Body Image Baby Steps (and an announcement!)

One of my most important missions in life is to help girls and women understand their value and rise up in the face of objectifying ideals that come from media and other people. Being an advocate for women feels like something I am called to do, and I’ve spent the last decade working on that the best I can. But apparently I’ve got more to do than just advocate for women, because now I’m going to have to raise one. Right now there is a baby girl wiggling around in my womb. She’s been in there for almost six months, and I’m still wrapping my head around it. 

Baby Beauty Redefined will be joining the fight in March 2016! 

I’m not going to lie to you. I’m terrified. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything more daunting. (Lindsay, on the other hand, has never been nicer to me or so interested in touching my stomach). I want to do a good job. I’m keenly aware of the pressure and pain girls, in particular, face in the world. I experienced it firsthand as a little girl with all sorts of body shame, a teenager on every diet I could find, and as a scholar and activist fighting against objectifying ideals while fighting *for* girls to find their value beyond the mirror, the scale, or their Instagram likes.

At the very beginning of my pregnancy (before finding out the sex), I was taking a break from being a feminist to watch a Bravo reality TV show, and it was during the pointless dialogue between two Real Housewives that I had this revelation: “You’re going to have a girl. You’re her mom on purpose. You’re going to be an empowering example to her.” I sat there with that thought for a while, trying to figure out if I made it up or heard it on the TV (I quickly realized one of the H-wives definitely didn’t reveal this bit of truth to me). I didn’t make it up. And the little message I got gave me hope that maybe I’ve been training for many years to be (kind of) prepared for raising a girl in this world.

But I need help. Really, we *all* need help growing up and growing older in cultures that rely on us believing our physical attributes are the defining factors that determine our happiness, loveability, health and success. The truth is, our bodies are instruments for our use — not ornaments to be admired. We take better care of ourselves and our health when we live free of body shame. We are much happier and more fulfilled when we believe our worth is defined by what we contribute to the world, not how we look while we contribute. We are empowered as we learn to *see* the objectifying ideals that look so normal in everything from children’s programming and broadcast news to those faux-empowering all-booty fitness IG pages.

Lexie and Travis, her awesome husband. You may recognize him from his viral Carl’s Jr #cutthecarls post we published last year (click image to see)! PC: McKenzie Deakins

Lindsay and I have spent the last several years traveling the country doing speaking events and meeting so many of you face to face. It’s easily our favorite thing. In the last few months, we’ve met amazing bR supporters in Portland, Nashville, Indiana, Atlanta, Boston, and Utah (and this baby was with me the whole time). After I give birth and she joins us on tour, we’re going to meet so many more of you.

If you get to meet and hang out with my little girl, will you promise to take these 5 tips into consideration? I promise to do the same for you. We can all elevate the status of women, one baby step at a time.

    Ask, Don’t Tell. 

I sometimes panic a little when I see a little girl and all I can think to say is “You are so cute! Look at those little shoes!” (or insert other looks-based compliment). The easiest way to remind a girl of her worth beyond her shoes is to ask, don’t tell. Ask her what books she is reading, what sports she is playing, what job she wants when she’s older, who her favorite teacher is, what her favorite subject is, who her friends are, what she likes to draw, what she likes to do for fun, who her heroes are, what her favorite joke is, etc. The list is endless! Let her talk. It’ll teach her and those listening more than any easy compliment about her adorable hair could

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.

Many girls and women are featured on TV, in movies, or magazines purely as props to be ogled. In children’s animated movies, female characters are barely represented and when they are, they are wearing just as little clothing as women in R-rated films. Did you know male characters outnumber females 3:1 (in group scenes it’s 5:1) in kids’ movies? Let’s show our girls media that uplifts them and shows them what they can be. Read girls stories about girls. If you’re reading a story to kids (even a scripture story!) and you can feasibly change the gender from male to female, do it. If you are searching Netflix for a children’s show, do a bit of research to find something featuring girls doing anything more than just being looked at or searching for love. (Please comment below if you’ve got any favorite books or shows that feature strong female role models for kids!)

If You’re Talking Bodies, Change the Subject.

We stress the message that we are all more powerful than we realize and our influences matter. If you say something negative about your body or your looks (or any other woman — celebrity or otherwise), that little girl near you WILL HEAR. It will negatively affect her view of her own body. If you say something positive about another’s body (celebrity or otherwise), that little girl near you WILL HEAR. It will be a drop in the bucket of opinions she hears about what is most important about being a woman (weight loss, beauty, etc.) If we consciously work to move the conversation beyond the look of bodies, the results are powerful and immediate. We are more than bodies to be looked at, judged, and fixed. Start now to change then conversation. Read this awesome post on mothers and daughters for more inspiration.

Let’s Get Physical.

