Your Body is Not a Before or an After

“Before and after” body transformation photos used to be relegated to late-night infomercials or old magazine fad diet ads, but now you can’t click on IG or FB without seeing the dramatic comparison pics from your old friend selling those shakes and skinny wraps or those fitness buffs showing you that you can get a “bikini body” too!

Though it’s tempting to scroll through these dramatic and persuasive images while longing for the days when our bodies will look like those “afters” with thousands of likes and perfectly happy lives, we want to add a word of caution. Your body is not a “before” or an “after,” and neither is that woman’s changing body being shared online. You’re on a journey of a million befores and afters and a snapshot just can’t capture that beautiful reality. Sometimes those simplified, glorified comparison images actually distract people from positive health choices and experiences by turning the focus to appearance at the expense of fitness.

Let me be clear: lots of individuals post occasional transformation photos without selling any too-good-to-be-true products or being overly preoccupied with looks as opposed to fitness. This post isn’t about that. Lots of people work hard to change their lifestyles and get stronger and healthier, and simply want to share their results and what worked for them when those results show up physically. We would never discourage fitness goals or sharing fitness successes. At the same time, we also must be aware of our culture’s tendency to conflate “fitness” with “ideal body shape and size,” which ideals have changed over time and will continue to change constantly based on what makes money. (For one clear example, a protruding, rounded behind was nowhere to be seen in fitness media before just the last few years, and now it is inescapable.)

This post also is not about the young women posting before and after photos that subvert the standard idea of fat/sad-to-thin/happy, and instead show themselves at the height of an eating disorder “before” and (hopefully) in a healthier mental and physical state “after.”

Here’s what this post is about:
Too many salespeople and companies use before and after photos to package hope and sell it in the form of weight loss products, plans and services that may or may not aid anyone on their journey to health. (See this great post for more on how weight loss and hope for love, success and happiness are often linked for women.)
Too many people use before and after photos to warp health and fitness into the sexy “after” shot that doesn’t tell the whole story of how that photo came to be (too often with Photoshop, filters, great lighting, just the right poses, or even through dangerous starvation and dehydration).
Too many people follow accounts full of incredible before and after photos to work up the motivation to lose weight or get in shape, only to fall short of the appearance milestones and body ideals in those transformation shots they thought they could attain. This very often leads people to give up on their goals altogether and turn to unhealthy ways of coping with that shame.

We know transformation photos are super fun to look at. They give us a momentary thrill by attempting to show off what hard work and dedication to fitness and health look like in a snapshot. In their aspirational way, they give us a temporary high of motivation to improve our fitness, but for many people, “improving fitness” really just means “getting my body to look like hers.” Incredible “after” photos paired with the latest, greatest food/exercise plans often work as fitspo that encourages people to engage in exercise and eating habits that prioritize altering the looks of their bodies above all else. It might sound harmless, but for many people earnestly seeking to feel positively toward their bodies and improve their fitness, it isn’t.

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

Our culture’s fixation on defining and advertising fitness through before and after photos serves salespeople and companies very well, but it doesn’t do the rest of us much good in terms of body image or sustained progress toward real health and fitness goals. One of the major reasons why these transformation photos often distract and discourage people from healthy behaviors is that the before and after photo trend reinforces the notion that visible results are the only way to illustrate fitness success. They whisper to us that if we don’t see results like the “after” photos on the screen, we aren’t succeeding at health and fitness. This is an affront to actual health and fitness! Did you know most women give up on exercise routines because they interpret their efforts as failing when they don’t reach the appearance-related milestones they hoped they would? When their cellulite doesn’t leave or their love handles don’t disappear or their abs or thighs don’t tighten up, they give up on working out and eating a healthy, balanced diet. They often turn to unhealthy means of achieving those body goals at any cost, or even turn to a more sedentary lifestyle and binge eating to cope. Both alternatives are the worst.


Pay attention to how you feel when you scroll through “inspirational” images like before and after pics posted by companies online, or when you look through your own transformation photos.
You might run up against Teddy Roosevelt’s hard truth: comparison is the thief of joy. Comparing what you looked like when you were thinner or younger or prettier to your current state rarely induces genuine feelings of joy and gladness. You’re left either wishing you’d have loved yourself when you looked “better” or wondering why you’ve “let yourself go” in one way or another. And the reverse is also true: Comparing what you looked like when you were heavier or less muscular to your current state rarely induces genuine feelings of joy and gladness. Because you will start to wonder how you ever “let yourself go” or you’ll take an inventory of the things you still need to improve to look better, or compare yourself to someone else’s transformation photos and come up short. What if your “after” looks like someone else’s supposedly depressing and unfortunate “before”?! (That happens all the time!) All that comparison leads to feelings of shame and low self-esteem, and we just can’t have any more of that.

Before and after photos also tend to reinforce the assumption that you can document your life based on what your body looks like, but you can’t really illustrate your health, fitness, progress, or happiness just through the appearance of your body. The look of your body really does not always illustrate healthy eating and exercise behaviors in the ways before and after photos glorify and promise – it’s just not the way our bodies work. Many people run marathons, complete triathlons, have healthy, balanced eating habits, and perfect blood pressure, blood sugar, resting heart rate and cardiovascular health — and STILL don’t have a body you would ever see in a fitness magazine or even featured in a typical “after” photo. Alternatively, lots of people go to unhealthy extremes like disordered eating, over-exercising, using unsafe diet pills, steroids, and cosmetic surgery to achieve the look of health and then show up in fitness magazines and appear as “after” bodies in ads and posts with millions of followers. (Ask many former bikini fitness competitors and they’ll tell you the dangerous extremes many resort to.) Let’s not forget that these transformation photos are SO easily manipulated and manipulative! Check out the#30secondtransformation hashtag to see people taking “progress” photos 30 seconds apart to prove how easy it is to pose in ways that appear to reflect major weight loss and muscle tone. Anyone can add easy filters and photo altering apps to create a truly unreal “after.”

Additionally, those “after” photos don’t accurately reflect positive body image, self-esteem, mental well-being or happiness. Some people in transformation photos are much happier in their “after” photos, but many people aren’t any happier or feeling any more positively toward their bodies “after” — especially if their lives now revolve around restriction, deprivation and obsession with food and exercise. As much as we want to believe “before” photos always represent depression and lack of self-control while “after” photos always represent perfect self-control, happiness, desirability, and endless confidence, those are myths. Extremely common, money-making, hope-generating myths.

Take me (Lexie, co-director of Beauty Redefined) for example. At my thinnest, I spent a lot of time working out alone, ate a steady diet of celery and cucumbers, and then randomly binged on Taco Bell in my car when I realized how starving I was or when I didn’t feel like my body looked how I wanted it to. I felt a lot of shame toward my body and felt really bad about the fact that I’d lost weight and still didn’t feel confident and ready to rock a swimsuit with pride. I was also worried that I was unlovable because I didn’t fit the ideals sold to us incessantly as the key to a happy love life. Flash forward to today. I had a baby almost seven months ago, and I weigh more than I have in a while. I’m also the happiest I’ve been in many years. I eat a balanced diet and I walk with my baby and run stairs at Lindsay’s condo (and recently beat my personal record !). I never eat Taco Bell alone in my car out of discouragement. I feel less shame toward my body than I ever felt at my thinnest. I’m in an absolutely awesome relationship with my husband that loves me as much as ever, and I think my body is pretty awesome for surviving my worst fears – pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation!

