Adele as a Savior or a Threat to Your Body Image

As singing icon Adele is being celebrated worldwide for her significant weight loss, the body positivity world is grappling with what it means when a “full-figured” icon no longer fits the bill. That’s a lot of responsibility, and she never asked for it. Without posting any side-by-side comparison pics or discussing her health or her strategies for undergoing a “body transformation,” Adele has become an involuntary before-and-after image in our collective consciousness.

Whether it is body positivity advocates who championed her “before” body or everyone else fawning over her “after,” both represent ways she is objectified and reduced to her body — even if one serves the good cause of normalizing and appreciating size diversity. This represents the trap we fall into when we think that we can place women with larger bodies on a pedestal as examples of body positivity — thriving or surviving despite their less-celebrated appearances — and think we won’t get hurt when she falls or gets pushed off that pedestal (by losing weight, promoting a diet plan, or saying something negative about her larger size). When she comes crashing down from her #bopo pedestal, our feelings and hopes about our own similar bodies come crashing down along with her.

Have you found your body anxiety being triggered by seeing Adele’s smaller body, and seeing it receive so much praise and attention? We understand why you might be feeling that, and we want you to see it as an opportunity to rethink the ways you might view and value bodies — your own and others’.

Your body image may have taken a blow seeing the headlines about Adele’s weight loss because she was one of very few so-called “plus size” female celebrities. With so few women of diverse body sizes represented positively throughout mainstream media, it’s easy to pedestalize women who don’t fit prescribed beauty ideals as body positive icons. But if we place women like Adele, Melissa McCarthy, Shonda Rhimes, Beanie Feldstein, Jennifer Hudson, or Mindy Kaling on pedestals as brave heroes of body positivity, we are resting our hopes and values on their bodies — other people’s dynamic human bodies that grow and shrink and change for an endless list of reasons inside and outside of our control. 

These people didn’t choose to be our guiding star in the uncharted land of trying to love our less-celebrated body sizes and shapes — we put that on them because of how they look. They didn’t claim that status, and yet we hold them to our standards as body positive queens and pin our hopes of confidence, love, and success to their inspirational examples. Then, when they lose weight or disparage their larger bodies or promote a new diet, body positivity advocates see them as traitors to the cause while the general public champions them as weight loss success stories, testaments to the power of motivation and self-discipline as the keys to anyone’s body transformations from not to hot. In the end, whether they’re larger or smaller, we’re still talking about them as bodies first and people second. We are objectifying them.

You may have also taken a hit to your body image as you read all the “She’s never looked better!” and “Revenge body?” and “She’s unrecognizable!” commentary, which reveals how much people value thinner bodies over fatter ones — at any cost. Our culture’s fear of fat is real, and it comes to the forefront in the way we praise and shame people. We don’t know how or why Adele lost weight, and it isn’t anyone’s business, but we do know that not every weight loss story is a happy or healthy one. Many people are sick and suffering and praise for their weight loss is unwelcome and harmful. Eating disorders are rampant, dangerous diets and pills and addictions abound. (See a few examples as proof here for motivation to stop complimenting peoples’ shrinking bodies). 

How do we make ourselves more resilient in the face of Adele’s weight loss trending online and the accompanying body image blows that result from the heaping praise toward her (among the other daily disruptions to our body image)?

If we really want to ground ourselves in positive body image and rise up against objectifying ideals that hold women back in every way, we have to learn to take our attention off of bodies and appearance — for others and for ourselves. We can’t heal our own body image and reduce our self-objectification by praising and pedestalizing other bodies, even if they look like ours and we feel so grateful they do. We heal our body image by seeing and valuing ourselves and other women as more than bodies. Having positive body image isn’t believing your body *looks* good, it is believing your body *is* good, regardless of how it looks. It’s time to give women their humanity back, and reclaim our own humanity in the process.

Body positivity — or learning to value all bodies as beautiful — is a good first step, but this Adele phenomenon shows us how it can fall short when we rely on validating the appearance of someone else’s body in order to validate our own. It helps to see another body that looks like yours being validated, but what happens when it changes or stops being praised or she disparages her own body? As people who value body diversity and don’t want to be loved or hated for our size, shouldn’t we be the first to unravel someone’s value from their body — whether they are large or small? 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.

