Our TED Talk: Body Positivity or Body Obsession? How to See More and Be More

In September 2017, Beauty Redefined Co-director Dr. Lindsay Kite presented a TEDx talk at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah. This 16-minute talk summarizes nine years of body image research and personal passion for promoting increased understanding of the importance of positive body image. With perfect illustrations by Michelle Christensen, this talk walks viewers through Lindsay’s personal and professional evolution regarding what it means to have positive body image and how girls and women can better understand and promote it. Lindsay outlines she and Lexie’s theoretical model for achieving body image resilience, where women choose three possible paths in response to body image disruptions. By learning how to see more in our media and cultural messages, everyone around us, and especially in ourselves, this talk paves the path for women to see more and be more than bodies to be looked at, evaluated and consumed. Our favorite excerpts are outlined below with time stamps.

If any of this talk resonates with you, please share it with those who might benefit!

2:15 – Over the last 15 years or so, lots of well-meaning people and companies have tried to improve women’s body image by pushing this message that “all women are beautiful – flaws and all!” This is a really nice message, but it is not fixing the problem. Girls and women aren’t only suffering because of the unattainable ways beauty is being defined, they’re suffering because they are being defined by beauty. They are bodies first and people second.

5:09 – Negative body image and self-objectification go hand in hand. Almost 3/4 of the women in our dissertation studies felt very negatively toward their bodies. And almost all of them were self-objectifying. That was especially noticeable in the way they answered the first question I asked: “How do you feel about your body?”

6:28 – Just like we need to redefine beauty in ways that are better for our health, we need to redefine health in ways that have nothing to do with beauty.

8:10 – In our studies, Lexie and I were interested to see that most of the women who felt good about their bodies also described painful experiences that had sparked or magnified their body shame at some point. Their experiences pointed us to a hopeful process and a theoretical model called body image resilience. Through this process, some women grow stronger and love their bodies not just in spite of the pain they experience, but because of what they learn through that pain.

10:52 – Since body shame and appearance fixation are the norm for so many of us, we might not even recognize when we’re reacting to those issues. Sinking into shame and clinging to our uncomfortable comfort zones might just be our defaults, not deliberate choices. But no matter how many times you’ve found yourself on these two paths, it is always possible to recognize your disruptions and respond to them in a better way.

14:50 – I saw that I had been stuck in an endless loop of trying to fix my body that never needed to be fixed, in order to do something I never stopped being able to do. I was still a swimmer. Any fear about what I looked like that day disappeared, because I was finally using my body as an instrument rather than looking at it as an ornament.

Direct link to YouTube video for Dr. Lindsay Kite’s TEDx talk, “Body Positivity or Body Obsession? How to See More and Be More”: https://youtu.be/uDowwh0EU4w

When Curvy Appreciation Turns to Objectification

By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.

We don’t ever get too pumped about the latest viral body positivity stories, because we’ve found that if it’s quickly embraced by the masses, it probably doesn’t challenge the status quo in any substantial way. The story about the man gaining worldwide acclaim for loving his “curvy wife” is just the latest example. The status quo thrives on seeing women’s bodies — evaluating them, appraising them, comparing them, and ogling them. In other words, objectifying them, or reducing them to parts for consumption. But here’s the deal: Objectification is still objectification even if the bodies being objectified look different from the popular ideals.

For a man publicly fawning over particular female body types and parts, where’s the magic line that determines when his fawning turns from standard objectification to progressive, enlightened body positivity? Is it if that woman is over a certain weight? Maybe if she’s larger than a size 8? Maybe if he lists and describes her otherwise culturally sub-standard parts in a super enlightened, positive way — “sexy cellulite” or “sassy saddlebags?” You know, heroically maintaining attraction despite these atypical characteristics most men would run from? Even if other lesser men mock him?

This question applies to women too. For women who are publicly posting their body-centric photos online as a sign of “embracing” their supposedly flawed bodies, where is the magic line that determines when a post turns from emulating standard objectifying images that *hurt* women, to progressive body positivity that *helps* women? Does it suddenly become feminist and progressive for women to post pictures of their bodies if they’re over a certain weight or size? Or if she’s hunched over to create the teensiest belly roll? Or if she has no makeup on (just lash extensions and concealer and lip gloss)?