I am the walking contradiction to what before and after pics often try to claim, and so are you. You are not a before and after photo, whether you love what shows up in the photo or you don’t. Your life and your health are so much more than what any photo could claim to capture. You are on a life-long journey in this one body and your weight gain and weight loss and muscle gain and muscle loss are just that – weight fluctuations and muscle fluctuations. We should all strive to take the best care of our bodies we can, and be mindful of how we feel as we make our individual health choices. The truth that will transform your life is this: your body is an instrument, not an ornament.

When we can get out of our own heads and stop thinking of ourselves and our lives and our progress in terms of how it appears to others or compares to other snapshots in our lives, we can better focus on how we actually feel and what our bodies can actually do. Please believe that it really is possible to reach fitness milestones and accomplish amazing health goals without those feats making a visible (or visible enough) difference in our bodies to show up in an ideal “after” photo. Those self-objectifying thoughts and behaviors that keep us fixated on how our bodies appear actually water down our sacrifices and strengthening experiences to just what we can *see*. When we are really mindful of what health choices mean and feel like in our lives, trying to prove or demonstrate that hard work and dedication with a simple photo of your body is really doing a disservice to what you are actually accomplishing.

What if instead of thinking of ourselves in static, reductive terms of “before” or “after,” we thought of ourselves as in between those two points: during. Any photo you take of yourself right now is just a “during” shot. You are “during” (and enduring) a journey of a million befores and afters. Your body is an instrument to be used for your benefit and experience, not an ornament simply to be admired. Try to shift your thinking by remembering that the instruments and tools we use to create and accomplish things are valuable for much more than what they look like — they’re valuable for what they allow us to *do.* Our bodies should be no different. No matter where you are on your journey in this body, no matter whose “before” or “after” photos your resemble right now, please know that you are worthy of love and worthy of taking good care of your mind and body right now. As we see more than a “before body” or “after body” in ourselves, we can be more.

For a more in-depth look at the ways women’s perceptions of health have been distorted to focus on appearance, as well as exercises and tools to reshape those perceptions and behaviors, check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Program

Illustrations commissioned for Beauty Redefined by the fantastic Michelle Christensen.

Are Body Positivity and Fitness Compatible?

If you want to improve your body image, but you have trouble prioritizing regular exercise … join the club!

Lexie and I (BR co-directorsdecided this week to renew our dedication to fitness. Not the “getting a bikini body” or “get your body back” kind of fitness, but the improving strength and capability and “using our bodies as instruments instead of ornaments” kind of fitness. Those are very different — both in terms of motivations, goals, and anticipated results.  We’re re-dedicating ourselves to exercise because sometimes life gets busy and other things get in the way, blah blah blah. You know how that goes. But we know — no matter how busy, lazy, or distracted we get from regular physical activity — it is absolutely key to feeling positively toward our bodies.

So many of us have been trained to see fitness and physical activity as a means for looking thin, sexy and toned, or a punishment for eating “bad” foods. When you’re working on positive body image, it can be tempting to opt out of fitness altogether in order to avoid falling into traps of disordered thinking and weight obsession. However, forgetting about fitness does a HUGE disservice to not only our physical health, but also our body image. Tons of research, including our own, shows one of the best ways to improve your body image is through sports and exercise. Using your body and experiencing your capabilities can help shift you away from a focus on your looks — if you do it right! 

 

Here are our tips for body-positive fitness. Follow the links for more information about each tip!

Rather than forgetting about fitness, try forgetting about fatness. Go into your fitness regimen with no assumptions about what effect exercise will have on your fat, weight, size, cellulite and body proportions. You are not a “before” or an “after.” Consciously work to separate your personal definition of fitness from your feelings about fat. While steeped in research for my PhD dissertation on this very subject, I wrote these two blog posts that go deep into the ways health is very problematically defined and measured within our culture and how it can be more accurately measured and achieved by forgetting about fat to focus on fitness.

Avoid exercising in front of mirrors. This often leads to self-objectification that can decrease stamina. If your gym or workout partners trigger you to focus on the way your body looks while you exercise, change your routine and let your partners know you’re working on getting the focus on how you *feel,* not how you look. Here’s a video of Lexie describing what self-objectification means, what it feels like, and why it is the worst.

Wear clothing you feel comfortable in and aren’t constantly adjusting. Clothing plays an important role in prompting or preventing self-objectifying thoughts. If you’re regularly thinking about covering your exposed stomach or adjusting your shorts that are riding up, your clothes are constantly reminding you to think about what you look like, whether you want to or not. Loose-fitting, reasonably covered, and properly sized clothing can be your best friend during exercise if you tend to worry about what your body looks like while working out.

Skip the scale and stop measuring yourself. Weighing and measuring leads to a focus on external appearance and size and to discouragement when those numbers don’t decrease as much as you hope. Your weight and size don’t tell you all the incredibly positive changes that happen inside your body when you exercise. Medical experts warn against the 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. 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. Read more here.

Measure your progress and set fitness goals that have nothing to do with your weight or size. Set goals for achievements by certain dates like “bench X pounds by this date,” “run/walk/swim for X minutes/miles this week,” “get my heart rate up to X for X minutes every day,” etc. Any physical activity goal can be tailored for your abilities, no matter how limited your abilities might be.

Avoid fixating on your looks and comparing yourself to others while you exercise by consciously focusing on how you feel and how your muscles are working. Distract yourself with outside entertainment if necessary, but try to check in regularly on how you feel. This will help you to appreciate your capabilities and monitor your levels of exertion (can I push harder, do I need to rest?). Rather than imagining your body getting smaller, try to imagine your heart, muscles, and immune system getting stronger. Imagine your endurance and stamina increasing. Imagine your body as a powerful instrument for your use, rather than an ornament for others to admire.

Opt for competitive or non-aesthetically focused activities. Sports like soccer, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, etc., are awesome ways to focus on a goal and get outside of your head. Getting into what scholars call a “flow state” is one of the most empowering ways to experience the capabilities of your body without thinking about your body. Read this fantastic guest post for a look into the way watching the Women’s World Cup opened Autumn Whitefield-Madrano‘s eyes to the beauty of women forgetting about being beautiful while focusing on what they really want. Be cautious of activities like cheerleading, ice skating, ballet and other forms of dance that include a looks-focused component. (Before you get upset about that point, please read this post.) Be cautious of any sport or activity that requires you to wear something you are not comfortable in — especially in front of spectators. Volleyball is a good example of a great sport with an often questionable dress code for female players.

