By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.
- When lifestyle bloggers post casual swimsuit pics of themselves in front of a cool brick wall — looking off to the side, toes turned inward, hips pushed back to subtly emphasize a “thigh gap”;
- when Instagrammers smile at the camera in their underwear, hunched just slightly to reveal skin folds, with captions celebrating body positivity;
- when a new mom with a big following post pics of her not-quite-as-flat (but almost!) abs while claiming bravery about embracing her new post-partum body on her journey to get her body back;
- when gym-going women post photos from the locker room, twisting themselves unnaturally to highight tiny waists with fashionably rounded backsides to show their “fitness” progress or their sad-to-glad “before and after” transformations…
In a culture that values women for our bodies more than anything else, it is no surprise that women learn to survive within that system, reaping its meager rewards. We learn to search for scraps of what sometimes feels like “power” in the form of validation, acceptance, and financial reward for granting visual and physical access to our bodies.
Just as boys and men learn to view and value women for our appearance and sexual appeal, girls and women learn to view and evaluate ourselves in the same terms, through the same outside perspective. We monitor our bodies constantly, consciously and unconsciously working to adjust our appearances to be most appealing to onlookers. This objectification hurts us. It minimizes us, it distracts us, it drains us. It always has. Only now, we’ve learned to claim it as our own. We’ve duped ourselves into thinking our body-centric system of value is self-chosen and empowering.
It’s understandable. Those scraps of “power” are almost as good as the real thing in this system, because attention and validation are bestowed upon women deemed desirable enough. Your image can sell products and charm adoring fans and attract the eyes of suitors. By granting visual and physical access to our desirable bodies, we can reap all the benefits we’ve learned are available.
Until that stops. He changes his mind. A new “look” is in. You get older. Your appearance changes. You become sick or injured. You have a baby. You run out of money.
When your empowerment is based on others’ physical appraisal of you, it can be taken away as freely as it was given. It is fleeting and fickle. Our profit-driven culture thrives off the objectification of female bodies, and while companies and industries thrive, women are losing. Objectification 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.
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. If you use social media — whether as an “influencer,” a casual Instagrammer, or just as a viewer — and if you’re interested in consciously working to step outside the system that values women for our bodies above all else, we have some tips. Below are guidelines in the form of two Positive Body Image Playbooks — the first for social media content creators and the second for content consumers.
Positive Body Image Playbook: Social Media Literacy for Socially Conscious Content
Your posts pass the test when they:
- Stand alone without a caption to situate it as “body positive” or “inspiring”
- Advertise only products or services that uphold the values you hope to promote
- Clearly state that it is a paid promotion to sell a product or service if you’re making money from it
- Encourage people to see you (and all others) as more than a body
- Couldn’t possibly be mistaken for harmful #fitspo, #thinspo, or plain old sexual objectification
- Avoid disparaging – even jokingly – any body types and characteristics as “flaws” (i.e. “I’m learning to love my thunder thighs” or “I’m so embarrassed/brave to show this pic of my belly rolls”)
- Serve as more than just a #humblebrag or a request for validation
If a post doesn’t satisfy most or all of the above criteria, consider skipping that particular post or opting for an image or message that does.
Positive Body Image Playbook: Social Media Literacy for Socially Conscious Consumers
Ask yourself the following questions about the content you’re viewing:
- Does this image/account encourage me to fixate on my own or other women’s appearance?
- Does this image/account spark body anxiety or feelings of shame?
- Am I engaging in self-comparison as I view these images?
- Does this account seek to profit from my insecurity by selling solutions to fix my “flaws?”
- Are these images promoting or reinforcing distorted ideals of what bodies and faces should look like – either through digital manipulation or featuring only one body type or “look?”
- Would men who think women are garbage and only valuable as sexual objects enjoy viewing these images?
- Does it encourage me to see women as bodies first and foremost?
If the answer is yes to any or all of the above, consider unfollowing, unsubscribing, limiting, or otherwise avoiding this type of content.
If you are interested in elevating the status of women in a culture that happily values us as objects first and foremost, be sure to look critically at your own ideas of female empowerment first. If the images you’re sharing and liking online are indistinguishable from the sexism and objectification that have always been used to devalue and disempower women, they might not be all that revolutionary.
Women are more than bodies, and when we can see more in ourselves, we can be more. We can then learn to value more in ourselves and everyone else — value that doesn’t correlate with our beauty, and value that can’t be bestowed or withdrawn by anyone else.
Illustrations by Michelle Christensen, commissioned for Beauty Redefined.
Lindsay Kite, Ph.D., is the co-director of Beauty Redefined, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to help women redefine the meaning and value of beauty in their lives through body image resilience. Don’t miss her TEDx talk.
Do you need help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome self-consciousness and get on to bigger and better things? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD.