Photoshopping: Altering Images and Our Minds

Photoshopping, digital alteration, image manipulation, blah blah blah. Everyone talks about the fact that so many images of women are “perfected” with the help of technology, but we can’t just toss it aside as a non-issue everyone already knows about. Whether or not a person is aware of the possibility of image alterations, not everyone realizes exactly HOW MUCH these images are changed to fit some seriously un-human and unrealistic ideals that we view over and over. And not everyone understands that it isn’t just fashion magazine covers that feature drastically Photoshopped images. It’s TV. It’s video. It’s your favorite brand online. It’s everywhere.

While the vast majority of images of women are being digitally altered, so are our perceptions of normal, healthy, beautiful and attainable.

A before-and-after image from Britney Spears’ 2013 “Work B****” music video obtained by the Daily Mail, which shows the digital slim-down Britney’s body received via CGI.

One of the main strategies used to reinforce and normalize a distorted idea of “average” is media’s representation of women as extremely thin (meaning much thinner than the actual population or what is physically possible for the vast majority of women) – either by consistent use of models and actresses that are underweight or extremely thin, or by making the models and actresses fit their idea of ideal thinness and beauty through digital manipulation both on screen through computer-generated imagery (CGI — shown in the Britney Spears music video example) and in print media. Essentially, “the feminine ideal is tanned, healthy slenderness, with no unsightly bumps, bulges or cellulite, and bodily and facial perfection that results from hours of labor: exercise, makeup and hair care” (Coward, 1985) – and 30 years later, plastic surgery and Photoshop. This unrealistic form is consistently represented across almost all media forms, along with blemish-free, wrinkle-free, and even pore-free skin, thanks to the wonders of digital manipulation as an “industry standard” that is openly endorsed and defended by magazine editors and media makers the world over.

Though we hear about digital manipulation controversies all the time (check out our Photoshopping Phoniness Hall of Shame for tons of examples), media executives and producers continue to use it to an unbelievable extent and they violently defend it as a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Here are a couple interesting (and appalling) case studies from Seventeen and Self magazines to showcase this very issue:

The Feb. 2014 cover of Seventeen, featuring Troian Bellisario

The February 2014 cover of Seventeen featured “Pretty Little Liars” star Troian Bellisario, who opened up about her past problems with an eating disorder. The teen magazine decided to feature that as a teaser on the cover, right above a much larger headline for “Get an Insane Body — It’s hard, but you’ll look hot!” This juxtaposition of providing an outlet for a young actress to open up to young fans about a disorder that “ripped her life apart” next to a story promoting the thin ideals that drive many girls and women to such extremes in eating is appallingly irresponsible. Read more about our thoughts on Seventeen here.

When superstar singer Kelly Clarkson was digitally slimmed down almost beyond recognition on Self’s September 2009 cover, people noticed. Her appearance on “Good Morning America” within just days of the cover shoot proved that her body did not look anything like the very thin one that appeared on the cover. In a shockingly ironic twist, the issue she appeared on was titled “The Body Confidence Issue” and featured an interview inside where she explained how comfortable she felt with her body:

“My happy weight changes,” Clarkson says in the September issue of SELF. “Sometimes I eat more; sometimes I play more. I’ll be different sizes all the time. When people talk about my weight, I’m like, ‘You seem to have a problem with it; I don’t. I’m fine!’ I’ve never felt uncomfortable on the red carpet or anything.” 

Kelly Clarkson before and after Photoshop on Self magazine, Sept. 2009

Rather than apologizing for the seriously unethical and extreme Photoshopping snafu, Self editor Lucy Danziger tried to defend her magazine’s work to the death:

“Yes, of course we do post-production corrections on our images. Photoshopping is an industry standard,” she stated. “Kelly Clarkson exudes confidence, and is a great role model for women of all sizes and stages of their life. She works out and is strong and healthy, and our picture shows her confidence and beauty. She literally glows from within. That is the feeling we’d all want to have. We love this cover and we love Kelly Clarkson.”

Interestingly, Danziger wasn’t satisfied with that statement and felt inspired to take to her personal blog to further rationalize away the Photoshopping hack job:

“Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best…But in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand.”