Avoid “fitness” media that actually just keeps its focus on the appearance of female bodies, emphasizes weight loss, or that sparks your body anxiety. Things that might fight into this category are: social media pages that feature lots of before-and-after body images or images of idealized, Photoshopped, sexualized bodies; sites, pages and programs that exist to sell you products intended to “tighten,” tone, contour, detox, or ensure weight loss; and anything that elevates one body type above another — “real women have curves,” “skinny girls look good in clothes, fit girls look good naked,” etc. Ditch it all. Try the best kind of health cleanse you could ever use — a media fast. Read one woman’s transformational experience of cutting out all fitness media while undergoing major body changes in this guest post.

Don’t go to extremes. Don’t overdo it. Choose activities you actually enjoy doing and can look forward to. Don’t exercise to punish yourself for eating or for not being thin enough. If you have a tendency to over-exert yourself or are replacing one disorder for another (like trading anorexia for over-exercising), please proceed with caution. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you understand those compulsions and how to stop them.


Based on your experiences with starting and maintaining regular exercise regimens while actively avoiding the intense focus on the appearance of bodies in fitness culture, are there any other tips you would add?

Our bodies are instruments, not ornaments. Let’s use them! 

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, 8-week therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, who developed and tested this program through their PhDs dissertations.

From Body Anxiety to Body Image Activism: Our Story

We are Lexie and Lindsay Kite, PhD, identical twins and co-directors of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit working to help girls and women improve their body image and self-worth as they wade through harmful cultural ideals. We want to tell you about our (very twin-like) path from self-conscious young women to body image scholars and activists. Our story is in Lindsay’s words, but it belongs to both of us. This is our story, and the transformation we have experienced can be part of your story, too. 

Twins Swim Lexie (L) Lindsay (R) June 1991

Swimming in our backyard in Idaho at age 5

Lexie and I were swimmers from Day 1. As participants on a competitive team starting at 6 years old, we practiced intensely every day. My favorite part was the excited, heart-racing feeling I’d get before every race. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before that anxious, heart-pounding started to stem from the way I thought I looked in my swimming suit, rather than my performance. In third grade, I stood in front of a full-length mirror, noticed one dimple in the side of my little girl thigh and desperately felt the need to cover up. I vowed to remind myself to keep my left hand covering the dimple on my left thigh at all possible moments I wasn’t in the water.

That is when my appearance started to creep to the forefront of my every thought.

My newly heightened awareness of my looks quickly gave way to a relentless preoccupation with weight loss, starting around age 11. Journals and notebooks filled with weight-loss goals, motivating thoughts and tips, food logs and my most depressing thoughts were lined up in my home bookshelf, stacked next to piles of teen magazines. For a long time, my weight defined my days – either successful or a waste. One step closer to happiness or another day of worthless disappointment.

I wasn’t alone. My friends suffered the same preoccupation with weight and appearance. Heather, the president of the ballroom dance team, could tell you her weight from any given day of the previous years. One of our most popular friends cut out dozens of lingerie models from Victoria’s Secret catalogs and stuck them all over the back of her door for “motivation.” Another friend, a cheerleader, bragged to everyone that all she had eaten in days was five Doritos. I wondered how she found the motivation to be so strong. We were all middle-class white girls form Idaho, with happy, successful families of all shapes and sizes, but we all shared the deep-seated idea that the only way to attain happiness, popularity and love was to be as thin and beautiful as possible.

What we truly shared, along with everyone else we knew, was easy access to media our entire lives, where Kelly Kapowski was always pursued, everyone pitied the chubby girl Zack agreed to take on a date, all the Disney princesses and TV stars were thin and chased after, while any average-sized or overweight characters (or characters with braces, glasses, acne, a ponytail, etc.) were mocked. Male characters were valued for humor, athleticism, intelligence and power, while female characters were almost exclusively valued for their beauty alone. Ads consistently reflected these differing measures of worth. I recognized it, but never ever thought to question it. That’s just the way things worked.

Freshman year at Utah State University, Lexie and I took an awesome required journalism class called “Media Smarts” on critically analyzing media for its implicit but powerful messages. Learning about the hugely imbalanced portrayals of gender — particularly the ways media sets the standards for what it means to be successful or worthwhile – changed me. No one in my life ever taught or demonstrated to me that thinness and body “perfection” equals happiness or success. But social media, TV, magazines and movies do it consistently. That creates a false reality that makes real-life bodies seem sub-par. I realized the first step to dispelling these myths that had held me and all my friends back for so many years was to point out that it’s all made up. Producers, casting directors, advertisers and media executives make specific decisions for specific economic reasons – they don’t simply reflect reality – they create it to sell unreachable ideals and the products to supposedly help us get there.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R) at graduation for our bachelor's degrees in 2006 at Utah State University.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R) at graduation for our bachelor’s degrees in 2006 at Utah State University.

I knew talking about women’s representation in media got my heart beating fast for a reason. The palpable excitement of it reminded me of my swimming days – the anxiety before a meet, the anticipation of putting all of my hard work to use. Media’s messages to women – including what we perpetuate on social media – enrage me and thrill me, and its implications are too real to accept and just move on. My heartbeat didn’t slow down – instead, the work became more and more personal as I identified that passion as the loaded term “feminism” and began to learn all I could about the ways beauty and weight are tied to women’s value and abilities to contribute to the world.

Being stifled by a preoccupation with my appearance was not a natural part of me. I learned to hate my body from sources surrounding me, including peers, family, media and cultural messages. When I became more worried about the dimple in my thigh than my race time, I stopped excelling as a swimmer. When I am fixated on keeping my clothes in the most flattering position and everything sucked in just right, I can’t concentrate on anything else at all. I was overwhelmed just thinking of the number of activities I could have excelled at, the relationships I could have cultivated, the goals I could have pursued, and the girls feeling the exact same way I did that I could have helped if I hadn’t spent so much of my life preoccupied with the way I looked.

Lexie and I knew we had work to do battling this obsession with female appearance and we received awesome fellowships to do our master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Utah, starting in 2007. I felt overwhelmed with the excitement and potential implications of this work I so wanted to accomplish. On August 19, 2007, I wrote the following in my journal:

“I KNOW this is going to be a hard but amazing time in my life. I can feel it. Lots of big things are going to happen, both academically and spiritually. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t even know exactly what that will entail – definitely something to do with helping people to become more critical media consumers – to question what they see in media and understand why it is that way, especially how women are portrayed. If we can forget how inadequate, fat, dumb and jealous we feel and concentrate on serving others and improving the world, the world be a much better place and women – and their families – will be so much more fulfilled and so much happier.”

(As a side note, most of my journal entries over the years focused on dating, roommate issues, and vacations — not changing the world. This is one of those rare exceptions.)

Flash forward to today. Since 2009, when we finished our co-authored master’s project that included a visual presentation on body image, Lexie and I have been traveling the country doing big Beauty Redefined speaking events for universities, high schools, middle schools, church congregations, treatment centers, etc. We finished our master’s degrees in 2009 and our PhDs in 2013, building and sharing our nonprofit all along, while being featured in major media outlets as we worked to spread the word. We reach millions online through our website and social media platforms every year and are consistently humbled by the feedback we receive from girls and women whose lives are changed by developing body image resilience through manageable strategies.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R): Graduating with our PhDs from the University of Utah in 2013.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R): Graduating with our PhDs from the University of Utah in 2013.

