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

By Lexie Kite, PhD

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

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

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

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

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

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

What helps:

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

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

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

Lindsay with Logan and her leggies

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

What doesn’t help:

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

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

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

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

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


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

Stop Cheering for the Objectification of More Women

By Lindsay Kite, PhD, and Lexie Kite, PhD

Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, Olympic gold medalist gymnasts and celebrated role models for young women, are featured in the upcoming 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. This is nothing to cheer about.

This is not progress for women or for Sports Illustrated. Women have always been valued for their bodies – especially very young, attractive, and fit women like Biles and Raisman. It wasn’t progress last year when “plus-sized” (but extremely beautiful, hourglass-shaped, young, white) Ashley Graham was on all fours in a bikini on the cover, and it wasn’t progress when literal supermodel Tyra Banks was their first black cover model pulling down her bikini bottom in 1997. 

As if seeing more and different undressed bodies will reduce this world’s obsession with valuing women as bodies above all else. As if seeing more bodies could ever convince women they are more than bodies.

If you want women to be valued as equals to men, you do not cheer for their objectification — no matter what those women look like. The sexual objectification of people reduces humans to body parts, silences them, turns them into objects to be viewed and consumed, vessels for sexual pleasure, and less than fully human. If you care about women as more than bodies to be ogled, stop pretending like mainstream media allowing more body types to be objectified is progressive. Or empowering. Or healthy. Or body positive. It’s not. Individually and collectively, women’s progress is damaged by being valued as bodies alone.

The sexual objectification of women is at the root of women’s inequality and oppression — whether they choose to participate* or not. Because women are primarily valued for their sexual appeal at the expense of anything else, they are bought and sold to men, silenced, abused, mutilated, murdered, devalued, not believed, not taken seriously, and compelled to keep beauty at the forefront of their thoughts for life. As long as women are sexual objects first, and all of the rest of their humanity is secondary, they will never be on equal footing with men. This quote by author Ambrose Bierce in 1911 is as true today as ever:

“To men, a man is but a mind – who cares what face he carries or what he wears. But a woman’s body is the woman.”

Your reaction to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is a litmus test for whether you are cheering for women’s empowerment or inadvertently cheering for their general oppression. Are you applauding the devaluation and objectification of women when you think you are applauding women’s progress and empowerment?

Let’s be clear. Anyone who thinks this magazine is doing anything other than objectifying female bodies to provide sexual stimulation for a targeted male audience while making millions for corporations — is kidding themselves*.

  • Women appear on less than 5% of SI’s covers, and the editorial content is similar. There’s no lack of female athletes to cover — those just aren’t the women SI values and they certainly aren’t doing the things SI values women for.
  • Their swimsuit models aren’t posed or displayed to look merely beautiful, or strong, or to show off their swimwear – they are posed and displayed to specifically emphasize their sexual appeal through all the typical poses found in Hustler or Penthouse, just like every other men’s magazine that features women. (See the video of Biles and Raisman’s photo shoot here for proof, at your own risk.)

People celebrate and cheer for women to be featured in the Swimsuit Issue as if they are being honored for their athletic accomplishments or any other achievements, and the magazine is doing a great service to humanity. PLEASE. The “honor” here is simply that this magazine has decided these new bodies will sell issues and subscriptions and get views on their videos and websites. All the while, women are doing the Swimsuit Issue’s unpaid PR and advertising work for them. Literally. Go look at the comments and posts about this worldwide trending topic of Aly Raisman and Simone Biles in the Swimsuit Issue, with the camera tilting up and down their bodies in cut-out, sheer bikinis while they lay splayed on the ground or with one leg over their heads. (Gymnasts are often fighting the sexualization of their sport, and this SI feature won’t make it any easier for them). Online, you’ll see cheers and praise from women of all walks of life congratulating SI for so graciously including these muscular young women among their ranks this year. To be sure, we don’t blame Aly Raisman or Simone Biles for their participation in the Swimsuit Issue. We wish they wouldn’t do it, but we recognize the huge rewards our culture gives women who buy into objectification as if it is a great honor to be chosen for a magazine like this. They are paid handsomely, fawned over, given huge publicity, and validated with likes, comments, followers and new fans in men and women alike.

A men’s sports magazine allowing new female body types in its sexy swimsuit issue is NOT a sign of progress for women. Do NOT let the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue be your barometer for women’s advancement. 

As if seeing more and different undressed bodies will reduce this world’s obsession with valuing women as bodies above all else. As if seeing more bodies could ever convince women they are more than bodies.

We will always continue to advocate for more diverse representations of all women in mainstream media, but we’ll know progress is happening when those same women aren’t required to take their clothes off in order to be included. We need regular roles and representation for women of all shapes, sizes, colors and ability levels that do not revolve around what they look like. Seeing more women’s bodies undressed in media will not improve the status of women, regardless of what those women look like. This holds true for mainstream media like SI as well as social media run by regular individuals.

If you are applauding seeing more types of women’s bodies undressed in mainstream media

AND/OR

If you are an activist posting body-centric photos of yourself online

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

…we know you are likely doing that for the purpose of promoting body acceptance and freedom from body shame. We also know that the internet is now absolutely flooded with the most diverse array of body photos you could ever imagine. Sharing photos of your particular body online, regardless of how you might perceive your “flaws,” will not move this work forward in a meaningful way. We firmly believe that part of the work is done. Consider that as the work of the first generation of body positive activists. They diversified the representation of women’s bodies online to help girls and women see that their bodies are OK even if they don’t look like the ones we’ve always seen in media. But it can’t end there. Now we must move on to the next generation of promoting positive body image. The second generation must move beyond the now-stagnant place of body photos with long captions about how those bodies are beautiful and worthy. Of course they are. But women are more than bodies, and we must back that up with the ways we choose to represent and value ourselves and all women, online or otherwise. Our objectifying culture silences women by putting the focus on their bodies at the expense of everything else about them.

