Modest is Hottest? The Revealing Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Illustrations by Michelle Christensen

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

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

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

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!

When “You Look So Skinny!” Does More Harm Than Good

By Lexie Kite, Ph.D.  (Originally posted in Feb. 2014)

POP QUIZ: If you know a girl or woman who has lost weight but you don’t know how or why she did it, what do you do?

A: Compliment, compliment, compliment! The more praise about her fab new bod, the better.

B: Don’t say anything in person, but next time you see her on Instagram or Facebook, throw down a little “You look so skinny!” on a couple pics to let her know you noticed.

C: Talk about anything else besides her looks. How much fun she is. The weather. Her job. Your lunch. That dog walking by. Anything else.

This might feel like a trick question because looks-based compliments are good, right? I mean, we live in a world where the vast majority of girls and women feel terribly about their bodies, so hearing nice things about their looks has to help, right? It turns out that is not always the case. Answers “A” and “B” might actually do more harm than good, and we just got an email from an awesome Beauty Redefined fan that is the perfect case study to help us teach why “C” is the best answer of them all:

“Last year, four months after giving birth, I began focusing on getting healthy, eating right, and exercising. Over the course of the next six months I lost a significant amount of weight and I felt good — better than I had in years and years — so I was happy. Here’s what I was not happy about: the fact that everyone I had ever met all of a sudden felt it was appropriate to comment on my physical appearance. Casual acquaintances felt like it was perfectly reasonable to start asking me about my weight and size. Family members would tell me how good I looked now, and I couldn’t help but feel bad for me from a year ago, who I had loved, but apparently everyone else was thinking could be a lot better. I have never felt so uncomfortable in my own skin in my life. I — a woman who has always felt infinitely more defined by my thoughts and humor than by a number on a scale — suddenly felt very self-conscious about everything. All of this new attention found me wanting to be sure to hide my flabby arms (because losing lots of weight leaves a lot of skin) and saggy boobs (because I’d been either pregnant and/or nursing for the last five years). And no matter how wrong I knew it was I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘If people think I look good now, they’ll really think I look good if I lose 20 more pounds.’ This sudden (undeserved) praise from others has really wreaked havoc on all of my previously held ideas of positive body image and female empowerment. I have no answers.”

But we have some answers! Let’s start with why it’s so important to STOP talking about each others’ bodies – even in what we assume are nice ways – and then we’ll get to what we can do if we’re falling into a deep pit of appearance obsession that often comes from constant focus on our bodies.

First, you have learned firsthand that it is time to stop body policing. None of us have the responsibility to comment on the look of someone else’s body – not even the “nice” sounding stuff. Not in front of their faces or behind their backs. So often we turn to appearance-based conversation first as a default, and we must reconsider this automatic small talk. This is especially true for girls and women, who grow up hearing from all sides that they are things to be looked at above all else.

Too many females suffer the debilitating consequences of eating disorders, appearance obsession, body anxiety and depression, all in the name of trying to meet unattainable beauty ideals. Did you know hospitalizations for little girls with eating disorders is up 100 percent in the last decade? Help little girls recognize they are more than their bodies by choosing to avoid discussing the look of another woman’s body in media or real life. Did you know cosmetic surgery increased 446 percent in the last decade, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast enhancement) performed on females? Help ease the ever-more-powerful temptation for painful and expensive cosmetic surgery by never talking negatively about the look of another woman’s body in media or in real life. Did you know self-objectification is leaving even the youngest of girls and the oldest of women with fewer cognitive resources available for mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and athletic performance?* Help stop this downward spiral of appearance obsession by changing the conversation from the look of another women’s body in media or real life to anything else. 

We must make sure our dialogue reflects what we know to be true: We are not bodies to be looked at, judged, and constantly in need of fixing. We are capable of so much more than being looked at. We owe it to our sisters to shout that truth from every rooftop.