And wouldn’t you know – despite all my best teenage efforts – that dimple in my left thigh never disappeared, and it multiplied! But it hasn’t held me back from recognizing my worth and potential as a capable, awesome woman — or my potential to spread that truth to women everywhere. It also hasn’t held me back from swimming every chance I get and using my body as an instrument, not just looking at it as an ornament. I’m unbelievably grateful that the anxiety that came from becoming aware of my body’s “flaws” has continuously been replaced by this empowering knowledge about my worth.

If Lexie and I hadn’t experienced that deep body shame throughout our young lives, we wouldn’t have ever figured out our lives’ missions to combat it. That shame has transformed into an anxious, heart-racing desire to share this truth, and thankfully, it’s contagious! When people hear true messages that help us to see women as more than bodies, and capable of much more than being looked at, their hearts beat faster, too. Those people help share these truths — through blogs, social media, everyday conversation, and changed thoughts and actions in every facet of their lives. We share everything we’ve learned here at our website (beautyredefined.org) and on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and developed an 8-week program (tested during our dissertations) to guide people toward body image resilience. We hope you’ll join us in helping our world see these myths about female power and value as they really are and continuously resist them together.

Our power lies in being able to SEE more than bodies in ourselves and others, and then to BE more than ornaments to decorate the world. We’ve got work to do!

 

Podcast Interview: Empowerment, Body Positivity and the Internet

Some Backstory: I (Lindsay Kite) am an avid follower of Meghan Murphy, and after being particularly frustrated about sexualized imagery being embraced as the ultimate in empowerment for women, and then particularly refreshed upon reading Meghan’s posts at Feminist Current, I wrote her a quick Facebook message to thank her. She invited me to be interviewed for her podcast about this topic. I have been reluctant to speak much online about this question of body positivity vs. objectification since receiving significant backlash after posting this piece (and I’m exhausted), but I knew a conversation with Meghan would be an ideal platform for discussing this important subject. Below is the transcript (thank you, Rachel Garrison!) and you can listen to the podcast audio here

This interview was transcribed and then edited for clarity based on an audio interview featured on the Feminist Current podcast earlier this month. It was conducted by Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of Feminist Current with Lindsay Kite, PhD, co-director of Beauty Redefined.

Meghan Murphy: What is objectification? What does it mean to be sexually objectified?

Lindsay Kite: Sexual objectification is generally thought of as looking at and viewing people’s bodies as objects for consumption — so, parts of people to be viewed, to be judged, to be consumed, to be used, to be discarded. Not seeing people in their full humanity. We aren’t valuing how they feel, what they do, what they say, what they contribute to the world. We’re simply valuing bodies (women’s bodies, especially) for what they can do for other people, particularly men — how men can consume those bodies, how men value those bodies.

MM: Objectification is a concept that we talk about so much in feminism because it’s the most useful way to describe the way in which women and women’s bodies are so often represented in media and pop culture, but I it is actually kind of a hard concept for some people to get if they aren’t familiar with feminist theory. I wonder if you can explain what objectification means — what does it look like? What’s the difference between being objectified and not being objectified, in terms of imagery?

LK: For me, from my perspective and from my research, objectification really happens through the viewer. It’s the “look” of the viewer. This also happens through the “look” of the camera. So when we talk about the male gaze, it’s really valuable because so much of what we see in media — especially in mass media and the social media that reflects that mass media — we see cameras tilting up and down women’s bodies, zooming in on parts of their bodies. The dialogue from other characters — the text about those women — revolves around what their bodies look like, what other people think about what those women look like, and how those women are valued, usually (pretty much solely) for what they can do for other people — how they can be used and consumed.

This gets complicated when we start talking about “self-objectification,” which is a really huge part of my research. Most of what we do through Beauty Redefined focuses on helping people to recognize self-objectification. Not just looking at images that they may be objectifying or other people that they may be objectifying, but how they are thinking of themselves. And it gets complicated because we know that when we look at images of women, and we’re solely looking at parts, basically dismantling women and evaluating them based on just what they look like — that’s objectification. We are objectifying those women. Sometimes that choice is taken away from us because of the way the camera or the dialogue treats those women’s bodies. It does the objectifying for us. And so the viewer then becomes kind of complicit in that objectification because we’re viewing it and seeing and understanding images that way a lot of the time.

But then we also end up doing it to ourselves… which a lot of people are confused about. Even people who seem to be familiar with that [reality/concept/term] and talk about and use the term… Sometimes they think self-objectification means displaying yourself as an object —wanting people to look at you as an object. And that’s not what it is at all. Self-objectification happens inside your own brain.

This happens to girls and women of all ages (and increasingly so with boys and men, though not anywhere near to the same extent). We see girls and women picturing what they look like as they go about their days. So, as they engage in physical activity or mental activity, their identities are kind of doubled, because they’re picturing what they look like while they participate in their own lives — while they live, do, and be.

This gets in the way of everything — absolutely everything. It saps our mental energy, our capacity to think complete thoughts, our ability to focus on what we’re doing and to participate fully in our lives, our relationships, and the world. So, self-objectification is an element of this whole conversation that is hugely important, because when we view objectified images and participate in this objectifying culture, whether we know it or not, we end up turning that gaze inward on ourselves and evaluating ourselves in terms of what other people see, rather than based on how we feel, what we do, and what we say and contribute to the world.

MM: I’m so glad you brought that up because I talk about self-objectification quite often in my work and, as you pointed out, I think people are really confused about what that means, or they think that [self-objectification] can’t exist because of the way they’ve interpreted the theory of the male gaze. So they say, “Well, if a man isn’t looking at me and objectifying me then I’m not being objectified,” for example, if the audience is female for whatever reason. Or they’ll say, “How can I objectify myself?” Or, “If I’m choosing to objectify myself, it can’t be oppressive.”

Because representations of women’s bodies are so fraught and because women, throughout their lives, learn to hate their bodies, to self-objectify, and to obsess over their bodies in a pretty superficial way (I don’t mean that as an insult to women, I mean literally in a superficial way), there’s a lot of energy put into teaching women and girls to feel good about their bodies… Sometimes this is called “body positivity”… I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what these efforts look like.

LK: Yeah, definitely. My work has always revolved around positive body image. My sister, Lexie, and I, we started this non-profit, Beauty Redefined, fully as an attempt to promote positive body image among girls and women. So it’s something that’s very close to my heart. But that means I’ve been really keenly aware and tuned in to the different ways that others are trying to promote positive body image. And it definitely looks different depending on the strategies that people are using. So for me and my organization, we are seeking to expand what constitutes beauty: what it looks like, what it can look like. But also, and more importantly, the meaning and the value of beauty in our lives — how much value we allow it to have for ourselves in the ways we judge ourselves, and the way we judge and see other people.

There are lots of other people who take a more narrow perspective on positive body image. You’ll see this in viral videos that are absolutely everywhere. You’ll see this from really well-meaning organizations and speakers.

Lots of people have become really aware of the hot topic that is “positive body image” because people recognize it’s a huge issue. Girls and women really do hate their bodies and there’s no arguing that. But they’re trying to fix this problem in generally one way: They typically will say, in so many words, “Girls, women, you are so beautiful just the way you are. If only you understood just how pretty you are, you would have all the confidence in the world. Now get out there and have girl power.” And we [Lexie and I] try to flip the script on this because we know that boys and men have self-esteem issues, too. They have confidence issues. And when people try to fix girls’ and women’s confidence issues — not just their body issues — by telling them they’re beautiful and they’re actually prettier than they think they are, that just serves to further reinforce the idea that your body is the most important thing about you, and that your looks define who you are. So girls and women get this message from multiple angles, even from people who are really well-meaning.

One of the other ways that people really seek to promote body positivity and that has grown really rapidly in the last two years online, especially through Instagram, is through the hashtag, #bopo or #bodypositivity. When you search that hashtag, you’re going to see hundreds of thousands — millions, even — of images of women in their underwear, women who are nude, women who are wearing very little, posing with their backsides to the camera, just showing pretty much everything. But they’re all different shapes and sizes. And the reason they feel that this is body-positive is because when they were young, they didn’t get to see bodies that looked like theirs in mass media. And I can absolutely relate to that. Growing up as a thick girl, you don’t get to see bodies of women who look like yours — your size and your shape, and with the so-called “flaws” we’ve been taught to find in ourselves. I never saw cellulite. I never saw acne. I never saw stretch marks or any of the things that I had, that I learned to view as “abnormal.” So then people turn to the Internet. And they take pictures of themselves in their underwear to show other people, “Look at me. I might not look like those ideals, but I look good and I feel good, and you should, too.” And that has just exploded. That is by far the most popular way that people are interpreting what it means to promote positive body image. And that scares me a little bit. Because while I recognize the value of that, I recognize the value in seeing body diversity — especially marginalized bodies — represented positively, I also am scared because that’s one of the only ways that body positivity is being valued and promoted in any really major ways. And it’s popular because it fits within the rules of this objectifying culture.

I talk about objectification as kind of like a game or a system that gives women points and value based on whether or not they are objectifiable — whether or not people can look at their bodies and think they look good, or consume them and, you know, have whatever thoughts they want to about them. How on earth can you distinguish those images from the identical images that are used to humiliate women; that are used strictly for the pleasure of men? Those same images, even under the hashtag #bodypositivity, are strictly there to arouse men. They’re not there to help girls and women feel good about themselves. And it becomes problematic, because while I’ve seen those pages — those body positivity pages, especially on Instagram — explode when they start to share more underwear pictures or nude selfies. That’s when they get 200K followers. And it’s a little problematic because, again, we are just reinforcing the idea that women are bodies. That our bodies are our value. And [it’s like], “Look at this! Look at more bodies!”

One of the main points that I had been really wrestling with, even for many years, is the different approaches that people take to positive body image and how much they can really conflict with what I’ve learned through my PhD research and what I’ve seen even just through my own experience in helping other women to become resilient in the face of objectification and negative body image. There seem to be two groups. And they’re not completely mutually exclusive, but they’re really different and I don’t think a lot of people recognize that there are two very different approaches going on.

The first one is: Women fighting for women to be valued as more than bodies to view. And the second group is: Fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable. So that second group is the women who are sharing and taking the underwear photos. They are saying, “Yeah you’ve told us that we’re not beautiful and that our bodies don’t look good and we should be ashamed, but look, we’re not ashamed. And we’re going to post [our bodies] on the Internet to prove it.” Those are the images that have a thousand comments from a lot of girls and women saying, “You look beautiful,” or “You look like me, I’m so glad that you have that confidence. I hope I have that confidence someday, too.” Also, a lot of the comments are from men and other people using, you know, every sexual emoji they can come up with in any combination and saying, “Oh I love thick girls, you’re so juicy.”

How do you differentiate between what is objectifying and what is empowering if you’re playing by the rules that give women credit for showing their bodies; that give women value and validation and likes and comments and compliments for doing the very things that men who hate women want them to do? It’s a really complicated subject and when I talked about it on the Internet, people were very offended.

MM: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought that up, because the idea that you can get confidence by being desired is so much a part of the conversation now — in particular when it comes to marginalized bodies, as you say — women who have not felt attractive because they don’t fit into these norms, they don’t look like whatever we’ve been told conventionally-beautiful women look like, etc. And to criticize that is even more difficult. So I did want to ask you a little bit about your experience. For example, I experience a lot of backlash for criticizing the commentary surrounding Laverne Cox’s nude photo shoot in Allure magazine, which was called “radical” and “empowering” by mainstream people and fashion magazines and stuff like that. And I was saying, “Is this really empowering on a large scale? What does this change in terms of that idea that women are things to look at and things that men should want to have sex with — things that are beautiful, things that are desirable, etc.?” I wonder if you can talk a bit about your own experiences in this area in terms of backlash you’ve faced around your critiques of objectification.

LK: Yeah, definitely. There’s no way to talk about objectification — or really anything related to feminism [chuckles] — without getting huge backlash, and you know that better than anyone. That’s something that I’ve really struggled with because it is very exhausting and it makes me not want to post anything else online for the rest of my life. And I did have to go on a little media fast after this last little bout of extreme backlash. But it’s really important and it’s the thing that keeps me up at night, thinking about it. Because I know how important it is for women to be really critical of what feels like empowerment.

I think there’s this really false idea in our culture that if you love your body — if you feel good about yourself, if you’re a confident woman — you should be taking your clothes off and showing everyone to prove it. This is extremely problematic, because that’s this really false conflation of objectification and being willing to display your body for the consumption of others as the ultimate in “confidence.” And we would never ask men to do that. We would never ask men that, if they feel good about their bodies, they better show them off for the world — you better do a magazine photo shoot to prove it. And it’s hard with people that are transgender. They see that sometimes as the ultimate — that the peak of femininity is being able to take your clothes off and other people thinking that looks good. That is something that I really struggle with — especially in talking about that on the Internet to a wide audience. Because there is this really false idea that you have to display your body to prove you’re comfortable with it and happy. And that’s just simply not true. That’s stuck in this idea that women are bodies and that your value comes from what you look like.

So when I’ve pushed back against this, some of the biggest flack really came from people who I thought were kind of on the same team as me. It’s this group of extremely popular, mostly young, women online — on Instagram and on Facebook — who have huge followings. They promote “body positivity” and they call themselves feminist activists in search of promoting “positive body image.” They’re really seeking to fight body shame. And as their followings have really exploded, far more so than mine ever has and probably ever will, they have taken their clothes off more and more and so they’ve been rewarded for that a lot. And the backlash came from them, I think because they felt a lot of cognitive dissonance about it. And that’s not to dismiss how they felt, because I recognize that this is a really complicated subject and I’m not going to pretend to have all of the answers. But I know that my perspective is a little bit different than maybe what they’ve been dealing in.

And so a lot of the pushback sounded like this: They would say, “Well, that’s just not practical, to take displaying our bodies out of the equation, to take that off the table. What does that really look like? If you say women are more than bodies and we need to get past the underwear photos as a means for empowerment, then what are we supposed to do here on Instagram?” And my response to that is: The practical implication is that you just don’t have to show your body to prove that you value your body, and to prove that other people’s bodies are acceptable, and that women are valued for more than that. Like I said before, we don’t ask men to prove their confidence by sharing their naked bodies online and we don’t expect men to get so much validation from what they post on the Internet, particularly in terms of what they look like.

But a lot of women, especially these ones who have huge followings online, they do depend on that for their validation and even for their income, because most of them — all of them — get paid to promote plus-sized swimwear and different lipsticks and things like that. And so the practical implications are really difficult for them, to think about not sharing those types of photos. But they feel some cognitive dissonance because I think they read this thing that conflicts with what they already believed before, but they recognize maybe a little bit of truth in it — that maybe it is true that, if we’re more than bodies and if we really want to understand positive body image and promote it in a responsible and lasting way, we do have to get beyond showing bodies. We have to get beyond just seeing and valuing and sharing bodies.

That’s really kind of the gist of our whole message. [It] is that, if we’re more than bodies to be viewed, we need to prove that in the ways that we value ourselves, in the way that we live our lives, and recognize that self-objectification — and really, the obsession with what our bodies look like inside our own minds — is the thing that’s really hurting us. It’s the thing that’s causing the body shame. A lot of these people try to fight against beauty ideals and that’s why they share images of marginalized women’s bodies in an attempt to say, “This doesn’t fit the ideal but I still think it looks good and you should, too.” But that still is further just posing these women’s bodies for consumption by other people, reinforcing that idea that we are there to be consumed and that’s where we can gain our value.

It’s definitely a complicated issue. Another one of the bits of pushback we got was the whole idea of, “Okay you don’t think it’s empowering for women to share their lingerie photo shoots online, but what if they think it’s empowering?” And to that I say: We’re not trying to tell anyone that we have all the answers or you’ve got to do this, and this is the only thing that will work. But what we do know is that we need to be very critical of what we’ve been told is empowering.

We’ve all seen the photo shoots online from every celebrity in the world. You know, people think Miley Cyrus is a feminist icon because she takes off her clothes and does really sexual movements for millions of people. And there’s lots of other women that do that and yeah, that does kind of seem like power. Because when you think about it, there’s two different types of “empowerment” going on here. This culture that we live in will give women power for showing their bodies. It will give them money and followers and likes and magazine photo shoots and fame. There are so many women who have risen to extreme fame because of the way they present their bodies online and what they look like. So I can absolutely see how that feels like empowerment. And a lot of people absolutely think that’s true. But really, from a feminist perspective, from a lasting power perspective, that power can be taken away as quickly as it’s given because it is determined by a culture that only values women’s bodies as objects. As soon as that culture and those people decide that someone else looks better, or we’re into a new body type now, or, “You’re disgusting, we saw your unphotoshopped images,” then that power can be gone.

So who determines your power? If that “empowerment” is coming from the outside, it’s probably not real. It might feel like it is, and it’s hard to dismiss that because a lot of people are seeking it, but I think real empowerment feels a little bit more like what comes from within you; what you believe you can contribute to the world when you can stop yourself from being held back by the voice in your head that says, “You’re not worthwhile, you’re not valuable, until you fit this certain ideal or until you do this certain thing.” And that empowerment is absolutely possible. And it does take getting past and through body shame, through resilience in order to accomplish it. But by sharing photos of women’s bodies and viewing them online, we’re not going to get there. Even if you end up really liking what your body looks like, you could still be obsessed with what your body looks like.

That’s the problem, here, is that so many women are fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable no matter what they look like. But even if they end up feeling good about their bodies, they are still very often stuck in a complete rut of self-objectifying all day long; being preoccupied about what they look like as they go about their lives. And that is not empowerment. That is something that is debilitating for women and studies back that up.

MM: A really good example of what you’re talking about here is Kim Kardashian’s recent nude selfie. I mean, she’s posted plenty of nude (or almost nude) selfies on the Internet in her career, but this recent one caused a lot of commotion for whatever reason. She posted this nude selfie of herself on Twitter, as you know, and I guess part of the commotion happened because several celebrities said things like, “Put your clothes back on,” or “Why can’t she seek positive attention or validation in other ways, based on skill or talent or intelligence or something else? Why does she need to get attention in this way?” And then there was this huge backlash from people, mostly who are women, mostly who I think would consider themselves feminists, probably mostly younger women, I’d say, who were calling any kind of critical commentary around the image “shaming” or were saying, “She feels good about her body so why shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that she’s posting these photos of herself online?” And I actually saw this man had posted a comment online saying (and obviously feminists say these things all the time, he’s not the first one to say something like that) something relatively non-controversial, like, you know, “We need to teach women healthier ways of seeking validation.” I think he probably could have chosen his words better, but in any case, he received this huge backlash from young women who were saying, “Why are you shaming her? She can seek validation however she wants. Why is this image even bad?” I wonder if you can comment on that situation in particular and the kind of commentary that surrounded Kim Kardashian?

LK: Yeah, that really was a huge deal… I was kind of surprised by how much controversy that stirred up because it’s nothing new.

MM: Exactly.

LK: We see those things all the time, but what made that so controversial is Kim talking back to those people. I think what they said was pretty benign and a lot of the things that people said were true, you know? “I wish you would be a role model for girls who can value more in themselves than just what they look like.” I think most people in the world would agree with something like that. That would be a positive way to be a role model for girls. At the same time, Kim Kardashian is not intending to be a role model for anyone, and no one should expect her to be…

But her response, her big response — I’m not completely convinced she wrote it herself — but the whole thing about, “I’m empowered by my body. I’m empowered by my husband. I’m empowered by showing the world my flaws”… That “flaws” part is what really stood out to me, because Kim K is notorious for photoshopping all of her images. There’s no image she’s ever posted that isn’t just Facetuned to the max. And she’s been caught many times slimming her waist and enlarging her butt and things like that. You know, there’s probably nothing wrong with that. If she wants to do it and she thinks she looks better that way, then great. I would hope people recognize that those images are altered and that they’re not real, but unfortunately most people do not recognize that. And that’s why we get so many hashtag #bodygoals comments on things like that.

In any case, what made that whole thing controversial is her argument that goes back to this idea of what I would consider “commodified feminism” or “post-feminism,” where anything goes. If she says that she’s empowered by this, then she is empowered and we should all be happy for it — we should applaud this.