Don’t be silenced. 

We have to use our voices, our words, our talents, our creativity, and our unique skills — not just the appearance of our bodies — to be successful in teaching and encouraging others to feel good about themselves. If you are a scholar, activist, artist, or otherwise invested in promoting women’s empowerment, you already come into this work with a set of skills and viewpoints that can make your contributions impactful. We can’t and won’t tell you what to do or how to do it. We simply want you to consider this framework for determining whether or not something you are doing or something in mainstream media is promoting positive body image and empowerment, or if it is simply perpetuating the same old focus on women as bodies. That critical framework is summed up in the Beauty Redefined mantra: Women are more than bodies. See more. Be more.

Start with this criteria when evaluating a message created for the purpose of promoting positive body image and empowerment:

  • Self-objectification, or constant fixation on appearance (whether you like your appearance or hate it), is stifling the potential of too many girls and women by sapping their mental and physical energy and their self-esteem. Ask yourself: Is this message inviting people to turn their focus toward their own or others’ appearance? If so, how could it be modified to take the focus off of appearance and turn it toward other aspects of a woman’s humanity?
  • Having positive body image isn’t believing your body *looks* good, it is believing your body *is* good, regardless of how it looks. Ask yourself: Is this message perpetuating the idea that positive body image means just feeling good about the way your body looks? How could it be modified to encompass feeling positively about yourself and your body overall, not just what you look like? How could this message promote the idea of our bodies as instruments for our use, rather than ornaments to be looked at?
  • Often, female “empowerment” is co-opted and re-appropriated by people and companies that have their own best interests in mind and not women’s. Is the supposedly “empowering” effect of a woman buying into this message (for example, by doing/buying this thing) solely related to her appearance or sex appeal? Who, other than the women themselves, might be receiving any benefits from women believing this message is empowering? Is this message promoting “empowerment” in the same or similar ways people who hate women (but love women’s bodies) would want you to view “empowerment?” Would a person who thinks women are garbage also want women to do this thing being portrayed as “empowering?”

The progress and power of women hinges on our ability to be discerning about what constitutes empowerment, as opposed to what maintains the body-centric status quo. The same status quo where women are bought and sold to men, abused, mutilated, murdered, silenced, devalued, not believed, not taken seriously, and compelled to keep beauty at the forefront of their thoughts. It is up to each of us to learn and recognize the difference between faux empowerment that maintains our body fixation, and true empowerment that is self-determined, unable to be taken away by someone else, lasting, fulfilling, elevates our voices and contributions to the world, builds our confidence in our abilities and innate worth, and encourages us to see more in ourselves and others in order to be more.

*Many people will say women are a portion of the audience for the Swimsuit Issue as a justification for why this outlet isn’t sexist or harmful. Nope. Unfortunately, women are often complicit in our own oppression and are greatly rewarded by this culture for doing so (rewards being: “cool girl” status, money, fame, likes, followers, etc., for playing by the rules of objectification). Lots of people will say that since these women chose to be objectified, that means it IS empowering for them. This is the classic argument of “choice feminism’ — where some people say that *any* choice a woman makes is implicitly feminist and/or acceptable and/or empowering because SHE made that choice. But that argument ignores the system that has oppressed women for centuries, teaching women they exist to be looked at and to serve men, and guess what? Those same “choices” are now being branded as empowering because women choose it “themselves” — like posing with your clothes off for a men’s magazine, or prostitution (not to conflate the two), or literally anything else that upholds male supremacy and rewards the male gaze. We strongly disagree with this perspective because we know sexism is systemic, and solutions have to be systemic too. See more on this at Feminist Current if you’re interested in a deeper analysis of this argument.


 

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. They also host an online course to promote body image resilience in girls and women ages 14+. Learn more about it here.

 

Feel free to share the images below on social media:

 

Your Body is Not a Before or an After

“Before and after” body transformation photos used to be relegated to late-night infomercials or old magazine fad diet ads, but now you can’t click on IG or FB without seeing the dramatic comparison pics from your old friend selling those shakes and skinny wraps or those fitness buffs showing you that you can get a “bikini body” too!

Though it’s tempting to scroll through these dramatic and persuasive images while longing for the days when our bodies will look like those “afters” with thousands of likes and perfectly happy lives, we want to add a word of caution. Your body is not a “before” or an “after,” and neither is that woman’s changing body being shared online. You’re on a journey of a million befores and afters and a snapshot just can’t capture that beautiful reality. Sometimes those simplified, glorified comparison images actually distract people from positive health choices and experiences by turning the focus to appearance at the expense of fitness.

Let me be clear: lots of individuals post occasional transformation photos without selling any too-good-to-be-true products or being overly preoccupied with looks as opposed to fitness. This post isn’t about that. Lots of people work hard to change their lifestyles and get stronger and healthier, and simply want to share their results and what worked for them when those results show up physically. We would never discourage fitness goals or sharing fitness successes. At the same time, we also must be aware of our culture’s tendency to conflate “fitness” with “ideal body shape and size,” which ideals have changed over time and will continue to change constantly based on what makes money. (For one clear example, a protruding, rounded behind was nowhere to be seen in fitness media before just the last few years, and now it is inescapable.)

This post also is not about the young women posting before and after photos that subvert the standard idea of fat/sad-to-thin/happy, and instead show themselves at the height of an eating disorder “before” and (hopefully) in a healthier mental and physical state “after.”

