Raising Girls with Better Body Image: FAQs

By Lexie Kite, Ph.D.

Aunt Lindsay, 2-year-old Logan, and Mama Lexie

Some of the most frequent questions we’re asked about body image revolve around teaching and raising young girls. The reasons why are obvious: It is extremely difficult to live in a female body, let alone raise girls growing up in this wildly objectifying world. Far too often, girls grow up being taught that they are to be looked at above all else. It doesn’t always happen so explicitly, but it happens consistently and implicitly if your eyes are open.

We talk to little girls about their pretty dresses and hair. Their toys and favorite characters have idealized and sexualized bodies and faces. We give them dress-up kits and makeup and play vanities. Most diet pills and weight loss plans are targeted directly at women and they see their moms, aunts and sisters on constant diets. In the top children’s and family moviesmale characters outnumber female characters 2:1 in leading and supporting roles and speaking time, and female characters are three times more likely to be shown in sexually revealing clothing and to be verbally objectified. On social media, girls see that the most popular influencers bare their bodies — often framed as “fitspiration,” “body positivity,” or empowerment. With a cell phone in hand, girls are undoubtedly pressured by boys to send sexy pictures in exchange for male approval and attention or to avoid being insulted and rejected.

No wonder rates of eating disorders have skyrocketed, with hospitalizations for little girls 12 and under doubling during the last decade. Rates of cosmetic surgery increased more than 137 percent since 2000, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast enhancement) performed on women – many younger than 18. And the constant body monitoring of self-objectification we know so well is leaving even the youngest of girls and the oldest of women with fewer cognitive resources available for mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and athletic performance. No wonder women and girls face such immense pain and shame in their bodies. If we listen to the profit-driven lies in the world, we are bodies to be looked at, judged, and constantly in need of fixing.

Click here to see Lindsay’s incredible TEDx talk

Our work at Beauty Redefined illuminates that pain that comes to just feel like a normal part of girlhood and womanhood, but it also shines a light on the ways difficult experiences and feelings about our bodies can work for us instead of against us — giving us opportunities to push back on discomfort and objectification. Our game-changing approach to body image resilience explains the way we can become stronger because of our shame and painful experiences — not in spite of them. So many of you who are raising, guiding, or working to be a good example to young girls ask us how on earth you can help them navigate the pitfalls of objectification, and we want you to know that we believe in your power to do this successfully. It is your job to shine a light on the soul-sucking messages from real-life people, online people, media and companies that reinforce the lie that we are bodies to be looked at first and humans second. We are counting on you to call out those lies and replace them with the TRUTH.

We are more than bodies. We have work to do, and the world is desperate for every one of us to understand our purpose beyond our looks so we can lead fulfilling lives and contribute good to a world that needs us — not just a pretty vision of us, but all of us. Let’s teach and demonstrate this truth to the girls in our lives.

Raising Girls with Positive Body Image: FAQs

 

What do I do if she asks, “Am I pretty?”

Of course you think she’s adorable, and she should know that. But, more importantly, she is more than pretty or cute or adorable. Tell her who she is – smart, loving, curious, energetic, creative, articulate, compassionate, talented, etc. “I see the way you include those kids that no one else talks to. You are so kind and compassionate.” Or “You are an incredible artist. You have a gift that helps people feel happy!” Or anything else that helps her see her PURPOSE that extends far beyond how well she decorates the earth. When she can find her many purposes, she will feel less need to look to her beauty or her body to find purpose, love, and acceptance.

 

Follow us on IG at beauty_redefined for more of this inspiration.

What do I do if she calls herself or someone else fat or asks if she’s fat?

Respond without putting a value on fat. It’s not good or bad, it’s not mean or nice, it just is. “Our fat keeps us warm, protects our insides and our bodies use it as energy. Isn’t that cool?” or “You are so lucky your body has fat on it – that means you’re alive and well.” Talk openly about how some bodies have more fat than others, for lots of different reasons, and that isn’t a good indicator of whether someone is healthy or not. We only need to worry about ourselves, and we should avoid talking about other people’s bodies. The second you respond to her calling someone fat by telling her “that’s not nice,” you are teaching her that fat is bad. Be a champion for body diversity.

What do I do if she wants to go on a diet or is restricting food?

Let her know that many people and companies in this world try to convince little girls and grown women that they should shrink and take up less space, but it’s a mean lie. This lie is intended to get girls to spend money and time worrying about their bodies instead of living and leading and serving and taking up space doing good in the world — and, too often, it works. Talk to her about how our bodies need and want food for lots of reasons, including for fuel and enjoyment, and that by paying attention to how she feels when she eats, she can take better care of her body and trust that her body will lead her toward choices that are good for her and that have nothing to do with her body size or shape. Let her know strict diets hurt our bodies and almost never lead to sustained weight loss. (Tip: Read the book “Intuitive Eating” and if you want more personalized help with all this complicated food stuff, find a non-diet dietitian.)