And that is something that really kind of irks me because I don’t think we should ever just let something slide that sounds like empowerment (or has been reinterpreted and re-appropriated as empowerment) if it is exactly the same thing that people who hate women want women to do. And I’ve said that before, but we’ve got to be really careful when organizations and people that just really don’t respect women in any way –but really “value” women’s bodies in whatever way — when those same groups would definitely want Kim Kardashian to take her clothes off and share her photos on the Internet. We have to maybe think, is that really empowering or is that just the same way that she gets rewarded and that all women can be rewarded in a system that only values their bodies and nothing else? She got a ton of publicity for that so I’m sure it was a very calculated move, and it definitely helped her career. I’m sure she’s making more money off it, I’m sure it distracted from all of Kanye’s tweeting, but it doesn’t necessarily add up to empowerment and we need to recognize that.

If, as feminists, we want equality for women and we want women to be valued in the same ways that men are valued — as humans — then we need to recognize that women being valued purely for their bodies is not helping us get there. Women being valued for their bodies and through the “empowerment” that objectification might bring to them is really holding us back. Because it’s keeping us all under this umbrella of “the game of objectification” that gives us arbitrary points for doing certain things with our bodies; for looking a certain way that is currently in vogue — and Kim certainly fits that.

I think the backlash is important to get people talking about it, I just hope they don’t only hear comments from very young people calling themselves feminists who say, “Yeah, get it girl, you’re our new feminist icon.” Because, you know, if all women did that, none of us would feel any better about our bodies. Maybe a few “likes” and comments would help us [feel temporarily good], but ultimately, you live in your own mind. You live in your own brain. How you feel about yourself all day long isn’t really affected by how many photos you post on the Internet. Even those girls and those women with huge followings who post things online about how much they love their bodies and say they’ve embraced their flaws, and post these photos that a lot of people wouldn’t consider flattering and they don’t look like anything that would be in a magazine — those women don’t necessarily feel great about their bodies, even if they say they do. A lot of them might, and I don’t mean to dismiss that at all, or claim that they don’t. But a lot of those women are feeling just the same as everyone else when they are fixated on what they look like, instead of just living their lives.

When people, you know, stop exercising, sit out of sports, don’t raise their hands in class, don’t comment in a board meeting because they don’t want people to look at them… Or when maybe their hair doesn’t look right or their skin doesn’t look right or their clothes are too tight or any other fear they have about people seeing their bodies — that is self-objectification. And that is holding all of us back, whether you like what your body looks like or not. Empowerment feels different than that. We can’t gain empowerment by just posting photos of our bodies online and looking at photos of other women’s bodies. It keeps us in a rut.

MM: So, we know what empowerment isn’t… Objectified, sexualized imagery of women’s bodies doesn’t equate to empowerment. But what does? What does empowerment mean? What does it look like?

LK: I think it’s probably a little different for every person — I’ve never heard a really amazing definition of it and so I think it becomes this really abstract, kind of arbitrary word. But if we’re thinking of “power” for ourselves, I tend to think of it in terms of what I value in myself. And I feel like I’ve been a person for most of my life that felt pretty capable. I felt like if I wanted to do something, I could do it, I could figure it out. And for a lot of my life I completely held myself back from what I could do, could’ve done, the relationships I could’ve had, because I hated the way my body looked. So empowerment for me, personally, was learning to see more in myself than my body, than my appearance, regardless of what it looked like. I didn’t feel more empowered when I was my very thinnest, or when I was considered most beautiful by other people. I felt most empowered when I achieved things. And I know that that comes with privilege — being able to go to college and get a Master’s and a PhD — that certainly comes with privilege. But it contributed to me feeling like a capable person. But I think as we set goals for ourselves that don’t revolve around just what we look like — which is something that women very often get stuck in a rut with — we can set goals that revolve around what our bodies can do, rather than weight goals or size goals and things like that. All of that can contribute to empowerment.

Empowerment is also self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is this term that I used a lot in my research, and a lot of people in positive psychology and health promotion use that term as well, in order to describe a feeling of being able to accomplish what you want to accomplish, generally. Having self-efficacy is something that brings empowerment, because if you don’t have that, you won’t even try to accomplish things. You won’t even try to break outside of your comfort zone.

As women we have to do that because our comfort zones are not really all that comfortable, if what research shows us is true — that most women are very uncomfortable in their bodies, are not happy with themselves, and are judging and defining themselves according to what they think other people see when they look at them. We have to break out of that really uncomfortable comfort zone, and that takes looking at empowerment a little bit differently than what we’ve been taught, and seeing it outside of just what our bodies look like.

Every commercial on TV today for a beauty product or a weight loss plan or a diet plan, as well as for clothing and fashion lines, are all using the idea of empowerment to sell products. All of them. It’s all over the place. It’s kind of blowing my mind lately. And so, this whole term “empowerment” has really been co-opted by people who want you to think that empowerment comes when you finally lose that 10 pounds or when your skin looks younger and you look “ageless.”

But people who buy those products and do those things — when their skin looks more “ageless” — very often find out that it doesn’t feel all that empowering and that they’re even more preoccupied with making sure their skin looks “ageless,” or making sure they lose another 10 pounds so they can feel even more empowered. Those things just aren’t lasting.

So that’s a very long way of saying we have to be very critical of what empowerment has been sold to us as, and concentrate more on setting goals for ourselves that yield to actual feelings of accomplishment. Of feeling capable and being proud of who we are, what we feel, what we do, and what we contribute to the world — outside of just what other people see when they look at us.

This interview was transcribed by Rachel Garrison (thank you!)

Empowering or Objectifying: The Clashing Camps of Body Positivity

By Lindsay Kite, PhD

Because our culture teaches that women’s bodies and faces determine our worth, and that only certain rare bodies and faces are worthy of anything good, people who want empowerment for women are stuck in two conflicting groups. 

The first group is fighting for women to be valued as more than bodies to view, while the second group is fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable

The first group seeks empowerment for women by calling out and fighting objectification. They push against the deeply embedded system that offers women fake, fleeting “power” for having a body deemed worthy of consumption — visually or physically. They teach women to see and value themselves and others as more than just bodies. That’s what we stand for with Beauty Redefined. We aim to redefine the meaning and value of beauty in our lives, not just what it looks like. We teach people how to recognize and resist harmful messages about beauty and then rise with resilience through the objectification we all face. 

In this first group, there is no room for lingerie photo shoots or nearly nude selfies, no matter how different the bodies on display might look from media ideals

We understand why the second group does those things. 

Our profit-driven culture thrives off the objectification of female bodies, which harms all women, since we all fall short of manufactured beauty ideals simply by being humans and not images. We all fail in a system that values only our bodies at the expense of our humanity. But from a body image perspective, where our PhD research is focused, this ideal-driven culture causes particular harm to those women with bodies that look very different from cultural ideals. The second group springs from the truth that many women’s bodies have been erased or made to seem abnormal and shameful. These women want to *see* themselves as beautiful and they want themselves to *be seen* as beautiful by others. This second group wants others with similarly invisible shapes and features to see the bodies they never saw when they needed to see them. So, among other things, they share and celebrate nearly nude selfies and lingerie photo shoots featuring marginalized bodies. We understand why.