So friends, if you know someone who has lost weight and they aren’t publicly speaking about how they did it, don’t feel the need to talk about it. Don’t automatically praise them. Don’t publicly comment on their photos with “You look so skinny!” Just don’t.

Because you don’t know if they are working out and eating healthfully or depressed, sick, or suffering with an eating disorder or resorting to other unhealthy extremes to fit an unhealthy ideal. You just don’t know. And too often, those body-policing compliments of “Oh you look so AMAZING!” are exactly the motivation someone needs to continue down an unhealthy pathway of unsafe diet pills or over-exercising or disordered eating. Even just seeing those body-based comments on someone else’s pictures online over and over again can send someone else down that dangerous pathway. Other times, a disease or other illness could be causing your friend to lose weight beyond their control and “Did you lose weight?!” is the exact wrong type of compliment they want at the moment. We can do so much better than the constant body policing.

It’s time to value the women and girls in our lives for more than their looks. Dig deep next time you want to give a compliment. If you give a looks-based compliment, pair it with a character-based compliment. Say something nice about who they are, what they do, and how much you care about them outside of how they look. When we minimize other females to just their bodies, we forget to remind them of their beautiful talents, characters, and gifts. And we can unknowingly be giving them motivation to stay in unhealthy patterns so they keep “qualifying” for looks-based compliments. We are more than bodies, so let’s make sure to remind each other of that powerful truth.

But what if, like our friend’s example, you are at the receiving end of lots of looks-based compliments? What if you’ve lost weight recently and all that body policing about how “much better you look” is keeping you focused on yourself as a body to be looked at above all else? So often, those looks-based compliments just perpetuate the belief that looks are most important in your life. Once you’re riding the high of all those compliments, you have to continuously work harder to impress people in your life to give you more compliments. If they stop complimenting you, you start to feel like you just need to work a little bit harder to earn their praise. What a worthless and selfish cycle to be stuck in! You are so much more than a body to be looked at! (Sick of us telling you that yet?) Here are three surefire strategies to use the moment you feel yourself getting sucked into the worthless pit of looks-based obsession:

Change the Conversation.

Next time the dialogue starts to revolve around your looks and you get uncomfortable, take the opportunity to teach a little lesson in a kind and thoughtful way: “There are lots more interesting things to talk about than my body! Did you know I recently went on vacation?” or “BORING! Let’s talk about you. How is work going?” or throw in some honest vulnerability: “Thanks, but I’m more comfortable talking about lots of other stuff besides my body. How was your weekend?” or “To be totally honest, I have made a resolution to compliment women for stuff other than their looks because I feel like we get stuck talking about shallow stuff like physical appearance way too often!” or tell them you just read an awesome blog post about changing the conversation on looks-based compliments and you’ve vowed to do it (then send them this link, of course!)

Set a fitness goal.

Regardless of what you look like, or what you think you look like, you can feel good about yourself, because you are not your appearance. Your weight, size, and measurements are just numbers. Positive body image is the cornerstone of our work, and it is founded in the life-changing understanding that your body is an instrument to be used and not just an object to be adorned. Prove it to yourself by setting a fitness goal that will absolutely reinforce the truth that your body is powerful and capable and you are not just a decoration for the world to look at. Run a certain distance. Swim 10 laps faster than ever. Do a certain number of crunches, push-ups, pull-ups – any fitness achievement measured in actions. You will get the reward of endorphins released into your body to boost your mood, the empowerment of accomplishing a goal, and the satisfaction of proving you are more than a pretty face. It’ll snap you out of your self-objectifying rut in no time.

Throw away your scale.

