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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Curvy Appreciation Turns to Objectification

By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modest is Hottest? The Revealing Truth

By Lindsay & Lexie Kite, Ph.D.
Originally posted Nov. 2011 and updated every time the modesty/dress code debate makes headlines! Current version: June 2017.

Women and girls are more than just bodies. We all know that, right? Well, you wouldn’t know that if you looked to media, or even sometimes well-meaning religious rhetoric, for that truth. And you wouldn’t know that if you listened to the way so many of us discuss the topic of appropriate dress, or “modesty,” today. In an inescapable media world that pans up and down women’s bodies and focuses so much attention on their parts, no wonder girls learn to display their bodies as something to be looked at. No wonder girls learn to survey their bodies at all times, and in all things they are wearing, and in all places they are going.

Today in many circles, issues of female “modesty” are very popular. From many religions’ focus on appropriate dress to schools having rules on how high above the knee girls’ shorts can and can’t be or how much bare shoulder is too much – modesty is a trending topic. While reasons for advocating modesty vary greatly, we can attest that far too much emphasis is being placed on arbitrary standards that actually have the effect of sexualizing and objectifying girls from a very young age and keeping us fixated on women as bodies alone

If you’re pro-modesty (by whatever definition that means to you), then you can and should live it and teach it as a benefit to yourself, not to appear more or less appealing or acceptable to others

Many cultures and religions teach perspectives on modesty that revolve around the idea that covering up particular body parts to certain degrees is crucial to respecting our bodies, which are viewed as sacred. (For LDS audiences, we have a modesty lesson plan here). Regardless of your spiritual orientation, an open discussion about modesty from the perspective of our research can get us somewhere much more powerful and valuable than the shallow  “her shorts are [this] many inches above the knee” and “modest is hottest” mentality so prevalent today. Here’s the truth you can stand behind: We are more than bodies to be looked at. 

If modesty is a concept you subscribe to, there is great power in changing the modesty conversation from what you LOOK like to others to what you FEEL like inside. Here are some strategies to shift the modesty conversation in empowering, rather than shame-inducing, ways:

1) Be aware of the role of clothing in girls’ and women’s rampant self-consciousness. Our research echoes that of many others showing self-objectification is epidemic among girls and women today. Self-objectification takes place when we internalize an outsider’s perspective of ourselves. We literally picture ourselves being looked at as we go throughout our days, monitoring our bodies and appearance at all times, and research shows it gets in the way of everything we do. Everything. When we have to accomplish a task while also thinking about what we look like while doing it, we’re at a major disadvantage. When we live in a state of perpetual self-consciousness about our bodies, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do anything. Girls and women who are in a state of self-consciousness perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, and have lower sexual assertiveness (including the ability to say “no” when needed). Self-objectification leads to an increase in disordered eating and cosmetic surgery procedures, low participation in leadership positions, and leads girls to quit pursuits of math and science at greater rates.** Girls and women LOSE — and so do the men all around us — when we fixate on bodies. 

Interestingly, there is power in clothing to alleviate self-objectification. This benefit to modest dressing can be significant for girls and women who feel fixated on their appearance. Studies on self-objectification show us that “clothing represents an important contributor to the body and emotional experience of contemporary young women” because body-baring clothing leads to greater states of self-objectification, body shame, body dissatisfaction, and negative mood***. What this tells us (and what our own experience living in female bodies tells us is a no-brainer) is that when we wear clothing that 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 and are in a near-constant state of adjusting our clothing, fixating on what we look like, and looking at other people looking at us. It’s OK to like being looked at, and even to like attention from others for our looks, but if it’s distracting us and getting in the way of progress, happiness, and health — as so much research confirms it is for many — we’ve got to be conscious of the role of our clothing in holding us back mentally. 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 and our daughters from being in a constant state of self-objectification.

2) Skip the well-meaning references to modesty making girls “hottest.” Catchy phrases like “modest is hottest” — in a sneaky, fun-sounding way — teaches that girls should dress modestly to look good and receive approval from others, and not for themselves. What if we took to topic of what modesty looks like to outsiders viewing you off the table? What if we promoted the message that it doesn’t matter what anyone — including boys or men at school — think of what you look like, and what does matter is that you don’t exist to be looked at or evaluated or consumed? What if we prioritized how girls and women feel in their own bodies and clothing? What if we helped girls and women consciously consider the way their clothing affects their self-perceptions and self-consciousness rather than the way others might or might not perceive them?

When you teach a girl she is more than a body – that she is capable of much more than being looked at – then she might dress differently than someone who perceives her value comes from her appearance, or the amount of attention she gets from others. Someone who sees herself as a capable and powerful person with a body that can help her achieve great things might act differently than someone who exists solely to look “hot.” She might treat her body differently and think about it differently than she otherwise would in a self-objectifying mindset. If she can be taught that her power comes from her words, her unique contributions, her skills, her mind, and her service, then she will be less likely to seek fleeting attention and power that revolves around her appearance. What this looks like in action, including in clothing choices, is for each woman to decide for herself.

3) When discussing or teaching modesty for girls, leave boys and men out of the conversation where possible. So much talk of modesty includes the effect women’s clothing choices have on males. Many discussions of modesty, from diverse cultural or religious perspectives, revolve around the idea of keeping tempting female bodies and body parts from the gaze of others — particularly men. This privileges the male gaze, in a backward sort of way, and puts females at a disadvantage for being the ones in control of what others think or feel when seeing their bodies. When we speak of modesty strictly in terms of covering our bodies from the sexual gaze of others, we are keeping the level of discourse at the shallow waters of women and girls as bodies to be viewed

We have very little control of what other people think when they look at us. Even in cultures where women are required to or choose to cover up a great deal, there is still an incredibly high incidence of rape and sexual violence. Covering up has no bearing on men’s ability to control themselves or respect women. We would warn that this perspective on modesty creates a very dangerous and slippery slope that puts full responsibility for males’ inappropriate thoughts – and even their actions – on the shoulders of girls and women. This happens regardless of whether or not those girls or women believe they are dressing appropriately or modestly. If we are teaching the girls in our lives that the primary objective of modesty is to keep themselves covered so boys and men don’t think sexual thoughts about them, then we are teaching girls they are responsible for other peoples’ thoughts and they are primarily sexual objects in need of covering. (See our thoughts about the massive debate on leggings and school dress codes here). No girl or woman’s body is sinful, and no one should be taught that. 

Know this and please help us teach this to girls: you could never be clothed perfectly enough to ensure everyone perceives you the way you intend to be perceived. You could never obscure your shape or essence or beauty enough to prevent someone from having inappropriate or sexual thoughts about you and then blaming you for those thoughts. What constitutes “revealing” for one person or family or culture might be fully accepted as “modest” by another person, family, or culture. (We’re referring to definitions of appropriate that can vary significantly but still fall within legal, common public attire and that fit dress codes for certain venues.) Other cultures and religions might perceive your definitions of modesty as being vulgar or far too revealing for their standards. We each must work to define what constitutes modesty for ourselves and our families, and allow all others the same freedom, free from our judgments and comments. 

We see why suggestions regarding the length of hemlines and the depth of necklines are important, because we live in a world where studies show girls as young as 6 years old are sexualizing themselves because media messages show them being sexy yields rewards. As we‘ve written about before, people use the excuse that “sex sells,” but we’re buying more than we bargained for. And when we try to teach and enforce appropriate dress by fixating on the inches of skin showing, we are missing the point

When we judge girls and women for the skin they are or are not showing, we are minimizing them to their bodies and repeating the same lies that females are only bodies in need of judgment and fixing. We are even perpetuating the shame-inducing belief that female bodies are sinful and impure, and must be covered to protect boys and men who can’t be held responsible for their thoughts or actions.

It’s time to stop shaming girls and women into covering themselves and instead start teaching empowering truths that everyone needs to hear: we are more than just bodies to be looked at. When we really begin to believe that, female progress in every imaginable way will move forward. We will spend less money on cosmetic surgery (up 115% since 2000 with 92% of the surgeries performed on women) and every other product we need to “fix” our flaws. We will spend less time hiding and fixing and obsessing over our insecurities beneath our clothes. We will spend less time emphasizing and obsessing over our parts on display in our clothes. We will perform better academically, athletically, and in our careers. We will love other women more and feel more compassion toward them because we will not be judging them as bodies in competition with our bodies. We will feel greater self-love, life satisfaction, and power to live authentically chosen lives. We will pass along all of these truths to the girls growing up and then women growing older in an increasingly objectifying world.

Please pass this along. Let’s change the conversation currently steeped in the negativism of “cover yourself” to the inarguable truth of “you are more than a body” and powerful outcomes will follow. 


Illustrations by Michelle Christensen

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

**For a comprehensive list of self-objectification’s many negative consequences, see the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls

***Tiggemann, M. & Andrew, R. (2012). Clothes Make a Difference: The Role of Self-Objectification. Sex Roles. Vol. 66 Issue 9/10, p.646

Not Picture Perfect? Bounce Back from a Body Image Blow

By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.

1 New Notification:  [Someone] added a photo of you.

Oh wow. It’s not good. It’s so not good.

Whatever the reason — bad angle, unflattering position, weird filter, googley eye, whatever. You HATE it. We’ve all experienced this one way or another. If not after being tagged in a pic on Facebook, Instagram, or a blog, then in a school picture, family portrait, or whole album of vacation pics. It’s a yucky feeling.

After you’ve exhausted all your untag/hide-from-timeline options, what comes next? For too many of us, the embarrassment of being captured in a less-than-ideal photo isn’t easily brushed off. In a world where girls learn from childhood to monitor their appearance at all times, and where public identities are carefully crafted online at every waking moment, a picture speaks more words than ever. For some, the sight of a photo she deems unattractive is enough to spark thoughts and reactions directly related to one of our favorite (like the bad kind of favorite) subjects: body shame.

You’d think someone who has spent the last decade researching that subject would be immune to the effects of it, right? I should be unflinching and invincible in the face of bad photos of myself, right? Ugh, I wish. Let’s use my own personal example of being captured in a cringe-worthy pic to illustrate what body shame can do to a gal, and how to fight that shame with some healthier options, shall we? I’m not one to hide in a photo. I actively resist the temptation to self-objectify or hold myself back from activities (or photos) because of concern over what I look like while engaging in those activities (or being pictured in those photos). I posed for a group photo and thought nothing of it until Instagram and FB notified me of a newly uploaded photo that had an unanticipated effect: it made me feel sick. Because I hated the way I looked so much. It struck a yucky chord in my brain that told me I was disgusting and everyone on the planet was going to see the documented evidence of how disgusting I was. Sounds asinine, you say? Yeah, definitely.

This is your brain: “That’s not a great photo. Oh well.”

THIS is your brain on body shame: “This photo has captured what I really look like — not what I think I look like. Why didn’t anyone tell me I look so awful? I’m never wearing those clothes again. What made me think I should be in the front of the photo? I’m always going to be in the back now. I can’t wear my hair like that anymore. Is the gym still open so I can go run and burn off the crappy food I ate at the party?” Asinine doesn’t begin to describe it, but the “brain on body shame” doesn’t see the asinine-ness of those thoughts — it takes those thoughts and runs with them. Almost literally. On a treadmill. And not for healthy reasons. But the gym was closed, and thankfully, my education and experience as a body image researcher started to kick in pretty quickly to tell me that what I was experiencing was all too familiar and entirely conquerable.

Shame makes us want to HIDE or FIX the thing that doesn’t meet our standards. That showed up immediately for me in depressing thoughts of planning to hide in pictures, throw out clothes, and burn as many calories as I could quickly. And speak of the devil, beginning with puberty, females are TWICE as likely to experience depression as males. This is directly associated with our objectifying culture, which leads us to evaluate and control our bodies more in terms of our sexual desirability (a.k.a. self-objectification) than our desires, health, or competence. Self-objectification has been linked to way too many negative consequences: disordered eating, plans for cosmetic surgery, diminished mental and athletic performance, anxiety and depression, etc., and these occur among women of all backgrounds.