And while firmly claiming membership in the first group, we are happy for the young girls and women who can see their own perfectly acceptable physical realities reflected back at them through social media in ways we were never able to. Our unbelievably self-conscious teenage selves would have felt some relief from shame upon seeing those more familiar bodies celebrated by the first group. We’re grateful others can feel that relief.

We must fight body shame, but we need to fight it at its source: the idea that the appearance of our bodies is the most important thing about us. When we fight back by alleviating the shame surrounding certain body types, we’re only fighting a symptom of the problem, not the root or the real cause. The real problem is *not* that only certain women’s bodies are valued, it is that women’s bodies are valued more than women themselves. When we try to promote body positivity by focusing *more* on more bodies, we inadvertently perpetuate the idea that women are bodies first and foremost. The best way to fight body shame is by rejecting the lie that our bodies are the most important thing about us.

If this fight is really about empowering women, we have to be careful. We have to recognize how severely the objectification and dehumanization of female bodies has stunted girls and women. How the epidemic of self-objectification, or constant fixation on appearance (whether you like your appearance or not), has crippled generations of women who could have used that mental energy on much more meaningful pursuits.

We also have to understand where lasting, meaningful power comes from. It doesn’t come from believing that your body looks acceptable. While that is a good feeling, and perhaps even one step closer to empowerment, there is much greater power to be found *outside* the confines of woman-as-object, ready for evaluation and consumption. Women displaying their bodies and sharing them online — even if they look very different from mainstream ideals we’re used to — is still playing within the rules of objectification. That’s the same framework that has marginalized and oppressed women for as long as any of us can remember. It still depends on women being awarded arbitrary points for what their bodies look like, just with expanded guidelines for what counts as worthy of displaying or consuming. It’s still others consuming those bodies – looking, evaluating, validating (through comments, likes, shares, retweets) or, all too often, mocking and harassing. 

Women are more than bodies. We have to learn to see more in ourselves in order to be more than women who self-objectify our days away, preoccupied with our looks. Positive body image isn’t believing you are beautiful — in fact, it’s more like believing you are *more* than beautiful, that your body is much more valuable as an instrument for your use than as an ornament for others to admire. You don’t learn that from displaying your body or admiring others’ bodies, no matter what size they are. You learn that from living and doing and being, not from looking or being looked atHaving positive body image isn’t believing your body *looks* good, it is believing your body *is* good, regardless of how it looks. Believing you look good is nice, but it’s maybe the 139th most important thing to believe about yourself — even if your body has never really been regarded as ideal. You don’t have to see your body as ideal in order to feel great about yourself, have loving relationships and contribute great things to the world. When a woman truly believes she is worthy and valuable as a person, regardless of the way her body looks, she will experience far greater empowerment than if she simply believes her appearance is valuable. 

These two groups aren’t enemies.

They’re both working toward their own visions of empowerment for women. But we’re fighting different opponents. We in the first group firmly believe the opponent is objectification — the system that defines women’s value in terms of their physical appeal to others. The opponent is not mainstream beauty ideals. Beauty ideals suck, and today’s prized looks are as unattainable as they’ve ever been, thanks to easy digital and surgical modification. Beauty ideals will always be here in one form or another, but it’s the rules of objectification, which tell us women are first and foremost bodies, that hold beauty ideals in power. Rather than reinventing what constitutes “beauty,” why not push against the whole idea that beauty is of utmost importance?

We in the first group truly believe thinness is not the problem. The problem is the incredible power the ideal of female thinness has over us. It drives unbelievable rates of disordered eating, anxiety and depression; billions of dollars spent every year on weight loss aids that only work for 1% of buyers; and troves of online thinspo and pro-ana images curated by millions of girls and women seeking value, happiness and desirability where our culture told them they could find it — thinness. When “skinny” doesn’t drive as many profits as it does now, other ideals will rise to the top. Destroying one set of beauty ideals will *not* solve this problem, because beauty will still remain the end-all be-all.
The second group is fighting to fit broader ideas of beauty and empowerment within the prison walls of objectification. 

The first group is breaking free from that prison.

None of us deserve to live within those walls. 

Instead of fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable, let’s fight for women to be valued as more than bodies to view.


Lindsay  Kite, PhD, is co-director of the Beauty Redefined foundation, a n nonprofit promoting positive body image through redefining the meaning and value of beauty in women’s lives. With her twin sister, Lexie Kite, PhD, she travels the US speaking at universities, high schools, and conferences about how to identify objectifying ideals and overcome them to get to a more powerful, healthy place. They also host an online course to promote body image resilience in girls and women ages 14+. Learn more about it here.


Addendum: This is a response we gave to a discussion on our Instagram that might be helpful.

We want to be clear that we never said women in the second group are objectifying themselves. We said they’re still playing under the rules of objectification, which says,”Women’s bodies are the most valuable thing about them, but only bodies that look like THIS are acceptable.” People in the 2nd group react with, “No, MY body is acceptable too! See it? I’m not ashamed.” (Still fitting within the rules of “women are bodies first,” even if it is a step toward progress and empowerment, which it is for many people). The 1st group says, “No, men aren’t mostly valued for their appearance, so women shouldn’t be either! I want people to listen to women and work with us for progress, not just *look* at us.” (Stepping outside the rules of objectification, where women are doing more than being looked at). It doesn’t require beauty, a certain size or skin color or social status to step outside the rules of objectification. We all will still be objectified by others — clothes on or off, 1st group or 2nd.

While fighting for more bodies to be seen as acceptable (which is good and important), the photos of marginalized bodies to alleviate shame in others is one step, but it doesn’t even come close to moving us out of the BODIES FIRST framework. That’s where research shows is crucial to the success of women really feeling good about themselves and overcoming the tendency to self-objectify (or remain preoccupied with their appearance throughout the day, whether they *like* their looks or not). It’s self-objectification that is hurting most women from the inside, stunting our progress. The 2 groups don’t need to be exclusive (and they’re not because we all love each other), but we need to make sure the 1st group can become a stepping stone to the 2nd, rather than the end unto itself — because once women are feeling less shame about their bodies with help from photos shared by the 1st, what then? If the only goal is to alleviate shame for marginalized bodies, then fine, but if you want those women to feel better about themSELVES, not just their looks, we have to get outside the framework of objectification (you’re not just a body, whether or not you love what it looks like). We want real empowerment for everyone.

This is our contribution to moving forward. We have so much skin in this game. We want so badly for body positivity and empowerment to be had by everyone. Because of that, we want more activists in this fight to go beyond underwear photos. That might be one step, and we’re grateful for all the attention and support others have gotten for your efforts in that step, but there is more empowerment to share that goes beyond sharing our bodies. We want to fight body shame by fighting the lie that your body is the most important thing you have to offer. We don’t ignore our bodies or stop trying to push back against profit-driven beauty ideals, but we do it knowing objectification and fixation on female bodies is the real source of body shame we want to target.


In-depth body image resilience training, backed by our own PhD research, is available through our 8-week online program. Other free research and resources can be found throughout this website, as well as our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds. 

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