Tracy Moore at Jezebel put this so well: “Ask yourself, ‘What exactly is going to happen when I reach magical X pounds?’ Force yourself to imagine the perfect life you think the perfect weight will bring you. What does it look like? You never argue with your husband? That guy you like at work will ask you out? The beauty of working toward real confidence by actually liking yourself is that it doesn’t disappear the moment you gain weight, it is always there, and anyone worthwhile is drawn to you because of that aura, not the fact that you’re at some specific number… Plus, numbers are misleading. There is no magic number for anyone. Paying attention to some perfect goal weight, at which point you imagine yourself to no longer have problems or somehow transcend the issues you faced with 20 more pounds is a complete and utter illusion. And a waste of time. And probably really about something else.

Our fans on Facebook also weighed in with their own experiences of hearing “You’re so skinny!” and it being exactly the wrong thing they needed to hear:

  • When my mom was sick and three months later passed away, I was so stressed out and grief-stricken that I lost about 20 lbs. Everyone at work complimented me and told me to keep doing whatever I was doing because it was really working for me.
  • I had a good friend who miscarried a baby, and a few weeks later a man at church commented on her looking “thinner and better!” and she said, “Yeah, I guess…” and he goes “C’mon, you gotta look on the bright side.” I wanted to punch him in the face.
  • I complimented a regular customer on her weight loss at the store where I worked when I was in my early twenties. She responded that she had cancer. Lesson learned.
  • I got this a lot while in the throes of serious depression. Black circles under my eyes, yet people, strangers even, would announce how “healthy and fit” I’d become! Know your audience or zip it. You may think you’re paying a compliment, but you’re really reminding someone of a bad situation!
  • I had similar feelings post-surgical delivery of my twins where I wasn’t eating nearly enough to be breastfeeding and was home alone with them 10 hours a day. I couldn’t move to get myself food. “What did you do to lose the baby weight?” was a reminder of the support I didn’t have. It was hard to answer positively and politely when the things people say make you feel like crap.
  • I lost about 30 lbs after finding out about my husband’s addiction. Friends kept asking me about my “weight loss secret”. It made me sick.
  • I was working in a restaurant and my parents would come in to eat a lot. My mom was losing a lot of weight and was having trouble eating because of what we later discovered was a faulty esophogeal valve. She went through test after test and after losing about 40 lbs we were worried that it might be stomach cancer. A manager of mine saw my mom one night and commented to me how great she looked (she was skin and bone) and I started to cry and said that the weight loss may be a sign of cancer to which she replied enthusiastically “I wish I could get cancer!!!”
  • I was at my thinnest during a period of intense anxiety and OCD. Not a great way to lose weight.
  • I am naturally a very petite person, but there was a time in my life where I went through some really traumatic experiences and as a result, I lost over 25 pounds. Since I am so small in general, this was awful. My hair was falling out, I was throwing up all the time, and I was so emotionally drained. People kept saying how pretty I looked and a bunch of teenage girls told me they wished they could be as skinny as I was…. Little did they know the physical damage that comes with being that small.
  • When I was in my 20s my mom and I visited one of her friends who had pancreatic cancer. Her chance of survival was not great. The chemo was making her vomit constantly. She pointed out her belt, that her husband had needed to punch new holes because she lost weight, in a “I’m happy about that” way. I reflected on how screwed up our society is to make a dying woman happy about losing weight. In a way that experienced help me to focus more on health and rejecting society’s screwed up focus!
  • A few years ago I lost a baby in the middle of my second trimester. I became depressed and must’ve lost weight, because over the next few months several people commented approvingly on how thin I looked. The irony of being complimented on my thinness during a time when I should have been full and round with the new life growing inside of me was almost too bitter to bear and more than once brought me to tears. I never felt very comfortable commenting on people’s weight before, but this experience really cemented it for me.
  • Yup, I had a mystery illness and lost 12 pounds in two weeks. Everyone thought I looked fantastic!!  Lol.
  • Being complimented when I had lost weight because I was so unhappy and sick that I couldn’t force myself to eat was unsettling. I was asked how I did it. I replied that it wasn’t worth it.
  • I was always confident in my body, raised to value my intelligence and personality over my physical appearance. It wasn’t until I lost 20 pounds following a bad breakup that I began to understand the body insecurities that other girls my age dealt with. Having other girls tell me I ‘looked like a model!’ or that they were ‘omg sooo jealous!’ made me feel like my body before the weight loss was less attractive. I felt this urge to keep the weight off even though I felt awful and was completely unhealthy. It just goes to show how even someone with good self-esteem and body image can be brought down by ‘innocent’ comments.
  • My mum used to point to very overweight people and say “See you aren’t as big as her” and think that was a compliment. I was fit and healthy at the time so all it said was “I see u as fat.” Messed with my body image for years.
  • My father’s wife said “you’re still skinny” each time she saw me. I make a point not to comment on people’s’ appearance. I prefer to say “It’s great to see you”.
  • I received the most compliments when i lost 20 pounds, i was not well and therefore i couldn’t eat. When i started feeling better i slowly started to gain my weight back and exercising and people will criticize me on how i looked compared to when i was “beautiful.”
  • When I was in my early 20’s I was broke, depressed, and starving. I would get complimented, or, worse, I was accused of being anorexic. Thank you so much for bringing attention to this real issue, and making me realize that I was not alone.