A wonderful spark in this dim world of body shame is lit through physical activity. And this is incredibly important when we think about what little girls, in particular, are up against. When girls hit puberty, they are TWICE as likely to experience depression as boys. This happens because we live in an objectifying culture that teaches society that girls and women are most valuable for how well they decorate the world and they need to spend precious time and energy evaluating and controlling their bodies in terms of their sexual desirability. Instead of raising their hands in class or playing soccer at recess or achieving a state of “flow” during a test or study period, too many little girls are caught in extreme anxiety about how their bodies appear to onlookers. Girls and women are picturing what they look like to others while they are living instead of just living. Serious mental and physical capacity (not to mention happiness and self-esteem) is lost in the process of focusing on your appearance when you should be focusing on anything else. Participating in sports and enjoyable physical activities is an excellent way for girls and women to resist the soul-sucking self-consciousness that they are often plagued with. We highly and regularly recommend getting involved in physical activities to beat body shame and experience your body as an instrument instead of an ornament.

Show Her Beauty Isn’t Supposed to Hurt. 

What does our world look like for little girls growing up today? And how much pain, energy, time and money will they have to put into their own bodies to meet a standard of beauty perpetually out of reach? Each year, women invest billions of dollars into the latest procedures, products and prescriptions to try to reach that bar of normalcy — not even perfection, just normalcy. What would happen if confident, happy women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, hair removal, tanning or skin lightening regimens? What about foregoing makeup some days just to show what natural faces and lashes look like? What about shaving less often so little girls can see they aren’t gross for having hair on their legs? What about going swimming even if you feel self-conscious at the thought of putting on a swimsuit? How could that change the way our daughters, students, friends, and nieces perceive themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real bodies and faces? How could simply owning and (treating kindly and speaking nicely about) our so-called “imperfect” bodies affect not only our own lives, but those over whom we have influence? Is it possible to slowly but deliberately change the perception of these “flaws” as something to shame, hide and fix at any cost to something acceptable and embraceable in all their human, womanly real-ness? We say yes. And our daughters need to see that truth now more than ever.


Lindsay and I have seen Beauty Redefined supporters around the world go from fixated on their appearance to developing a greater focus on their unique missions free from looks-based obsession. In the seven years we’ve been running this nonprofit, we’ve seen girls stop cutting themselves and recover from eating disorders and overcome abuse to rise with body image resilience and bravely speak out against objectification. I have all the hope in the world that my baby has a shot at a fulfilling, empowered life, capable of resilience in the face of harmful ideals. I have all the hope in the world that you can live that same happy, hopeful, purposeful life. These strategies you use when you hang out with girls like mine will change them, and these same strategies will change you, too. We all deserve to know the truth about who we are, and who we are is more than a body to be admired. Let’s help each other see more and be more

Want more in-depth help to reframe  your health perceptions and improve your body image? Check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Program, developed and tested through our Ph.D. dissertations. See dozens of other people’s thoughts on this discussion on our Facebook page here

This Post is About Volleyball Shorts.

Here’s a fun game:

Images from acdsports.com

Google Image search your local school’s men’s volleyball team.

Now Google Image search the women’s volleyball team.

Now ask yourself why the guys are drowning in all that extra fabric!?

We’re concerned about the men here. All that extra shorts baggage has got to be keeping them from playing at peak performance levels! If they were wearing spandex with a 1″ inseam, they’d be able to bend and stretch in much more liberating ways. Who is the athletic shorts lobby that is enforcing such oppressive ideals on these male athletes?

But seriously. In a world where dress codes are strictly enforced against girls at school and leggings are hotly debated for their modesty or lack thereof, every volleyball-playing school and organization in the country sets some clear rules to distinguish female volleyball players from the male ones: Guys, you get shorts. Girls, no shorts for you. We want you to question that. 

This post is about volleyball uniforms. But it’s really about so much more than volleyball uniforms. The arbitrary difference between male and female volleyball attire is just one of many gendered issues that look very normal in our everyday lives to the point of being unquestioned. Just think about all the products women are pummeled with every day that men are never (or *very* rarely) asked to buy just to look “normal” or “feel confident.” Pore-minimizing creams; anti-aging solutions; breast, butt, and lip implants; lash-lengthening potions; all-over hair removal procedures; stretch mark and cellulite creams; scar minimizing solutions; etc. Think about all the men you get to see on TV, movies and in the music industry that don’t fit any sort of beauty ideals, but are valuable and loved and in starring roles anyway, while women are too often relegated to decorating the background. Think about local and national broadcast news, where men get to sport their grey hair and wrinkles while women get fired for aging. Consider how few girls and women are featured in G-rated kids movies, where male characters outnumber females 3:1 (in group scenes it’s 5:1!), female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as those in R-rated movies (thanks to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media for this info).

Men’s and women’s basketball players have fairly similar uniforms, as do athletes in softball/baseball, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, etc. In tennis, women have to wear skirts, which is an odd distinction. In gymnastics, dance, and cheer, we definitely see female athletes required to wear much less clothing than males in the same sports. The argument that gets the most play for this seems to be, “Women need to have a lot of give in their uniforms for doing high kicks and splits.” But it doesn’t change the fact that there are lots of things to wear to do kicks and splits and guys would never be required to wear that to do the same job. Athletes in all levels of karate, MMA, and kickboxing  do a lot of kicking, and they get pants! But never is the disparity greater between what we expect boys/men to wear versus what we expect girls/women to wear than on volleyball teams. And don’t even get us started on beach volleyball. Really, don’t. It’s too much.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying or feeling great in the standard volleyball uniform worn by female athletes today. Nowhere in this post or anything else we’ve ever said or written will you find us shaming or judging the people who agree to wear or love to wear those uniforms (or anything else, to be honest). Our problem with the uniforms comes with 1) the striking disparity between male/female uniforms, which reflects the objectifying idea that women’s bodies are primarily ornaments to be looked at; and 2) the hindering effect that unnecessarily body-baring clothing has on body image and athletic performance (i.e., self-objectification). 