It’s hard to believe anyone’s “personal best” is a fake representation of herself. They’ll plaster “body confidence!” all over the magazine and quote Kelly talking about her own real body confidence, but they refuse to show us her actual body.

Target’s March 2014 Photoshop hack job to the JUNIOR’s swim line is unreal.

This is just one example that happened to generate enough media coverage that people were able to find out about the scary distortion of an active, 27-year-old superstar’s body in media. Unfortunately, this case study is pretty representative of thousands more that appear in magazines, on billboards, in advertisements, in stores and everywhere else you can think of every single day. At Beauty Redefined, we’ve termed this phenomenon “the normalization of abnormal.” Since we’ll see millions more images of women in media than we’ll ever see face-to-face, those images form a new standard for not just “beautiful,” but also “average” and “healthy” in our minds. When women compare themselves to a standard of beautiful, average and healthy that simply doesn’t exist in real life, the battle for healthy body image is already lost. Last year, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced they’ve adopted a policy against “false advertising:”

The AMA adopted a new policy to encourage advertising associations to work with public and private sector organizations concerned with child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for advertisements, especially those appearing in teen-oriented publications, that would discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.

Dr. McAneny of the AMA states, “We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software.” And yet, in the last year, Photoshopping has reached an all-time high. It is inescapable.

From lost self-esteem, lost money and time spent fixing “flaws” and a well-documented preoccupation with losing weight (NEDA, 2010), the effects of these unreal ideals hurt everyone. We know that advertising – especially for fashion or beauty products – depends on two things: 1) girls and women believing their happiness, health, and ability to be loved is dependent on their appearance, and 2) girls and women believing can achieve physical ideals by using certain products or services. Do we really understand that ALL media (with very few exceptions) depends on advertising dollars to operate? Because of that, the editorial content or programming has to uphold those same ideals or else advertisers aren’t happy. Digitally slimming women’s bodies, adding or exaggerating a “thigh gap,” and removing signs of life like pores, gray hairs, and wrinkles aren’t just casual decisions based on aesthetic preferences of a few editors — they are profit-driven decisions to create false ideals for females to seek after in hopes of someday attaining. These hopes are largely driven by desire to be found attractive, loved, appear healthy, and ultimately, happy.

Same model, differing degrees of Photoshopping on REAL printed ads, Oct. 2009. Ralph Lauren responded: “After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately.”

One telling example from the ‘90s (found in Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth”) explains how a prominent women’s magazine featured gray-haired models in a fashion spread (unheard of even today, right?). It was a success until one of their biggest advertisers, Clairol hair color company, pulled their entire campaign as a protest against the spread. The magazine, which depended on those advertising dollars, was forced to never again feature gray-haired women in a positive light. The same holds true for media today. Pay attention to what kind of companies are advertising in your favorite magazines or during your favorite TV shows. There’s a very good chance they are selling beauty products, weight loss products or other appearance-related services, which means the female characters featured positively (like in relationships or pursued by men, complimented, not the butt of jokes, etc.) will likely resemble the idealized women in the advertising.

From media outlets like that go to great lengths to make unrealistic and unattainable beauty ideals look normal and within reach, to the diet and weight loss industry raking in an estimated $61 billion on Americans’ quest for thinness in 2010 (Marketdata Enterprises, 2009), those with financial interests at stake in our beliefs about women’s bodies are thriving unlike ever before. Simultaneously, women and families are losing. Losing self-esteem. Losing time and money spent on items, services and products meant to fix our never-ending list of “flaws.” Losing real understandings of healthy, average and attainable. Sometimes even losing weight they didn’t need to lose in dangerous ways in order to measure up (or down) to Photoshopped ideals we see every day as “normal.”

Former high fashion model, Crystal Renn, battled a deadly eating disorder for many years before deciding to switch to “plus size” modeling for health purposes. Photographer and Fashion for Passion founder Nicholas Routzen said that Crystal looked thinner because the photos were “…taken from a higher angle with a wider lens,” but that“I shaped her … I did nothing that I wouldn’t do to anyone. I’m paid to make women look beautiful.”

