Invisible Women Over 40: Anti-Aging and Symbolic Annihilation

If you lived on another planet and everything you knew about humans came from mainstream media, you’d be absolutely shocked to find out a couple of facts:

Female humans do not die or crawl into caves to disappear at age 40 while male humans live much longer, active lives.

As female humans age, they tend to develop lines on their faces where facial movements occur, as well as looser skin, darker spots from the sun, gray or white hair, and other features that distinguish them from teenagers as they progress throughout their lifetimes. This is NOT only true for men.

Thankfully, most people have the ability to see a variety of females face-to-face to disprove those laughable media myths of  women disappearing with age or perpetual teenage faces and bodies. Unfortunately, that ability to see reality hasn’t put a dent in the anti-aging industries that sell extreme appearance anxiety for record profits each year. But still, that’s what we want to focus on here: reality. Most notably, we want to emphasize how shockingly different reality looks from the ever-present and powerful media world, and how that impacts real, aging people. Once we recognize the effects of the anti-female-aging phenomenon that what we’re buying into by the billions, we can fight back. 

One of several awesome graphs from Vulture. See the rest by clicking the image.

From local or national nightly news to children’s cartoons, people over 40 are drastically underrepresented in all forms of media, despite the fact that they make up the majority of the population. A whopping 62 percent of the female population of the U.S. is over 40. But get this: Older men appear as much as 10 times more frequently than older women in media (1). Even when film depictions of relationships feature older men, their girlfriends and wives are most often decades younger (for more evidence, see this cool piece on how leading men age, but their ladies do not, including graphs documenting age differences). We could probably call this the Liam Neeson/Olivia Wilde phenomenon (see right side of graph). Men in all forms of media are featured well into their 70s while women tend to start becoming invisible in media right around age 40. Academics even have a name for this egregious level of under-representation: symbolic annihilation. Unfortunately, the effects of that annihilation on women’s  body image, feelings of self-worth and bank accounts aren’t so “symbolic.”

With an extremely low number of women over 40 represented in media at all, the WAY they’re represented becomes especially important. And once again, the news isn’t good. Headline #1: Older Women are Portrayed in Negative Ways Much More Often than Men. Think of the wise, funny, intelligent, “sexy” image represented by men in media well into their 50s, 60s and even later – Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood – it isn’t hard to think of a list of examples from past or present. Trying to come up with female equivalents is much more difficult. It’s rare to think of really positive portrayals of women over 40 – NOT the neurotic, crazy, evil, out-of-touch-with-reality characters that are most prominent. Betty White is one notable exception to this rule, as a truly funny, relatable, positive character in her many roles who isn’t simply the butt of jokes or the domineering mother-in-law.

Studies show the vast majority of any older mom, grandma, aunt, boss, teacher, queen or extraneous female character over 40 in any media fits a negative stereotype (2). And that sucks. The largest segment of the population is not seeing themselves represented, and when they do, it’s in negative ways*. What’s more, that information is only about white women. We don’t have any accurate information about how older women from other races are represented. Why? Because there aren’t enough examples to generate any significant findings. One study examined 835 TV characters and found only four African American characters over the age of 60. I’m no math whiz, but 4 out of 835 is a sad statistic. Interestingly, the most popular older woman of color in media happens to be played by a 42-year-old black man, Tyler Perry, as the much-loved “Madea.”

Vogue’s “Age Issue,” where perfectly normal signs of aging are not welcomed!

But aside from the monster oversight in under-representing and misrepresenting older women, mainstream media knows exactly what it is doing when it comes to that huge, money-packing demographic. Excellent business decision #1: Convince women their value entirely depends on their appearance, and that aging is the worst thing that could happen to their appearance. And don’t forget, older women are THE WORST – gross cougars, not hot, totally out of touch with the real world, neurotic … OR age-defying wonders! Then, convince them it’s possible to entirely stop aging and look 15 years younger with these products. Since people over age 50 own 70 percent of the total net worth of American households (4), targeting this powerful demographic is a strategic move — especially considering that women over 40 influence 80 percent of the purchasing decisions in the U.S. (5). I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the age-old “fountain of youth,” which has long been fabled to stop the aging process entirely, has been discovered! It’s being marketed and sold to women in the U.S. and raking in billions for several different industries each year. You can see it in countless magazines, billboards, commercials, TV shows or movies – you know, the 50+ year-old women with zero signs of aging. No lines or wrinkles, tight skin all over, no signs of silver hair sparkling through their thick, flowing brunette and blonde heads of hair. We rarely see an older woman in media, but when we do, she generally fits that description. These women have obviously partaken of the fountain of youth, but what did the trick?! We’ve discovered it!

Media’s totally normal-appearing ageless older women are the product of two tricks: cosmetic procedures and digital alteration. Whether we like it or not, we start to look different as we age. For men, those changes are most often** depicted as looking “distinguished” and aren’t something for men to be ashamed of. For women, those changes are to be immediately stopped, reversed and hidden at all costs. Seriously, ALL costs – financially, time-wise and health-wise. Because you’re worth it.

Let’s talk about Botox, baby. Plastic surgery is the most profitable industry in the U.S., and Botox is the No. 1 cosmetic treatment. Several million people have Botulinum Toxin injected into their facial muscles in order to paralyze them and conceal the appearance of wrinkles, which must be repeated every 3-6 months. About 92 percent of those who get Botox are women. The next most popular procedures were all also for “anti-aging,” including soft tissue fillers, hyaluronic acid and chemical peels.

While watching “The Bachelorette” a few years ago  (I know, I know, not the greatest choice), my beautiful, 27-year-old friend proclaimed that she had “the forehead of a 90-year-old woman.” What prompted that (extremely untrue) declaration? Emily, the beautiful bachelorette, who is our same age, has a perfectly smooth, line-less face. So does every other woman on TV, in movies or in magazines. Lineless and expression-free starts to look normal and ideal, while real-life, expression-ful(?) faces look abnormal and sub-par. Yikes. That’s why, in just the last 15 or so years, there has been a 446 percent increase in cosmetic procedures in the U.S., which raked in $12 billion in 2010 alone. The American Academy of Plastic Surgeons called laser de-wrinkling procedures “recession proof.” It’s a little startling that in the toughest economic times in decades, women are still sacrificing thousands of dollars for painful and temporary procedures to prevent the appearance of aging.

That brings us to the other fountain of youth trick: Digital Alteration. If a woman isn’t outrageously gorgeous, thin and young-looking for her age, she’s almost always either Photoshopped to look that way or is completely invisible in mainstream media. This DOES have an effect. These pervasive, nearly inescapably and strikingly consistent images of young-looking older women create not just a new ideal for female beauty, but a new normal for us.