Let’s fight body shame at its source: the idea that the appearance of our bodies is the most important thing about us. The real problem is *not* that only certain women’s bodies are valued, it is that women’s bodies are valued more than women themselves. When we try to promote body acceptance by focusing on how beautiful women’s bodies are, we inadvertently perpetuate the idea that women are bodies first and foremost and that feeling beautiful is of utmost importance. 

Positive body image doesn’t come from believing that your body looks acceptable. While that is a good feeling, and perhaps even one step closer to healing your relationship with your body, that boost is fleeting, and when the power to determine how you feel about your body is determined by outside forces, it can be taken away as quickly as it is given. In order to really move forward individually and collectively, we need to recognize how severely the objectification of female bodies has stunted girls and women. The epidemic of self-objectification, or constant fixation on appearance (whether you like your appearance or not), has held back generations of women who could have used that mental and physical energy for much more meaningful and joyful pursuits. We can’t escape that harm by focusing on the beauty of all women’s bodies and relying on celebrity or influencer examples to convince ourselves our bodies look good too.

It’s not that your body is acceptable because Adele’s or Lizzo’s or any other larger-bodied woman’s is acceptable; it’s that your body is acceptable, period. You live inside it. You grew up inside it. Your body acceptance can’t hinge on how anyone else looks or how anyone feels about how anyone looks. It can’t hinge on other bodies looking like ours or being validated because those bodies are subject to change and so is public opinion about them. Your body acceptance can only hinge on your own choices, actions, and experiences inside your own individual body. Our popular mantra can help you re-envision what body confidence looks like in your own life: Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.

As you prioritize your experience inside your incredible body over the appearance of your body, you take your power back. Your power is internal and self-determined. What does your body allow you to do? What do you appreciate about how it works? What do you want to do, feel, experience? Take opportunities to move your body, challenge yourself, feel the rush of endorphins, step out of your comfort zone, and experience that state of flow of being fully immersed in something without your self-consciousness holding you back. Always prioritize your experience over your appearance. 

It makes sense that body positivity advocates and everyday women adore the few highly successful women who confidently represent larger sizes in the mainstream. But the front page newsworthiness of Adele’s weight loss is a massive testament to the need for greater size diversity (and all diversity) in media, as much as it is a testament to the absolute objectification of women who are able to become stars while being fat (or fatter than the mainstream ideals). If we could see more women in media, and not just the ones with idealized body types, one musician or actor’s size wouldn’t become the number one trending news topic in the world (in the middle of a global pandemic!). And no one woman’s body would have to be our ray of hope for our own body love, or our body shame trigger when her size changes along with the public’s love for her size.

Not defining people by their body size is possible! We know that because we’ve never heard anyone talk about DJ Khaled as a body-positive icon or praise James Corden for daring to show up as a husky hero for our time. Men in media get to be valued for and defined by lots of things outside of their appearance, like their talent, humor, intellect, charm, etc. Male stars’ weight loss is newsworthy at times, but men are never celebrated as heroes for living in larger bodies or constantly defined by their ability to thrive despite their size. Their bodies aren’t the most important thing about them. Ours aren’t either.

We are all more than bodies. We have to learn to see more in ourselves in order to be more than people who self-objectify our days away, preoccupied with our looks and the looks of those around us. If your body image is founded on the truth that you are more than a body, it can’t be broken by anyone’s changing body and the accompanying praise and shame. Your body image can be unshaken in the midst of objectification because you know the truth about yourself: You are more than a body, and when we can see more in ourselves and others, we can be more. Much 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.

Objectification & Loving Relationships Are Not Compatible

By Lexie Kite, Ph.D.

One of the biggest barriers many women face when working to improve their body image and heal their relationship with their bodies is the judgment and rejection they fear from their romantic partners. This seems to be particularly true for women in heterosexual relationships who have grown up viewing and monitoring their bodies through a sexualized male perspective. When women are objectified and valued primarily as things to be looked at and consumed (visually or physically) in media and among people around us, it is not only men that learn to view women as parts and judge those parts according to carefully prescribed standards — we do the same to ourselves. This distances us from not only our own healthy body image, but also from our partners.

