Are Body Positivity and Fitness Compatible?

By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.

*Trigger Warning: If you struggle with overexercising or orthorexia, please be cautious and mindful of how this discussion might affect you.

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 or orthorexia), 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. 

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.

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.

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!

 

Empowering or Objectifying: The Clashing Camps of Body Positivity

By Lindsay Kite, PhD

Because our culture teaches that women’s bodies and faces determine our worth, and that only certain rare bodies and faces are worthy of anything good, people who want empowerment for women are stuck in two conflicting groups. 

The first group is fighting for women to be valued as more than bodies to view, while the second group is fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable

The first group seeks empowerment for women by calling out and fighting objectification. They push against the deeply embedded system that offers women fake, fleeting “power” for having a body deemed worthy of consumption — visually or physically. They teach women to see and value themselves and others as more than just bodies. That’s what we stand for with Beauty Redefined. We aim to redefine the meaning and value of beauty in our lives, not just what it looks like. We teach people how to recognize and resist harmful messages about beauty and then rise with resilience through the objectification we all face. 

In this first group, there is no room for lingerie photo shoots or nearly nude selfies, no matter how different the bodies on display might look from media ideals

We understand why the second group does those things. 

Our profit-driven culture thrives off the objectification of female bodies, which harms all women, since we all fall short of manufactured beauty ideals simply by being humans and not images. We all fail in a system that values only our bodies at the expense of our humanity. But from a body image perspective, where our PhD research is focused, this ideal-driven culture causes particular harm to those women with bodies that look very different from cultural ideals. The second group springs from the truth that many women’s bodies have been erased or made to seem abnormal and shameful. These women want to *see* themselves as beautiful and they want themselves to *be seen* as beautiful by others. This second group wants others with similarly invisible shapes and features to see the bodies they never saw when they needed to see them. So, among other things, they share and celebrate nearly nude selfies and lingerie photo shoots featuring marginalized bodies. We understand why.

And while firmly claiming membership in the first group, we are happy for the young girls and women who can see their own perfectly acceptable physical realities reflected back at them through social media in ways we were never able to. Our unbelievably self-conscious teenage selves would have felt some relief from shame upon seeing those more familiar bodies celebrated by the first group. We’re grateful others can feel that relief.

We must fight body shame, but we need to fight it at its source: the idea that the appearance of our bodies is the most important thing about us. When we fight back by alleviating the shame surrounding certain body types, we’re only fighting a symptom of the problem, not the root or the real cause. The real problem is *not* that only certain women’s bodies are valued, it is that women’s bodies are valued more than women themselves. When we try to promote body positivity by focusing *more* on more bodies, we inadvertently perpetuate the idea that women are bodies first and foremost. The best way to fight body shame is by rejecting the lie that our bodies are the most important thing about us.

If this fight is really about empowering women, we have to be careful. We have to recognize how severely the objectification and dehumanization of female bodies has stunted girls and women. How the epidemic of self-objectification, or constant fixation on appearance (whether you like your appearance or not), has crippled generations of women who could have used that mental energy on much more meaningful pursuits.

We also have to understand where lasting, meaningful power comes from. It doesn’t come from believing that your body looks acceptable. While that is a good feeling, and perhaps even one step closer to empowerment, there is much greater power to be found *outside* the confines of woman-as-object, ready for evaluation and consumption. Women displaying their bodies and sharing them online — even if they look very different from mainstream ideals we’re used to — is still playing within the rules of objectification. That’s the same framework that has marginalized and oppressed women for as long as any of us can remember. It still depends on women being awarded arbitrary points for what their bodies look like, just with expanded guidelines for what counts as worthy of displaying or consuming. It’s still others consuming those bodies – looking, evaluating, validating (through comments, likes, shares, retweets) or, all too often, mocking and harassing. 

Women are more than bodies. We have to learn to see more in ourselves in order to be more than women who self-objectify our days away, preoccupied with our looks. Positive body image isn’t believing you are beautiful — in fact, it’s more like believing you are *more* than beautiful, that your body is much more valuable as an instrument for your use than as an ornament for others to admire. You don’t learn that from displaying your body or admiring others’ bodies, no matter what size they are. You learn that from living and doing and being, not from looking or being looked atHaving positive body image isn’t believing your body *looks* good, it is believing your body *is* good, regardless of how it looks. Believing you look good is nice, but it’s maybe the 139th most important thing to believe about yourself — even if your body has never really been regarded as ideal. You don’t have to see your body as ideal in order to feel great about yourself, have loving relationships and contribute great things to the world. When a woman truly believes she is worthy and valuable as a person, regardless of the way her body looks, she will experience far greater empowerment than if she simply believes her appearance is valuable. 