Our Photoshop Phoniness Hall of Shame sheds some light on the extreme abnormality of those images by pairing before-and-after alteration shots. A couple of epic age-defying examples are Faith Hill on the cover of Redbook and Twiggy in Olay’s eye cream ads.

Faith Hill on the July 2007 Redbook cover. Right arm? Suddenly appeared on the cover. Left arm? Cut down by at least 1/3 of its original size. Wrinkles, normal complexion or any other signs of life on her face? Erased. Back? Sliced out almost entirely. Enough said.

 

A 2009 Oil of Olay eye cream ad featuring Twiggy — one of the world’s biggest modeling/fashion icons for more than a decade, now she’s relegated to the unglamorous realm of photoshopping disasters for beauty industries lies. Straight-up lies. Amazingly, this ad was banned by the UK’s advertising watchdog after more than 700 complaints were gathered for a campaign against airbrushing in ads by the Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson. The ad was deemed to be misleading. Um … yep!

These aren’t two freak accidents — these are daily deliberate decisions by media powerholders who profit from female anxiety about our faces and bodies. Keep in mind that Olay, the anti-aging skin care brand owned by Procter & Gamble, spent more than ANY OTHER COMPANY in the U.S. on advertising in 2011. That’s more than any company in any industry. They and many other companies claim to sell the keys to the fountain of youth at every drug store in the nation, but the only real solution to aging lies in the hands of their photo editors. Ever noticed the stark difference in the way men’s faces are portrayed compared to women’s faces in mass media — whether it’s the cover of GQ or a Chanel ad? Here’s an extremely telling example we pieced together, featuring about as comparable of a pairing as you could ever find: similar age, both major celebrities, both in ads for the same company from the same year. Just one major difference: one is a human face and one is a cartoon.

Wonder why you never see women with gray hair featured positively in any sort of mainstream media? Because gray hair doesn’t make anyone any money. A very telling example from the must-read “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf is of a fashion magazine in the ’90s that featured a spread of beautiful gray-haired older women in all the latest fashions. Despite positive feedback from readers, one of the magazine’s main advertisers, Clairol, threatened to pull all its advertising support if gray-haired women were ever featured positively again. Thus, no gray-haired women are ever featured positively in any magazine that depends on beauty advertising dollars (hint: all of them).

One scary fact is that those great lengths women are going to in order to achieve a youthful ideal are not limited to surgical procedures and magic creams — they also include disordered eating of all types. Our friend Michelle Konstantinovsky at HelloGiggles reported on a study from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, which found that in their sample of 1,900 women 50 and older, more than 60 percent of women said their body weight or shape negatively affected their lives and 13 percent admitted to having an eating disorder. We agree with Michelle in saying “duh” to the “surprising” new finding that older women also suffer from disordered eating.

But enough with the depressing stuff already. Let’s get to some solutions!

What can be done to break these body image issues? Importantly but not surprisingly, the researcher agrees with everything we preach at Beauty Redefined: The lead researcher’s main solution is to help women get themselves out of this “appearance focus.” She recommends instead of looking for flaws, women work on focusing on something positive about themselves — a characteristic that will endure long after their looks fade. Easier said than done, right? We can help you start with this list of totally doable strategies, including going on a media fast, complimenting others on more than their looks, shutting down negative thoughts, and many more. Please choose even just one, and start right now to change the way you perceive your own face and body. This isn’t an individual fight with individual effects. The way we feel about ourselves and treat our bodies has real influence on those around us, even if we aren’t aware of it.

Please consider your influence on the reality of the girls, women, boys and men in your life.

What would happen if confident, happy, beautiful women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, all-over hair removal or tanning regimens? How could that change the way their daughters, students, friends, nieces and coworkers perceived themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real faces? How could simply owning (and treating kindly and speaking nicely about) our so-called “imperfect” bodies affect not only our own lives, but those over whom we have influence? Is it possible to slowly but deliberately change the perception of these “flaws” as something to shame, hide and fix at any cost to something acceptable and embraceable in all their human, womanly real-ness? We say yes.

Yes, maybe every 30- to 80-year-old woman on TV or movies has a wrinkle-free, perfectly stiff and lifted face that appears ageless. The pressure to Photoshop ourselves into hopeful conformity with beauty ideals is intense, and backlash against female aging is unbelievable. At 29, I frankly don’t yet grasp the real pain and anxiety that accompanies aging and its effects on female faces and bodies that become invisible and worthless in some ways to a society that prizes youthful beauty above all else. But at any age, embracing your own beautiful reality and owning it for the others in your life is the epitome of redefining beauty. Media will continue to symbolically annihilate women who don’t fit money-making beauty ideals, but WE do not have to annihilate our own faces and bodies to fit those unreal standards. What we COULD annihilate is our allegiance to the idea that women have to look young forever, and that women who don’t look young forever aren’t worthwhile or beautiful. I promise that will be much more empowering and less painful. Let the anti-anti-aging annihilation begin!

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.
 
Sources:
1) Peterson, 1973; Harwood, 2007; T. Robinson & Anderson, 2006; Raman, Harwood, Weis, Anderson, & Miller, 2006; Stern and Mastro, 2004; Miller et al., 2007
2) Signorielli, 2004
3) Harwood and Anderson, 2002
4) L. Davis, 2002, cited in Harwood, 2007
5) Invisible Women, 2010
6) U.S. Plastic Surgery Statistics, April 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jul/22/plastic-surgery-medicine#zoomed-picture 
 

*There’s a wonderful organization called Invisible Women that is working to fight against the under-representation and misrepresentation of older women in media through a documentary and education outreach.

**This may start to change as media capitalize on sparking men’s insecurities as well as women’s – but it’s rare. Key example: Those men’s hair color commercials with the little girls convincing Dad to dye his hair and beard in order to get back in the dating game. Ugh. We don’t endorse this tactic. Evening the playing field by bringing down both men and women with body shame and appearance focus helps no one.

Our 3 Issues with the Swimsuit Issue: Sports, Sexualization and Side-Effects

Since the debut of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is being celebrated on the Today Show and the Tonight Show and everywhere in between, we have to counter that excitement with a reality check about this supposed sports magazine’s serious blow to female equality, self-esteem and body image packaged as “safe” for newsstands and coffee tables everywhere.

Here are our 3 biggest issues with the “Swimsuit” Issue:

 The Sporty Source

The Swimsuit Issue is Sporty, Safe, Swimwear Fun!! Right? Nah, it’s just sexual objectification, repackaged in an unlikely source. Every week, 30 million people catch up on the latest sports news in SI, the self-proclaimed “foremost authority” and “most respected voice” in sports journalism. Published since 1964, the SI’s 200-plus pages of nude to semi-nude women is truly a cultural event, generating global mainstream media coverage, TV shows and memorabilia to push SI’s sales through the roof every spring. Since its birth, the Swimsuit Issue has earned more than $1 billion for SI’s parent company, Time Warner, which owns CNN, AOL, HBO, the CW, Time Inc., DC Comics and hundreds of others. Talk about a media powerholder! – and thus, the constant mainstream media plugs from shows and companies that probably wouldn’t normally celebrate voyeuristic magazines.