Do I need to stop putting on makeup in front of her since I want her to know she doesn’t need it to feel good about herself?

You don’t necessarily need to stop wearing makeup, but be real with her. Show her (and yourself) that you can live without makeup, and that you are YOU without needing any extras. Go to the store without mascara. Swim and workout makeup-free. Show her your reality so that she can appreciate her own. When your daughter is old enough, start talking to her about how hard it is to justify wearing makeup when you want her to know she’s perfect without it. Talk to her about how women and men are held to different standards where women have to decorate themselves – just to look “normal” – in ways men are not asked to do. Tell her about how billion-dollar industries are set up to make sure women are self-conscious of their eyelashes and the size of their pores and the shape of their brows and the color of their hair and all hair below their eyes and the size and shape of their breasts and behinds. Help her make choices for her own body that aren’t based in shame or feelings of needing to “hide” or “fix” in order to feel OK. Keep an open dialogue and challenge her to resist giving into profit-driven beauty ideals as long as she possibly can. It’s much easier to never start wearing makeup, getting eyelash extensions, waxing, dying hair, etc., than it is to stop once those things become your “normal.”

Lexie with her 2-year-old, Logan. Click here to grab an “instrument not ornament” shirt, decal or sticky note pad for yourself!

Should I even talk to her about her body at all?

A popular answer in recent years has been to skip body talk entirely. But we disagree! Don’t pretend like her body doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Instead, teach her how incredible her body is, regardless of her appearance or ability level. Talk to her about how her body is an instrument, not an ornament. Encourage her to think of use her body as an instrument for her own benefit and experience in all the ways she feels called to do – as a soccer player, a violinist, an artist, a singer, a gymnast, babysitter, a club president, a swimmer. Treat your own body the same way so she can see that you are first and foremost a woman that knows her body is good for much more than being looked at. Swim even when you are so nervous to be seen. Run after that frisbee even though you might sweat and jiggle. Raise your hand in that meeting even though it makes your heart pound. She will need to learn to push through her own self-consciousness that creeps in with age, especially for girls, and especially during puberty. Any thought or outside message that tries to tell her she is an ornament can be successfully challenged by reframing her perspective and reclaiming her power as an instrument for her own use, experience, and benefit.

What do I do when other people consistently compliment her for her beauty or thinness?

We recommend being firm and explicit about avoiding these comments whenever possible. When appropriate, let them know you are working to make sure she (and all girls and women!) know they are so much more than decorations, so you and she are working to notice and compliment people on more than their outsides. Work to change the conversation to illuminate the fact that she is more than her body. “Did you know she has been learning Spanish?” or “[Insert name], do you want to tell them about the book you’ve been reading?” Let them know it’s hard, but so worth it to remind girls and women of their value beyond their looks. It can be helpful to illuminate your reasons for avoiding body talk. For example, if a loved one has struggled with disordered eating or self-consciousness, consider telling the commenter about that problem and explain that you are working to avoid those problems in any way you can. When thinness is explicitly complimented,  try something along the lines of, “We’re actually working together to get rid of the ‘thinner is better’ mindset since we’ve seen how much it has hurt people we love.”

In summary: You’ve got this. Don’t be down on yourself for past mistakes or when you feel like you’ve messed up in your actions or messaging toward the kids in your life. Learn all you can about body image and resilience, and do your very best. Make sure the girls in your life feel your love and admiration regardless of how they look — that alone will improve their chances of developing positive body image. We are all more than a body.Once we can see more in ourselves and everyone around us, we can be more!


If you want more guidance on this stuff, we worked for years to develop and test our online Body Image Resilience course that is available to individuals 14+. Through an in-depth 8-week video course (that also includes full text, graphics and audio), participants can learn how to 1) recognize harmful messages in media and culture about female bodies; 2) reflect on the ways those ideals have impacted your life; 3) redefine the ways you think about beauty, health and individual worth; and 4) develop resilience through your own path that utilizes four sources of power.

The Bikini Tyranny of Body Positivity

By Lindsay Kite, PhD

How did wearing a bikini become the gold standard for demonstrating body positivity? Yes, every body is a bikini body if that’s what you really want to wear, but why are two-piece swimsuits (and posting pictures of ourselves in them online) now the ultimate signifier of female confidence? Why have so many of us bought into the idea that wearing a bikini equals loving your body and loving your body equals wearing a bikini?

