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.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Curvy Appreciation Turns to Objectification

By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustrations by Michelle Christensen

Here you can create the content that will be used within the module.

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

By Lexie Kite, PhD

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

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

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

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

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

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

What helps:

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

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

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

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

What doesn’t help:

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

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

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

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

Lindsay and Lexie Kite, PhDs, are co-directors of the Beauty Redefined foundation, founded in 2009, and identical twins with doctorates in the study of body image resilience. They travel the US speaking at universities, high schools, and conferences about how to identify objectifying ideals and overcome them to get to a more powerful, healthy place. Learn about our life-changing, research-backed online body image resilience course here. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter to stay up-to-date on this and all things Beauty Redefined!

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