The source of this particular brand of objectification is crucial to our issue with SI, since SI is branded as a sports publication, which is openly displayed on newsstands everywhere, and is packaged as innocent and safe for all viewers. Magazines like Playboy, Hustler and Penthouse, on the other hand, are an obvious source for voyeurism, or the act of secretive looking at things of a sexual nature without being seen, and those sources do so without apology. Since they’re not selling their objectification (with only slightly more nudity) as sporty, safe, swimwear fun!!, they also required to be covered in opaque paper for mailing and can’t be displayed publicly like any other magazine deemed appropriate for all-ages public viewing, like, say, SI. The Swimsuit Issue is equally voyeuristic in nature, but does so under the guise of being “America’s foremost sports authority” and “most popular sports journalism magazine.” Duncan* put it best in 1993 when she said, “If they so desire, readers can sneak looks at the models while steadfastly denying that they buy and read the issue for pornographic content,” and she had no idea what SI would look like 20 years later, with the help of digital manipulation, surgical enhancements and reductions, and a global company owner with the power to publish and produce nearly any message and distribute it immediately.

The source of this blatant objectification also provides one extra slap in the face to female equality just in the fact that it is the #1 sports magazine, but very very very rarely features female athletes. 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.   

 The Sexualization

There’s no way around this one. SI is unapologetic in its increasingly explicit sexualization of women. Anyone who thinks this magazine is featuring models to display swimwear, or the models’ accomplishments (physical or otherwise), or anything other than just sexual stimulation for audiences is kidding themselves. Those models aren’t posed or displayed to look merely beautiful, or strong, or to show off their swimwear – they are posed and displayed to provide visual gratification to viewers. Let me be blunt here. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is the epitome of female objectification. It is only getting more extreme. In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the swimsuit models posed in what we’d now call mildly seductive positions. Posed with flirtatious smiles and hands on hips to emphasize the curve of their waists, these women were acting to accentuate their best features – the objects of men’s desire. But as years passed, the models seem to more fully act like they were turning themselves into objects. By 1988, the cover model, Elle Macpherson, is staring intently into the camera while pulling her swimsuit down to expose her cleavage. Because her goal is to attract and satisfy the male gaze, she is acting with herself as a male would act if he were present – a clear display of the mental act of self-objectification (more on that in #3).

Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman in the 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

SI masks its pornographic presence by placing the models in foreign locations with sandy beaches and tropical jungles so as to appear to promote travel destinations and the appreciation of nature – but don’t forget their appreciation of nearly non-existent swimwear. The 2008 issue marked the beginning of a more naked era for SI, titled “Barely Bikinis,” is an understatement: the majority of the models appear naked, missing either the top or bottom of their bikini or are wearing completely translucent coverings with visible nipples. The latest issues feature topless models with string bikini bottoms only big enough to cover the necessary amount of skin to avoid censorship, and no cover model has worn both the top and bottom of her bikini in several years. When they do wear bathing suits, the most private of parts that are normally censored in mainstream media are repeatedly exposed in an “oops, I didn’t know that was showing” sort of fashion. These are not swimsuits on display, or even just bodies on display – the vast majority of the poses are reflective of exactly what is depicted in straight-up porn.  The 2015 cover is such an egregious example of a stereotypical pornographic pose meant to invite viewers to a sexualized view of her genitals more than anything else.

Though the swimsuit issue only shows up once a year, it fits into a much bigger picture of women being consistently displayed as sexualized ornaments to be looked at while men are featured and validated for so much more – like being featured for their athletic prowess in a sports mag rather than their oiled-up, mostly naked bodies! How novel. Objectification of women is inescapable in media from every genre for every audience, from G-rated children’s programming to network TV commercials to mall storefront windows to blockbuster movies. The SI Swimsuit Issue joins countless others in constructing men as active, women as passive; men as subjects, women as objects; men as actors, women as receivers; men as the lookers and women as the looked-at; and men as consumers and women as the objects to be consumed.

 The Side-Effects

Our culture, which focuses so intensely on female appearance over anything else, teaches little girls and grown women to see themselves through an internalized objectifying perspective called self-objectification, which turns them into both the spectators and the spectacles. They literally picture themselves being looked at while going about their lives, unconscious that they are devoting part of their mental capacity to constant appearance monitoring. When women are feeling self-conscious of their bodies, or self-objectifying, they perform worse on all types of tests – they can’t run as far or as fast, lift as heavy of weights, or do as well on math, reading and spatial skills tests as they can when they aren’t worrying about what they look like. This is a huge barrier to female progress and success, and it can only be stopped once we recognize that it is happening. For most girls and women, it is unquestioned and normal. We have to denormalize this internalized objectification.

The side effects of objectifying media like the Swimsuit Issue, whether unintended or designed for profit, are changing the way we view ourselves and women in general — and not in positive ways. As spectators of themselves, women learn from popular media, in this case the wildly popular Swimsuit Issue, to compare their appearances with the media’s feminine ideal – young, tan, very thin**, clear skin, white but not too white, tan but not too dark, curves in all the “right” places, and the list grows every day. We see the exact same look, and the same body type, over and over again. This isn’t a celebration of female beauty or fitness, this is a celebration of one ultra-narrowly defined idea of female beauty or fitness that drives many girls and women to unhealthy extremes to emulate. This belief forms the foundation for a lifetime of work for women trying to live up to these constructed ideals of beauty and value. The amount of money, time and energy women devote to chasing these often unreachable ideals throughout their lives is unbelievable. These same ideals about what is most valuable in women also leads boys and men to believe these appearance-focused qualities are essential (and attainable) in a romantic partner. What it comes down to is this: the more women’s bodies are represented as objects to be looked at, consumed and discarded, the more people view and treat women’s bodies in real life as objects to be looked at, consumed and discarded.

We are not asking you to sign a petition or anything else meant to force Sports Illustrated to change the way they represent women. That’s not how we operate.