We all learn to objectify ourselves (through self-objectification, or monitoring how our bodies appear) and to objectify others from the time we are very young, from a massive variety of people and messages. If you are a fan of our work at Beauty Redefined, there’s a good chance you have undertaken the incredibly hard but rewarding work of developing body image resilience. As you work on your relationship with your body and begin to experience your body through our life-changing mantra — as an “instrument, not an ornament” — your whole life opens up. You can see the way you have held yourself back and been held back from happiness and health and confidence because you felt defined by your body and wasted years living to be looked at instead of really living.

Whether you love or hate the way your body looks, you’ve probably also realized how hard it is to thrive in your life and your relationship — and even enjoy your most intimate moments — when you are fixated on how you appear at all times. Seeing yourself and being treated as MORE THAN A BODY is essential to your own well-being and to having healthy romantic relationships. So many of us have been trained to think that having a happy, healthy sex life depends on fitting a prescribed idea of what “sexy” looks like. The truth is: You can have a healthy, happy sex life regardless of how you look or how you think you look. You can learn to take back your sexuality as your own, from the inside, because it is something to be experienced firsthand, not viewed or appraised from the outside.

Here’s the deal: Everyone wants to feel attractive. Everyone wants their partner to be attracted to them. A big deterrent to feeling confident and attractive is shame. It’s REALLY hard to take good care of yourself when you are embarrassed and disgusted by your body and/or your partner is, too. It’s really hard to want to be intimate with someone or maintain a loving bond with a partner when you are embarrassed and disgusted by your body and/or your partner is, too. That shame propels you toward unhealthy extremes, whether that be compulsive overeating or overexercise, restriction and starvation, abusing diet pills and laxatives, being totally sedentary, etc. In other words, feeling shame and disgust for your body is the quickest path to self-destructive and relationship-destructive beliefs and behaviors.

As you work to see yourself as more than a collection of parts to be viewed, fixed, ogled, and rejected, you realize how imperative it is that your partner sees and values you for more, too. In past or present relationships, you might have felt the sting of objectification in your interactions — maybe in the way you were viewed and treated by your partner, but maybe also in the ways you have viewed and treated your partner.

For many women who have reached out to us over the years, learning to see themselves as more than a body is complicated by having partners who knowingly and unknowingly see them as bodies first and people second. Here are three examples shared with us by women we will keep anonymous.

“My husband has said unkind things about my appearance many times. Usually, leading up to a big ‘talk’ about my weight, he would also give me the cold shoulder for days at a time. I feel like those thoughts are always in the back of his mind and I’m always self-conscious around him. It’s been the biggest issue in our marriage. I want a husband that makes me feel beautiful. Not one that makes me want to turn off the lights during sex or cringe every time he accidentally touches my stomach. Even when I’ve been thin, he will still comment on my makeup or he’s said that he would be okay spending the money for me to get a boob job. I honestly believe no matter what I looked like it wouldn’t be enough—he’d never be satisfied.”

 

“My husband and I have been married for more than 20 years and I was obsessed with my weight for the first half of our marriage, and was thin as well. Eventually, I reached a point emotionally where I couldn’t diet even one more time and I started gaining weight. The bigger I got, the more obsessed with his own weight and body my husband became. For the past five years he has gotten into body building a bit and has gotten increasingly restrictive with his diet. He makes little side comments to me in judgement of my food, health and fatness. I’m the only fat person in the house, so he definitely gets his point across to me through the things he says about others and the things he says to the kids around me. This makes him sound really bad but he is wonderful in many other ways. This is just a tough area for both of us as he feels very right in this area.”

 

“I feel like every time I get close to accepting myself as-is I remember that Dr. Laura says ‘Don’t you dare gain weight’ and that my mom taught me to keep yourself sexy for your man. Typing this out, I realize how horrible this all sounds. My husband is a great guy but he does love my skinnier body more than my larger one for sure. He still loves me and wants me and all but there is a difference in his level of praise, etc. I want him to keep wanting me for years to come but cannot keep wasting my life trying to lose twenty pounds.”