Sure, the *intention* behind a body positivity post is very different than the intention behind a standard objectifying image of an unclothed female body meant to be consumed by others (particularly men). But if you take away the inspirational caption, the final product is largely the same: female bodies being revealed, shared, compared, evaluated, and ogled. Not just by women looking for bopo inspo, but by *anyone.* You know those awful men who hate women but love women’s body parts? Yes, they love bopo inspo too! It’s all just more bodies. Bodies. Bodies. Bodies.

If we agree women should be valued as *more* than bodies, then we can’t cheer for objectification — whether it comes in the form of well-intentioned women posting their bodies online, “flaws and all,” or Sports Illustrated featuring plus size bikini models on all fours in the sand. Objectification is still objectification even if the bodies being objectified look different from the popular ideals.

Objectification. Sick of that word yet? Not as sick as we are of seeing it be rebranded as body positivity and empowerment! To promote real, lasting positive body image, we need to understand the root of the problem. The real issue is not that only certain’s women’s bodies are valued, it is that women’s bodies are valued more than women themselves. 

Ultra popular media messages aiming to alleviate women’s body shame — like the viral “hero husband attracted to curvy wife” example — often  reinforce the problem by keeping the focus on women’s appearances. Defining and describing and appraising women for their bodies — even in the name of celebrating them — is reducing women to objects. Objects are less than human. Objects exist for people’s use. Objects are only as valuable as an appraiser believes they are.

Objectification is at the root of women’s inequality, oppression, low self-worth and fixation on appearance. This is true whether individual women choose to participate in and be rewarded for that objectification or not. Because women are primarily valued for our parts and sexual appeal at the expense of anything else, we are bought and sold to men, silenced, abused, mutilated, murdered, devalued, not believed, and compelled to keep our bodies at the forefront of our thoughts for life. As long as women are sexual objects first and all of the rest of our humanity is secondary, we will never be on equal footing with men.

Progress for all of society requires valuing women for more than our parts — not simply expanding the definition of which parts are valuable. This fight against normalized objectification requires both women and men. As women, we must first learn to *see more* in ourselves in order to *be more* than a body for others’ appraisal and consumption. We must recognize the ways we’ve learned to view and value and evaluate ourselves, and then actively resist our tendencies to self-objectify and hold ourselves back from experiencing our full humanity.

Men must learn to *see more* than bodies in women, and then learn to *be more* than someone who views women primarily as objects to be looked at and consumed. It is important to understand that publicly proclaiming your attraction to certain female body types isn’t suddenly progressive when those bodies fall outside the traditional ideals. It is still objectification. It is still reducing women to parts to be appraised and consumed, even if you’re appraising them favorably and happy to consume.

Women are more than just bodies. When we see more, we can be more.

Illustrations by Michelle Christensen

How I’m Winning the Body-After-Baby Battle

By Lexie Kite, PhD

My amazing baby girl, Logan, turned one this week. Having been fed a lifelong diet of how humiliating “bodies after babies” are and how important it is to “get your body back” after birth, I was not thrilled about living a life with a post-baby bod. Despite my last 10 years of body image research and public activism, in the back of my mind I secretly worried that maybe all Lindsay and I know and teach through our hard work at Beauty Redefined wouldn’t hold up through the scary disruption of pregnancy and “body after baby.” What if I couldn’t honestly live what I preach?

But you know what? Our research on how to continuously attain body image resilience because of difficult things we experience in our bodies – not in spite of those things –absolutely did hold up. I am grateful to feel that I have internalized the foundations of positive body image to the point that these thought processes are second nature, and I know it is possible for anyone. This last year has been amazing. It’s been amazing because I haven’t lived my days as a “body after baby.” I’ve been a person, a woman, a director, a wife, a sister, an activist, a mom. I haven’t been a body – I’ve been so much more than a body.