We work from the bottom up, changing the perceptions of individuals who can spark change in their own circles of influence – not from the top down, by asking media to change. We hope people will reject the harmful messages sold by outlets like SI and let that send a financial message to the companies, but we aren’t banking on that. Instead, you can join us in pushing back against the celebration of objectification by doing a few things: 

  • When you see the Swimsuit Issue on display in airports, gas stations, grocery stores or other public places, respectfully ask a manager or other supervisor to move the display away from public view, just as they would other titles with similar covers, such as Penthouse and Playboy. We’ve had surprising success with this simple request, as store clerks and employees have readily agreed to rearrange magazine racks or place covers over the content.
  • Share our sticky notes with positive reminders like “Women are more than just bodies. See more, be more” in public places where people can see empowering messages to challenge the objectifying ones. We leave them on public bathroom mirrors, lockers, magazine racks (unless an employee asks you not to), public signs and ads, etc.
  • Talk openly to your family, friends, colleagues, students and others over whom you have influence about the harms of women being sexualized in such inescapable media outlets. Point it out when it is happening and ask questions about why. The answer is almost always money – someone is making money off those sexualized and objectified depictions of girls and women. We’re #notbuyingit.
  • This might be a no-brainer, but if you’ve got a subscription to SI, consider canceling it. Let them know via e-mail or even better, publicly on FB or Twitter, that you canceled because you are opposed to the objectification of women they bank on. Speak up with your spending habits. They always listen to that.
  • Use your body as an instrument rather than an ornament to be looked at. You are capable of much more than looking hot, and you can constantly remind yourself of that by caring for your body and using it as a tool to experience and enjoy life, rather than using it as a decoration for others’ viewing pleasure.  Avoid media like Sports Illustrated that seeks to convince you otherwise.

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.

*Duncan, Margaret Carlisle (1993). Beyond Analyses of Sport Media Texts: An Argument for Formal Analyses of Institutional Structures. Sociology of Sport Journal. 10: pp. 353-372.

**We absolutely do not see the inclusion of one “plus-size” (6’2″, size 12) model in the 2015 issue as a victory. We see this is a slight expansion of who SI deems “objectifiable,” which still upholds dozens of beauty ideals sold through every other image, even if she embodies a size slightly larger than her objectified counterparts. Additionally, we absolutely do not see the inclusion of a plus-size model in a $455,000 paid advertisement as a victory. We are not equal opportunity objectifiers and we can’t applaud anyone who is.

Lessons from Porn: Women are Objects to be Used, Abused and Dismissed

We are unapologetically anti-porn.

It may be one of the most profitable and powerful industries in the world, and one that is embraced by otherwise like-minded people as an acceptable personal choice, but we are not afraid to state that pornography is one of the worst and most degrading forces against women today. 

Against not only women, but against men, and against real relationships, real love, and real sex. There are undeniable links between sexual assault and pornography use by the perpetrators. There are further undeniable links between pornography use and decreased sexual satisfaction, sexual function, relationship satisfaction, attraction to real-life partners, and acceptance of terribly dangerous myths about rape. Further, the pornography industry works hard to keep up a glamorous image, but behind the camera is a reality of violence, drugs, and human trafficking.

Most pornography searched for online today depicts people, but usually women, as objects for sexual gratification and consumption. It is well-known that most porn has a predominantly male perspective. The directors are usually men, and most of it is made for men. As a result, the camera often embodies the “male gaze:” It looks where a man (a stereotypical straight man, that is) would look. As Jean Kilbourne famously stated, viewing someone as an object is “almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.”  We have no doubt that sexual objectification promoted and normalized by pornography is playing a role in the sexualized violence against women that is epidemic across the world.

For our work in particular, which deals with female body image issues, we know there are undeniable links between sexual abuse and serious body image disturbance. Sexual abuse alienates a person from his or her own body and very often leads to harmful coping mechanisms to deal with that body shame, such as disordered eating, self-harm, body anxiety and depression. As many as 60% of women treated for eating disorders have been sexually abused.

We see repeated exposure to pornography playing out in these ways for straight men and women:

(Though simplified and generalizing, and acknowledging that correlation does not equal causation, these correlations hold truth that is backed up in decades of research and countless personal experiences. Consider  as meaning “may lead to”)

For Men:

Porn consumption ⇒ objectification of women* ⇒ violence against women + and/or justification of violence against women + and/or sexual dysfunction + and/or lack of satisfaction (emotionally and physically) within real-life relationships

For Women:

Porn consumption ⇒ self-objectification ⇒ body anxiety ⇒ adoption of harmful coping mechanisms

First, let’s talk about some of the darkest effects of pornography on straight men, and, in turn, their relationships with women. Dr. Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program in the Dept. of Psychiatry at UPenn, was interviewed by Jonathon Van Maren here and offered some profound insight. She described feeling a call to study the damage that sexual violence did to the patients of her psychotherapy practice about 30 years ago, and realizing that she had never treated a case of sexual violence that did not involve pornography.

Men are not born rapists, but for some reason, many are increasingly justifying sexual violence. Why? Because pornography has turned the bodies of women and girls into a commodity. It is shaping the way men see women. This is a business and I think that a lot of pimps would stop doing this if there wasn’t any money involved, but it’s a business and as soon as you tell somebody it’s a product, as soon as you say, ‘This [is] something you buy,’ then this is something you can steal. Those two things are hooked … So the sexual exploitation industry, whether it’s strip clubs or prostitution or pornography, is where you buy it. Sexual violence is where you steal it – rape and child molestation and sexual harassment are where you steal it.

 

So these things are all seamlessly connected. There isn’t a way to draw a bright line of demarcation between rape and prostitution and pornography and child molestation. There are not bright lines of demarcation. The perpetrators are in a common set of beliefs, and when we look at the research, we can see some of those common beliefs, so that we know that individuals who are exposed to pornographic media have beliefs such as [thinking that] rape victims like to be raped, they don’t suffer so much when they’re raped, ‘she got what she wanted’ when she was raped, women make false accusations of rape because it isn’t really rape … no one is really traumatized by it. All of these are part of the rape myth. People who use pornography accept the rape myth to a greater degree than others. So we have a sense that pornography is teaching them to think like a rapist and then triggering them to act like rapists.

 

When you cheapen sex and you cheapen women’s bodies, when you treat people like things, there’s a consequence — and one of the consequences is sexual violence, but one the consequences is also relationship damage. There’s an interesting series of studies that actually highlights a bit of the phenomena of how this works. They were showing people just mildly sexualized pictures. They were men and women in swimsuits, men and women in their underwear, sort of relatively mild sexualized pictures and they showed them either upside right or upside down and looked at the processing in the brain, because it will display a phenomena of which part of your brain you’re using to process that picture that you see.

 

What we see with men, when people look at men, and look at them in their swimsuits or in their underwear, they’re using the part of their brain that processes humans and human faces but when we look at women in their swimsuits and their underwear we use the part of our brain that processes tools and objects and when you process a woman as a tool or an object you use. The rules that we use when we deal with tools or objects is if it’s not doing its job then throw it away, get another one. So the feminists years ago said these men are treating women as sex objects and we thought that was a metaphor. It wasn’t a metaphor. It was an actual statement of reality, that they’re using the part of their brain which they use to process objects and things and there’s a consequence in the society when you start treating sex as a product and women as a thing.”

 

Here’s where we interject to make sure this study she cited doesn’t get twisted. The images of women’s bodies in that study were just as sexualized or undressed as the images of the men’s bodies, but it was only the female bodies that were viewed as objects. This is significant, because our culture has a tendency to blame women for men perceiving them as sex objects. It isn’t their fault. It’s the way we’ve been trained to perceive women, even when they’re in the same state of undress in the same circumstances as the men. We’ve been surrounded since birth with media that sexualizes women’s bodies incessantly, depicting women as bodies to be viewed and consumed first and foremost, while men (though sometimes sexualized as well) are presented as active agents who are valued for many things aside from the appearance of their bodies. Women’s bodies are not naturally or inherently any more sexualized than men’s bodies, yet we see them that way. Blaming women for this tendency doesn’t make any sense or get us any closer to a solution. We need to take responsibility for how we see people, how we think about them, how we talk about them, how we act toward them, and then work to change it. We also need to take responsibility for the messages and media we’re taking into our brains and how they affect the way we view other people. Porn will absolutely keep our brains in object-viewing mode. If we don’t want to see people as objects and fall into the trap of thinking of them and treating them as such, then we can’t keep viewing stuff that upholds those lies. Dr. Layden continues:

The desire for love is built into us. [One of my colleagues] said, ‘The real damage is that it threatens the loss of love in a world where only love brings happiness.’ That summarizes what we are doing, that everybody is hardwired to love and be loved. That’s what feeds our hungry heart, and we have a generation who are starved and have hungry hearts and yet they are eating the sexual junk food and becoming sexually obese because they’re so starved they would eat junk food if that’s all that’s available to them.

 

And so partly we need to have people talk about the glory of good sex, the wonderfulness of good sex, of how it bonds committed couples together and helps them keep their promises to each other, that there is a thing called good sexuality that is enhancing and enlivening and is love-based, but all of this sexual junk food that is out there is not it. If I said to people, ‘I want you to eat healthy food and don’t go to McDonald’s,’ they wouldn’t call me anti-food. They would say you just want to promote healthy food and … find out if you eat McDonald’s every day for 30 days you’ll have a fatty liver. Well that’s what I want to do with sexuality. I want to promote healthy, loving, enhancing, soul-feeding sexuality, not sexual junk food.

 

I think we’ve got to educate ourselves, we’ve got to tell the truth to others, you’ve got to speak truth to authority because once you know this stuff, if you’re silent, silence is complicity.

 

We’ve got to go in to our schools and our libraries and say you’ve got to protect our children, we’ve got to say to our governments, ‘you’ve got to stop spreading permission-giving beliefs and that means don’t legalize prostitution.’ It tells men that it’s fine and more men will go to prostitutes. We’ve got to have laws against things that damage people; we’ve got to have outrage in this society when sexual violence is swept under the rug, when a professional athlete does it. We’ve got to come together and have the journalists, the lawyers, the parents to get together as a mighty team and say, ‘this society is worth saving, our children are worth saving, sexuality is sacred.’ We’ve got to do it together and so it takes a concerted effort … When I hear people say we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, I say, ’50 years ago, 60% of the people in New York City smoked; today 18% in NYC smoke.’ Put the genie back in the bottle. We can do this one as well and it’s worth doing.”

We wholeheartedly agree. We’re not going to tiptoe around this issue for fear of the trolls who will undoubtedly accuse us of being jealous, ugly, prudish religious zealots who are anti-sex (which is among the kinder things we get called). We recognize the harm done to many men and their health and their relationships by porn consumption. We also recognize the harm done to many women by men who learn damaging messages from porn about women’s worth. Women are not only hurt by porn through their relationships, but by their own exposure to the stuff as well. We recognize the harm done to women by exposure to pornography that convinces them to turn inward, to focus on the appearance of their own bodies and prioritize their sex appeal to others over their own sexual health or satisfaction.

Consider this example candidly e-mailed to us by a young woman:

Just as men and women learn to objectify each other through exposure to media that presents us in terms of our parts, women in large numbers learn to self-objectify and monitor their own appearances at the expense of all other aspects of their lives. This is an area of research we speak and write about every chance we get. It is an epidemic reality for girls and women of all ages, but it can be fought once we recognize that it is happening.

We can work against self-objectification in similar ways to how we work against objectification. Let’s do this together and heal our relationships just as we heal ourselves from the lies we’ve bought and held against ourselves and those we love.

  • 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.
  • Encourage your partner, friends and family to join you in objecting to objectification, including avoiding all forms of pornography, degrading magazines that feature women on display as ornaments, and any other media that devalues women. People have to recognize what objectification looks like in media before they can root it out of their own worldviews and interactions.
  • Speak up when you see a woman being used as a prop or a sexualized nobody in that TV show you’re watching together.
  • Point out the disparities in the numbers of women vs. men featured in any media, as well as the disparities in what those people have to look like to qualify for that screen time.
  • Watch where the camera zooms, pans and focuses on bodies of women, regardless of which gender the program or movie was intended for.
  • Listen to how the dialogue differs when it’s about women from when it’s about men.
  • Remind yourself and your partner, friends and family that regardless of what a woman looks like or what she is wearing, each individual is in control of what she/he looks at, thinks about, and does.

If someone views you as an object to be ogled or judged or acted upon, that’s on them. Not you. We are all in control of what we look at, what we think, and what we do with those thoughts. In all this talk about objectification, men are very often being sold short as helpless, weak, and hopeless in the fight to see women as humans and not as a collection of body parts to be ogled. This is a lie.

We have to quote our previous post by Nate Pyle here:

A lot of people will try and tell you that a woman should watch how she dresses so she doesn’t tempt you to look at her wrongly. Here is what I will tell you. It is a woman’s responsibility to dress herself in the morning.  It is your responsibility to look at her like a human being regardless of what she is wearing.  You will feel the temptation to blame her for your wandering eyes because of what she is wearing – or not wearing. But don’t. Don’t play the victim. You are not a helpless victim when it comes to your eyes.  You have full control over them.  Exercise that control. Train them to look her in the eyes.  Discipline yourself to see her, not her clothes or her body. The moment you play the victim you fall into the lie that you are simply an embodied reaction to external stimuli unable to determine right from wrong, human from flesh. Look right at me. That is a ridiculous lie. You are more than that.  And the woman you are looking at is more than her clothes.  She is more than her body.”

To stop viewing and treating others as objects, and to stop treating ourselves as objects, we have to acknowledge the influence of pornography and sexual objectification on our relationships, health and safety. And once we recognize that influence, we have to reject it in all its forms. We can retrain our minds to see humans, rather than just sexualized body parts. We can retrain our minds to prioritize our own health, safety and satisfaction, rather than a fixation on our sexual appeal to others. But we can’t retrain our minds when we’re allowing powerful, hugely profit-driven sources to perpetuate lies about sex and bodies and our worth. 