We would argue it’s the same reason so many of us struggle with low self-esteem and negative body image in the first place: we are defined by our bodies. To be more specific, we are defined by the looks of our bodies. For too many women, our looks are everything: our greatest source of shame or pride, our lifelong fixer-upper project, and the only thing about us that matters in lots of circles and situations. This is objectification. We learn from childhood that women are objects for other people’s visual or physical enjoyment and we learn to judge ourselves through that same external view. We become outsiders looking in at our own bodies.

When we are defined by the way we look and when the standards of good looks are perpetually out of reach, of course we are ashamed of our bodies. Of course we learn to seek confidence and power and validation through “fixing” or sharing our bodies. Our objectifying culture (and economy) depends on that! Of course we learn to define and think of our complex, incredible bodies almost exclusively in terms of how they LOOK, and we believe the falsehood that loving our looks is the same thing as loving ourSELVES.

We might even believe wearing a bikini in public is the ultimate test of true body confidence and empowerment. Later, we might even learn to reject those “bikini body” ideals and come to believe that our vulnerability at exposing our skin for the world in a bikini, even (and maybe especially) with all its “flaws” is proof of total self-love and body confidence. The internet will back you up on that idea, too. Compare the likes on any woman’s swimsuit pic to the likes on basically any other pic she has posted. Body-baring pics win every time.

When our looks are the MOST important thing about us and when body confidence gets minimized to simply embracing the LOOKS of our bodies, it makes sense that bikinis — the most revealing of all publicly acceptable attire — take on other-worldly power in our lives. We’re calling this #bikinityranny. Why tyranny? Because no item of clothing can or should have that kind of power over us — for good or evil. For so many years, bikinis have been put on a pedestal reserved only for the “hottest” among us. In recent years, with much-needed body positive activism, women have worked to shatter that pedestal holding all the bikini body ideals to help people of all sizes feel comfortable enough to wear one.

But do bikinis really deserve to hold that power? Do they really hold the keys to our body image liberation?

Sure, wearing a bikini might make going to the bathroom easier during a day at the pool. It might prevent the painful groin and shoulder strangulation of a one-piece that is too short in the torso. It might allow for a much nicer tan. It might look awesome.

But … it might also spark constant monitoring and tugging and adjustment if you’re moving around much, let alone trying to play or swim. It might expose too much sensitive skin to the sun (hi melanoma) and sand and saltwater and hot chairs. It might be impractical and uncomfortable and trigger you to constantly think about your appearance. That last piece is extremely likely, whether you love the way you look in a bikini or hate it or somewhere in between. The mental state of thinking about how you look while you go about your life is called self-objectification and it is the absolute worst. It creates constant body anxiety and steals away our mental focus and physical capacity. Body-baring clothing is known to spark self-objectification, even if no one is looking at you.

Please keep in mind that some of the people posting their bikini shots on IG are still suffering from negative body image and constant fixation on their appearance. Some are so fixated on getting great photos that they don’t actually make it to the pool, or spend the entire time pulling and tugging and adjusting out of discomfort or trying to present their bikini bodies in the most photo-worthy and appealing manner as possible.

You might wear a bikini because you love the way it looks or feels. You might even wear it to push back against beliefs about your body being sinful or being someone else’s property. Awesome. We love seeing body diversity in media and at the pool or beach. Representation matters and everyone deserves to swim.

But please be cautious of the pressure to wear a bikini simply in order to prove to the internet and to yourself that you love your body and are a confident woman. No one asks men to prove their confidence by posting Speedo pics on IG. We hope that continues. However, an objectifying culture that only values women for our bodies THRIVES off you believing that revealing more of your body online is the truest path to liberation and empowerment, and that bikini pics are the best way to demonstrate self-love and confidence. In this female body-obsessed world, isn’t it interesting that wearing a bikini is both the problem and the supposed solution to our body image woes?

We’d like to offer an alternative view. 

Positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good; it’s knowing your body is good, regardless of how it looks.

Wearing a bikini and posting the proof online doesn’t give you body confidence and it doesn’t prove your body confidence. No amount of likes or follows or external validation can do that. Why? Because your body doesn’t exist to be looked at. We have got to stop privileging an external perspective on the incredible bodies we’ve had since the moment we were born. You have grown up in this body and experienced every second of your life in this body, and yet we judge and define our wonderful bodies by how we feel about how they look in a swimsuit? That thought should be laughable.