My changed body hasn’t consumed my thoughts like media and peers and cultural ideals have so often taught me it should. Instead, the very dramatic experience of growing a baby (and having a c-section because she wanted to sit straight up, and having mastitis, and not producing enough milk to sustain her, and having a body that is softer than it used to be) has absolutely not caused me to hate my body or fixate upon my body, but to appreciate it even more than I could have without those hard experiences. Yes, I’m still self-conscious some of the time, and no, I’m not going to rock a bikini on Instagram (or anywhere) to prove how much I love my body. But I have survived pregnancy and childbirth and become more resilient in my feelings about my body in the face of those difficulties and changes.

I am absolutely living, breathing proof that believing you are more than a body – that learning to SEE MORE in yourself and the world’s cultural ideals and BE MORE than a body to be looked at – is an absolute game changer.

Every one of us are on a lifelong body image rollercoaster. There’s no getting off of it. Harmful beliefs and messages about women’s bodies are deeply ingrained in our culture. But the knowledge and expertise that informs all the work we do at Beauty Redefined has made that roller coaster so much less extreme and scary for me – it’s more like a bumpy ride than a life of really high highs and really low lows when it comes to how I feel about my body. I can absolutely testify that the strategies for resilience we have identified and teach consistently, and the new patterns of thinking we recommend work beautifully.

For moms, future moms, or anyone with a body on this lifelong body image rollercoaster, I want to offer a few personally proven and research-driven tips to experience the paradigm shift from “body after baby” to “more than a body after baby.” If you haven’t had a baby or aren’t planning to have a baby, insert “baby” for the life event of your choice (example: “body after surgery,” “body after breakup,” “body after cancer,” “body after weight gain/loss,” etc).

What helps:

I am not a “before” or an “after.” Our bodies are constantly changing. We age, grow, shrink, hurt, heal, and change every minute. Recognizing that I am on a lifelong journey in this body helps me be compassionate and loving toward myself. I am not a before or an after – I’m “during” and enduring a million moments in between my “before” and “after.”

My body is an instrument, not an ornament. Despite the very normal and stifling anxiety I often feel when thinking about wearing a swimsuit, I have found immense happiness by actually putting on a swimsuit and getting in the water. Repeating and living our mantra, “My body is an instrument, not an ornament,” opens up your life to the freedom of living outside the confines of being looked at. Try these tips for incorporating body positive exercise or fitness strategies that improve your health and your body image. I LOVE swimming and being in the water. We took our baby to the lake or the pool most weekends last summer when she was just tiny, and it was a transformative experience to just LIVE and prove to myself again and again that it doesn’t matter what I look like in a swimsuit. We all qualify to enjoy the world in our bodies, regardless of how we think those bodies might appear.

Bag the body talk. Maybe I’ve just trained the people in my life well, but I have been blessed to be surrounded by people who have not commented on my body – for good or bad – and that’s a great thing. My extended family and my coworkers did an incredible job of bagging the body-related comments all together and instead doing things like asking me how I feel and how my baby is. Even those intended to be positive comments (“You look so good for having just had a baby!” or “You look even better now than before!” or “I can hardly tell you had a kid!”) can cause us to fixate on our looks in new ways and start to question how we appear to others (“Did I look gross before?” “I need to keep losing weight so I can keep getting these awesome comments!”). The best thing you can do if you are getting a lot of looks-based comments or compliments is to change the conversation. Depending on how well you know the person, that can be a quick “thanks” or “I feel great too” and then diverting attention elsewhere, or you could consider saying something like, “I’m actually working on not thinking about my weight or looks so much, and focusing on more in other women too. You should try it with me! It’s harder than it seems!” or “If I can be honest, those comments about my body actually make me really self conscious and hyper-aware of my looks. Can we talk about anything else?”

Lindsay with Logan and her leggies

Helpful Sorta “Post-Partum” Tip from Lindsay: I went to a midwife appointment with Lexie while she was pregnant and when the nurse asked me if I have any kids, I responded, “Nope, this is our first!” So yeah, this baby feels like mine. I should also note that not having any kids of my own hasn’t held me back from experiencing the pregnancy weight gain right alongside my sister. I’m honestly not sure if it was sympathy gain or an unavoidable side effect of our twin connection, but it was real. I also realized how much I love baby legs. Their little dimples and thigh rolls and chubby ankles — all the varieties and shapes are perfect and NO ONE can argue that. I love them so much I can’t even call them legs — I have to call them “leggies.” Then one day, I referred to my own legs as “my leggies.” Game-changer. It’s adorable, hilarious, endearing, and you can’t feel negatively about something you refer to in such a painfully cute way. If you love baby leggies of every shape, size and color, think of your own precious leggies on those terms and feel the love!

