for thinness in 2011, those who make money off the discourse surrounding women’s health are thriving unlike ever before.

With so much evidence showing that our obsession with body fat is missing the mark for health and well-being of all sorts, I argue that we need to do away with the title “obesity crisis” all together. This crisis isn’t about too many people meeting an arbitrary standard of body fat, this crisis is about poor health, which is often exacerbated by inactivity and poor diet. People can take their own physical power back by measuring their physical health according to how they feel and what their bodies can do, rather than simply measuring their weight or size.  But FIRST, we must focus on getting rid of barriers like “feeling too fat to exercise” and not knowing if you can be successful in order to make way for real success! Next Up — Healthy Redefined Part 2: Forget Fat and Get Fit!

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.

Kite, Lindsay. (2011). Redefining Health Part 1: Measuring the Obesity Crisis. The Beauty Redefined Foundation: www.beautyredefined.net/redefining-health-part-1

References
1) Campos et al., 2006; Rothblum et al., 1999; Saguy & Riley, 2005; Shugart, 2010
2) Devlin, 2009; Singer-Vine, 2009
3) Prentice & Jebb, 2001; Czerniawski, 2007
4) Devlin, 2009; Bailey et al., 2008; Czerniawski, 2007; Gerbensky-Kerber, 2011; Nihiser et al., 2007
See also: Body Mass Index, Diabetes, Hypertension, and Short-Term Mortality: A Population-Based Observational Study, 2000–2006 (released July 2012):  http://www.jabfm.org/content/25/4/422.full

To BE or To Be Looked At?

You are capable of much more than looking hot.

Have you thought about this statement? Do you understand the gravity of it? This phrase gave me goosebumps when I let it sink in. Women are always being looked at. And when we aren’t being looked at, we are too often envisioning ourselves being looked at, as if an outsider’s perspective has become our own. In fact, our PhD work makes one thing very clear: Part of growing up female today means learning to view oneself from another’s gaze.

Ever heard this quote? Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (John Berger, “Ways of Seeing,” 1977).

This insightful man was referring to the idea of “objectification,” which we’ve all heard once or twice. But when we think of the term, we probably think of sexualized female bodies, or sexualized parts of female bodies, which isn’t the whole idea here. When we understand the whole of objectification, we can better grasp the role it plays in our daily lives and the ways it may keep us from fulfilling all we want to do with our days. When we travel around giving our one-hour Beauty Redefined visual presentation, we explain to our audiences that objectification takes on many roles, including self-objectification.

Say you’re walking down the sidewalk on a beautiful day. Someone who has internalized an outsider’s perspective of herself and is self-objectifying will often spend more time adjusting her clothing or hair, wondering what other people are thinking of her, judging the shape of her shadow or reflection in a window, etc. She will picture herself walking – she literally turns herself into an object of vision – instead of enjoying the sunny weather, looking around, or thinking about anything else. If you find yourself thinking and acting like this, you aren’t alone. In fact, you are just one of millions of females growing up in a world that teaches us to survey ourselves every waking moment. Profit-driven media tells us how we can “Look Hotter From Behind!” in fitness magazines, “Look Wow Now!” on makeover shows every hour of every day, “Look 10 Years Younger!” using every anti-aging procedure and product under the sun. Notice the emphasis on looking … Do you find you survey yourself as you move through life? That you ever turn yourself into an object of vision: a sight?artgirl

One way I see self-objectification taking place in rampant ways today is through girls, women, and selfies. You know, those pictures of ourselves we post online at the most flattering angle, with the most flattering photo filter? When I see someone posting dozens of selfies, I think about the ways they are trying to present a perfect vision of themselves to an outside world looking at them. I always want to tell those people and their selfies this true, but cheesy thought:

You are capable of much more than being looked at. Do you know who you are? Have you grasped the powerful role you can play in a world so badly in need of your unique talents, wisdom, and light? Are you aware of your unique mission at this point in your life? You’ve got something great to do, that only you can do. And if you are here to be looked at, to appear, to survey yourself, instead of do an inspirational work that only you can do, you are not fulfilling your mission. Cheesy? Yes. True? Oh yes. More true than you know.
I see objectification playing out in my own life in many ways. When I’m walking past people, I often catch myself imagining what I look like to them – from the front and from behind – and think irrational thoughts about what the people walking behind me or past me think about me. I often adjust my clothing to what I assume is the most flattering position as I walk. I can admit I’ve been known to look at my own Facebook profile to see what I look like to the cute guy who just added me or the friend I just added. I look through my photos and try to gauge my looks from the perspective of someone who is not me. If that isn’t self objectification, I don’t know what is! Unfortunately, I know I’m not alone in doing this.  I am a body image activist and I have a Ph.D. in research on self-objectification, yet I still catch myself envisioning myself from an outsider’s perspective instead of moving on to so many things more meaningful and productive. This just goes to show it’s a constant battle. I am constantly working to remind myself I’m capable of much more than looking hot. My self-objectification is complicated by the fact that I am an identical twin, so in some ways I see a body of a person with identical DNA in real life in a way that most people cannot experience. Unless you have an identical counterpart, your vision of yourself comes from photos, videos, and your two-dimensional reflection.

So let’s talk about mirrors, shall we? Even as I sit in my bedroom typing at 2 a.m., I see a full-length mirror peeking through the closet door, one with hooks hanging all my jewelry, and a centerpiece mirror above my bed. While I don’t think I’m vain or image-obsessed, I spend about 30-40 minutes in front of the mirror every morning, keep a compact in my purse, and apparently have about 100 in my room for safe keeping. I am surveying an image of myself for at least one of the 24 hours in my day, and imagining that image of myself as I move throughout my day. What role do mirrors play in your life? “Women are constantly being looked at. Even when we’re not, we’re so hyper-aware of the possibility of being looked at that it can rule even our most private lives. Including in front of our mirrors, alone,” says Autumn Whitfield-Madrano at her always inspirational website, The Beheld.

The thought-provoking Autumn undertook an experiment I was amazed by: A month-long break from mirrors. Thirty-one days of no mirrors, store windows, shiny pots, spoons, or the dark glass of the NYC subway she rides daily. In her own words: “There’s nothing wrong with looking in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes looking to your reflection—even when it is impossibly subjective, and backward at that—for a breath of fortitude, centeredness, and assurance. I just want to see what life is like when I’m not using that image as my anchor; I want to see how it affects the way I move through the world, the way I regard myself and others. I want to know what it’s like to sever a primary tie to one of my greatest personal flaws—extraordinary self-consciousness—and I want to discover what will fill the space that the mirror has occupied until now.” She goes on: “Sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself, or whatever I understand myself to be. Other times, I distinctly see an image of myself. When I see my image reflected on a mirror behind a bar I think, Oh good, I look like a woman who is having a good time out with friends. Or I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer? You’ll notice what these have in common: My thoughts upon seeing my reflection are both self-centered and distant. I’m seeing myself, but not really—I’m seeing a woman who looks like she’s having a good time, or a writer, etc.”

Autumn’s insights echo Berger’s powerful words. Too often, we travel through life with an outsider’s vision of ourselves. We are to be looked at. We watch ourselves being looked at. We become objects of vision: sights. But isn’t there so much more to life than watching ourselves self-consciously stroll through it? Life is beautiful when you live it – really experience it – not when you are concerned about appearing beautiful as you try to live. When you think of your happiest times, were they only when you looked picture perfect? Were you happiest when you were working to appear happy or attractive or beautiful to others? Happiness and beauty come from doing, acting, being – outside the confines of being looked at.

So, today, what will you do to shake off the outsider’s gaze you envision of yourself? Will you do as Autumn has done and experiment with what your life becomes when you spend less time with your reflection and more time doing, acting and being? Will you enjoy the world around you instead of hoping others are enjoying their view of you? Will you do something your self-policing outsider’s gaze kept you from doing before – like speak in front of a group of people? Run without worrying about the jiggle or the sweat? Go to the store even if you aren’t all made-up?

Today is the day to remember you are capable of much more than being looked at. And when you begin to realize that, you can start realizing the power of your abilities and the good you can do in a world so desperately in need of you. NOT a vision of you, but ALL of you.  What will you find you are capable of?

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