Dove Doesn’t Redefine Beauty, It Reinforces It

One of the things we hate most in this world is when companies try to commodify self-esteem to sell products to girls and women. And this time it’s hitting really close to home. Dove just debuted their latest viral video at Sundance named “Selfie,” which repeatedly asks girls to “redefine beauty” by taking selfies and realizing how beautiful they are. The take-home message: “The power is in your hands. Redefine beauty.”

At Beauty Redefined®, we believe this whole-heartedly! (Duh). We even trademarked it in our name! But Dove is a beauty-peddling wolf in female empowerment clothing. Dove doesn’t so much “redefine” beauty as much as it merely re-centralizes beauty as the foremost priority in a girl or woman’s life. It’s not revolutionary to re-encourage females to fixate on their looks, or document their looks at any given moment through their cell phone cameras, and then discuss what they see. This is for-profit advertising that sells anti-aging creams, skin firming solutions, and underarm beautifiers under the guise of promoting life-changing self-acceptance through feel-good videos. This tactic allows a company to cash in on women’s insecurities by being a false ally in the fight for positive body image.* 

Our nonprofit’s premise of “redefining beauty” is about expanding the definition of “beauty” in a truly empowering way: we’re not just expanding the definition from “thin, young, white” to “less thin, slightly older, and any skin tone with Eurocentric features;” we’re expanding it from “thin, young, white” to “you are so much more than just a body to be looked at.” We don’t want girls and women to feel good about their appearances; we want them to feel good about themselves.

One of the feel-good messages at the end of Dove’s video is a girl saying, “I was looking through my selfies last night and I realized I am beautiful. I’m pretty cute.” Now she can go face the world and excel at everything she sets her mind to, right? She finally sees her beauty! Isn’t that all we ladies need to succeed? No, because perpetual concern for appearance will still dominate her thoughts and impair her performance at literally every skill or task she tries to accomplish. Dove’s marketing depends on us believing our self-worth comes from the belief that we’re beautiful, but we want you to know that it doesn’t. Regardless of what you look like, or what you think you look like, you can feel good about yourself, because you are not your appearance. Positive body image is the cornerstone of our work, and it is founded in the life-changing understanding that your body is an instrument to be used and not just an object to be adorned. We teach people how to recognize and resist harmful messages about bodies that keep us fixated on our appearances through the power of body image resilience. (We’ll get there in a minute.) 

Elena Rossini at The Illusionists put it perfectly: “The people at Dove have actually exploited a void in the marketplace. By introducing so-called women with ‘real’ bodies, they distinguished themselves from their competitors. According to the New Yorker, after the introduction of their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, Dove’s sales shot up 700% in the U.K.” Dove, whose parent company also owns Axe and Lynx (with the notoriously pornographic, sexist ads) and Fair & Lovely (the skin bleaching cream for women of color), also employs the world’s highest paid photo retoucher, Pascal Dangin, for their Real Beauty ads.  In a New Yorker profile, he was asked about his work with Dove’s ad campaign and said: ‘Do you know how much retouching was on that? But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.’”

Dove is not the only for-profit company using this same faux empowerment-based marketing tactic to drive profits.  As Charlotte Alter said, “Pantene had an ad late last year that equated shiny hair with respect at work… And American Eagle’s Aerie brand recently debuted a lingerie campaign featuring ‘real un-Photoshopped girls’ to encourage customers to ‘embrace their own beauty,’ as a brand representative described it on Good Morning America.  After years of marketing outer beauty, it looks like inner beauty is the hot new thing.”

While we love a non-Photoshopped image or feel-good ad as much as anyone, any campaign featuring women with shiny hair at work or models in their underwear is still just convincing us to buy more stuff at the end of the day. It’s still putting the never-ending focus on women’s appearances, begging us to spend our money on appearance-“enhancing” products, and distracting us from our potential to focus on anything else more important than that. [Read: everything. Everything is more important than worrying about your appearance.]