So, in an objectifying culture that teaches us from birth that we ARE our bodies and that our appearances define our worth, how does anyone survive, let alone thrive? Lexie and I dedicated our PhD research to this question and wrote dissertations on the [invigorating, exciting, incredible] results. In independent studies, Lexie and I both identified resilience research as the light at the end of the dark body shame tunnel. 

Resilience theory describes opportunities to call upon resilient traits as “disruptions,” which are experiences that shake us out of our comfort zones and allow us to change in positive or negative ways. Disruptions are occurrences that cause us to feel self-doubt, hurt, fear, or loss. They can be anything from unkind words from a stranger, to a pregnancy, an invitation to go swimming, weight loss/gain, or even the super lame inconvenience of being tagged in a photo you can’t stand. Disruptions are big and small and different for everyone, but the emotions you feel from them lead to opportunities to begin the process of changing. This post is about how to make sure the change is for the better.

In today’s world, too many of us have settled into a comfort zone that is a whirlwind of body shame and appearance anxiety. It is a “comfort” zone because it feels normal, but it certainly isn’t comfortable for those always hiding and fixing their looks as a response to body shame. We are here to assist you with WAY better options than just taking constant hits to your body image and just absorbing it and going about your lives by fixing and hiding. The first step of resiliency is to identify the disruption. Name it. Shine a light on it. Call it what it is: a crappy, painful opportunity for positive change.

Our research confirms several qualities can protect us from the harms of body-shaming disruptions, and that cultivating those qualities can even predict positive outcomes from negative situations. We can use dark, painful incidents as a springboard to healthy choices, happiness, and empowerment. That, my friends, is body image resilience. I promise that if you will work to identify disruptions in your life and use them as opportunities for growth, you can cultivate a million strategies to make those disruptions happy.  Today I’ll highlight four of my faves:

Self-compassion 

Let’s get lovey up in here. Self-compassion is all about acknowledging that suffering, failure, and inadequacies are part of the human condition, and that all people—yourself included—are worthy of compassion (Neff, 2003). There are three basic components of this strategy that have GOT to be cultivated in the midst of our objectifying culture and self-objectifying tendencies: 1. Self-Kindness: Extending kindness and understanding to oneself rather than harsh judgment and self-criticism; 2. Common Humanity: Seeing one’s experiences as part of the larger female experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating; and 3. Mindfulness: Holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than letting them define or overwhelm you.

This strategy lifted me out of the sudden fog of anxiety that accompanied my reaction to the bad photo of myself. I remembered that everyone has had that experience. And it’s just a photo. And my self-objectifying panic slowly started to become more ridiculous. I asked myself, “What is the WORST that could happen because of this?” And my answers were ridiculous: “Someone could see me and think I looked fat and ugly.” That’s about as bad as it got. And guess what? That’s THEIR problem, not yours. And it doesn’t mean ANYTHING in real life. You can demonstrate these aspects of self-compassion by journaling and sharing your experiences with other women who undoubtedly deal with the same objectifying experiences you do. You are not alone in your disruptive experiences. Promise.

Feminist Beliefs

Don’t be scared. Feminism isn’t quite as evil as you may have been led to believe. As Amelia Richards has observed, “body image may be the pivotal third wave issue—the common struggle that mobilizes the current feminist generation” (1998).  Whether or not you consider yourself  a feminist, you may agree with much of what feminism is all about. Feminist perspectives celebrate diversity among women, provide ways to interpret the objectification of the female body, unite instead of divide women, and give us strategies for resisting oppressive ideals. My early introduction to body image research and activism can be summed up with this: “Feminism appears to be a life raft in the sea of media imagery” for women (Rubin et. al. 2004). You can read more about why feminism became my life raft here.