These two groups aren’t enemies.

They’re both working toward their own visions of empowerment for women. But we’re fighting different opponents. We in the first group firmly believe the opponent is objectification — the system that defines women’s value in terms of their physical appeal to others. The opponent is not mainstream beauty ideals. Beauty ideals suck, and today’s prized looks are as unattainable as they’ve ever been, thanks to easy digital and surgical modification. Beauty ideals will always be here in one form or another, but it’s the rules of objectification, which tell us women are first and foremost bodies, that hold beauty ideals in power. Rather than reinventing what constitutes “beauty,” why not push against the whole idea that beauty is of utmost importance?

We in the first group truly believe thinness is not the problem. The problem is the incredible power the ideal of female thinness has over us. It drives unbelievable rates of disordered eating, anxiety and depression; billions of dollars spent every year on weight loss aids that only work for 1% of buyers; and troves of online thinspo and pro-ana images curated by millions of girls and women seeking value, happiness and desirability where our culture told them they could find it — thinness. When “skinny” doesn’t drive as many profits as it does now, other ideals will rise to the top. Destroying one set of beauty ideals will *not* solve this problem, because beauty will still remain the end-all be-all.
The second group is fighting to fit broader ideas of beauty and empowerment within the prison walls of objectification. 

The first group is breaking free from that prison.

None of us deserve to live within those walls. 

Instead of fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable, let’s fight for women to be valued as more than bodies to view.


Lindsay  Kite, PhD, is co-director of the Beauty Redefined foundation, a n nonprofit promoting positive body image through redefining the meaning and value of beauty in women’s lives. With her twin sister, Lexie Kite, PhD, she travels 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.


Addendum: This is a response we gave to a discussion on our Instagram that might be helpful.

We want to be clear that we never said women in the second group are objectifying themselves. We said they’re still playing under the rules of objectification, which says,”Women’s bodies are the most valuable thing about them, but only bodies that look like THIS are acceptable.” People in the 2nd group react with, “No, MY body is acceptable too! See it? I’m not ashamed.” (Still fitting within the rules of “women are bodies first,” even if it is a step toward progress and empowerment, which it is for many people). The 1st group says, “No, men aren’t mostly valued for their appearance, so women shouldn’t be either! I want people to listen to women and work with us for progress, not just *look* at us.” (Stepping outside the rules of objectification, where women are doing more than being looked at). It doesn’t require beauty, a certain size or skin color or social status to step outside the rules of objectification. We all will still be objectified by others — clothes on or off, 1st group or 2nd.

While fighting for more bodies to be seen as acceptable (which is good and important), the photos of marginalized bodies to alleviate shame in others is one step, but it doesn’t even come close to moving us out of the BODIES FIRST framework. That’s where research shows is crucial to the success of women really feeling good about themselves and overcoming the tendency to self-objectify (or remain preoccupied with their appearance throughout the day, whether they *like* their looks or not). It’s self-objectification that is hurting most women from the inside, stunting our progress. The 2 groups don’t need to be exclusive (and they’re not because we all love each other), but we need to make sure the 1st group can become a stepping stone to the 2nd, rather than the end unto itself — because once women are feeling less shame about their bodies with help from photos shared by the 1st, what then? If the only goal is to alleviate shame for marginalized bodies, then fine, but if you want those women to feel better about themSELVES, not just their looks, we have to get outside the framework of objectification (you’re not just a body, whether or not you love what it looks like). We want real empowerment for everyone.

This is our contribution to moving forward. We have so much skin in this game. We want so badly for body positivity and empowerment to be had by everyone. Because of that, we want more activists in this fight to go beyond underwear photos. That might be one step, and we’re grateful for all the attention and support others have gotten for your efforts in that step, but there is more empowerment to share that goes beyond sharing our bodies. We want to fight body shame by fighting the lie that your body is the most important thing you have to offer. We don’t ignore our bodies or stop trying to push back against profit-driven beauty ideals, but we do it knowing objectification and fixation on female bodies is the real source of body shame we want to target.


In-depth body image resilience training, backed by our own PhD research, is available through our 8-week online program. Other free research and resources can be found throughout this website, as well as our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds. 