We’ve called out lots of other big-name brands for co-opting “empowerment” to sell sexist products over the years. One of the most successful swindlers of our time is Victoria’s Secret, whose “secret” is telling the masses their marketing “empowers women” and “helps customers to feel sexy, bold and powerful.” In the case of VS, a push-up bra and thong that says “best kisser” are made to stand for “empowerment” in a way that basically slaps us in the face. And Special K has also jumped on the bandwagon of selling diet food in the name of self-esteem and empowerment. Their “what will you gain when you lose?” campaign and their latest commercials encouraging women to end “fat talk” are still about convincing women that replacing two meals a day with a tiny serving of magic lady cereal will help them drop weight every single week. Because weight loss and beauty are our jobs, right? Full-time, life-long, unfulfilling jobs.

These are just a few of many examples, but at the end of the day, these examples are a perfect lesson in media literacy. We need to feel an obligation to put media under closer inspection for the influence it has in our lives. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching the latest ad telling you you’re beautiful the way you are (with the help of their product), train yourself to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, you can turn away from the messages that hurt you!

  • Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen?
  • Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, video, etc. you are viewing? (Find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes.)
  • Is the media you read and view promoting real health (which is measured internally) or beauty ideals meant to make you spend money?
  • Who are those messages promoting impossible ideals speaking to? What would it look like if this message were directed at males (or females)?
  • How are women and girls presented here? What are they being valued for?


Almost 3/4 of the women in both of our doctoral studies (Kite, 2013 & Kite, 2013) described themselves in self-objectifying terms, meaning they viewed themselves from an outsider’s perspective. Looking through your selfies to remind yourself of your value is the perfect illustration we’d use to describe self-objectification. Living a life of self-objectification is debilitating, and here’s why: Living a life for others’ viewing pleasure is not fully living. When girls and women live their lives in this perpetual state of body-monitoring, they are forfeiting some of their own humanity. They are living as passive objects whose primary purpose is to be judged and consumed by others, and not as humans actively making choices and experiencing life for themselves. This constant preoccupation with appearance comes at the expense of every other mental and physical capacity you can think of.

Our nonprofit version of “redefining beauty” here at Beauty Redefined is all about helping girls and women recognize their power and their worth outside the confines of the lies sold to us by media. While media and cultural ideals would have us believe we are only worthy of value when we meet (or believe we meet) cultural beauty ideals, we teach girls and women to understand their reflections do not define their worth. Whole industries preying on our insecurities would crumble if we just believed that. Friends, Dove has one thing right: “The power is in your hands. Redefine beauty.” You do have that power, but it won’t come by taking selfies and letting someone convince you that you fit some arbitrary definition of “beautiful.” It won’t come by buying magic lady cereal, new underwear, anti-aging products, or anything else. Redefining beauty is a continuous process of learning to see yourself for who you really are, and for-profit media and products for what they really are. You are capable of more than looking hot, and when you realize it, your whole life opens up.

We help people “redefine beauty” by harnessing their power for body image resilience in four areas. If you’re up for really taking your power into your own hands, skip the endless stream of selfies and start with the steps below. But what if you 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.

Mental Power:

  • Increasing our media literacy (understanding how and why media is engineered the way it is — see our entirerecognize” category of blog posts)
  • Critical thinking about beauty and health ideals (skin color, body size, age, BMI, fitspiration)
  • Critical self-reflection about our own beliefs and choices
  • Making conscious choices about media and cutting out what hurts (try a media fast)

Physical Power:

  • Using our bodies as instruments rather than objects (setting and achieving fitness goals)
  • Redefining health for ourselves by internal indicators and how we feel — not how we look

Spiritual Power:

  • Understanding you are more than a body and tapping into that higher-level thinking in whatever way suits you
  • “There exists a positive relationship between spirituality, mental and physical health, and wellness. …If a woman draws her sense of meaning from a spiritual force that goes beyond herself and that provides coherence and purpose to the universe, she will find less need to focus on her weight, shape, and appearance in an attempt to find happiness or life satisfaction” (Choate, 2007, p. 323).

Social Power:

The power is in your hands to redefine beauty in empowering ways. See more. Be more. THAT is Beauty Redefined. 