While representations of women’s bodies across the media spectrum have shrunk dramatically in the last three decades, rates of eating disorders have skyrocketed – tripling for college-age women from the late ‘80s to 1993 and rising since then to 4% suffering with bulimia (National Eating Disorder Association, 2010). Perhaps even more startling is the 119 percent increase in the number of children under age 12 hospitalized due to an eating disorder between 1999 and 2006, the vast majority of whom were girls (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010). Though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2000) reports that “no exact cause of eating disorders have yet been found,” they do admit that some characteristics have been shown to influence the development of the illnesses, which include low self-esteem, fear of becoming fat and being in an environment where weight and thinness were emphasized – all of which are shown to be related to media depictions of idealized bodies, which is all but inescapable. Scholars have proposed that eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are due, in part, to an extreme commitment to attaining the cultural body ideal as portrayed in media.

Photoshopping has taken these unreal ideals to a scary new level. Henry Farid, a Dartmouth professor of computer science who specializes in digital forensics and photo manipulation, agrees. “The more and more we use this editing, the higher and higher the bar goes. They’re creating things that are physically impossible,” he told ABC News in August 2009. “We’re seeing really radical digital plastic surgery. It’s moving towards the Barbie doll model of what a woman should look like — big breasts, tiny waist, ridiculously long legs, elongated neck. All the body fat is removed, all the wrinkles are removed, the skin is smoothed out.”

What we see in media, and what we may be internalizing as normal or beautiful, is anything but normal or beautiful. It’s fake. It’s a profit-driven idea of normal and beautiful that women will spend their lives trying to achieve and men will spend their lives trying to find. But until we all learn to recognize and reject these harmful messages about what it means to look like a woman, we all lose. And I don’t want to lose. Are you with us in taking back beauty for females everywhere?

Recognize that you are not just a body. Recognize that your body is not just an ornament or an object to be fixed and judged — it is an instrument to live and do and be. Reject messages that teach you otherwise. Cancel subscriptions, unfollow on social media, spend your money elsewhere, talk back to companies and speak up in your own circles of influence. Your reflection does not define your worth, and self-comparisons to unreal ideals get us absolutely nowhere. These ideals are unlikely to change anytime soon, so we have to change our perceptions of media and bodies with or without media.

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 the largest and most detailed collection of Photoshopping Phoniness on the Web, see our Hall of Shame Gallery!

And have you seen our new sticky notes to slap on magazines in the store aisle? They’re soooo good. Find them here

Physically Photoshopping Ourselves Out of Reality

When the digital world of female faces and bodies looks nothing like the natural world, is it any wonder that women have turned to physical alteration to meet the unreal standards? The possibility of achieving unnatural ideals through enhancements, procedures and products is a game-changer for what women today are capable of looking like. But what about their daughters, students and coworkers? What will their own  “flawed” forms look like in comparison to that manipulated reality? With our own game-changing suggestions, we see an opportunity for a much more beautiful future.

You’ve heard about the epidemic of digital manipulation across media. Photoshopping, or other forms of image manipulation, is now an all-out media industry standard according to the likes of women’s magazine editors across the country (one of the most dangerous offenders). Plus, more than 60 percent of girls today admit to Photoshopping their OWN photos on their social networks. But this isn’t just a problem with print images.  This is a problem with our own self-images and our own actual appearances. Henry Farid, a Dartmouth Professor who specializes in digital forensics, put it quite succinctly: “The more and more we use this editing, the higher and higher the bar goes. They’re creating things that are physically impossible. We’re seeing really radical digital plastic surgery…big breasts, tiny waist, ridiculously long legs, elongated neck. All the body fat is removed, all the wrinkles are removed, the skin is smoothed out.” But you don’t have to be a professor to see this impossibly high bar being raised higher by the minute.