Here’s what this post is about:
Too many salespeople and companies use before and after photos to package hope and sell it in the form of weight loss products, plans and services that may or may not aid anyone on their journey to health. (See this great post for more on how weight loss and hope for love, success and happiness are often linked for women.)
Too many people use before and after photos to warp health and fitness into the sexy “after” shot that doesn’t tell the whole story of how that photo came to be (too often with Photoshop, filters, great lighting, just the right poses, or even through dangerous starvation and dehydration).
Too many people follow accounts full of incredible before and after photos to work up the motivation to lose weight or get in shape, only to fall short of the appearance milestones and body ideals in those transformation shots they thought they could attain. This very often leads people to give up on their goals altogether and turn to unhealthy ways of coping with that shame.

We know transformation photos are super fun to look at. They give us a momentary thrill by attempting to show off what hard work and dedication to fitness and health look like in a snapshot. In their aspirational way, they give us a temporary high of motivation to improve our fitness, but for many people, “improving fitness” really just means “getting my body to look like hers.” Incredible “after” photos paired with the latest, greatest food/exercise plans often work as fitspo that encourages people to engage in exercise and eating habits that prioritize altering the looks of their bodies above all else. It might sound harmless, but for many people earnestly seeking to feel positively toward their bodies and improve their fitness, it isn’t.

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

Our culture’s fixation on defining and advertising fitness through before and after photos serves salespeople and companies very well, but it doesn’t do the rest of us much good in terms of body image or sustained progress toward real health and fitness goals. One of the major reasons why these transformation photos often distract and discourage people from healthy behaviors is that the before and after photo trend reinforces the notion that visible results are the only way to illustrate fitness success. They whisper to us that if we don’t see results like the “after” photos on the screen, we aren’t succeeding at health and fitness. This is an affront to actual health and fitness! Did you know most women give up on exercise routines because they interpret their efforts as failing when they don’t reach the appearance-related milestones they hoped they would? When their cellulite doesn’t leave or their love handles don’t disappear or their abs or thighs don’t tighten up, they give up on working out and eating a healthy, balanced diet. They often turn to unhealthy means of achieving those body goals at any cost, or even turn to a more sedentary lifestyle and binge eating to cope. Both alternatives are the worst.


Pay attention to how you feel when you scroll through “inspirational” images like before and after pics posted by companies online, or when you look through your own transformation photos.
You might run up against Teddy Roosevelt’s hard truth: comparison is the thief of joy. Comparing what you looked like when you were thinner or younger or prettier to your current state rarely induces genuine feelings of joy and gladness. You’re left either wishing you’d have loved yourself when you looked “better” or wondering why you’ve “let yourself go” in one way or another. And the reverse is also true: Comparing what you looked like when you were heavier or less muscular to your current state rarely induces genuine feelings of joy and gladness. Because you will start to wonder how you ever “let yourself go” or you’ll take an inventory of the things you still need to improve to look better, or compare yourself to someone else’s transformation photos and come up short. What if your “after” looks like someone else’s supposedly depressing and unfortunate “before”?! (That happens all the time!) All that comparison leads to feelings of shame and low self-esteem, and we just can’t have any more of that.

Before and after photos also tend to reinforce the assumption that you can document your life based on what your body looks like, but you can’t really illustrate your health, fitness, progress, or happiness just through the appearance of your body. The look of your body really does not always illustrate healthy eating and exercise behaviors in the ways before and after photos glorify and promise – it’s just not the way our bodies work. Many people run marathons, complete triathlons, have healthy, balanced eating habits, and perfect blood pressure, blood sugar, resting heart rate and cardiovascular health — and STILL don’t have a body you would ever see in a fitness magazine or even featured in a typical “after” photo. Alternatively, lots of people go to unhealthy extremes like disordered eating, over-exercising, using unsafe diet pills, steroids, and cosmetic surgery to achieve the look of health and then show up in fitness magazines and appear as “after” bodies in ads and posts with millions of followers. (Ask many former bikini fitness competitors and they’ll tell you the dangerous extremes many resort to.) Let’s not forget that these transformation photos are SO easily manipulated and manipulative! Check out the#30secondtransformation hashtag to see people taking “progress” photos 30 seconds apart to prove how easy it is to pose in ways that appear to reflect major weight loss and muscle tone. Anyone can add easy filters and photo altering apps to create a truly unreal “after.”

Additionally, those “after” photos don’t accurately reflect positive body image, self-esteem, mental well-being or happiness. Some people in transformation photos are much happier in their “after” photos, but many people aren’t any happier or feeling any more positively toward their bodies “after” — especially if their lives now revolve around restriction, deprivation and obsession with food and exercise. As much as we want to believe “before” photos always represent depression and lack of self-control while “after” photos always represent perfect self-control, happiness, desirability, and endless confidence, those are myths. Extremely common, money-making, hope-generating myths.

Take me (Lexie, co-director of Beauty Redefined) for example. At my thinnest, I spent a lot of time working out alone, ate a steady diet of celery and cucumbers, and then randomly binged on Taco Bell in my car when I realized how starving I was or when I didn’t feel like my body looked how I wanted it to. I felt a lot of shame toward my body and felt really bad about the fact that I’d lost weight and still didn’t feel confident and ready to rock a swimsuit with pride. I was also worried that I was unlovable because I didn’t fit the ideals sold to us incessantly as the key to a happy love life. Flash forward to today. I had a baby almost seven months ago, and I weigh more than I have in a while. I’m also the happiest I’ve been in many years. I eat a balanced diet and I walk with my baby and run stairs at Lindsay’s condo (and recently beat my personal record !). I never eat Taco Bell alone in my car out of discouragement. I feel less shame toward my body than I ever felt at my thinnest. I’m in an absolutely awesome relationship with my husband that loves me as much as ever, and I think my body is pretty awesome for surviving my worst fears – pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation!