*Disclaimer: We fully recognize that many people see Dove’s marketing as a “step in the right direction.” We can concede on that point. Though they do airbrush their models and sell anti-aging, anti-cellulite, and other female-specific “flaw fixers,” they don’t  reinforcing the same stereotypes of supermodel bodies selling everything, and that’s cool. We’re glad their videos get people talking about body image and beauty ideals. Some people may perceive our response to Dove’s videos as too nit-picky or critical, but the whole idea of “redefining beauty” is very, VERY close to our hearts, and we want as much as anyone to help girls and women feel good about their bodies. That’s why Dove’s videos are so frustrating to us — they fall so short of actually assisting people in achieving positive body image when they could so easily do so. Instead of asking girls to take selfies and post them online, and thus invite input from others about what they look like, they could ask girls to step away from the selfies and the constant, debilitating focus on appearance that is epidemic among females and focus on using their bodies for good. Studies show using your body as an instrument, rather than focusing on its appearance, improves the way we feel about our bodies. No studies show that posting selfies and asking for public comment on them helps anyone to feel better about their bodies. We want Dove to do so much better, especially if they’re using the phrase “redefine beauty” to do it.  

To Him I Was An Object: Sexual Assault and Body Image

“To him I was an object.” 

That’s how Elizabeth Smart — who was kidnapped at age 14 and raped daily for 9 months — describes her kidnapper’s perception of her. To view or treat someone as an object, or a compilation of parts to be judged and consumed, is to dehumanize that person. Objectification is dehumanization. The presence of female objectification in media and public settings is inescapable. Nearly nude, thin-yet-curvaceous, Photoshopped body ideals are used to sell absolutely everything — including the promise of happiness, health, and desirability — to girls and women who will spend their lives (and their money) trying to attain such ideals.  

In a culture that is so comfortable viewing women’s bodies as objects available for our own mental consumption, it should be no surprise that many women’s bodies are violently used as objects for physical consumption without their consent. In the U.S., it is estimated that almost 20 percent* of women have been sexually assaulted, most of which involved completed rape. This is one of the most objectifying and dehumanizing acts a person can experience. As a result of this trauma, most survivors of sexual assault experience body image disturbance in some form, from preoccupation with appearance to severe eating disorders. Reports show 30-60% of patients in treatment for eating disorders have been sexually assaulted.** 

Survivors of sexual assault report feelings and behaviors that are entirely consistent with effects of objectification, almost all of which are associated with body shame, or feelings of disgust for one’s own body. Girls and women starve, binge, purge, compulsively overeat, avoid exercise, exercise obsessively, isolate themselves, and elect to life-threatening cosmetic surgery in an attempt to or control their bodies — either by forcing them to fit cultural beauty ideals (which are upheld as the product of superior willpower and self-discipline) or to avoid conforming to beauty ideals and thus avoid sexual attention. Girls and women who have been used and abused as objects are likely to treat their own bodies as objects.

Almost 3/4 of the women in both of our doctoral studies (Kite, 2013 & Kite, 2013) described themselves in self-objectifying terms, meaning they viewed themselves from an outsider’s perspective. This is really bad, and here’s why: Living a life for others’ viewing pleasure is not fully living. When girls and women live their lives in this perpetual state of body-monitoring, they are forfeiting some of their own humanity. They are living as passive objects whose primary purpose is to be judged and consumed by others, and not as humans actively making choices and experiencing life for themselves. This constant preoccupation with appearance comes at the expense of every other mental and physical capacity you can think of. 

The effects of body shame, whether prompted by sexual assault or a lifetime of objectification, are tremendously painful. But we’re not writing this just to shed light on the pain. We’re writing this to help people — maybe even you — use that pain for good, for progress, for power. Our research centers on the goal of body image resilience, which is the ability to harness and call upon innate and learned resilient traits to overcome the negative consequences of objectification brought on by life disruptions. Those disruptions can range from sexual assault to stress over wearing a swimsuit at the pool. When not handled effectively, disruptions can drag people deeper into body shame and poor health choices or can be absorbed into a normalized “comfort zone” of body shame and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Disruptions can be daily or one-time events, but they always provide opportunities for growth that are not possible without pain.

We want you to reflect on a disruption you’ve experienced relating to your perception of your body. This could be anything: a comment someone made about you, giving birth, getting married, being assaulted, a breakup, an injury, etc. Carefully consider the ways it affected your life, including the ways you thought about or treated your body after the disruption.

  • How did you work through that time?
  • What skills or resources — internally and externally — did you use to cope?
  • Consider how the disruption changed you, for better or for worse. What would be different about you if you hadn’t experienced this disruption? 

That brings us back to Elizabeth Smart. After 9 months in captivity and suffering the vilest of abuses every single day, she went on to truly thrive. It has been almost 12 years since she was found, and since then she has graduated from college, served an 18-month mission for her church, got married, testified against her captors, supported sexual predator legislation in Congress, and spoke out about her experiences all over the place, including her fantastic memoir, “My Story” (2013). Considering all she suffered during her abduction, no one would be surprised if Elizabeth isolated herself from the world and abused every harmful coping mechanism she could find. It happens all the time. But she didn’t. Why? 

“We are the ones who decide how we are going to react to life. I realized I only had one life and I didn’t want to waste it,” she states in her memoir. “Like everyone else, I have my challenges, but I have learned from them and they have helped to make me better.” 

This is literally the definition of resilience. Elizabeth recognized that she could use her major life disruption as a way to be better than she ever could have been without it — more grateful for what she has, more experienced, and a more powerful force for good. “I have also learned that my challenges can help me reach out to others with more empathy and understanding than I could ever have had before,” she said. “When we face challenges, it’s very easy to be mad or upset. But when we have passed our great test, we are given opportunities to reach out to other people. We are able to affect change in a way that otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to.”

  • How could your disruption help you to be better than you would be without having that experience?
  • How have you been able to (or might you be able to) affect change in a way you wouldn’t have been able to if you hadn’t experienced your disruption?  

Lexie and I know that if we hadn’t experienced the pain of intense body shame growing up, we would never have pursued the course we have academically or professionally by starting Beauty Redefined. There is no way we would care to help anyone else recognize and resist harmful messages about bodies if we didn’t intimately understand the toll it takes on people’s lives. We believe all painful disruptions — even sexual assault — can become enabling disruptions that help us grow stronger, and maybe even allow us to help others grow stronger. 

When asked how she survived, Elizabeth credited God, her family, and her community, and also said this: “Every survivor must make their own pathway to recovery. I found the path that worked for me.”  We agree. Our research has pointed us toward steps and skills that can predict success for women struggling with body image issues. However, not everyone’s struggle is the same. For many people, cultivating skills for resilience can be a powerful tool to use dark, painful experiences as a springboard toward healthy choices, happiness, and empowerment. We have divided those skills into four categories that are crucial for developing body image resilience below. If you need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before, we can help. 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, PhD.

Mental Power:

  • Increasing our media literacy (understanding how and why media is engineered the way it is — see our entire “recognize” category of blog posts)
  • Critical thinking about beauty and health ideals (skin color, body size, age, BMI, fitspiration)
  • Critical self-reflection about our own beliefs and choices
  • Making conscious decisions about the media we consume and cutting out what is harmful (start with a media fast)

Physical Power:

  • Using our bodies as instruments rather than objects (setting and achieving fitness goals)
  • Redefining health for ourselves according to internal indicators and how we feel — not how we look

Spiritual Power:

  • Understanding that you are more than just a body and tapping into that higher-level thinking in whatever way suits you
  • “There exists a positive relationship between spirituality, mental and physical health, life satisfaction, and wellness. It follows that if a woman draws her sense of meaning from a spiritual force that goes beyond herself and that provides coherence and purpose to the universe, she will find less need to focus on her weight, shape, and appearance in an attempt to find happiness or life satisfaction” (Choate, 2007, p. 323).

Social Power:

Please follow the links above for more information, and see this list of strategies for practical ways to redefine beauty and health in your own life. If you have been sexually assaulted or know someone who has, we encourage you to report it, tell someone you trust, and seek assistance through the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), which can connect you with resources and guidance. 