Here’s the thing: Beginning at puberty, girls are TWICE as likely to experience depression as boys. This is directly associated with our objectifying culture, which leads girls and women to evaluate and control their bodies in terms of their sexual desirability more than anything else. Girls and women are picturing what they look like to others while they are living instead of just living. Serious mental capacity is lost in the process of focusing on your appearance when you should be focusing on anything else. But one bright spark in this dim world of body fixation is participation in sports! Participating in competitive sports is an excellent way for girls and women to resist the soul-sucking self-consciousness that they are often plagued with. However, the awesome body image benefits are limited to non-aesthetically-focused activites (like competitive team sports, rather than activities that rely in any way on how you look while participating). For us, volleyball is straddling the line between what constitutes a sport that supports positive body image and one that can hurt it for some.

We highly and regularly recommend getting involved in physical activities to beat body shame and experience your body as an instrument instead of an ornament. We sing the praises of basketball, soccer, softball, swimming, rugby, track, etc., but don’t feel like we can offer up volleyball as a similarly great option. This is not because volleyball is in any way aesthetically focused, but because the body-baring outfits can be such a problem for girls and women who are already predisposed to being fixated on their appearances. Our cultural beauty ideals for female thighs and behinds are brutal and achievable for so few, which leaves most girls and women feeling self-conscious of some aspect — tan but not too dark, no dimples, cellulite, stretch marks, smooth skin, shapely but not TOO shapely, and the list goes on. If you are prone to feeling shame and preoccupation with your body — especially your legs and behind — those spandex volleyball shorts with little-to-no inseam that are generally hiked up to *just* below the backside will likely prevent you from being able to take your mind off the appearance of your body to fully experience the positive effects of the sport. Interesting research backs this up:

  • Prichard and Tiggemann (2005) found that women in fitness centers who wore tight and fitted exercise clothing placed greater emphasis on their appearance attributes and engaged in more habitual body monitoring than women who wore looser clothing (T-shirts and sweatpants).
  • Strelan and colleagues (2003) found that the attention focused on women’s bodies in fitness centers (like mirrors surrounding them in gym classes) leads women to self-objectify more.
  • Fredrickson and colleagues (1998) had women try on a swimsuit or a sweater in front of a mirror – alone – and then complete various tests. Swimsuit-wearing women expressed more body shame and performed worse on a math test than did sweater-wearing women.
  • As a follow-up, Fredrickson and Harrison (2005) explored these effects on athletic performance, and found that girls experiencing higher levels of self-consciousness performed worse than girls with lower levels, regardless of their actual athletic experience.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform would promote a higher level of performance among female athletes, especially considering the high percentage who likely struggle with body anxiety on or off the court.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform would put female and male athletes on a more equal playing field (or court), because the same sport shouldn’t require significantly different uniforms.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform standard could encourage more girls and women to play volleyball, considering many might count themselves out specifically because of the uniform.

Are you involved in any way with a volleyball club or team, whether in administration, coaching, playing, parenting or cheering? If so, we encourage you to consider our questions above and pose them to others with influence*. Consider why there is such a disparity between the men’s and women’s uniforms and if that disparity is necessary. Consider if it might be limiting the athleticism of the players, and if minimizing the disparity between the male and female uniforms is a possibility. What would happen if just one club or team of any age group or ranking were to push back against the uniform standard by wearing modified attire, whether or not it conflicted with rules set by the sport’s governing body? Whether they believed their performance might be hindered by self-objectification that is exacerbated by the standard uniforms, or they wanted to open the sport up to others who might be uncomfortable with the short shorts, what if they made a change? Could it be worth the risk? We think so.

When we work to think of our bodies as instruments to be used for our benefit rather than ornaments to be admired by others, we start to question the norms and habits that serve only ornamental purposes. We would love to see girls’ and women’s volleyball uniforms serving a more instrumental role and less of an ornamental one.  

*Current uniforms are obviously a deeply ingrained norm in the sport, so we are happy to discuss our research with members of governing bodies who determine standards for volleyball uniforms.

Want more in-depth help to reframe  your health perceptions and improve your body image? Check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Programdeveloped and tested through our Ph.D. dissertations. See dozens of other people’s thoughts on this discussion on our Facebook page here

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

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

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

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

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

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

The awesome Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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

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

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

Female Objectification: Who’s Really to Blame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching Women Want

Written by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano of The Beheld

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

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

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

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

Celia Sasic

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

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

Hope Solo

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

Lisa De Vanna

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

Christine Sinclair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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