These billions of images of women in media far outnumber the females we could ever see eye to eye, and that reinforces a distorted idea of what we should like. Not even just what it takes to be the most desirable or beautiful – but what a regular, normal, average woman looks like. And we act out these distorted ideals of normal and attainable in very real ways – in our daily beauty endeavors and our beauty plans. Some of these examples may seem like a bit of a stretch, but consider them as strategies we use to take the unreal ideals we see in a lifetime of media use and impose them upon our own bodies to try to attain the reality we see mediated to us. Some of these examples may be part of your life or your plans for your life and others may not, but all of them represent the ways we quite literally physically “Photoshop” ourselves out of reality:

  • Cosmetic surgery: breast augmentation, liposuction, body contouring, lifts, tucks
  • Botox
  • Diet Pills
  • Tanning or skin lightening
  • Collagen facial fillers and lip injections
  • Lash extensions and prescriptions
  • Pore minimizing makeup and skin care
  • Anti-aging creams, lotions, gels
  • Laser hair removal
  • Tattooed makeup
  • Anti-cellulite procedures
  • Teeth whitening

We can’t help but imagine how different our world looked just a decade or two ago – not just in terms of what women in media looked like when digital manipulation was only science fiction – but what women in real life looked like. Cosmetic surgery was nearly non-existent. In just the last decade, there was a 446 percent increase in cosmetic procedures (namely liposuction and breast enhancement) in the U.S., which raked in $12 billion in 2010 alone. Tanning beds were hard to find and extra pricey when found. Laser hair removal was non-existent. Tattooed makeup like eyeliner and lip liner was unheard of. Collagen lip injections and facial fillers hadn’t yet seen the light of day. Lash lengthening prescriptions weren’t conceived of, anti-cellulite procedures and gels weren’t on the market, teeth whitening wasn’t an everyday activity, pore-minimizing and anti-aging products were marketed by very few. Armpit beautifying lotion would have been laughable, as would butt-shaping shoes (especially for 8-year-old girls, but thankfully Skechers has filled that hole in the industry!).

Women inevitably looked different back then. Today, we see women presented to us all hours of the day in every form of media that do not look like women 20 years ago OR women you see face to face. And yet, over time, many of us come to hold ourselves to that unattainable standard that appears so normal and unquestioned as we physically Photoshop ourselves out of reality.

What does our world look like for little girls growing up today? What about for women growing older in a world that looks radically different than it did when they grew up? And how much pain, energy and time will they have to put into physically Photoshopping themselves out of reality? To be sure, it doesn’t come naturally. Each year, women put hundreds of billions of dollars into the latest procedures, products and prescriptions to try to reach that “bar” the wide world of media is raising.

But we raise that bar for ourselves and our daughters when we take part in our own physical Photoshopping. We raise that bar for females everywhere when we physically manipulate ourselves in attempts to meet a profit-driven standard that is inherently unattainable.

The line is different for every woman, and no woman should be shamed or blamed for how she chooses to enact “beauty.” We’re in this fight together! These messages telling us we are not worthy of love, happiness or success unless we are unattainably beautiful, thin, and sexually desirable are lies, but they are powerful. To the girls and women reading this: If beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong. (In the U.S., we got this statement on billboards as a much-needed reminder!) We grasp the reality of our beauty when we begin to see ourselves for what our beauty really entails, and not what industries would have us believe: scars from years of playing, freckles from the sun, wrinkles from smiling and laughing and living, cheerfulness in spite of trials, selflessness
when there are so many reasons to turn inward, musical gifts, the ability to solve math problems with ease, the ways we join together with other women instead of gossip and judge, the time and care we offer our families and friends, and the list goes on and on and on.

We are in the midst of a beautiful reality that is ours once we recognize it and grasp hold of it. And studies show that when we can learn to love ourselves – despite the beauty ideals we are surrounded by and cannot obtain – it shows! Recent studies show us that girls who don’t like their bodies or appreciate them – regardless of their actual appearance – become more sedentary over time and pay less attention to having a healthy diet. And that makes sense. If you think you’re gross and worthless, why would you take care of yourself?