Body Image Baby Steps (and an announcement!)

One of my most important missions in life is to help girls and women understand their value and rise up in the face of objectifying ideals that come from media and other people. Being an advocate for women feels like something I am called to do, and I’ve spent the last decade working on that the best I can. But apparently I’ve got more to do than just advocate for women, because now I’m going to have to raise one. Right now there is a baby girl wiggling around in my womb. She’s been in there for almost six months, and I’m still wrapping my head around it. 

Baby Beauty Redefined will be joining the fight in March 2016! 

I’m not going to lie to you. I’m terrified. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything more daunting. (Lindsay, on the other hand, has never been nicer to me or so interested in touching my stomach). I want to do a good job. I’m keenly aware of the pressure and pain girls, in particular, face in the world. I experienced it firsthand as a little girl with all sorts of body shame, a teenager on every diet I could find, and as a scholar and activist fighting against objectifying ideals while fighting *for* girls to find their value beyond the mirror, the scale, or their Instagram likes.

At the very beginning of my pregnancy (before finding out the sex), I was taking a break from being a feminist to watch a Bravo reality TV show, and it was during the pointless dialogue between two Real Housewives that I had this revelation: “You’re going to have a girl. You’re her mom on purpose. You’re going to be an empowering example to her.” I sat there with that thought for a while, trying to figure out if I made it up or heard it on the TV (I quickly realized one of the H-wives definitely didn’t reveal this bit of truth to me). I didn’t make it up. And the little message I got gave me hope that maybe I’ve been training for many years to be (kind of) prepared for raising a girl in this world.

But I need help. Really, we *all* need help growing up and growing older in cultures that rely on us believing our physical attributes are the defining factors that determine our happiness, loveability, health and success. The truth is, our bodies are instruments for our use — not ornaments to be admired. We take better care of ourselves and our health when we live free of body shame. We are much happier and more fulfilled when we believe our worth is defined by what we contribute to the world, not how we look while we contribute. We are empowered as we learn to *see* the objectifying ideals that look so normal in everything from children’s programming and broadcast news to those faux-empowering all-booty fitness IG pages.

Lexie and Travis, her awesome husband. You may recognize him from his viral Carl’s Jr #cutthecarls post we published last year (click image to see)! PC: McKenzie Deakins

Lindsay and I have spent the last several years traveling the country doing speaking events and meeting so many of you face to face. It’s easily our favorite thing. In the last few months, we’ve met amazing bR supporters in Portland, Nashville, Indiana, Atlanta, Boston, and Utah (and this baby was with me the whole time). After I give birth and she joins us on tour, we’re going to meet so many more of you.

If you get to meet and hang out with my little girl, will you promise to take these 5 tips into consideration? I promise to do the same for you. We can all elevate the status of women, one baby step at a time.

    Ask, Don’t Tell. 

I sometimes panic a little when I see a little girl and all I can think to say is “You are so cute! Look at those little shoes!” (or insert other looks-based compliment). The easiest way to remind a girl of her worth beyond her shoes is to ask, don’t tell. Ask her what books she is reading, what sports she is playing, what job she wants when she’s older, who her favorite teacher is, what her favorite subject is, who her friends are, what she likes to draw, what she likes to do for fun, who her heroes are, what her favorite joke is, etc. The list is endless! Let her talk. It’ll teach her and those listening more than any easy compliment about her adorable hair could

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.

Many girls and women are featured on TV, in movies, or magazines purely as props to be ogled. In children’s animated movies, female characters are barely represented and when they are, they are wearing just as little clothing as women in R-rated films. Did you know male characters outnumber females 3:1 (in group scenes it’s 5:1) in kids’ movies? Let’s show our girls media that uplifts them and shows them what they can be. Read girls stories about girls. If you’re reading a story to kids (even a scripture story!) and you can feasibly change the gender from male to female, do it. If you are searching Netflix for a children’s show, do a bit of research to find something featuring girls doing anything more than just being looked at or searching for love. (Please comment below if you’ve got any favorite books or shows that feature strong female role models for kids!)

If You’re Talking Bodies, Change the Subject.

We stress the message that we are all more powerful than we realize and our influences matter. If you say something negative about your body or your looks (or any other woman — celebrity or otherwise), that little girl near you WILL HEAR. It will negatively affect her view of her own body. If you say something positive about another’s body (celebrity or otherwise), that little girl near you WILL HEAR. It will be a drop in the bucket of opinions she hears about what is most important about being a woman (weight loss, beauty, etc.) If we consciously work to move the conversation beyond the look of bodies, the results are powerful and immediate. We are more than bodies to be looked at, judged, and fixed. Start now to change then conversation. Read this awesome post on mothers and daughters for more inspiration.