*About 3% of men have been sexually assaulted. These statistics don’t take into account victims 12 or younger.  http://www.sarsonline.org/resources-stats/reports-laws-staticshttp://www.rainn.org/statistics
**http://aftersilence.org/http://health.columbia.edu/topics/eating-disorders/sexual-assault, O’Neil, 1997.

Vanity Fair-Skinned Only? The Race Issue in the “Hollywood Issue”

VF Hollywood Issue 2010

I guess the last few years of backlash weren’t enough to convince Vanity Fair to stop whitewashing beauty out of its pages. Here’s a refresher: the “Fresh Faces of 2010” featured a lineup of nine beautiful young stars, all of whom had one noticeable attribute in common: they were all white.

 Keep in mind that was the year of Zoe Saldana in “Avatar” and “Star Trek,” Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious” and Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire,” among many other stunningly talented women of color who shared the Hollywood spotlight. The 2011 issue featured a slight improvement with the inclusion of Rashida Jones, though she was pushed to the far right of the tri-folded cover photo, which means one had to not only open the cover of the magazine, but also unfold the flap, in order to see the one and only woman of color. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2012 fared no better for the two women of color (Paula Patton and Adepero Oduye ) included in this much-anticipated issue, as they were also – you guessed it – relegated to the right side of the folded-over cover.

The Feb. 2014 “Vanities” section of the magazine included Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o, star of “12 Years a Slave,” though backlash ensued as soon as people were able to compare her digitally lightened magazine-approved skin color to her stunning red carpet photos from the Golden Globes in Jan. 2014.

You’d think that with approximately one-third of the women in the U.S. representing an ethnicity other than Caucasian, media would wake up and catch up – both in terms of writing and offering film roles for women of color and in representing those women positively after they’re stars. In terms of capitalistic common sense, that’s an undeniably large segment of this country’s consumers who don’t see their own races, ethnicities, skin tones, hair colors and styles reflected in mainstream media. Does it matter that women of color are dramatically underrepresented in media, that they’re digitally and physically whitewashed when they do appear in media (by their own choices and the choices of stylists, editors and directors), and that the women we do see almost always already look like white women – with light skin tones, long, straight, lightened hair, digitally lightened eye colors (also achieved through colored contacts), traditionally Anglicized facial features, and slender (and shrinking) bodies? The answer is YES. It does matter.

VF Hollywood Issue 2009

It matters that Vanity Fair essentially refuses to feature a woman of color on the cover of one of their most popular issues of the year that names Hollywood’s newest, most important stars. Consider this in light of their own mission statement: “Vanity Fair is a cultural filter, igniting the global conversation about the people and ideas that matter most…Vanity Fair is the first choice and often the only choice for the world’s most influential and important audience.”

With an audience of 6.76 million readers, the one thing VF has right in their mission statement is that it is undoubtedly influential. But in its role as a “cultural filter,” we’re sorely disappointed to see the diversely beautiful faces of our culture filtered entirely out of the conversation. By repeatedly leaving women of color out of the conversation, and literally out of the picture, VF tells us over and over again exactly who and what “matters most.”

VF Teen Star Issue 2003

Regardless of the race or ethnicity of the women featured, the constant theme women’s magazines like VF teach readers is that your appearance matters more than anything. Fashion and lifestyle magazines have long been the target of research that demonstrating startling links between media viewing/reading and body hatred, eating disorder symptoms, drive for thinness, and other factors. Research shows us that females’ exposure to the beauty ideals in women’s magazines is consistently related to an increased perception of the importance of beauty and the centrality of physical appearance for women (1). This is achieved through images and editorial content that consistently emphasize thinness, weight loss, and the attainment of what the magazines define as “beauty” in order to achieve personal success, happiness, health and attention from men.