On the flipside of that study, research has found that girls who feel good about themselves and respect their bodies – regardless of what they look like – are more likely to be physically active and eat healthy. They are less likely to gain unnecessary weight and they make healthy lifestyle choices far into the future. How we think about our bodies and our beauty has everything to do with how we treat ourselves. When we can learn to love and respect ourselves, regardless of how our bodies appear, it shows! We must learn this now and we must begin to teach the little girls in our lives how beautiful their realities are and can always be.

Here’s an outrageous idea: What would happen if confident, happy, beautiful women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, all over hair removal or tanning regimens? How could that change the way their daughters, students, friends, nieces and coworkers perceived themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real faces? Their own varied-looking and perfectly functional breasts, behinds, thighs, arms and abs? 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.

What if we stopped Photoshopping or altering our own photos to fit unreal ideals, including family portraits and even kids’ school photos, which are now sold in packages that include blemish removal and teeth whitening, among other manipulations of reality? What if we stopped imposing our current perceptions of beauty and flawlessness on our own families in this small way, and allowed pictures to capture what we really look like — even in those awkward adolescent years? Don’t we want our posterity to see our reality, instead of a manipulated version of what we thought we or our children should look like in order to be acceptable?

Yes, maybe all the other girls at school are getting the Photoshopped school photo package. And yes, maybe every 55-year-old woman on TV or movies has a wrinkle-free, perfectly injected and lifted face that appears ageless. But when I look at my own mom, who I’ve never doubted is incredibly beautiful, and I see her very real face with very natural smile lines, it makes me feel OK about the newly appearing creases around my own eyes. My first thought isn’t how unnatural and unacceptable those lines are and how quick I can start my first round of Botox. It’s that they’re OK. They’re normal. They don’t detract from me. They make me ME. 

My mom doesn’t need injections in her face to fix anything or make her more beautiful, and I don’t either. But if she ever decides to, I would understand. The pressure to Photoshop ourselves into hopeful conformity with beauty ideals is intense, and backlash against female aging is unbelievable. At 28, I frankly don’t yet grasp the real pain and anxiety that undoubtedly accompanies aging and its effects on female faces and bodies that become invisible and worthless in some ways to a society that prizes youthful beauty over all else.

But if my mom doesn’t succumb to the pressure to change her physical reality and, in turn, my own reality of what women’s faces and bodies can look like and should look like, I will be forever grateful. My own smile lines will show it. In turn, I will proudly show my future children, nieces, nephews, or students my un-altered middle school photos, bushy eyebrows and all. Let’s preserve our beautiful reality for ourselves and for the future generations (inlcuding those growing up today) who deserve to see what’s real, rather than the ideals we chose to embrace digitally and physically.

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.

Weight, Size and Media Lies: The Numbers Don’t Add Up

We’ve all been duped. After years of TV watching, magazine reading, advertising exposure and media dominating our worlds, too many of us have internalized sneaky media lies that normal, average and regular, healthy women all maintain a weight of about 100-125 and wear between a 00 (yes, that’s a double zero) and a 4. Those are the only numbers we ever hear. Everything else is kept top secret, as if weighing more than 125 at any height is a horrible shame to keep locked inside or to be reserved only for grim “before” stories of extreme body makeovers.

Celebrities tend to keep their weight/size stats on the down-low for the most part, but occasionally we are hit with some numbers — whether written into scripts, divulged in interviews or leaked by stylists. Zoe Saldana weighs 115, as declared in a May 2013 Allure magazine headline. In the movie “500 days of Summer,” the gorgeous sought-after girl next door (Zooey Deschanel as Summer), is described as being of “average” height and “average” weight, which is listed on the screen as 5’5″ and 121 lbs. Jennifer Lopez told Vogue in March 2012 that she is “just a regular woman. I wear a size 6.” In the pilot episode of “30 Rock,” Jack Donaghy (boss man Alec Baldwin) says he could deduce anything about Liz Lemon (employee Tina Fey) from their first meeting. She says, “What? Are you going to guess my weight now?” He replies, “You don’t want me to do that” (in a threatening “you-would-be-ashamed-if-I-said-it-out-loud” manner). Shortly after, he does state her embarrassing weight … and it’s 127.