If your partner withholds intimacy, kindness, or affection because they are unhappy with your body, that is a sign that you might be in an unhealthy relationship. If they make rude comments about your body or punish you in any way because they don’t approve of your body, that is a sign that you might be in an unhealthy relationship. Objectification is at the heart of these unhealthy relationships. When someone objectifies you, whether knowingly or not, they dehumanize you. They might view and value you as parts to be used, looked at, evaluated, rejected, and fixed. They might feel entitled to your body. They might prioritize how you look over how you feel. Objectification pushes away love. It is hard to fully love and respect someone you see through such a narrow lens. It is hard to be compassionate and kind toward someone whom you expect to uphold beauty ideals that may well be hurting her health, happiness, and well-being. It is hard to fully love someone else or feel their love when you know on some level that their love might be contingent on you looking a certain way.

That doesn’t mean a relationship where objectification is present is destined to fail or can’t be fixed, but it does mean that both you and your partner have some work to do if you want to progress.

Healthy romantic relationships are founded on love and respect. If you are in a healthy relationship, then sexual appeal is much deeper than just the visual. Yes, the visual, physical sexual attraction is there, but there is also love, chemistry, bond, touch, connection, communication, shared history and experiences. It is giving as well as taking. If your partner isn’t sexually attracted to you because your body has changed, they must learn to see the objectifying ways they have dehumanized you and uproot it. You are human and human bodies change for reasons in and out of our control. We age, grow, shrink, get sick and injured, give birth, face mental and physical challenges. If you are in a relationship with someone who is only committed to your body, they aren’t actually committed to you.

If your partner objectifies you by feeling entitled to your body looking a certain way or degrading your appearance or asking you to change, please know that you can’t escape that harmful dynamic by changing your body. You can’t outrun it. Any increase in warmth, affection, care and concern you earn through “fixing” your body is guaranteed to be temporary and always at risk of being withdrawn. That is a temporary and tenuous solution to a problem that will not go away. You won’t always be able to live up to those expectations, for a huge variety of reasons you can and can’t control. In a committed partnership, love has to be bigger and deeper than that.

Seeing and valuing yourself as more than a body will allow you to identify whether your relationship is healthy and founded on love and respect. You deserve nothing less. If you feel your primary value lies in the way your body appears, every rude comment, judging glance or withheld intimacy or kindness can be blamed on you and your body. Every ounce of rejection and coldness will feel deserved, and will hold intense power over you because you might even agree with it. It reinforces the very pain and shame you have learned to feel about yourself and your appearance — never good enough, never in control, never right. We have all been trained to blame ourselves for the love we don’t receive, but we can’t turn against ourselves. We can turn against objectification.

In some circumstances, you may have unknowingly helped teach your partner how to treat you and value you in an objectifying way. You may have started out your relationship very fixated on your body and spent time asking your partner if you looked fat, how you looked, if you should change this part or that part. You may have asked for and required a significant amount of praise and attention directed toward your body just to feel OK in your relationship and assured your partner was happy. You may have been on a strict diet or workout and asked for help to stay “on track,” only to wallow in self-loathing and annoyance when you got off track. As you’ve gained weight or your breasts have changed with age or children, you might have withdrawn physically and demonstrated lower confidence and less interest in sex.

If that is the case, your partner learned what you needed and validated you accordingly. He may have seen how happy and confident you seemed when you were losing weight or toning up or practicing intense restriction around food, and he also may have witnessed how depressed and self-conscious you seemed when you gained weight or lost muscle definition or stopped dieting. He may have internalized the idea that you are happiest and most confident when you are at your thinnest, when that isn’t actually the case. You have now learned the truth — you are actually happiest and most confident when you see yourself and others see you as more than a body to be looked at, judged, and fixed. When your self-worth and happiness each day isn’t dependent on how you do or don’t look or what you do or don’t eat. When your confidence and fulfillment is based on experiences, actions, and feelings, it is much more sustainable in the long run. It is self-determined and self-directed, not earned or appraised based on how others look at you.