As if unattainably thin ideals (that look completely normal due to repeated exposure) across all genres of media aren’t enough of a strike against women’s perceptions of their own bodies, why don’t we throw in a skin color as the foremost standard of beauty – one that at least a third of the women in this country don’t have. In addition to being extremely thin yet curvaceous in all the “right” places, the beauty ideal presented in mainstream media is almost exclusively white, making it all the more unattainable for women of color. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try. Even with the conspicuous absence of women of color from the highest-selling magazines, real life women of color suffer nearly the same effects as white women from our unrealistic, generally unhealthy, white ideals.

Lots of people assume women of color are more capable of resisting the influence of dominant standards of beauty than white women, but plenty of evidence shows otherwise. In studies where Latina girls under age 18 report greater body satisfaction compared to white girls, they still report comparable or higher rates of disordered eating (2). Latina adolescents frequently describe an ideal body type that is comparable to the white norm and report an interest in weight loss at rates similar to those reported by white peers (3). Same goes for African American females: Scholar Kristen Harrison conducted a study with 61 teenage African American girls, measuring the girls’ “thin ideal” television exposure (shows that emphasize thinness through characters’ bodies and dialogue) and how they thought their classmates expected them to look. She found that the larger girls who were exposed to thin ideal media consistently thought their peers expected them to be smaller than they were. For smaller girls, media exposure was strongly connected to the belief that they needed to gain weight and be larger (Harrison & Gentles, 2006).

Studies like this prove that profit-driven media is working exactly as it is intended to work. Beauty, cosmetic surgery, weight loss, fashion and media industries make billions by sparking and feeding into anxieties in women about their bodies. It’s the classic “grass is always greener” idea – white women need to be darker through tanning and dark women need to be lighter by any means necessary. As long as they can keep women dissatisfied with themselves, they can keep selling us the products and solutions to fix our flaws! Billions of dollars in skin-lightening products are sold worldwide, often by the exact same companies that sell tanning products in the U.S.

Sofia Vergara, with an arm reportedly Photoshopped to fit the Pepsi “skinny can” ideal

You’ve probably, definitely, noticed that Latinas are represented a little differently in mainstream U.S. media, and they always have been. You know, the ultra-sexy, seductive, curvaceous, va-va-voom, exoticized Latina lover – think Sofia Vergara, Eva Mendes, Eva Longoria, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Selma Hayek, Penelope Cruz – the list is seriously endless. In researching the effects of this, young Latina and black women are shown to describe an ideal body shape/size that has more “feminine curves” than the dominant white ideal. Instead of always subscribing to the thin ideal, girls and women of color, in some cases, value a “thick” ideal, comprising a slender but curvy body, with a thin waist, big breasts and hips, and a round behind (4). Greater acculturation into mainstream U.S. culture has been associated with preference for thinner body types among Mexican American women (5), Cuban American women and Latina adolescents. Chamorro and Flores-Ortiz found second-generation Mexican-Americans had the highest levels of disordered eating and acculturation among first- through fifth-generation Mexican Americans (Goodman, 2002). That means girls whose parents came from Mexico are more likely than those whose families had been here longer to starve themselves or binge and purge. THAT is what this culture does to women who have been in this country just long enough to figure out what to do to their bodies in order to fit U.S. ideals.

VF Hollywood Issue 2012

VF Hollywood Issue 2012

Essentially, “the feminine ideal is tanned, healthy slenderness, with no unsightly bumps, bulges, or cellulite, and bodily and facial perfection that results from hours of labor: exercise, makeup, and hair care” (Coward, 1985; & Kuhn, 1985), and 25 years later, plastic surgery and digital manipulation. Whereas Latina icons such as Christina Aguilera, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have achieved renown in both mainstream U.S. media and media geared toward Latin audiences, media representations of these women have become increasingly anglicized within U.S. media, with shrinking figures and lighter-colored, straighter hair (6). Essentially, “the feminine ideal is tanned, healthy slenderness, with no unsightly bumps, bulges, or cellulite, and bodily and facial perfection that results from hours of labor: exercise, makeup, and hair care” (Coward, 1985; & Kuhn, 1985), and 25 years later, plastic surgery and digital manipulation. Whereas Latina icons such as Christina Aguilera, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have achieved renown in both mainstream U.S. media and media geared toward Latin audiences, media representations of these women have become increasingly anglicized within U.S. media, with shrinking figures and lighter-colored, straighter hair (6).