Wearing a bikini does not mean you love your body any more than wearing a hat means you hate your head. Lots of gals in bikinis hate their bodies and lots of gals in rash guards and board shorts love their bodies. Let swimsuits be swimsuits! Not badges of honor or tests of courage or proof of pride! Just swimsuits. Can we take back some of that power now? Can we end the bikini’s reign of terror or triumph? We’re over the bikini tyranny that dominates discussions of body ideals and body positivity. Your swimsuit proves nothing about your body image and IT SHOULDN’T HAVE TO. It’s just a swimsuit.

So, if wearing a bikini proudly isn’t the solution to body image issues, what WILL get you closer to experiencing and demonstrating real, lasting body confidence? One hugely important step is understanding that your body is an instrument for your use and experience, not an ornament to be admired. Even though I grew up as a competitive swimmer, I refused to swim from ages 15-21 because I hated the way I looked. It was only once I recognized the body shame that had been drowning me for years and chose to swim against it — literally — that I was able to develop body image resilience and use my body as an instrument to change my whole life. (Full story in my TEDx talk here.) Putting on a swimsuit even though I was ashamed did not help me love my body. Putting on a swimsuit even though I was ashamed and SWIMMING helped me love my body.

We can’t give swimsuits the power to make or break our body image. However, your choice of clothing and swimwear can help increase your body confidence when it allows you to feel comfortable and confident DOING and LIVING and BEING. Wear whatever you believe will enable you to experience and appreciate your surroundings, your situation, your capabilities, and what it’s like to live inside a body that is good for a lot more than being looked at. Until we shift that focus, we’ll be stuck in the same cycle of self-objectification that keeps us focused on how we look in a swimsuit instead of who we are and what we can do.

You are more than a bikini body. When we see more in ourselves and everyone else, we can be more.



Illustrations by Michelle Christensen, commissioned for Beauty Redefined.

Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and build the resilience to take on what holds you back from positive body image with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Resilience Course for girls and women 14+. It is an online, video-based (plus full text and audio) therapeutic tool that can change your life, developed and tested by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD.

Save Your Girls From Instagram

By Lexie Kite, Ph.D.

I know a 12-year-old girl who is the embodiment of our famous Beauty Redefined mantra: My body is an instrument, not an ornament. She is kind, innocent, active, and largely free from the burden of living to be looked at that is placed upon women’s shoulders around the age of puberty. Today, that girl joined Instagram.

When I think about her scrolling through the explore page, I envision her being shoved from childhood into adulthood, sinking in a pool of dehumanizing lessons with every scroll:

You exist for others’ viewing pleasure. Your happiness and self-worth is directly connected to your ability to command increasing likes, follows, and DMs. Your beauty is defined by specific ideals set constantly out of reach and ever changing. You joy will come from documenting perfectly posed, styled, and edited images of your experiences – not the experiences themselves. Your looks are your most valuable asset. Your body will earn you love, popularity, and self-esteem.

These are messages girls and women are taught every day – through media, but also through the ways we talk to them, the toys they play with, the ways they hear us talk about other girls and women, the ways other girls and women receive validation and respect, the ways we define health that are dangerously conflated with beauty, the girls and women that receive attention from love interests, etc. But as a media and body image expert, I can unequivocally state that a young girl’s access to Instagram is like a master class in objectification. Taught by influencers and peers with more power than any teacher, parent or advocate, she will learn at the speed of light that she is her body, and that her body is her ticket to happiness, fulfillment, power, and love.

Research echoes what our own real-life experience as women with bodies and access to social media makes very clear: Social media use – especially Instagram – is associated with high anxiety, depression, negative body image, bullying, loneliness, and envy. And the more time spent on social media, the more likely she is to experience these negative outcomes. Parents, even if you spend lots of time on IG, you have no ideas what kids are really exposed to. They are savvier than you are, targeted with ideals and messages you aren’t, and you can rest assured you are hugely underestimating the harm that social media can do to your child.

Get this: when girls hit puberty, they are TWICE as likely to experience depression as boys. Much of this is connected to the fact that 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. It’s called self-objectification and it’s sucks the life out of most girls and women. It is *very* likely your daughter already monitors her body by picturing what she looks like to other people more than you or she realizes. She thinks about what her thighs look like in her seat, she adjusts her clothing as she walks, she wonders if the person she’s talking to thinks she looks good. She sits out of PE when she doesn’t want to get sweaty or red for her next class.

Research shows us that when we live “to be looked at” in a perpetual state of self-objectification that overtakes most girls and women throughout their lives and is made exponentially worse by social media, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness. We perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, we have lower sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no” when needed), and we are left anxious and unhappy. It is so disheartening to think of how this holds girls and women back from a world that needs them.

If you are a parent or caretaker to a child, you undoubtedly face the burden of giving them access to social media. We are here to promise you that the burden of objectification that will be placed upon your daughter’s shoulders is much, much heavier than the burden you will carry by encouraging her to stay off Instagram. Even if everyone else is on.

The crushing weight of objectification heaped upon girls that scroll through Instagram is intense, and they learn to carry that weight as a natural part of womanhood. Most parents don’t quite understand the gravity of what girls encounter online. She will bear the weight of:

Every appetite suppressant and flat tummy tea and waist shaper sold by her favorite celebrity influencers (we’re looking at you, Kim Kardashian, and the millions of other influencers like you that prey on teen girls).

 

Every bikini and workout picture from influencers who rack up likes and follows from body baring photos – (those get the most likes and engagement on IG).

 

Every gym-going woman posting photos from the locker room, twisting herself unnaturally to highlight a tiny waist with a fashionably rounded backside to show her “fitness” progress or her sad-to-glad before and after transformations.

 

Every lifestyle and fashion blogger posting casual pics of themselves emphasizing their thinness and/or curves, products and procedures they’ve had done and are selling through sponsored posts, underwear and bikini pics that are supposed to represent elevated causes of body positivity, fitness, or empowerment, etc.

 

Every beauty influencer posting makeup tutorials for facial contouring to help women rid themselves of “flaws” like pores, lines, wrinkles, hairs, or other signs of life.

 

Every ad snuck in between photos her friends have posted, targeting her insecurities and selling her aspirations designed to look attainable but always out of reach.

 

And on and on and on.

Based on all of this overwhelming evidence against using Instagram, I’m going to talk to this 12-year-old girl and her wonderful parents. We’ll chat about why it might be best for her to hold off on scrolling for a while. The right age to join Instagram is different for everyone, and the conditions for using it or avoiding it all together are up to you, but at Beauty Redefined, we recommend you seriously rethink joining Instagram. Let her experience life as more than a body as long she can, because logging on Instagram marks the day when that could end for too many girls.

 

When your kid comes to you asking to join Instagram, why not take the opportunity to talk with her about what peer-reviewed, legitimate research and self-reported feedback from her peers brings to light with a pro and con list:

Pros

  • You’ll be able to interact with your friends online.
  • You won’t be left out of what is happening on Instagram.
  • You will be exposed to other messages and ideas and images you might not see otherwise, like body positivity, activism in all its forms, and people doing good in the world.
  • You’ll be able to express yourself through posting pictures and captions.

Cons

  • You will be more likely to experience increased loneliness. Instagram is isolating and leads to feelings of FOMO, or fear of missing out. While you might like the interaction from likes, follows, and DMs, in the long run you are left feeling more alone.
  • You will be more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and the more time you spend on social media, the worse these symptoms get.
  • You will be more likely to compare yourself to the girls and women you see on Instagram, and self-comparison causes you to feel less love and unity toward those you are comparing yourself to AND it makes you feel worse about yourself.
  • You will be more likely to be preoccupied with your looks (self-objectification). Your clothes, your angles, your skin, your hair, your shape, your size will all be front and center in your mind, and it’s very difficult to focus on anything else, whether you like the way you look or not. This hurts your schoolwork, your relationships, your health, your mental and physical capabilities, and your happiness.
  • You will be more likely to experience negative body image (feel bad about your body) because you will be more sensitive to how you appear to others as a result of seeing so many idealized photos, ads, and highlight reels.
  • You will be more likely to be exposed to harmful messages and ideas and images you might not see otherwise, like rampant objectification, pornography, self-harm, pro-anorexia (pro-ana) messaging, digital manipulation of photos, influencers selling you aspirational ideals that lead to feelings of shame and self-consciousness, and beauty represented in very narrow, unattainable ways.
  • You will be more likely to become desensitized to the messages that hurt you – that cause you to think about your body and your looks (self-objectification), and make you feel shame about your body. After only a short time, those things that once make you feel uncomfortable become your new “comfort zone” that is very uncomfortable.

If your daughter decides to join IG despite the cons she learns about, or already spends time scrolling through social media (especially IG), please help her practice self-care. Instagram can be used as self-help or self-harm, and every user must make that continual choice for themselves.

 

The following questions are an excellent media literacy resource to help her (and you) look out for herself with the following critical questions as she scrolls:

  • Does this image/account encourage me to fixate on my own or other women’s appearance?
  • Does this image/account spark body anxiety or feelings of shame?
  • Am I engaging in self-comparison as I view these images?
  • Does this account seek to profit from my insecurity by selling solutions to fix my “flaws?”
  • Are these images promoting or reinforcing distorted ideals of what bodies and faces should look like – either through digital manipulation or featuring only one body type or “look?”
  • Would men who think women are only valuable as sexual objects enjoy viewing these images?
  • Does it encourage me to see women as bodies first and foremost?

If the answer is yes to any or all of the above, consider unfollowing, unsubscribing, limiting, or otherwise avoiding this type of content.

On top of being a critical media consumer, we suggest a few very important rules for your kids to follow if they do use Instagram:

  • Make your profile private and NEVER allow anyone to follow you that you don’t know and interact with in real life.
  • Only follow people you know in real life.
  • Never scroll through the explore page – it’s just not safe. It allows users access to every public post, and molds itself to the user’s interests, which for girls and women are often body-focused, looks-oriented, and objectifying.
  • Set a time limit: Only spend X number of minutes on Instagram each day – the less time spent on social media, the better for the user’s mental health and well-being.
  • If the content you are viewing doesn’t pass the media literacy test above, unfollow immediately.

Because we are taught through so many cultural messages that our bodies and looks are our primary source of power, value, and happiness, we get confused about what confidence feels like. We believe this major lie that feeling confident in ourselves equals feeling confident in our looks, and we leave it at that. We believe our bodies define us, and our self-esteem is dependent upon how good we think we look to others. Instagram makes this problem worse. It heightens our awareness of our bodies and our looks and teaches us that we are our bodies, and that our bodies are our key to beauty, power, love, popularity, and happiness.

Our work at Beauty Redefined is based on the premise that positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good, it’s knowing your body *is* good regardless of how it looks. Your ability to experience positive body image frees you from the prison that locks you up decorating yourself, isolated, and missing out on purpose and power and real happiness. We don’t want one more girl stepping into womanhood with the added pressure of living her life on Instagram before she is old enough to realize her purpose, power, and worth beyond her body. She is more than a body, and you can help her see more and be more. If you or your daughter want more expertise in how to boost your body image, our online body image resilience course will do the trick. Check it out here

If nothing else, take it from one of thousands of teens who have reached out to us to tell us about how social media (and taking much-needed breaks from social media) effects them:

Illustrations by Michelle Christensen, commissioned for Beauty Redefined.

Lexie Kite, Ph.D. and Lindsay Kite, Ph.D. are the co-directors of Beauty Redefined, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to help women redefine the meaning and value of beauty in their lives through body image resilience. 

Do you need help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome self-consciousness and get on to bigger and better things? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD. 

Dress Codes Trying to Desexualize Girls are Actually Sexualizing Them More

By Lexie Kite, PhD and Lindsay Kite, PhD

Church Prom Dress Code

Boys: Tie and button shirt required. No low-rider pants.

Girls: Sleeves should cover the shoulder and top of the arm. No cleavage showing. No bras or bra straps showing through sheer fabrics. No low necklines in the front or back. No open, sheer, bare lace-ups in front or back. No midriff showing with arms raised while dancing. No tight or revealing clothes of any kind. No sheer, lacey or see-through fabric in areas that should otherwise be covered. Shoulders included. Hems should be no shorter than … (and so, so much more).

Our hearts broke when we saw a flyer for a church prom with these instructions this week.We understand the desire to clearly and strictly enforce a dress code for young women who are slammed with messages telling them their value lies in their sexual appeal above all else. But dress codes like this one don’t help that cause, and might inadvertently do more harm than good. Here’s why: They inadvertently sexualize young women as a collection of inappropriate body parts, positioning them as threats to be mitigated at any cost.

Our hearts especially break when we see dress codes like this from churches and schools and organizations that truly care about girls, because they are echoing and reinforcing what our culture constantly tells girls about themselves: they exist to be looked at. They are bodies first and people second. Their bodies are sexualized threats and burdens, not gifts and instruments for their own use and experience. Churches and schools, of all institutions, should be pushing a different message from “the world” about bodies and worth. Our culture tells girls, “Your body defines you.” We should be telling girls, “You are more than a body.” We should see more than bodies in our girls and encourage them to be more by teaching them how to understand and seek their value outside of their appearance and sexual appeal. That shouldn’t be too hard. Lots of churches preach some pretty great things about the worth of souls and the source of that great love and power to help individuals.

The people who wrote the dress code above, and the people who write every dress code just like this one are well-meaning, loving, and good people. We want to help people channel those good intentions into more effective means of communicating about dress codes and modesty*. Lengthy, over-the-top, ultra-specific dress codes for girls only are based in fear and anxiety about sex — especially about male sexuality and the feelings female bodies are sure to incite, not to mention the fears of the actions that will surely be provoked by those males in response to those sights. But dress codes like these don’t prevent girls from being perceived as sexual objects, they actually reinforce it. Let’s repeat that:

Dress codes like these don’t prevent girls from being perceived as sexual objects.

They reinforce it.