For lots more research-backed information about pornography’s effects on all aspects of our lives, check out Fight the New Drug. For ways to join the fight through public education and the application of law, visit Porn Harms.

*And more rarely, self-objectification among men as well. For both gay and straight men, this is especially manifested in fixation on sexualized body ideals highlighted in pornography, such as the size of sexual organs and muscularity.

9 Reasons to Ignore Every Mascara Ad Ever and Embrace Your Own Eyelashes

When we see this mascara ad (one of HUNDREDS just like it in any media directed at women), we have a few thoughts:

 Natural extension-free, insert-free eyelashes on women are unbelievably rare in all media today, and it has exerted some serious pressure on girls and women to keep up with that normalized new standard. Eyelash-related products and services are being sold at record rates. Before you dismiss this stuff as petty, consider that this is an example of one single beauty ideal (among hundreds) that has evolved to become inescapable and unquestioned. We LOVE to question these things.

Like the sticky note says, this ad has been altered to sell many unreal ideals, and the most egregious is the LIE so many of us are buying that any mascara can make your lashes look like this! Even this magic mascara can’t create the look in this very ad! Need proof? See the disclaimer in the bottom left: “Simulation of product. Results on the lashes enhanced by lash inserts.” In other words, “This is all a lie. But we hope you don’t read this tiny print.”

Why is “LOOK-AT-ME” always the goal if you’re female? We hate that becoming an ornament to be looked at is not only the unspoken message of most advertising directed at women (for beauty products and everything else), but is often also the literal, verbalized message, like it is here. Your body is an instrument to be used for your benefit, not an ornament for others’ viewing pleasure. Thinking about what you look like a lot of the time, even while you should be concentrating on other things, is called self-objectification and it’s not a good thing. Learn how to recognize it here.

No one ever ever ever talks about men’s eyelashes or sells men anything to do with their eyelashes or asks men to think about what their eyelashes are lacking. Male and female eyelashes serve the same functions and are created equal. Just like men, you don’t need to dye, extend, amplify, paint, or modify your eyelashes in any way. You don’t. Yes, we’re living in a world where natural eyelashes are becoming a rare sight in media (and unfortunately in the world around us too), but that does not mean your natural lashes are any less awesome or fulfill their intended function any less perfectly. When we flip the script and see how unbelievably gendered the expectations of eyelashes are, we get a much-needed reality check.

We are not throwing shade on anyone with lash extensions, expensive potions, mascaras, procedures or prescriptions. We get it. Long, dark, thick lashes look fab. But we gotta talk about the reasons so many women feel so compelled to spend their money and time on those potions and procedures. And why zero men do. And why ads like this target us at every turn. And how much money these companies are making off of our desire to look like these unreal images. (Hint: it’s in the billions.)

Own your reality. Own it and rock it and show other people it’s OK to feel good about their own realities — long, thick, dark lashes or short, thin, light ones or whatever. We all need them to protect our amazing eyeballs. When you accept and feel OK about whatever you’re working with, it gives others permission to accept and feel OK about whatever they’re working with too. And that simple example can be life-changing.

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline. OR MAYBE it’s Maybelline plus lash inserts, plus Photoshop, plus an objectifying culture that teaches us our appearances define our worth that gives this ad its power.

I’m rebelling against this endless eyelash pressure by boycotting mascara today. And maybe tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong — I love me some mascara, but what I love more is my self-worth not being determined by the products I smear on my face. If you feel less “you” when you’re not wearing certain cosmetics or lash extensions, or you use certain products and services out of fear of what others will think if you *don’t*, I challenge you to try TRY try to wean yourself off of them. It is liberating to stop depending on that stuff. Prove to yourself that you are more than a body and your reflection doesn’t define your worth by foregoing the beauty efforts and expense you think you need. You don’t need makeup or extensions to make you any more acceptable and valuable or any more YOU.

If people ask you if you’re “sick” or “tired” or “OK?” when you’re not wearing makeup, we have to learn to blame the system that has created the made-up, unnatural ideals we now see and accept as the default of normal and healthy. Wear those questions as a badge of honor for pushing back against the pressures that make our regular, natural faces unacceptable and strange while painted, modified faces go unquestioned. You could even be honest and say that out loud when someone offers a comment or question about your less made-up or naked face — tell them this is just your natural face and the alternative is actually your altered face. If the person is cool, tell them you’re working to be more comfortable with yourself minus alterations. There is no shame in this game!

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 more about the Beauty Redefined Foundation and the work Lindsay and Lexie do to promote positive body image, check out our short intro video below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our new YouTube channel! 

Really Want to Feel Better About Your Body? Here’s Your 5-Step Game Plan

Developing positive body image — or feeling positively about your body, regardless of what it looks like at the moment — is key to health, happiness, progress and empowerment. When you’re feeling especially self-conscious, it’s hard to focus on much else or make healthy choices for yourself. With the vast majority of women feeling negatively about their bodies and regularly preoccupied with their appearance, we have some serious work to do on this front. You could tackle hundreds of pages of our doctoral research to gather our findings, or you could read our short summary of more than a decade of body image research right here! And if you need more help getting to positive body image, check out our amazing new program for individuals ages 14+, tested and proven effective in our dissertations.

These are our 5 steps for redefining beauty and health for yourself, along with a practical game plan for each.


 RECOGNIZE

Recognize the many messages directed toward women about beauty, and how many of our thoughts and actions revolve around appearance. Today, beauty has become something perpetually out of reach for women with the help of profit-driven, digitally altered media messages that present one narrow ideal: tall, young, thin, white but tan skin (or light skin for women of color), and blemish/wrinkle/pore-free. These same messages teach women that our value is in our beauty above all else, so pursuing these ideals becomes a lifelong struggle. But here’s the truth: your reflection does not define your worth!

Game Plan:

It might seem counter-intuitive to redefine beauty by taking the focus off of beauty, but it works! Recognize the number of appearance-based messages directed at us by going on a media fast. Take 3 days, a week, or even a month to avoid as much media as you possibly can – TV, movies, blogs, magazines, and even social media (which means deleting those apps from your phone!). Without this stream of idealized images and messages trying to sell you things, you become more sensitive to those that are unrealistic or that trigger body anxiety for you. You can then use that awareness to unsubscribe, unlike, unfollow, turn off, and turn away from that media that distorts your ideas about beauty and worth.

REFLECT 

Reflect on what impact narrow beauty ideals have had on your life. Our culture relies heavily on objectification – or presenting women as idealized body parts to be consumed rather than as humans – in all types of media. This leads girls and women to self-objectify by constantly – and often unconsciously – monitoring our bodies for what they look like to others as we go about our days. This preoccupation with what we look like, even when we’re all alone, leads to feelings of low self-worth and harmful ways of coping like disordered eating, opting out of social activities and exercise, self-harm, and dangerous and expensive cosmetic surgery.Game Plan:

Take inventory of your beauty habits and routine, including the time, energy and money you spend on your appearance. Reflect on whether any of that time, effort, or money could be better spent on another activity or contribution to the world. Consider where your thoughts are as you go about your regular life: are you picturing what you look like while trying to exercise or grocery shop or ride the bus?  Reflect on the fact that you are capable of much more than looking hot. How would life be different if thinking about appearance didn’t take up so much of our mental bandwidth?