I am the walking contradiction to what before and after pics often try to claim, and so are you. You are not a before and after photo, whether you love what shows up in the photo or you don’t. Your life and your health are so much more than what any photo could claim to capture. You are on a life-long journey in this one body and your weight gain and weight loss and muscle gain and muscle loss are just that – weight fluctuations and muscle fluctuations. We should all strive to take the best care of our bodies we can, and be mindful of how we feel as we make our individual health choices. The truth that will transform your life is this: your body is an instrument, not an ornament.

When we can get out of our own heads and stop thinking of ourselves and our lives and our progress in terms of how it appears to others or compares to other snapshots in our lives, we can better focus on how we actually feel and what our bodies can actually do. Please believe that it really is possible to reach fitness milestones and accomplish amazing health goals without those feats making a visible (or visible enough) difference in our bodies to show up in an ideal “after” photo. Those self-objectifying thoughts and behaviors that keep us fixated on how our bodies appear actually water down our sacrifices and strengthening experiences to just what we can *see*. When we are really mindful of what health choices mean and feel like in our lives, trying to prove or demonstrate that hard work and dedication with a simple photo of your body is really doing a disservice to what you are actually accomplishing.

What if instead of thinking of ourselves in static, reductive terms of “before” or “after,” we thought of ourselves as in between those two points: during. Any photo you take of yourself right now is just a “during” shot. You are “during” (and enduring) a journey of a million befores and afters. Your body is an instrument to be used for your benefit and experience, not an ornament simply to be admired. Try to shift your thinking by remembering that the instruments and tools we use to create and accomplish things are valuable for much more than what they look like — they’re valuable for what they allow us to *do.* Our bodies should be no different. No matter where you are on your journey in this body, no matter whose “before” or “after” photos your resemble right now, please know that you are worthy of love and worthy of taking good care of your mind and body right now. As we see more than a “before body” or “after body” in ourselves, we can be more.

For a more in-depth look at the ways women’s perceptions of health have been distorted to focus on appearance, as well as exercises and tools to reshape those perceptions and behaviors, check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Program

Illustrations commissioned for Beauty Redefined by the fantastic Michelle Christensen.

From Body Anxiety to Body Image Activism: Our Story

We are Lexie and Lindsay Kite, PhD, identical twins and co-directors of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit working to help girls and women improve their body image and self-worth as they wade through harmful cultural ideals. We want to tell you about our (very twin-like) path from self-conscious young women to body image scholars and activists. Our story is in Lindsay’s words, but it belongs to both of us. This is our story, and the transformation we have experienced can be part of your story, too. 

Twins Swim Lexie (L) Lindsay (R) June 1991

Swimming in our backyard in Idaho at age 5

Lexie and I were swimmers from Day 1. As participants on a competitive team starting at 6 years old, we practiced intensely every day. My favorite part was the excited, heart-racing feeling I’d get before every race. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before that anxious, heart-pounding started to stem from the way I thought I looked in my swimming suit, rather than my performance. In third grade, I stood in front of a full-length mirror, noticed one dimple in the side of my little girl thigh and desperately felt the need to cover up. I vowed to remind myself to keep my left hand covering the dimple on my left thigh at all possible moments I wasn’t in the water.

That is when my appearance started to creep to the forefront of my every thought.

My newly heightened awareness of my looks quickly gave way to a relentless preoccupation with weight loss, starting around age 11. Journals and notebooks filled with weight-loss goals, motivating thoughts and tips, food logs and my most depressing thoughts were lined up in my home bookshelf, stacked next to piles of teen magazines. For a long time, my weight defined my days – either successful or a waste. One step closer to happiness or another day of worthless disappointment.

I wasn’t alone. My friends suffered the same preoccupation with weight and appearance. Heather, the president of the ballroom dance team, could tell you her weight from any given day of the previous years. One of our most popular friends cut out dozens of lingerie models from Victoria’s Secret catalogs and stuck them all over the back of her door for “motivation.” Another friend, a cheerleader, bragged to everyone that all she had eaten in days was five Doritos. I wondered how she found the motivation to be so strong. We were all middle-class white girls form Idaho, with happy, successful families of all shapes and sizes, but we all shared the deep-seated idea that the only way to attain happiness, popularity and love was to be as thin and beautiful as possible.

What we truly shared, along with everyone else we knew, was easy access to media our entire lives, where Kelly Kapowski was always pursued, everyone pitied the chubby girl Zack agreed to take on a date, all the Disney princesses and TV stars were thin and chased after, while any average-sized or overweight characters (or characters with braces, glasses, acne, a ponytail, etc.) were mocked. Male characters were valued for humor, athleticism, intelligence and power, while female characters were almost exclusively valued for their beauty alone. Ads consistently reflected these differing measures of worth. I recognized it, but never ever thought to question it. That’s just the way things worked.

Freshman year at Utah State University, Lexie and I took an awesome required journalism class called “Media Smarts” on critically analyzing media for its implicit but powerful messages. Learning about the hugely imbalanced portrayals of gender — particularly the ways media sets the standards for what it means to be successful or worthwhile – changed me. No one in my life ever taught or demonstrated to me that thinness and body “perfection” equals happiness or success. But social media, TV, magazines and movies do it consistently. That creates a false reality that makes real-life bodies seem sub-par. I realized the first step to dispelling these myths that had held me and all my friends back for so many years was to point out that it’s all made up. Producers, casting directors, advertisers and media executives make specific decisions for specific economic reasons – they don’t simply reflect reality – they create it to sell unreachable ideals and the products to supposedly help us get there.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R) at graduation for our bachelor's degrees in 2006 at Utah State University.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R) at graduation for our bachelor’s degrees in 2006 at Utah State University.

I knew talking about women’s representation in media got my heart beating fast for a reason. The palpable excitement of it reminded me of my swimming days – the anxiety before a meet, the anticipation of putting all of my hard work to use. Media’s messages to women – including what we perpetuate on social media – enrage me and thrill me, and its implications are too real to accept and just move on. My heartbeat didn’t slow down – instead, the work became more and more personal as I identified that passion as the loaded term “feminism” and began to learn all I could about the ways beauty and weight are tied to women’s value and abilities to contribute to the world.

Being stifled by a preoccupation with my appearance was not a natural part of me. I learned to hate my body from sources surrounding me, including peers, family, media and cultural messages. When I became more worried about the dimple in my thigh than my race time, I stopped excelling as a swimmer. When I am fixated on keeping my clothes in the most flattering position and everything sucked in just right, I can’t concentrate on anything else at all. I was overwhelmed just thinking of the number of activities I could have excelled at, the relationships I could have cultivated, the goals I could have pursued, and the girls feeling the exact same way I did that I could have helped if I hadn’t spent so much of my life preoccupied with the way I looked.

Lexie and I knew we had work to do battling this obsession with female appearance and we received awesome fellowships to do our master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Utah, starting in 2007. I felt overwhelmed with the excitement and potential implications of this work I so wanted to accomplish. On August 19, 2007, I wrote the following in my journal:

“I KNOW this is going to be a hard but amazing time in my life. I can feel it. Lots of big things are going to happen, both academically and spiritually. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t even know exactly what that will entail – definitely something to do with helping people to become more critical media consumers – to question what they see in media and understand why it is that way, especially how women are portrayed. If we can forget how inadequate, fat, dumb and jealous we feel and concentrate on serving others and improving the world, the world be a much better place and women – and their families – will be so much more fulfilled and so much happier.”

(As a side note, most of my journal entries over the years focused on dating, roommate issues, and vacations — not changing the world. This is one of those rare exceptions.)

Flash forward to today. Since 2009, when we finished our co-authored master’s project that included a visual presentation on body image, Lexie and I have been traveling the country doing big Beauty Redefined speaking events for universities, high schools, middle schools, church congregations, treatment centers, etc. We finished our master’s degrees in 2009 and our PhDs in 2013, building and sharing our nonprofit all along, while being featured in major media outlets as we worked to spread the word. We reach millions online through our website and social media platforms every year and are consistently humbled by the feedback we receive from girls and women whose lives are changed by developing body image resilience through manageable strategies.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R): Graduating with our PhDs from the University of Utah in 2013.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R): Graduating with our PhDs from the University of Utah in 2013.

And wouldn’t you know – despite all my best teenage efforts – that dimple in my left thigh never disappeared, and it multiplied! But it hasn’t held me back from recognizing my worth and potential as a capable, awesome woman — or my potential to spread that truth to women everywhere. It also hasn’t held me back from swimming every chance I get and using my body as an instrument, not just looking at it as an ornament. I’m unbelievably grateful that the anxiety that came from becoming aware of my body’s “flaws” has continuously been replaced by this empowering knowledge about my worth.

If Lexie and I hadn’t experienced that deep body shame throughout our young lives, we wouldn’t have ever figured out our lives’ missions to combat it. That shame has transformed into an anxious, heart-racing desire to share this truth, and thankfully, it’s contagious! When people hear true messages that help us to see women as more than bodies, and capable of much more than being looked at, their hearts beat faster, too. Those people help share these truths — through blogs, social media, everyday conversation, and changed thoughts and actions in every facet of their lives. We share everything we’ve learned here at our website (beautyredefined.org) and on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and developed an 8-week program (tested during our dissertations) to guide people toward body image resilience. We hope you’ll join us in helping our world see these myths about female power and value as they really are and continuously resist them together.

Our power lies in being able to SEE more than bodies in ourselves and others, and then to BE more than ornaments to decorate the world. We’ve got work to do!

 

This Post is About Volleyball Shorts.

Here’s a fun game:

Images from acdsports.com

Google Image search your local school’s men’s volleyball team.

Now Google Image search the women’s volleyball team.

Now ask yourself why the guys are drowning in all that extra fabric!?

We’re concerned about the men here. All that extra shorts baggage has got to be keeping them from playing at peak performance levels! If they were wearing spandex with a 1″ inseam, they’d be able to bend and stretch in much more liberating ways. Who is the athletic shorts lobby that is enforcing such oppressive ideals on these male athletes?

But seriously. In a world where dress codes are strictly enforced against girls at school and leggings are hotly debated for their modesty or lack thereof, every volleyball-playing school and organization in the country sets some clear rules to distinguish female volleyball players from the male ones: Guys, you get shorts. Girls, no shorts for you. We want you to question that. 

This post is about volleyball uniforms. But it’s really about so much more than volleyball uniforms. The arbitrary difference between male and female volleyball attire is just one of many gendered issues that look very normal in our everyday lives to the point of being unquestioned. Just think about all the products women are pummeled with every day that men are never (or *very* rarely) asked to buy just to look “normal” or “feel confident.” Pore-minimizing creams; anti-aging solutions; breast, butt, and lip implants; lash-lengthening potions; all-over hair removal procedures; stretch mark and cellulite creams; scar minimizing solutions; etc. Think about all the men you get to see on TV, movies and in the music industry that don’t fit any sort of beauty ideals, but are valuable and loved and in starring roles anyway, while women are too often relegated to decorating the background. Think about local and national broadcast news, where men get to sport their grey hair and wrinkles while women get fired for aging. Consider how few girls and women are featured in G-rated kids movies, where male characters outnumber females 3:1 (in group scenes it’s 5:1!), female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as those in R-rated movies (thanks to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media for this info).

Men’s and women’s basketball players have fairly similar uniforms, as do athletes in softball/baseball, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, etc. In tennis, women have to wear skirts, which is an odd distinction. In gymnastics, dance, and cheer, we definitely see female athletes required to wear much less clothing than males in the same sports. The argument that gets the most play for this seems to be, “Women need to have a lot of give in their uniforms for doing high kicks and splits.” But it doesn’t change the fact that there are lots of things to wear to do kicks and splits and guys would never be required to wear that to do the same job. Athletes in all levels of karate, MMA, and kickboxing  do a lot of kicking, and they get pants! But never is the disparity greater between what we expect boys/men to wear versus what we expect girls/women to wear than on volleyball teams. And don’t even get us started on beach volleyball. Really, don’t. It’s too much.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying or feeling great in the standard volleyball uniform worn by female athletes today. Nowhere in this post or anything else we’ve ever said or written will you find us shaming or judging the people who agree to wear or love to wear those uniforms (or anything else, to be honest). Our problem with the uniforms comes with 1) the striking disparity between male/female uniforms, which reflects the objectifying idea that women’s bodies are primarily ornaments to be looked at; and 2) the hindering effect that unnecessarily body-baring clothing has on body image and athletic performance (i.e., self-objectification). 

Here’s the thing: Beginning at puberty, girls are TWICE as likely to experience depression as boys. This is directly associated with our objectifying culture, which leads girls and women to evaluate and control their bodies in terms of their sexual desirability more than anything else. Girls and women are picturing what they look like to others while they are living instead of just living. Serious mental capacity is lost in the process of focusing on your appearance when you should be focusing on anything else. But one bright spark in this dim world of body fixation is participation in sports! Participating in competitive sports is an excellent way for girls and women to resist the soul-sucking self-consciousness that they are often plagued with. However, the awesome body image benefits are limited to non-aesthetically-focused activites (like competitive team sports, rather than activities that rely in any way on how you look while participating). For us, volleyball is straddling the line between what constitutes a sport that supports positive body image and one that can hurt it for some.

We highly and regularly recommend getting involved in physical activities to beat body shame and experience your body as an instrument instead of an ornament. We sing the praises of basketball, soccer, softball, swimming, rugby, track, etc., but don’t feel like we can offer up volleyball as a similarly great option. This is not because volleyball is in any way aesthetically focused, but because the body-baring outfits can be such a problem for girls and women who are already predisposed to being fixated on their appearances. Our cultural beauty ideals for female thighs and behinds are brutal and achievable for so few, which leaves most girls and women feeling self-conscious of some aspect — tan but not too dark, no dimples, cellulite, stretch marks, smooth skin, shapely but not TOO shapely, and the list goes on. If you are prone to feeling shame and preoccupation with your body — especially your legs and behind — those spandex volleyball shorts with little-to-no inseam that are generally hiked up to *just* below the backside will likely prevent you from being able to take your mind off the appearance of your body to fully experience the positive effects of the sport. Interesting research backs this up:

  • Prichard and Tiggemann (2005) found that women in fitness centers who wore tight and fitted exercise clothing placed greater emphasis on their appearance attributes and engaged in more habitual body monitoring than women who wore looser clothing (T-shirts and sweatpants).
  • Strelan and colleagues (2003) found that the attention focused on women’s bodies in fitness centers (like mirrors surrounding them in gym classes) leads women to self-objectify more.
  • Fredrickson and colleagues (1998) had women try on a swimsuit or a sweater in front of a mirror – alone – and then complete various tests. Swimsuit-wearing women expressed more body shame and performed worse on a math test than did sweater-wearing women.
  • As a follow-up, Fredrickson and Harrison (2005) explored these effects on athletic performance, and found that girls experiencing higher levels of self-consciousness performed worse than girls with lower levels, regardless of their actual athletic experience.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform would promote a higher level of performance among female athletes, especially considering the high percentage who likely struggle with body anxiety on or off the court.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform would put female and male athletes on a more equal playing field (or court), because the same sport shouldn’t require significantly different uniforms.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform standard could encourage more girls and women to play volleyball, considering many might count themselves out specifically because of the uniform.

Are you involved in any way with a volleyball club or team, whether in administration, coaching, playing, parenting or cheering? If so, we encourage you to consider our questions above and pose them to others with influence*. Consider why there is such a disparity between the men’s and women’s uniforms and if that disparity is necessary. Consider if it might be limiting the athleticism of the players, and if minimizing the disparity between the male and female uniforms is a possibility. What would happen if just one club or team of any age group or ranking were to push back against the uniform standard by wearing modified attire, whether or not it conflicted with rules set by the sport’s governing body? Whether they believed their performance might be hindered by self-objectification that is exacerbated by the standard uniforms, or they wanted to open the sport up to others who might be uncomfortable with the short shorts, what if they made a change? Could it be worth the risk? We think so.

When we work to think of our bodies as instruments to be used for our benefit rather than ornaments to be admired by others, we start to question the norms and habits that serve only ornamental purposes. We would love to see girls’ and women’s volleyball uniforms serving a more instrumental role and less of an ornamental one.  

*Current uniforms are obviously a deeply ingrained norm in the sport, so we are happy to discuss our research with members of governing bodies who determine standards for volleyball uniforms.

Want more in-depth help to reframe  your health perceptions and improve your body image? Check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Programdeveloped and tested through our Ph.D. dissertations. See dozens of other people’s thoughts on this discussion on our Facebook page here

Female Objectification: Who’s Really to Blame

Women are constantly being dehumanized and reduced to objects to be groped, harassed, catcalled and evaluated — and some men feel comfortable doing all of those things and then boasting about it, or deny it by mocking the appearance of the women as unworthy of their assaults. In a culture that routinely portrays and values women as objects, who is really to blame when real-life women are reduced to objects? How do we stop objectification?

Let’s get this out of the way up front: objectification is not the same thing as admiring someone’s appearance. We all instinctively notice and evaluate appearance on some level, and it is perfectly natural and good. No shame necessary. Since objectification starts as a mental process, the only person who can determine if they’re objectifying someone is the person doing the potential objectifying. However, there are some signs that you’re perceiving someone as an object rather than a full-fledged human being. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Am I viewing that person primarily as a tool for my sexual gratification?
  • Am I catcalling or harassing people  with comments about their appearance or sex appeal?
  • Am I talking about these people primarily in terms of their appearance or sex appeal?
  • Am I considering these people as my equals and as active agents of their own lives, or am I considering them as passive objects or ornaments for my evaluation/consumption/use?

Obviously, “yes” answers = likely objectification happening. This is effectively viewing someone as less than human. This is bad. Let’s fix it.

Lots of people would have you believe that women, and their appearance or clothing choices, are the ones at fault for being objectified. After all, if your clothes are tighter or shorter or flashier or anything-er than someone else thinks is acceptable, then you intended for others to think of you as more of an object than a person, right? So wrong. Dang, it would be SO easy if objectification worked this way! If this was true, then we could stop objectification in its tracks by simply dressing more appropriately (as has been suggested by many a viral blog post). But, alas, there are 3 fatal flaws with this philosophy:

It embraces a distinct victim-blaming mentality that puts the responsibility for how one is perceived on the shoulders of the one being perceived, rather than the one doing the perceiving. Here’s a hard truth for some: Regardless of what you wear or how you look, you can never sufficiently defend yourself from objectification. Leggings or no leggings, you don’t get to decide whether people perceive you as a sex object or a person. You could wear the most appropriate outfit you could fathom and someone could still see that flash of wrist or ankle or outline of your body and blame you for sparking sexual thoughts. If we are teaching the girls in our lives that the primary objective of appropriate clothing 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. That’s a burden no one should feel like they need to bear. Keep reading for our ideas on how you could teach girls and women (and boys and men) to consider their own clothing choices.

Everyone’s definition of “appropriate” is different. Everyone’s. One person’s sophisticated sleeveless blouse is another person’s lingerie. One person’s comfy, inexpensive, covered-up leggings are another person’s too-hot-for-TV sexy pants. (Obviously, 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.) And the context! Oh the context. If objectification is really determined by what a woman is wearing, then the context in which she’s wearing those clothes is totally irrelevant. You can’t say, “She shouldn’t wear leggings on the street if she doesn’t want to be objectified,” and also flip-flop to believe she doesn’t deserve to be viewed as an object if she’s wearing those leggings at the gym or training for a marathon. You also can’t say, “She shouldn’t wear that short skirt at dinner if she doesn’t want to be objectified,” and simultaneously believe she’s not at fault for being objectified while wearing the same skirt playing tennis or using it to cover up a swimsuit at the pool.  If “inappropriate” clothing choices directly result in objectification, then there can be no on/off switch for the context of those clothing choices. They cause women to be viewed as objects or they don’t. 

The evidence of objectification in action (catcalling, sexual abuse and assault, etc.) is not determined or dissuaded by the clothing the objectified person (victim) is wearing. Girls and women across the world are raped and assaulted and hollered at while wearing flannel pajamas and cold-weather running gear and clubbing dresses and everything in between. 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. And in some cultures where clothing is optional (ex: some African tribes), rape and sexual violence are reportedly very low. I am very regularly catcalled (in explicit, anger-inducing ways) while wearing a winter coat and jeans or a skirt below the knee while walking in downtown Salt Lake City. Why? Not because of my sexy clothes, I can assure you. See this link for a bunch of examples to dispel the myth that scantily-clad women are more likely to be catcalled or assaulted. Harassment, sexual abuse, and assault are often about power, and men assert their power over women by publicly degrading them and/or abusing them as sexual objects for their own gratification.

In summary: 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 sexual thoughts about you and blaming you for those thoughts. That is because objectification happens in the eye and mind of the beholder. You are the only one who can control whether you objectify another person. Yes, it can be triggered by images and messages we have learned to view as sexual and suggestive. No, that doesn’t mean it is unavoidable. And NO, that does not mean you can blame anyone else when you view her/him as an object. We must take responsibility for ourselves – our own thoughts, our own intentions, and our own actions. [Please note: we are referring to face-to-face or person-to-person judgments and perceptions, not perceptions of media. Obviously, media purposefully and blatantly presents women as objects. We’re not letting them off the hook for that. We need to cut objectifying media out of our visual diets and re-train our minds to see people instead of objects in both media and face to face. More on that in a second.]