Marriage is a commitment to and partnership with someone. It is not a contract to work forever to keep the same body you had on the day of your wedding. You don’t owe anyone your body. You really don’t. That is a degrading, dehumanizing ideal that way too many of us have grown up believing and perpetuating. It is incredibly sexist, because no one expects men to maintain their teenage bodies and faces their whole lives, and men aren’t tasked with maybe the most physically burdensome job of all time — growing and birthing babies. In our culture, men get to proudly age and embrace those outward changes, but women don’t. Men get to show signs of humanity like facial lines and wrinkles and grey hair and baldness and natural body hair without judgment or ridicule, but women don’t. Men get to live with their bodies as they are, while women are asked to implant and inject certain parts to be more plump and lipo, laser, and shrink other parts. Men get to be praised and valued and powerful for many reasons beyond how they look, while women are rarely granted the same luxury unless their looks are also deemed acceptable.

If you are in a committed relationship, having a partner who values you as more than a body is crucial to your well-being. You do not deserve to be in a relationship with anyone who attempts to diminish you and divide you against yourself, keeping you at odds with your own body. You are whole. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to remain that way. If you are in a relationship with someone who insists upon you meeting and upholding certain physical ideals, it is up to you to weigh the pros and cons of being with that person. When necessary and possible, this could lead to distance from people who aren’t supportive of your pursuit to understand your body as an instrument rather than an ornament, or who don’t care to try and understand your perspective.

If you feel safe enough to confront your partner and you believe your relationship can be healed, there are a few strategies you can use to prompt positive changes:

Be vulnerable. Share your feelings. Tell them what you’ve learned about the harms of objectification and how it has impacted the way you feel about your body and yourself. Tell them about experiences in your past when you have held yourself back, felt pain and shame, and missed out on opportunities because of judgment, embarrassment, or ridicule. Tell them about the ways feeling like an object has impacted your relationship. Has it caused you to withdraw, hold back, disconnect, hurt yourself, fixate on your appearance or food or exercise at the expense of your life, happiness, and health? Let them know that they are hurting you by doing things or saying things that feel objectifying. Give specific examples. Share how you felt in those moments and how it pushes you away from your partner and your own self-worth.

Ask for what you want. Ask them to refrain from commenting on your appearance or others’—for the sake of yourself and those in earshot. Ask them to help you stop obsessing about your weight or appearance. Ask them to support you and help you feel more confident as you are right now so you can stop being driven by shame and self-objectification in ways that hurt your well-being and your relationship. Ask them to consider the impact of their own media, entertainment, and friend choices, and how they might not only reflect harmful, narrow, sexualized ideals of women in general, but perpetuate them in your home and daily life. Inform them about the negative impact their harmful comments and actions have on your life. Ask for compassion and understanding.

Encourage them to be vulnerable. Ask them to open up about their own insecurities, whether they are body-related or not. Ask them how you can support them and build up their confidence. This will build trust and intimacy, which will strengthen your relationship. Encourage them to seek therapy to dig deep into how and when they learned to objectify people and how they can correct their thinking and heal their relationships and their own body image. Offer to work with them as you both learn healthier ways of seeing and relating to each other and your own bodies.

Reclaim your body as your own. The best thing you can do for your relationship is to not spend one more day fixated on losing weight or planning cosmetic procedures or fighting off aging to change your body for your partner’s approval. That is an unsustainable, short-term plan for what you need from what should hopefully be a lasting, loving relationship. You are more than a body, and you are doing your absolute best living inside a dynamic, growing, changing body. Your relationship with your partner, your kids, and yourself is hurt when you fixate on your body, as you ride the roller coaster of emotions and self-esteem that goes up and down by the minute depending on what you ate, how much you worked out, how you look, etc.

Your relationship with others and yourself will deepen and grow as you heal your relationship with your body. As you learn to see yourself as more than a body, you can be more present, confident, and fulfilled in your relationships because you will have the security of knowing your worthiness to be truly loved is not dependent on how you appear. You won’t blame yourself for anyone else’s perception of you or their unrealistic and exhausting expectations of your body. You can take better care of yourself because you value yourself as more than a decoration. You can experience more connection and pleasure during sex and intimacy, which is not possible if you are monitoring and evaluating your appearance from the outside. You can live each day knowing that you are worthy of love and respect and kindness no matter how you look. Once you know that truth, you won’t accept anything less.


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.