 REDEFINE 

Redefine your ideals of beauty and health for yourself in more empowering ways. One powerful way to decrease self-consciousness and love your body is through your own physical power. Your body is an instrument to be used for your benefit, and not an ornament to be admired! Value your body for what it can do rather than what it looks like.

Game Plan:

Skip appearance-related goals or numbers-based goals like weight or measurements and instead set a fitness goal. Base this goal on physical activity milemarkers in order to prioritize how you feel and what your body can do, rather than just what it looks like. Run or swim or bike or walk faster or for longer than ever before. Do a certain number of crunches, new fitness classes, weight-lifting regimens – whatever you can do and enjoy doing consistently. Recruit others to join you and experience the endorphins and rush of adrenaline together as your health improves in the process!

RESIST 

Resist harmful messages in order to take your power back. We have more power than we realize in this fight against objectifying ideals and redefining beauty on our own terms. Resistance to harmful ideas about beauty is a continuous process, but these tips can be exercised daily!

Game Plan:

Along with making conscious media choices, you can vote with your dollars by only spending your money at stores and restaurants that don’t use degrading images and messages. Speak up within your circles of influence about messages that distort our ideas about women and beauty. Resist making appearance-based comments about strangers, celebrities, family members, and even yourself. Instead, use your words for good by making simple statements about the ways beauty is one-dimensional in media or the obvious Photoshopping of female faces and bodies. Those words can have a major impact on those around you who are numb to the normal-seeming devaluation of women all around us.

Rise with RESILIENCE 

Our studies found one bright light at the end of the dark body shame tunnel: body image resilience, which is the ability to harness and use skills to bounce back from difficult disruptions in your life and become stronger than you could have been without those experiences. Disruptions can be anything – a hurtful comment about your body, weight loss/gain, a break-up, a health issue or injury, etc. Disruptions provide opportunities for growth that are not possible without pain. You always respond to any disruption, so why not respond in ways that will make you feel better about yourself, rather than with harmful coping mechanisms (like abusing alcohol or drugs, cutting, starving, bingeing, purging, or otherwise attempting to hide or fix your body in response to feeling shame). Several skills, including the ones mentioned above and in the list below, can help women rise with resilience in response to painful body image disruptions. These skills fit into four categories of power you can use in your game plan.

Game  Plan:

Social Power: Cultivate this by breaking the silence surrounding negative body image. Unite with other women, be vulnerable, and share your pain to let others help you carry the burden while you help carry theirs.
Mental Power: Harness this by critically considering the ways cultural ideals and media messages can warp how we see our own beauty and worth. Conscious awareness of these degrading messages is the only way to actively resist them.
Spiritual Power: Access this by meditation, prayer, solitude, yoga, etc., to tap into the truth that your life has meaning and purpose beyond living as a decoration for the world.
Physical Power: Gain a more powerful sense of control and self-worth by using your body as an instrument rather than an ornament to be admired.

Let’s recap your path to positive body image, at whatever pace you choose to tackle these steps.RECOGNIZE the many messages directed toward women about beauty, and how many of our thoughts and actions revolve around appearance. Put this into action with a media fast!

  1. REFLECT on what impact narrow beauty ideals have had on your life and take inventory of the time, money and energy you dedicate to appearance concerns.
  2. REDEFINE beauty and health for yourself in more empowering ways by consciously focusing on how you feel and what your body can do. Set fitness and activity goals and skip the weight and appearance goals!
  3. RESIST harmful messages in order to take your power back by turning away from the messages that spark body anxiety, speaking up about harmful media and talking to friends and family about more than their outward beauty.
  4. RISE with RESILIENCE by responding to shame-inducing disruptions in ways that exercise your mental, social, spiritual, and physical power, rather than distracting, hiding, or fixing yourself to cope with difficult experiences.

You are more than a body and are capable of so much more than looking hot. Companies profit from convincing you otherwise while peers, family and friends — often unknowingly — uphold and circulate those same profit-driven ideals about beauty, health and women’s value in the ways they speak and act. By implementing these 5 steps, you will be actively redefining beauty and health for yourself on a mindful and conscious level that prioritizes your own reality, feelings and experiences. READY, SET, GO!

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.

Dying for A Tan

Lexie at her first appointment at Huntsman Cancer Institute on Sept. 9, 2014. Yuck.

Two years ago, we at Beauty Redefined published a popular post arguing that the soaring increase in the number of young women with skin cancer is a beauty issue above all else. It has to do with young, light-skinned women believing tanned skin is equivalent to looking more beautiful, thin and “radiant.” We acknowledged there are a few causes worth dying for, but having a “bronzed, healthy glow” is NOT one of them. In a startling turn of events, I (Lexie), was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. On Sept. 24, 2014, I had surgery to remove a large chunk of my thigh and three lymph nodes that could spread cancer throughout my body. And I can 100% confirm that tan skin is not worth dying for.

Friends, before years of research into how harmful unattainable beauty ideals can be and before forming Beauty Redefined, I was a light-skinned girl that bought the lie sold to us at every turn that tan skin was most beautiful. I’ve stepped foot in a tanning bed at least 15 times throughout my life. I laid out at the pool without reapplying sunscreen more times than I can count. And I would *beg* my younger self to do things differently. I would shout to her what I shout to the world now – You are more than a decoration for the world! Don’t buy the lie that your value and power are dependent upon your looks! Our lives are valuable, and that is abundantly clear after receiving a skin cancer diagnosis at age 28.

Crazy enough, skin cancer statistics demonstrate that we ladies really do believe a “healthy glow” is worth dying for, or at least worth having large areas of skin removed and tested for the rest of our lives. The incidence of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) in young adults is sky-high, with a six-fold increase in the past 40 years. Most interesting to us is the fact that the rise is BY FAR most noteworthy in young women ages 18-39, where the incidence of melanoma increased eight-fold from 1970-2009, while it increased four-fold for men.