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

By and large, it is girls and women who are being sexually objectified.* Many women even voluntarily sign up to be portrayed as objects and accept huge paychecks in return (think any men’s magazine, commercials for hundreds of otherwise non-sexual products, etc.). Being valued as an object is glamorized and sold as the highest form of power a woman can wield. Of course, that is a lie, and that faux “power” is at the mercy of others’ (usually men’s) preferences, appetites and money. The dangerous and normalized act of female objectification teaches men and boys that females are sexual objects above all else — that women exist to be looked at, consumed, and discarded. No wonder the dehumanization and devaluation of women is often so invisible to men. It’s normal. It’s comfortable. It sucks that we might have to battle this devaluation our entire lives while also having to convince men (and other women) that objectification not only exists, but that it is incredibly dangerous, and it needs to be fought against — not just by us gals, but by all of us.

We all learned how to view people as objects from the same sources — our shared media landscape. We live in a world where the objectification of women is so standard that it is invisible and unquestioned. But the only way to fight it is to see it and question it. Sexualized female bodies are inescapable in media. Consider 90% of movies that have come out in the last decade and how they pan up and down women’s bodies and zoom in on their parts; Victoria’s Secret’s inescapable advertising in mailboxes, storefront windows and TV; the good ol’ SI Swimsuit Issue celebrated on TV news programs and late shows, as well as public displays all across the country; Carl’s Jr.’s insanely sexist commercials, the list goes on and on and on. Last but not least, one of the most profitable industries in the world is the absolute biggest perpetrator of female objectification: the porn industry. Hopefully this doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but if it does, please know that it isn’t sexual shame, prudishness or religious beliefs that tell us pornography is the guiltiest culprit in this fight against objectification. Since porn is a topic all its own, we devoted a whole post to it here.

While the porn industry has infiltrated all aspects of pop culture in the last couple of decades – leading us to barely flinch at images and acts on primetime TV that we would have been totally shocked by before, we have learned to view female sexuality as something to be viewed, purchased, and even stolen. Female bodies have become objects to be bought and sold, both literally and figuratively, and with that commodification, girls and women have become devalued and dehumanized. In other words, objectified.

This not only affects the way men view women and the way we as women view and evaluate each other – it also deeply affects the way we view ourselves.

This sexually objectifying culture persuades women to self-objectify by evaluating and controlling themselves in terms of their sexual appeal to others, rather than in terms of their own health, happiness, and desires. They literally picture themselves being looked at while they move throughout life. And what do you know? Girls and women suffer in very literal ways when sexualized female bodies inundate our media landscape. Adolescent girls with a self-objectified outsider’s view of their bodies have diminished sexual health, measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no”), and decreased cognitive and physical abilites, including math, logical reasoning, and athletic performance.* Add to that the fact that industries beg women to surgically implant things in their breasts and buttocks and lips to enhance their sexual appeal, and every year hundreds of thousands of women go under the knife, with 92% of those procedures – mostly breast augmentation and liposuction – performed on girls and women. Self-objectification works as a harmful tool to keep girls and women “in their place” as objects of sexual appeal and beauty, which seriously limits their ability to think freely and understand their value in a world so in need of their unique contributions and insight.

Though you cannot protect yourself from being objectified by others, please know that you CAN protect yourself from self-objectification.

You are more than your body and you’re capable of more than looking hot for others’ approval. You get the opportunity to reflect that truth every day in the way you carry yourself, what you do and what you say. We’ve written and talked extensively about this topic here and here, but today we’re going to highlight one aspect we addressed previously in this post, but in a totally different light: how we choose to dress ourselves.

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 feels revealing or that overtly emphasizes our parts, we become very self-aware of those parts that are being (or could potentially be) looked at. We self-objectify and are in a near-constant state of adjusting our clothing, thinking about 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 getting in the way of progress, happiness, and health — as so much research confirms that it is — we’ve got to make some changes.

Research shows a level of “modesty” or less-revealing/more-covered clothing can be an important tool in safe-guarding ourselves from being in a constant state of self-objectification. This idea of “modesty” and less-revealing/more-covered clothing will inevitably vary from person to person and culture to culture — maybe even dramatically. That does not matter. We have got to stop worrying about everyone else’s choices and start focusing on our own. You get to decide what “modest” clothing means for you. For some, leggings will fit very squarely in the category of covered and comfortable. For others, leggings will make them feel exposed, uncovered and uncomfortable, which fuels self-objectification. You get to decide how leggings make you feel. Other people also get to decide how your leggings make them feel. But you don’t have to carry that burden. They need to do that.

What all of this comes down to is so simple: we all have to look out for ourselves. We have to be accountable to ourselves to recognize when we are objectifying others and work to shift our perceptions through conscious awareness. We can’t attribute our perceptions to anyone else, no matter what they are or aren’t wearing. And finally, though we can’t protect ourselves from being objectified by others, we absolutely can protect ourselves from our own self-objectification by recognizing our value as more than just objects to be looked at, and then thinking and acting accordingly.

Women are more than just bodies. And men are more than their bodies, too. We are all thinking, feeling humans who have the opportunity to learn to view ourselves and each other as such — even if those humans are showing more skin or wearing more makeup than we deem appropriate. When we can see more than just bodies in ourselves and others, we have the opportunity to be more. Let’s do this.

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.

The beautiful illustrations above commissioned for Beauty Redefined by Michelle Christensen Illustration.

*Boys and men are sexually objectified as well, though to much lesser degrees than girls and women are. We acknowledge this and stress that our focus on the objectification of females in no way detracts from the reality that boys and men are degraded in similar ways.

**Tiggemann, M. & Andrew, R. (2012). Clothes Make a Difference: The Role of Self-Objectification. Sex Roles. Vol. 66 Issue 9/10, p646. For a comprehensive list of self-objectification’s many negative consequences, see the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls

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