If these comments aren’t enough to convince you that body-based comments aren’t helpful, we don’t know what is! Being conscious of our compliments is an important way to SEE MORE in ourselves and other women in our lives, so we all can BE MORE than women fixated on our bodies.


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. 

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:

 

Are Body Positivity and Fitness Compatible?

If you want to improve your body image, but you have trouble prioritizing regular exercise … join the club!

Lexie and I (BR co-directorsdecided this week to renew our dedication to fitness. Not the “getting a bikini body” or “get your body back” kind of fitness, but the improving strength and capability and “using our bodies as instruments instead of ornaments” kind of fitness. Those are very different — both in terms of motivations, goals, and anticipated results.  We’re re-dedicating ourselves to exercise because sometimes life gets busy and other things get in the way, blah blah blah. You know how that goes. But we know — no matter how busy, lazy, or distracted we get from regular physical activity — it is absolutely key to feeling positively toward our bodies.

So many of us have been trained to see fitness and physical activity as a means for looking thin, sexy and toned, or a punishment for eating “bad” foods. When you’re working on positive body image, it can be tempting to opt out of fitness altogether in order to avoid falling into traps of disordered thinking and weight obsession. However, forgetting about fitness does a HUGE disservice to not only our physical health, but also our body image. Tons of research, including our own, shows one of the best ways to improve your body image is through sports and exercise. Using your body and experiencing your capabilities can help shift you away from a focus on your looks — if you do it right! 

 

Here are our tips for body-positive fitness. Follow the links for more information about each tip!

Rather than forgetting about fitness, try forgetting about fatness. Go into your fitness regimen with no assumptions about what effect exercise will have on your fat, weight, size, cellulite and body proportions. You are not a “before” or an “after.” Consciously work to separate your personal definition of fitness from your feelings about fat. While steeped in research for my PhD dissertation on this very subject, I wrote these two blog posts that go deep into the ways health is very problematically defined and measured within our culture and how it can be more accurately measured and achieved by forgetting about fat to focus on fitness.

Avoid exercising in front of mirrors. This often leads to self-objectification that can decrease stamina. If your gym or workout partners trigger you to focus on the way your body looks while you exercise, change your routine and let your partners know you’re working on getting the focus on how you *feel,* not how you look. Here’s a video of Lexie describing what self-objectification means, what it feels like, and why it is the worst.

Wear clothing you feel comfortable in and aren’t constantly adjusting. Clothing plays an important role in prompting or preventing self-objectifying thoughts. If you’re regularly thinking about covering your exposed stomach or adjusting your shorts that are riding up, your clothes are constantly reminding you to think about what you look like, whether you want to or not. Loose-fitting, reasonably covered, and properly sized clothing can be your best friend during exercise if you tend to worry about what your body looks like while working out.