With the help of for-profit media upheld by advertisers who make billions off unattainable beauty ideals, many of us have come to believe a very distorted picture of what it means to look like (or weigh like or fit into clothes like) a “normal” woman. Along with the idealized images of women’s bodies we see nonstop in all forms of media, the vast majority of the weights or dress sizes we ever hear or see in mainstream media are carefully selected and often distorted. They are generally in reference to models and celebrities ranging from size 00-4 (sometimes 6, and it’s usually treated as a real act of bravery to admit it), and though media makes them sound totally standard and “average” for any woman, we know that they are not representative of many regular, healthy women all over the world who often feel like abnormally large monsters when they compare their own weights or sizes to those declared by celebrities or casually thrown around in TV or movie scripts.

The average model is 5’11” and 117 lbs (which is considered severely underweight, even according to the BMI). That does not mean every person with those stats is unhealthy, but we do know that with the exception of a few, most women would have to go to unhealthy extremes to get anywhere near those measurements. The vast majority of women we see in any form of media are very thin, not to mention digitally altered, softly lit, and styled by an entourage of experts from the roots of her hair to to the tips of her toes. But what about those female celebs who do appear to be of a more normative size and weight than runway models? Their weights and sizes should sound a lot more like the middle/higher end of the spectrum, right? They’ll make us 127-lbs-and-up gals feel less freakish, right?

When It Comes to Size, These Aren’t Such “Little White Lies

If, by chance, the beautiful women we see in popular culture are not very thin, they often publicly profess to being a size or weight that does not seem to be reflective of their actual measurements. Take Kim Kardashian for example. (There’s no need to explain who she is at this point.) When ridiculous backlash against her body size came up in 2011, Kim blogged to her fans that she loved her cellulite and “va va voom” figure and they should embrace their own bodies. Just weeks later, she made sure the world knew that she was a “curvy size 2” and no bigger. But Kim isn’t alone in claiming a size that seems to be much smaller than her actual self. After media controversy swirled around Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jessica Simpson gaining weight in recent years, both women set the record straight by simultaneously claiming they “loved their curves” and were very happy with their “size 2” figures (note: this was before Jessica’s pregnancy and media frenzy over her post-baby weight).

Or take 5′ 9″ singer/actress Jennifer Hudson, who told reporters in 2007 she weighed 140 lbs., after dropping 30 since her American Idol days. She said that in a sea of size 2 celebrities, she enjoys representing the “real women*” out there with her healthy figure. But after signing a contract with Weight Watchers in early 2010, she self-reported to have lost 80 lbs. total, and wears a size 4- 6. If we do the math based on what she has told the press, that means the curvy singer would currently weigh 90 lbs. (170 lbs. during Idol, 140 lbs. in 2007, -50 with Weight Watchers in 2010 = 90 lbs!) Unlikely.

Take a glance at full-length shots of Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jessica Simpson, or Jennifer Hudson, and then grab a pair of size 2 (or 4) jeans. Something tells us these celebs are telling a dangerous not-so-white lie to the girls and women who adore them and who can’t help but compare their own real weights and sizes to these potentially very misleading claims. Blame it on vanity sizing or only wearing extremely stretchy clothing, but either way, publicly claiming to wear a size at the lowest end of the spectrum is significant for every girl or woman who compares that claim to her own clothing tags. 

No wonder our perception of “average” or “healthy” is incredibly skewed toward thinness and unreal perfection. Since we’ll see billions more images of women in media than we will ever see face to face, we must counteract those images with reality. Lexie and I got a glimpse of some refreshing reality freshman year of college when one of our friends (who was pretty thin-looking and very athletic) confidently and casually stated that she weighed 165. We had never heard any girl or woman share their weight that was anywhere over about 135. We never made a big deal of it at the time, but it was so incredibly informative to hear that number — that was higher than we assumed and higher than we had been taught was acceptable for a healthy girl or woman — spoken confidently, with no apologies or shame accompanying it, and from a healthy, active girl.