Research shows us awesome connections between feminist beliefs and body image.** In these studies, feminist beliefs are those that reject ideas of women’s bodies as objects constantly in need of fixing.

  • Women who had feminist beliefs experienced less shame and body dissatisfaction than women who didn’t subscribe to feminism.
  • Feminism provides women with an alternative way to interpret objectification, and offers specific strategies to resist these ideologies on a personal and societal level. 
  • One of the most important feminist strategies is maintaining a critical awareness using media literacy to resist cultural messages about women’s bodies.
  • Women need coping strategies as a buffer against self-objectification, such as decreasing self-evaluative statements (“I look fat today”), substituting self-affirming statements (“I am capable of much more than looking hot”), and cognitive reframing of objectification (“that company wants me to feel bad so I’ll buy their product!”).  

Don’t be scared. Go toward the light. These feminist studies also found that finding new ways of inhabiting our bodies is a promising and empowering approach to resisting body shame and self-objectification, which leads to our next characteristic …

Using Our Bodies as Instruments, Not Objects

When women learn to value their bodies for what they can do rather than what they look like, they improve their body image and gain a more powerful sense of control. Ideas of “feminist embodiment” that have been pinpointed in research include using our bodies to dance, play, move, and be outside the confines of being looked at. As early as grade school, research shows that girls’ activities and thoughts are more frequently disrupted than boys, and those interruptions are often related to weight and appearance. Experts suggest we can resist self-objectification by participating in non-aesthetically-focused sports (like competitive team sports) and other kinds of physical activity. Finally, STEP AWAY FROM THE MIRRORS while exercising. Research shows people who work out in front of mirrors can’t perform as well because they are consciously and subconsciously wrapped up in how they look instead of what they can do. 

So challenge yourself to be active – run a race, try out a new Zumba class, and prove to yourself that your body is powerful and useful for more than looking good. Plus, we need to set and achieve goals outside of appearance – raise your GPA, volunteer, put yourself out there. Feelings of empowerment come from achievements and they add to your sense of control. Placing higher priority on how we feel and what we do is key to shutting down body shame.

Spirituality

Spirituality is well documented as a key to resilience. Richardson (2002) says being able to flourish in the face of disruptions requires increased energy to grow, and resiliency theory states the source of that energy is a spiritual source or innate resilience (p. 313). Resilience has been called “our innate capacity for well-being” (HeavyRunner & Morris, 1997, p. 2). Many participants in our PhD studies cited some form of spirituality as a positive force that led them out of hard times relating to their bodies, whether through religious worship, meditation, or acknowledging the guidance of a higher power. When women are able to place their lives and experiences in the context of a bigger picture — one where they aren’t defined by their appearance alone — those body-related concerns lose power and shame is lessened. If you can say a prayer, read scripture, meditate, attend a worship service, or any other way to tap into your spirituality, you can access power to put body-related disruptions into a more holistic perspective. 

The second you feel shame – the specific shame YOU feel that compels you to hide a part of you or fix yourself to meet an ideal – the disruption has begun. This shame can no longer be a normal, everyday part of your life you cope with. You’ve named it. You can’t be comfortable with it any longer. It’s time to grow from it. Start that growth process by focusing on self-compassion, considering your own (or learning about) feminist beliefs, using your body as an instrument, and tapping into a spiritual source of power to remind you that you are more than just a body and you are not alone. 

Without these strategies, the experience of being so unexpectedly shaken by that less-than-ideal photo of myself could have led directly to awful options my “brain on body shame” came up with. But, as inconsequential as the experience might seem, I was able to use it as a disruption that prompted me to come up with better plans, like turning to Lexie for a pep-talk (twin bonding!) and writing this post. Painful disruptions don’t need to drag us down deeper into the pit of shame and self-objectification! 


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

*Werner, E.E. and Smith, R.S. (1982). Vulnerable but Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth. New York: McGraw-Hill.

**Cash et al., 1997; Dionne et al., 1995; Rubin et al., 2004

This post was originally posted in August 2013 and updated again in May 2017.

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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