Let’s Get Physical.

A wonderful spark in this dim world of body shame is lit through physical activity. And this is incredibly important when we think about what little girls, in particular, are up against. When girls hit puberty, they are TWICE as likely to experience depression as boys. This happens because we live in an objectifying culture that teaches society that girls and women are most valuable for how well they decorate the world and they need to spend precious time and energy evaluating and controlling their bodies in terms of their sexual desirability. Instead of raising their hands in class or playing soccer at recess or achieving a state of “flow” during a test or study period, too many little girls are caught in extreme anxiety about how their bodies appear to onlookers. Girls and women are picturing what they look like to others while they are living instead of just living. Serious mental and physical capacity (not to mention happiness and self-esteem) is lost in the process of focusing on your appearance when you should be focusing on anything else. Participating in sports and enjoyable physical activities is an excellent way for girls and women to resist the soul-sucking self-consciousness that they are often plagued with. We highly and regularly recommend getting involved in physical activities to beat body shame and experience your body as an instrument instead of an ornament.

Show Her Beauty Isn’t Supposed to Hurt. 

What does our world look like for little girls growing up today? And how much pain, energy, time and money will they have to put into their own bodies to meet a standard of beauty perpetually out of reach? Each year, women invest billions of dollars into the latest procedures, products and prescriptions to try to reach that bar of normalcy — not even perfection, just normalcy. What would happen if confident, happy women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, hair removal, tanning or skin lightening regimens? What about foregoing makeup some days just to show what natural faces and lashes look like? What about shaving less often so little girls can see they aren’t gross for having hair on their legs? What about going swimming even if you feel self-conscious at the thought of putting on a swimsuit? How could that change the way our daughters, students, friends, and nieces perceive themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real bodies and 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. And our daughters need to see that truth now more than ever.


Lindsay and I have seen Beauty Redefined supporters around the world go from fixated on their appearance to developing a greater focus on their unique missions free from looks-based obsession. In the seven years we’ve been running this nonprofit, we’ve seen girls stop cutting themselves and recover from eating disorders and overcome abuse to rise with body image resilience and bravely speak out against objectification. I have all the hope in the world that my baby has a shot at a fulfilling, empowered life, capable of resilience in the face of harmful ideals. I have all the hope in the world that you can live that same happy, hopeful, purposeful life. These strategies you use when you hang out with girls like mine will change them, and these same strategies will change you, too. We all deserve to know the truth about who we are, and who we are is more than a body to be admired. Let’s help each other see more and be more

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

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Let’s Misbehave!

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Many big industries want us to behave. They want us to be live “stylishly ever after,” they want our “girl power” to come from marketing that phrase on our push-up bras, they want our health to be defined by how good we can look from behind, they want to empower us by telling us how to become more beautiful, and comfort us by saying “beauty hurts” and it’s up to us to push through the pain and work forever trying to obtain it. But if any of our work resonates with you, you know it’s time we stop being so “well-behaved.” It’s high time we stop behaving – looking, acting, speaking, buying, thinking – how the ever-so-powerful beauty, diet, cosmetic surgery, fashion, and media industries would have us behave. 

That’s why we work to constantly remind females how powerful, valuable, and beautiful they are in a media-saturated world that profits from them forgetting that truth. Because when you begin to grasp your potential for good, your power in this world, where real happiness is found, and the beauty you’ve already got going on, you stop “behaving” as these big industries would have you behave.

One of the ways we at BR misbehave regularly is by speaking out against all kinds of normalized pressures women face regarding their appearance: the cultural phenomenon that is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Victoria’s Secret’s inescapable images, trendy new beauty ideals like those magic body wraps, the normalization of breast implants, the ways we teach “modesty,” and female objectification at every turn. What started as a gut feeling that much of what appears so normal to us is actually so dangerous sparked our doctoral research to teach people how and why to recognize and reject this level of normalized objectification of women.