J-Lo and Shakira’s Halftime Performance Was Both Empowering and Objectifying

By Lindsay and Lexie Kite, PhD

So many people have been writing and asking us to weigh in on the Super Bowl halftime headline about whether the performances were empowering or objectifying. (You know that question is generally our forte!) But our input here is more nuanced than some might expect. In summary: Shakira’s and J-Lo’s performance wasn’t either empowering or objectifying — it was both. It had to be both, and it has always been both. It’s the nature of the game.

Zoom in to this weekend’s performance and you’ll see two women — Jennifer Lopez and Shakira — who are extraordinarily powerful, talented professionals in both singing and dancing who have earned their accolades and that prized opportunity through decades of hard work. They are bucking stereotypes about women “of a certain age” and what they are allowed to wear and how they are allowed to move. They are also proudly representing cultures and people who have been marginalized and underrepresented in mainstream US media. They are using their voices and platforms to shed light on social and political issues they care about and that many people were grateful to see in the spotlight.

Zoom out and you’ll see that in the past 20 years of Super Bowl halftime shows, all of the performers were chosen for their incredible talent, but *only* the women are also required to fit an extremely narrow standard of beauty and sex appeal. (With very few exceptions — full list in comments). With this expanded view, you’ll see the very different rules rules for men and women that determine who qualifies to perform at the biggest television event of the year. It’s the same rules women have to play by in all of entertainment media (and too many other areas of life), but it is especially obvious in this ultra-hyped venue.

In addition to being ultra-talented, you must follow thee three rules:

#1. Be young, very young. And if you aren’t young, you better look like you are. (J-Lo and Shakira have mastered this, and the world absolutely can not stop talking about it. Don’t get it twisted that the only reason they let a 50-year-old woman be the lead performer is because she looks like that, regardless of how talented she is.) Madonna was the oldest female performer of the last 20 years of halftime shows at age 53, while Mick Jagger was the oldest male at 70. Before this year, since 2000, the average age of the female halftime performers was 32, while the male halftime performers’ average age is 42 — a 10-YEAR AGE GAP. That’s out of 17 female performers and 27 males (only including bands’ lead singers or else these numbers would be outrageously higher for men).

#2. Be beautiful. And by that, we mean: be young, be skinny AND be curvaceous, but with no visible cellulite or stretch marks, have long, flowing hair and full eyelashes but NO other body hair, have a full face of makeup, and just be straight-up stunning. All of it. For men, go ahead and look however you happen to look. Look your age, be whatever size and shape you are, have hair or be bald, dance or mostly just stand there, wear a tophat if you want! Truly, anything goes.

#3. Be sexy. But to be clear, this is not about what truly makes *you* feel good or helps *you* experience sexual pleasure. More specifically, it’s about fitting a stereotypical, old-school male fantasy version of how sexy should appear. That’s absolutely the most important rule here for women. This requires you to wear high heels no matter how much you’re running and dancing. You also need to wear extremely body-baring clothing, which almost always means no pants of any sort. Leotards, yes. Pants, no. Men — wear whatever you want. Absolutely whatever you want, but pants are mandatory. Sex appeal can play a role if you get the urge to take your shirt off and show your tattoos or something, but that’s not why we chose you for this job and no one is expecting you to arouse the audience. To be a sexy woman, writhe around a lot, spread your legs a lot, arch your back a lot, shake your butt a lot (maybe even have a fully dressed male performer slap it), and touch your body a lot. Anything you’ve seen in media that is intended to arouse an audience — do that.

The obvious double-standards about mens’ and women’s appearances in the rulebook are so normal and unquestioned that they are invisible until you zoom out and look at the big picture. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have had to live up to sexist, ageist, racist, nearly unreachable double standards now and throughout their entire careers in order to attract the spotlight they shared this weekend. Their unquestioned beauty and sex appeal don’t minimize or take away from their incredible talent, but they are a non-negotiable counterpart to it. We wish women could achieve this level of fame and acceptance on talent alone, but that is very rarely the case — especially for Latinas over 40.