They take the focus off of girls as people and hyper-focus it on each of their parts that are in need of covering, thus sexualizing those parts or positioning them as inappropriate. Shoulders, knees, backs, stomachs, legs above the knee, underarms, etc., are not inherently sexy or sexual. Boys learn right alongside girls that those particular female parts are inappropriate and are, thus, sexually charged.

Dress codes are often necessary and helpful to ensure everyone is on the same page about what to wear, but they can be written from a place of love, understanding and respect, rather than from a place of fear. They can be written in such a way that doesn’t unnecessarily deconstruct girls into collections of body parts to be covered. They can reinforce personal accountability for everyone’s appropriate dress, guided by uniform instructions and — in the case of churches — the understanding that our bodies are sacred and our sexual appeal does not determine our worth. If you’re willing to be clear and thorough enough to inventory all possible dress code violations for girls, why not just be up front and clear about the fact that you’re concerned about attendees choosing attire that highlights their sex appeal too much for the setting. Instead of saying “don’t show this, this, and this,” why not just come right out and say, “We all know what our church’s dress standards are. If you don’t, let’s talk*! Please do your best to find a dress or other outfit that fits those standards. We want you to be able to focus on dancing, talking to others, and having fun — not worrying about your dress or your body.”

That whole “not worrying about your dress or your body thing” is absolutely crucial. That process of monitoring your body, thinking about what you look like to others all the time, is called self-objectification, and it was the focus of a big part of our doctoral research. Most girls and women live in a state of self-objectification because of our culture that objectifies women’s bodies. We live, and we picture ourselves living. It’s that pesky, never-ending mental task list Lindsay describes in her TEDx talk. When we have to accomplish a task while also thinking about what we look like while doing it, we’re at a major disadvantage. In a state of self-consciousness about our bodies, we perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, and have lower sexual assertiveness (including the ability to say “no” when needed and discuss contraception). Self-objectification leads to an increase in disordered eating and cosmetic surgery procedures, low participation in leadership positions, keeps girls from raising their hands in class, and leads them to quit pursuits of math and science at greater rates. 

Even though we are critical of lots of dress codes, that doesn’t mean we think standards of modesty or any focus on clothing is bad. In fact, there is power in clothing to alleviate self-objectification. If you feel fixated on your appearance, your clothing could be part of the problem. Are you constantly pulling shirts and skirts down, yanking necklines up, adjusting things, or trying to cover certain areas while hoping to expose others? Studies on self-objectification show us that body-baring and tight 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 is especially revealing or emphasizing our bodies, we become very self-aware of those parts that are most visible and potentially being looked at. We self-objectify.

Research shows a level of modesty (that may vary from person to person since modesty and comfort in clothing are subjective) can be an important tool in safe-guarding ourselves from being in a constant state of self-objectification. Teach your girls about self-objectification. Talk to them about how being fixated on your clothes and your appearance gets in the way of everything they could be doing and experiencing.

What if we prioritized how girls and women feel in their own bodies and clothing, rather than how they think they look?

What if we taught girls to be conscious and critical of the ways we’ve been taught to view and value ourselves as objects to be looked at, and to fight to see more and be more?

What if we helped girls and women consciously consider the ways their clothing affects their self-perceptions and self-consciousness rather than the way others might or might not perceive them?

What if we spoke from research and truth that empowers girls and women and encourages respect for our bodies, instead of speaking from a place of fear and anxiety that reinforces the lie that girls are sexual beings first and human beings second?

We owe it to our girls to try. 


 

*For LDS audiences, we have a modesty lesson plan here. It’s specifically tailored for LDS Young Women due to significant demand, but it would work for lots of Christian churches if you’re interested.

Illustrations by Michelle Christensen, commissioned for Beauty Redefined.

Lexie Kite, Ph.D. and Lindsay Kite, Ph.D. are the co-directors of Beauty Redefined, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to help women redefine the meaning and value of beauty in their lives through body image resilience. 

Do you need help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome self-consciousness and get on to bigger and better things? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD. 

Searching for Scraps of Power, One Swimsuit Pic at a Time

By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.

The most-liked pics of women on Instagram are the body-baring ones.
  • When lifestyle bloggers post casual swimsuit pics of themselves in front of a cool brick wall — looking off to the side, toes turned inward, hips pushed back to subtly emphasize a “thigh gap”;
  • when Instagrammers smile at the camera in their underwear, hunched just slightly to reveal skin folds, with captions celebrating body positivity;
  • when a new mom with a big following post pics of her not-quite-as-flat (but almost!) abs while claiming bravery about embracing her new post-partum body on her journey to get her body back;
  • when gym-going women post photos from the locker room, twisting themselves unnaturally to highight tiny waists with fashionably rounded backsides to show their “fitness” progress or their sad-to-glad “before and after” transformations…
…they know they’ll get maximum likes and comments. They, and most people, might even call those posts “feel-good,” #inspo, #goals, or even “empowering.” But are they? If you strip away the inspirational caption and good intentions from so many of those #bopo or #fitspo photos, are they just another pic of a woman’s body for viewers to compare, ogle, and double-tap?

In a culture that values women for our bodies more than anything else, it is no surprise that women learn to survive within that system, reaping its meager rewards. We learn to search for scraps of what sometimes feels like “power” in the form of validation, acceptance, and financial reward for granting visual and physical access to our bodies.

Just as boys and men learn to view and value women for our appearance and sexual appeal, girls and women learn to view and evaluate ourselves in the same terms, through the same outside perspective. We monitor our bodies constantly, consciously and unconsciously working to adjust our appearances to be most appealing to onlookers. This objectification hurts us. It minimizes us, it distracts us, it drains us. It always has. Only now, we’ve learned to claim it as our own. We’ve duped ourselves into thinking our body-centric system of value is self-chosen and empowering.

It’s understandable. Those scraps of “power” are almost as good as the real thing in this system, because attention and validation are bestowed upon women deemed desirable enough. Your image can sell products and charm adoring fans and attract the eyes of suitors. By granting visual and physical access to our desirable bodies, we can reap all the benefits we’ve learned are available.

Until that stops. He changes his mind. A new “look” is in. You get older. Your appearance changes. You become sick or injured. You have a baby. You run out of money.

When your empowerment is based on others’ physical appraisal of you, it can be taken away as freely as it was given. It is fleeting and fickle. Our profit-driven culture thrives off the objectification of female bodies, and while companies and industries thrive, women are losing. Objectification 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.

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. If you use social media — whether as an “influencer,” a casual Instagrammer, or just as a viewer — and if you’re interested in consciously working to step outside the system that values women for our bodies above all else, we have some tips.‪ Below are guidelines in the form of two Positive Body Image Playbooks — the first for social media content creators and the second for content consumers.

 


Positive Body Image Playbook: Social Media Literacy for Socially Conscious Content

Your posts pass the test when they:

  • Stand alone without a caption to situate it as “body positive” or “inspiring”
  • Advertise only products or services that uphold the values you hope to promote
  • Clearly state that it is a paid promotion to sell a product or service if you’re making money from it
  • Encourage people to see you (and all others) as more than a body
  • Couldn’t possibly be mistaken for harmful #fitspo, #thinspo, or plain old sexual objectification
  • Avoid disparaging – even jokingly – any body types and characteristics as “flaws” (i.e. “I’m learning to love my thunder thighs” or “I’m so embarrassed/brave to show this pic of my belly rolls”)
  • Serve as more than just a #humblebrag or a request for validation

If a post doesn’t satisfy most or all of the above criteria, consider skipping that particular post or opting for an image or message that does.

 


Positive Body Image Playbook: Social Media Literacy for Socially Conscious Consumers

Ask yourself the following questions about the content you’re viewing:

  • Does this image/account encourage me to fixate on my own or other women’s appearance?
  • Does this image/account spark body anxiety or feelings of shame?
  • Am I engaging in self-comparison as I view these images?
  • Does this account seek to profit from my insecurity by selling solutions to fix my “flaws?”
  • Are these images promoting or reinforcing distorted ideals of what bodies and faces should look like – either through digital manipulation or featuring only one body type or “look?”
  • Would men who think women are garbage and only valuable as sexual objects enjoy viewing these images?
  • Does it encourage me to see women as bodies first and foremost?

If the answer is yes to any or all of the above, consider unfollowing, unsubscribing, limiting, or otherwise avoiding this type of content.


 

In Summary

If you are interested in elevating the status of women in a culture that happily values us as objects first and foremost, be sure to look critically at your own ideas of female empowerment first. If the images you’re sharing and liking online are indistinguishable from the sexism and objectification that have always been used to devalue and disempower women, they might not be all that revolutionary.

Women are more than bodies, and when we can see more in ourselves, we can be more. We can then learn to value more in ourselves and everyone else — value that doesn’t correlate with our beauty, and value that can’t be bestowed or withdrawn by anyone else.

 


 

Illustrations by Michelle Christensen, commissioned for Beauty Redefined.

Lindsay Kite, Ph.D., is the co-director of Beauty Redefined, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to help women redefine the meaning and value of beauty in their lives through body image resilience. Don’t miss her TEDx talk.

Do you need help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome self-consciousness and get on to bigger and better things? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD.  

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