Skip the scale and stop measuring yourself. Weighing and measuring leads to a focus on external appearance and size and to discouragement when those numbers don’t decrease as much as you hope. Your weight and size don’t tell you all the incredibly positive changes that happen inside your body when you exercise. Medical experts warn against the tendency to focus on thinness rather than actual indicators of health and fitness. In a fantastically-titled paper – “Beneficial effects of exercise: shifting the focus from body weight to other markers of health” – King et al. (2009) conclusively demonstrated that “significant and meaningful health benefits can be achieved even in the presence of lower-than-expected exercise-induced weight loss.” Sounds crazy, right? It goes against anything most media will every tell you about health, but it’s true. Even when you don’t lose as much weight as you think you should (and as money-making media train you to think), you’re still likely gaining some serious health benefits. When people with serious health issues like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues and high blood pressure start a meaningful exercise program, their health problems often disappear or greatly improve – regardless of whether or not they remain overweight or obese. Read more here.

Measure your progress and set fitness goals that have nothing to do with your weight or size. Set goals for achievements by certain dates like “bench X pounds by this date,” “run/walk/swim for X minutes/miles this week,” “get my heart rate up to X for X minutes every day,” etc. Any physical activity goal can be tailored for your abilities, no matter how limited your abilities might be.

Avoid fixating on your looks and comparing yourself to others while you exercise by consciously focusing on how you feel and how your muscles are working. Distract yourself with outside entertainment if necessary, but try to check in regularly on how you feel. This will help you to appreciate your capabilities and monitor your levels of exertion (can I push harder, do I need to rest?). Rather than imagining your body getting smaller, try to imagine your heart, muscles, and immune system getting stronger. Imagine your endurance and stamina increasing. Imagine your body as a powerful instrument for your use, rather than an ornament for others to admire.

Opt for competitive or non-aesthetically focused activities. Sports like soccer, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, etc., are awesome ways to focus on a goal and get outside of your head. Getting into what scholars call a “flow state” is one of the most empowering ways to experience the capabilities of your body without thinking about your body. Read this fantastic guest post for a look into the way watching the Women’s World Cup opened Autumn Whitefield-Madrano‘s eyes to the beauty of women forgetting about being beautiful while focusing on what they really want. Be cautious of activities like cheerleading, ice skating, ballet and other forms of dance that include a looks-focused component. (Before you get upset about that point, please read this post.) Be cautious of any sport or activity that requires you to wear something you are not comfortable in — especially in front of spectators. Volleyball is a good example of a great sport with an often questionable dress code for female players.

Avoid “fitness” media that actually just keeps its focus on the appearance of female bodies, emphasizes weight loss, or that sparks your body anxiety. Things that might fight into this category are: social media pages that feature lots of before-and-after body images or images of idealized, Photoshopped, sexualized bodies; sites, pages and programs that exist to sell you products intended to “tighten,” tone, contour, detox, or ensure weight loss; and anything that elevates one body type above another — “real women have curves,” “skinny girls look good in clothes, fit girls look good naked,” etc. Ditch it all. Try the best kind of health cleanse you could ever use — a media fast. Read one woman’s transformational experience of cutting out all fitness media while undergoing major body changes in this guest post.

Don’t go to extremes. Don’t overdo it. Choose activities you actually enjoy doing and can look forward to. Don’t exercise to punish yourself for eating or for not being thin enough. If you have a tendency to over-exert yourself or are replacing one disorder for another (like trading anorexia for over-exercising), please proceed with caution. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you understand those compulsions and how to stop them.


Based on your experiences with starting and maintaining regular exercise regimens while actively avoiding the intense focus on the appearance of bodies in fitness culture, are there any other tips you would add?

Our bodies are instruments, not ornaments. Let’s use them! 

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, 8-week therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, who developed and tested this program through their PhDs dissertations.

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!

 

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