Not too dark, but not too white; not too bodacious up top, but not too flat either; not too skinny, but not too fat. This vicious cycle of “never quite good enough” is fantastic for a consumer culture supporting $100+ billion beauty product and weight loss industries, but it is certainly not conducive to real progress as individuals or as a culture.

Today, the prevalence of body dissatisfaction and related disordered eating is impacting females at younger ages and they are no longer confined to a particular class or ethnic group. Does being aware of the insidious nature of media’s representation of women – really its misrepresentation of women – make any difference? Absolutely. You can recognize and resist those messages that tell us white actresses matter the most, that white features are the most beautiful, that large or small chests are ideal, that you need to be thinner or more curvaceous or that your skin needs to be darker or lighter. Reject and resist messages that treat women as objects to be looked at, judged for their parts and relentlessly flawed. Take the words of awesome Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldua and consider what progress you can make armed with this knowledge:

“Every increment of consciousness, every step forward is a travesia, a crossing. I am again an alien in new territory. And again, and again. But if I escape conscious awareness, escape ‘knowing,’ I won’t be moving. Knowledge makes me more aware, it makes me more conscious. ‘Knowing’ is painful because after it happens I can’t stay in the same place and be comfortable. I am no longer the same person I was before.” -Anzaldua, 1999, p.70

References
1)Goodman, 2002; Harrison & Cantor, 1997; Harrison, 2000; Thomsen, 2002; Stice, Shaw, & Stein, 1994; Labre & Walsh-Childers, 2003
2) Barry & Grilo, 2002; Crago et al., 1996; Granillo, Jones-Rodriguez, & Carvajal, 2005; White & Grilo, 2005
3) Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2002; Poran, 2002; Rosen & Gross, 1987
4) Goodman, 2002; Rubin, Fitts, & Becker, 2003; de Casanova, 2004; Goodman, 2002; Greenfield, 2002
5) Cachelin, Monreal, & Juarez, 2006; Jane, Hunter, & Lozzi, 1999; Gowen, Hayward, Killen, Robinson, & Taylor, 1999
6) Cepeda, 2003; Guzman & Valdivia, 2004
7) Eggermont et al., 2005; Fouts & Burggraf, 1999, 2000; Gentles & Harrison, 2006; Greenberg, Eastin, Hofschire, Lachlan, & Brownell, 2003; Hall, 1996; Harrison & Fredrickson, 2003; Hendriks, 2002; Pompper & Koenig, 2004

So Much for Your “Body Peace Treaty,” Huh Seventeen?

If you needed any more ammunition to fuel your boycott of Seventeen magazine and your fight for media literacy for all, let this month’s cover be the final blow.

The magazine features “Pretty Little Liars” actress Troian Bellisario, whose cover story highlights her struggle with and recovery from an eating disorder that she believes resulted from her ideals of “perfection.” Then check out the next insightful cover story, advertised just centimeters away:

Thanks to bR supporter Nicole, who sent us the tip on this asinine cover!

We hope the careless and harmful combination of these two messages is painfully clear, but in case it isn’t, here’s a research perspective on the problem: 

As representations of women’s bodies across all media have focused so intensely on thinness over the last 30 years, rates of eating disorders have skyrocketed – tripling for college-age women from the late 1980s to 1993 and rising since then to at least 4% of U.S. women suffering with bulimia. Approx. 10 million women are diagnosable as anorexic or bulimic, with at least 25 million more struggling with a binge eating disorder (NEDA, 2010). Perhaps more alarming is the 119% increase from 1999-2006 in the number of children under 12 hospitalized due to an eating disorder, the vast majority of whom were girls (Rosen, 2010). Though the Dept. of Health reports no exact cause of eating disorders, they state some characteristics have been linked to their development, such as low self-esteem, fear of becoming fat, and being in an environment where weight and thinness are emphasized (Rosen, 2010) – all of which are shown to be related to media exposure of idealized bodies, which is all but inescapable. 