This is a significant gender-specific finding. There are lots of factors to be taken into consideration in this soaring number of skin cancer diagnoses, but we’re ready to argue that this is, above all, a beauty issue. This isn’t an issue of ignorance or lack of education on the harmful effects of sun exposure or indoor tanning. This isn’t an issue of young white females just absolutely loving UV rays more than their white male counterparts. This isn’t an issue of girls desperately seeking more vitamin D while boys are less interested. This is an issue of Caucasian girls and women being totally convinced that having tanned skin is equivalent to looking more beautiful, and that beauty is worth every risk. “Having tan skin makes you look thinner,” “Having tan skin gives you a radiant healthy glow,” “Having tan skin gives you confidence.” Yes, confidence that you look beautiful, because if you’re not tan, you’re “pasty white,” “ghostly,” “pale” or – if you’re a famous actress but not a regular shorts-wearing high school girl – “a peaches and cream complexion.”

Where did we get this idea that fair skin is embarrassing, unflattering or a flaw in need of fixing by desperate means? By “desperate means,” we’re referring to baking in an indoor cancer coffin (a.k.a. tanning bed), lying unclothed in the blinding sun on a lava-hot lawn chair/trampoline/beach (a.k.a, sun bathing), paying good money to get hosed down with orangey-brown skin dye that sheds off in patches within 5-10 days (a.k.a. spray tanning), or slathering yourself in smelly orangey-brown solutions at home twice a day for two weeks while not touching any fabric or light walls for an hour because you will leave a distinctly “sun-kissed” look on everything (a.k.a. self-tanners).

I know what you’re thinking. “No one uses those sun reflectors anymore!” (And I hope you’re right.) And also, “You’ve obviously never tried [insert favorite brand] tanning lotion/spray/skin suit! Pasty skin problems solved!” But that’s all beside the point. The point is that tan skin is a manufactured beauty ideal, and people are literally paying for it with their lives, or at least with huge areas of skin and debilitating treatments. When Coco Chanel made the game-changing statement in 1929 that “a girl simply has to be tanned,” it began to turn tan skin from a sign of low socio-economic status (from outdoor labor) to a chic and glamorous characteristic of recently-vacationing white women. Just like the brand new fashion trend of the time that prized tall, thin, flapper-esque bodies for women, the tan skin trend hasn’t gone away (now with added boob jobs)! But it wasn’t until the 1980s that it started making the beauty industry LOTS of money. Turning women from pasty and pathetic to bronzed and beautiful became a brand new market for the U.S. and spawned a nationwide influx of indoor tanning salons that saw a revenue of $5 billion in 2012.

Fun facts that make tanning a distinctly young, white, female, deadly problem:

  • Nearly 70 percent of tanning salon patrons are Caucasian girls and women, primarily aged 16 to 29 years.
  • The US Department of Health and Human Services and the WHO’s International Agency of Research on Cancer panel has declared ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, as a known carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).
  • Based on 7 worldwide studies, people who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 87 percent. (Source)

The indoor tanning people have fought back ferociously against the completely true and inarguable findings connecting tanning and skin cancer, but experts agree that there is no such thing as a “healthy tan” when it comes from UV rays. Their advice? “The number one thing – stop going to tanning beds,” says dermatologist and researcher Dr. Jerry Brewer. “All correlations point toward that as the reason for the [melanoma] increase.”

As the evils of indoor tanning, or “fake baking” as it is traditionally known, have come to light in the last several years, another brand new tanning industry was born! Sales of U.S.-produced self-tanning products increased more than 18% in 2012 to make it a $609 million industry. According to the industry itself, self-tanning “has grown furiously for more than a decade, and the economic downturn failed to slow it down.” (source) These self-tanners are largely marketed by beauty-related companies, which means, guess who the target audience is?! Us, women! We need so much help to fix our pasty messes! Thank goodness for these products. But just in case you don’t want to slather the tanning goo on your glowing white bodies yourselves, now a stranger can do it for you! The spray-tan industry popped up in the early 2000s to hose down nude or mostly-nude women with the perfect shade of “burnt sienna” or “blood orange” (thanks to “Bride Wars,” for warning us what can happen when this all goes terribly, terribly wrong).**

Still, despite the many millions of dollars we U.S. ladies are spending on these new-fangled indoor tanning solutions each year, our incidence of skin cancer is at an all-time high. Rather than advocating trading sunbathing for spray tanning – or arguing about the merits of either – we want to question our culture’s unflinching allegiance to the idea that girls and women must be tan. That tan skin is most beautiful*. That tan skin looks most “healthy” – regardless of one’s natural skin tone or how much damage gets done to it by tanning.

We see scary similarities to the worldwide skin-lightening industry that is set to rake in $10 billion globally by 2015 by convincing women of color from the U.S. and China to Nigeria and India that fair skin is most beautiful, most feminine, most desirable – and alternatively, that dark skin is ugly, shameful and unworthy of love. A full two-thirds of India’s dermatological industry is dominated by skin-whitening products, including totally mainstream companies with names like “Fair and Lovely.” Ew.

Though the skin-darkening and skin-lightening movements might appear to be opposites, they’re extremely similar. The U.S. tanning industry has got nothing on the world’s “fairness cream” and “skin lightening” industry in terms of revenue (and shockingly degrading messages), but they use similar tactics to incite appearance anxiety in women and then capitalize on that body shame by selling products to “fix” the flaw. In many cases, those so-called “solutions” to our skin tone problems are extremely dangerous to our health – whether it’s burning your face with hydroquinone to get a lighter complexion or burning your whole body with UVA/UVB rays to get a darker complexion. Both have proven to be deadly.
This vicious cycle of “never quite good enough” is fantastic for a consumer culture supporting $100+ billion beauty product and weight loss industries, but it is certainly not conducive to real progress as individuals or as a culture. Join with us in pushing back against the skin tone ideals that have been manufactured for us and used against us. Let’s own our skin tones. Please commit with us to no more fake baking and spreading on the sunscreen when we’re out in the sun. We want to live long, healthy, cancer-free lives with you and your beautiful-as-it-is skin!

To decrease your chances of getting skin cancer, dermatologists recommend:

Wearing hats (big, floppy, bright-colored ones are highly recommended by me) and other protective clothing when out in the sun

Staying in the shade or bring an umbrella when possible

Applying lots of broad-spectrum sunscreen often

Avoiding sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever using tanning beds

Check your skin every month. Here is all the info you need.

Beauty Redefined recommends:

Believing that you are capable of much more than looking hot

Trying out these strategies for recognizing and rejecting harmful messages and kicking bad body image habits

Offering to slather sunscreen liberally and often on friends, lovers and nice-seeming strangers

Joining our awesome community on Facebook for extra help to love your skin color and avoid tanning when you’re feeling especially weak

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.

* What the tanning oil and tanning bed people want us to forget (or at least disregard for the moment) is that what they advertise as a “bronzed, sun-kissed look” right now will very likely become a “leathery, sun-shriveled look” later. If we’re so motivated to improve our appearances, let’s let the vanity-based consequences of our sun worship help us kick the tanning addiction!
 
** Lots of people are questioning the health implications of these faux-tanning products, but at only about 15 years old, the industry is new enough that long-term complications haven’t been proven.

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