What doesn’t help:

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

Comparison is the thief of joy. Scrolling through old pictures of yourself when you were thinner, younger, more curvaceous, etc., is the kiss of death for your self-esteem. Looking at bloggers and social media starlets who have just had babies and are suddenly posting swimsuit pics and skinny jeans pics is no better for you, either. Studies and real-life experience show that comparing yourself to pictures of yourself or other women online or in real life is not going to do you any good. It’s actually proven to destroy your self-esteem and lead to loneliness, envy, anxiety, and body shame. Staring at your phone or laptop when you’re up at weird hours with a baby is inevitable, but it’s important to screen your screen time by being super aware of what and who you are viewing. Consider a short but incredibly powerful media cleanse. If you feel even a tiny bit of that yucky sinking feeling of envy or body shame when you see pictures of women online, click away. Unfollow. Hide. Block. Do whatever you have to do to be compassionate with yourself. I caught myself several times scrolling through popular fashion/lifestyle bloggers’ Instagram accounts and feeling worse about myself, and I have learned to click away. Even the most well-meaning, really nice-seeming social media influencer is making big money to sell you aspirational images that aren’t entirely real. They are perfectly lit, flatteringly posed, filtered, cropped, styled, and designed to sell an ideal. If their pictures trigger you toward self-comparison or push you to fixate on your body, it is perfectly healthy and compassionate toward yourself to unfollow. I did it, and I promise you it’ll help you tremendously.

Don’t conflate happiness with thinness. Your happiest times are not necessarily your thinnest times, and neither are mine. Life doesn’t work like that, even though happiness and thinness are ALWAYS conflated in advertising, magazines, #transformation photos, and any entertainment news show. Happiness just absolutely does not equal thinness. They are two very different things. My thinnest times have often been consumed by self-objectifying thoughts of how I appear to others and food-obsessed thoughts about how many carbs I am consuming. My happiest times have been times in my life where strict carb counting or exercising to lose weight takes a backseat to cuddling on the couch with my husband, sharing a birthday cupcake with my baby, going on walks in the park, and not letting my weight or shape consume me. Body size just can’t equate with joy, and a changing body can remind you of that truth.

“I’ll be happy when…” is a mean mindset. Any mindset that requires you to change your body before you can appreciate it or feel happy with it or shop for new clothes or take family pictures or go swimming or anything else is a mean mindset. Don’t be so harsh on yourself. You qualify to live your life happily right now! Do you believe that? It’s true. Instead of setting arbitrary goals like, “it took me nine months to grow this baby and I’m giving myself nine months to look like I did before having her” isn’t super helpful. What if you don’t hit your goal? What if you hit your goal by using unhealthy means like starving, binging, over-exercising, unsafe diet pills, etc.? Be compassionate with yourself. Set goals to do the things you want to do right now, regardless of your looks or how you think other people think you look. Want a new pair of jeans? Find a pair you love and don’t let the size hold you back. Want to go to the gym? Wear whatever you feel comfortable in and go use do your favorite exercises. Want to take family pictures? Book that photographer even though you’re scared. You qualify to be in photos with your loved ones.

You are more than a body. You are also more than a “body after baby.” You have important work to do and people to love and goodness to contribute, regardless of what toll a baby (or your twin’s baby) has taken on your body.


Lindsay and Lexie Kite, PhDs, are co-directors of the Beauty Redefined foundation, founded in 2009, and identical twins with doctorates in the study of body image resilience. They travel the US speaking at universities, high schools, and conferences about how to identify objectifying ideals and overcome them to get to a more powerful, healthy place. We are hard at work on a new and improved Body Image Resilience online course to be debuted in coming weeks. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter to stay up-to-date on this and all things Beauty Redefined!

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