That makes this question of “empowering vs. objectifying” a very complicated one, as it almost always is. There is no doubt that women gain power through playing by these rules — the power of fame, success, money, validation, and acceptance. For the individual women who achieve undeniable success, it is easy to see that conforming to these objectifying rules can translate into power, and even “empowerment” through self-sufficiency, social status, and opportunity. When all the superstar women we see in media fit these narrow ideals, it’s no surprise that we grow up and grow older reaching for those standards as a blueprint for our own empowerment.

The problem is, it does not work for the rest of us. Not everyone who follows the rules will attain the sought-after beauty standards, no matter how much effort they put in. Not to mention that these rules are prohibitive for so many girls and women who will never qualify to even play the game. Beauty work is endlessly expensive, time-consuming, energy-sucking, and health-compromising. The stuff that really forces faces and bodies to fit the mold is reserved for only the most wealthy and privileged among us, and even then, it isn’t a surefire fix. And for the small percentage who do actually achieve all the prescribed beauty ideals, there’s no guarantee that they will reap any of the promised rewards, whether financial, social, romantic, or otherwise.

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. He changes his mind. They find someone else. You run out of money. Genetics, health problems, injuries, pregnancies, aging, and ever-changing beauty ideals will sabotage even the most dedicated rule-followers. Lasting, sustainable empowerment is self-determined. It is based on who you are and what you know about yourself, not how you appear.

Our profit-driven culture thrives off the objectification of female bodies, and while companies, industries and even individual women might thrive, the majority of us are losing. This system fails women because it values our bodies at the expense of our humanity. Because these standards are designed to be unreachable for the vast majority of us, we are perpetually ashamed. Shame leads us to disordered eating — whether that’s starvation, bingeing, purging, compulsive overeating, or an all-consuming obsession with “healthy” eating (orthorexia). It leads us to overexercising or opting out of physical activity entirely. It breeds self-harm, addictions, and other harmful coping mechanisms. It compels us to do whatever it takes to “fix” our perceived flaws through buying endlessly promising products and services. We hide by avoiding social situations, opportunities, and any place or activity where we don’t want to be seen.

Just as we watch the women who succeed by adhering to strict standards of beauty and sex appeal, we learn to watch ourselves the same way — viewing and evaluating ourselves through the same voyeuristic perspective. We learn to monitor our bodies constantly, consciously and unconsciously working to adjust our appearances to be most appealing to onlookers. (It’s called self-objectification, and it halts our progress in every way imaginable).

Objectification is complicated. It diminishes our empowerment by distracting us, draining us, and destroying our self-worth due to a fixation on how others perceive us. It always has and it always will.

Still, there is no denying that playing by the rules of objectification can have its rewards and open up doors that are closed to those who won’t or can’t play.

So, yes. Shakira’s and J-Lo’s halftime performance was both empowering and objectifying. It had to be both. For women, it has always been both. It’s the nature of the game.


Super Bowl Halftime Performers and Ages:

2000: Phil Collins 49, Christina Aguilera 19, Enrique Iglesias 24, Toni Braxton 32
2001: Aerosmith 52, NSYNC 20, Britney Spears 19, Mary J. Blige 30
2002: U2 – Bono 42
2003: Shania Twain 37, Sting 51, No Doubt 33
2004: Jessica Simpson 25, Janet Jackson 37, P. Diddy 34, Nelly 29, Kid Rock 33, Justin Timberlake 23
2005: Paul McCartney 62
2006: The Rolling Stones – Mick Jagger 70
2007: Prince, 44
2008: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers 54
2009: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band 59
2010: The Who 64
2011: The Black Eyed Peas (Fergie 36, Will I Am 36), Usher 32, Slash 45
2012: Madonna 53, Nicki Minaj 29, MIA 36, Cee-Lo Green 36
2013: Destiny’s Child 31
2014: Bruno Mars 28, Red Hot Chili Peppers – Anthony Kiedis 51
2015: Katy Perry 30, Missy Elliott 43, Lenny Kravitz 50
2016: Coldplay 38, Beyonce 34, Bruno Mars 30
2017: Lady Gaga 30
2018: Justin Timberlake 37
2019: Adam Levine 39, Travis Scott 26
2020: Shakira 43 and J-Lo 50

Male average age: 42
Female average age: 34


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.

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.

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