What’s most interesting to us about our work is that many, many people see our speaking out as wildly misbehaving. Saying publicly celebrated displays of female objectification and sexualization is degrading or harmful in any way is apparently censorship, prudishness, neo-Nazi conservativism, jealousy, disgusting and just plain evil. What this backlash against our work tells us is that seeing and treating women as objects to be consumed, judged and ogled above all else is absolutely the status quo. It is the norm. It is invisible. When we call it out for what it is, for what effects it has, with years of research to back it up, we see ourselves as behaving very nicely. Others who are perfectly comfortable inside the oppressive status quo (both men and women) are often extremely hesitant to have their worldview shaken. Those are the people who perceive our work as misbehavior (to put it lightly).

The awesome Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

The woman who coined that crazy popular phrase, had no idea SHE would be making the history books when she wrote that.  In fact, this conservative woman was writing a history book in the 1970s about 19th century women who were by all accounts just regular women, going about their lives. She was writing about the ways well-behaved women were overlooked in our knowledge of history because they weren’t doing anything historians considered “extraordinary.” But this author went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, among many other honors, and her work has been made into documentaries and television series.  Her name is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and we happen to feel a special connection to this Pultizer-Prize-winning, Distinguished Harvard Professor because she grew up in small-town Idaho (just like us!), graduated from the University of Utah (just like us!), and has gone on to be a powerful, feminist voice for good in a world that needs her and her catchy statement: “Well-behaved women seldom make history!” By all accounts, she had no idea how much her work would change history. And neither do you.

We (Lindsay and Lexie Kite) started our version of “misbehaving” when we were 18 years old. We sat in a college classroom and learned for the first time how powerful media is in shaping our view of ourselves and distorting our perceptions of reality, beauty, and health. We both decided we were no longer going to “behave” for industries that profited off us hating our bodies and spending our time, money and energy finding ways to fix our flaws. And so then, in 2003, we decided we wanted to be the kind of women that made history. We’ve done nothing too exceptional, but we earned Ph.D.s in the study of media and body image in 2013 and have remained committed to helping women understand their worth as more than objects to be looked at.

Today, we are thrilled to use Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s truthful phrase a little differently than she may have intended it (but check out the comment below from her niece Rachel!). Today, we stand alongside every other person willing to misbehave in the face of powerful industries that profit from our losses. They win when we lose our self-worth and try to find it where it cannot be found – beauty products, cosmetic procedures, sexual objectification, disordered eating, diet pills, etc. The truth is all around you: You are capable of much more than looking hot. Your reflection does not define your worth. Women are more than just bodies. See more. Be more. If any of those statements resonate with you, you can misbehave by choosing to turn away from media that hurts you, spending your money on things that reflect what you value, speaking out against the status quo that maintains a view of women as bodies and nothing more, spending your time progressing in ways that matter – school, service, hobbies, health, and relationships. THAT is how we will make history. THAT is real empowerment. Are you ready to make history? Let’s misbehave!

Female Objectification: Who’s Really to Blame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary: you could never be clothed perfectly enough to ensure everyone perceives you the way you intend to be perceived. You could never obscure your shape or essence or beauty enough to prevent someone from having sexual thoughts about you and blaming you for those thoughts. That is because objectification happens in the eye and mind of the beholder. You are the only one who can control whether you objectify another person. Yes, it can be triggered by images and messages we have learned to view as sexual and suggestive. No, that doesn’t mean it is unavoidable. And NO, that does not mean you can blame anyone else when you view her/him as an object. We must take responsibility for ourselves – our own thoughts, our own intentions, and our own actions. [Please note: we are referring to face-to-face or person-to-person judgments and perceptions, not perceptions of media. Obviously, media purposefully and blatantly presents women as objects. We’re not letting them off the hook for that. We need to cut objectifying media out of our visual diets and re-train our minds to see people instead of objects in both media and face to face. More on that in a second.]

By Michelle Christensen for Beauty Redefined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studies on self-objectification show us that “clothing represents an important contributor to the body and emotional experience of contemporary young women” because body-baring clothing leads to greater states of self-objectification, body shame, body dissatisfaction, and negative mood**. What this tells us (and what our own experience living in female bodies tells us is a no-brainer) is that when we wear clothing that feels revealing or that overtly emphasizes our parts, we become very self-aware of those parts that are being (or could potentially be) looked at. We self-objectify and are in a near-constant state of adjusting our clothing, thinking about what we look like, and looking at other people looking at us. It’s OK to like being looked at, and even to like attention from others for our looks, but if it’s getting in the way of progress, happiness, and health — as so much research confirms that it is — we’ve got to make some changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pin It on Pinterest