Teaching girls how to get an “insane body” is exactly what these scholars meant by “an environment where weight and thinness are emphasized.” By highlighting a serious health problem plaguing females while simultaneously promoting the body ideals that drive many girls and women toward such extremes, Seventeen is effectively tightening the grip that eating disorders have on the girls and women within the magazine’s reach. 

This cover story fiasco comes just two short years after the magazine debuted its “Body Peace Treaty” as a response to body image activists worldwide asking Seventeen Magazine to Keep it Real by quitting the excessive Photoshopping it (and every other magazine) is guilty of. Every news outlet on the planet jumped on this story of supposedly successful petitioning that even prompted a statement from Seventeen editor Ann Shoket. Rather than summarize the amazingness (sarcasm. so much sarcasm.) of her words that were published in the July 2012 issue, we’ll let you read for yourself here:

At the time, we did a bunch of local news interviews and offered this as our official statement on the matter:

“Though we’re admittedly a little weirded out that she claims Seventeen has never been guilty of altering a girl/woman’s face or body in the magazine (which is grade-A baloney), we’re pumped that she and the magazine are taking a more public stance on their renewed commitment to showing us reality — which we believe is MUCH more beautiful anyway. BUT there’s another more serious part of this statement that we need to hold Seventeen accountable for. She says, ‘We want every girl to stop obsessing about what her body looks like and start appreciating it for what it can do!’ And we fully agree. But now it’s time for them to back up that claim. 

Seventeen, while you’re foregoing extreme Photoshopping, how about you show us some covers and articles that don’t obsess about what our bodies look like and appreciate them for what they can do!’  ‘Get your Best Bikini Body,’ ‘Look Amazing,’ and ‘Look Pretty for Summer’ (actual 2012 headlines) just aren’t cutting it. We are capable of SO much more than being looked at. It would be great if hugely  popular media outlets like Seventeen would help us believe it by showing girls as more than parts to be looked at and “fixed” — rather than just telling us to believe it in an editor’s letter. Whether or not they walk the walk instead of just talking the talk, you can start that positive body image journey for yourself with these stategies.”

So, surprise! They haven’t lived up to their end of the “Body Peace Treaty” or our challenge. Why? Because the body ideals in their pages sell everything — subscriptions, copies on the newsstand, the products advertised inside, and the dreams of every girl who just wants to look hot enough to be happy, healthy, and desirable. Petitions or not, “Body Peace Treaty” or not, why would they stop promoting unattainable ideals that will drive profits as long as girls still seek those ideals? 

We’re not trying to change Seventeen or any other media. That’s a futile hope (you saw how much good 250k signatures on a petition delivered to their front door did). We’re focused on changing people’s perceptions of media and their perceptions of their own bodies. If you’re thinking, “Well, if you don’t like, it, just don’t buy it!” then you’re not alone in thinking the ostrich-style approach is easiest, but you also don’t quite grasp the influence of these publications. Seventeen sells 20 million copies every year — mostly to girls much younger than 17. This magazine sells twice as many copies as its leading competitor, is circulated worldwide, and can be seen by anyone of any age at every magazine checkout stand everywhere. Of course the first step is to cancel your subscription and boycott the magazine altogether (and we highly recommend a media fast to cleanse your mind), but we also need to have a serious conversation with our daughters, friends, students, colleagues, other parents, business owners displaying these titles, and so many others who can use their knowledge of the harms done by media to make more informed choices for themselves and those over whom they have influence.

Use your understanding of media literacy to speak up about why magazines like this one focus so much on female appearance ideals, even as they shed light on eating disorders and other health problems related to appearance ideals. Who benefits? Who suffers? Talk to anyone and everyone who will listen. You can even slap a Beauty Redefined sticky note on the covers of these magazines when they’re on display in public places! It’s a nice little reminder for anyone who happens to be browsing! One of our favorite new sticky note slogans is “See more. Be more.” When we stop believing messages sold by magazines like Seventeen that girls and women are bodies first and foremost, then we can SEE more than just bodies. Once we can see more, we can BE more! It’s up to us to change, not media. See more. Be more. THAT is Beauty Redefined.

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