What does normal look like? What do accurate weights and heights look like? For starters, we recommend looking around you. We can’t let media messages, whether in paid advertising or casually thrown in entertainment media, define “average,” “normal” or “healthy” for you. Numbers can’t do that. Numbers are so unbelievably specific to individuals and not comparable for different heights, body types, ethnicities, ages and lifestyles. Those numbers we do ever hear in media (and often from peers or family) are carefully selected, engineered to drive profits for weight-loss companies, cosmetic procedures and other appearance-related products, and also distorted to sound more like the media ideals. We can’t blame a celebrity (or any girl or woman) for claiming to be a weight or size she might not actually be, because we know very well the pressure women face to fit those ideals and the backlash that accompanies not fitting those ideals. We have a strategy for rejecting these lies, and it begins with sacrificing our reliance on the numbers: weight, BMI, measurements and clothing sizes. They are so beyond arbitrary that it is shocking. Don’t believe me? Then read my research on the BMI. Then read my research on how to measure real health and fitness.

Still tempted to base your health or your worth or the success of your day/week/year on what jeans size you’re wearing? Then go get a pair of jeans at Ann Taylor or Old Navy or Banana Republic and get the same size/style from Forever 21 or Express or Target and see the definition of “arbitrary.” Throw away your scale, or at the very least, hide it so it’s only convenient to get to it every 6 months or so. Never calculate your BMI again, and forget whatever it told you about your health category. Buy whatever clothing size fits you properly and helps you feel comfortable enough to not picture what you look like all day long and self-objectify yourself away from exercising, eating a healthy diet and being successful in every area of life. And please, please, please don’t let your value and worth go up as your size goes down, and vice versa. The numbers we should be focusing on are the number of minutes you spend engaging in physical activity, your heart rate, your blood sugar, your cholesterol and your best friend’s phone number (so you can call her to get her on board with this whole thing).

Along with fighting media lies using our own beautiful realities, let’s institute a policy of honesty — what we might consider the best policy — particularly between mothers and daughters! One of our supporters recently shared with us that she grew up with a very messed-up perception of heights and weights because her mom always lied about how tall she was — exaggerating her height by at least 3″, which left our friend feeling “like a clumsy giant, enormous in comparison to her, and so confused why I felt so very large in comparison,” considering she was only two inches taller than her mom’s self-proclaimed height. For this reason, she says, ” I will never fib to my daughters or anyone else about how tall I am or how much I weigh or any other measurement.” Lots of us have experienced feelings of being dreadfully abnormal when comparing our own measurements to the exaggerated claims of others. We must normalize reality. We must work on taking back beauty every single day.

Moms can do so much good in normalizing real weights and sizes by telling the truth to daughters and sons who might not get to hear other real info about bodies from media or self-conscious friends. That doesn’t mean we all need to go around declaring our dress size or weights — in fact, we would strongly recommend that you do not do anything of the sort. Regular discussion of those numbers is often not necessary or helpful for the well-being of ourselves or others. As women, we are taught to be so fixated on those numbers that they come to define us, and determine our happiness. Have you ever stepped on a scale in the morning only to see a number that was slightly higher (or lower, in some cases) than what you hoped for? Did it tank your mood, lead to discouragement or shame and contribute to unhealthy decision throughout the following day or week? Been there. Skip the scale. Your reflection does not define your worth, and neither does your weight or dress size — no matter how it compares to Kim Kardashian’s claims.

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.

*ALL women are “real women.” Tall, short, thin, regular, curvy, large, whatever. We hate those ideas that only curvy women are “real.” The only women that are un-real are the ones that have been digitally created using Photoshop.

To BE or To Be Looked At?

You are capable of much more than looking hot.

Have you thought about this statement? Do you understand the gravity of it? This phrase gave me goosebumps when I let it sink in. Women are always being looked at. And when we aren’t being looked at, we are too often envisioning ourselves being looked at, as if an outsider’s perspective has become our own. In fact, our PhD work makes one thing very clear: Part of growing up female today means learning to view oneself from another’s gaze.

Ever heard this quote? Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (John Berger, “Ways of Seeing,” 1977).

This insightful man was referring to the idea of “objectification,” which we’ve all heard once or twice. But when we think of the term, we probably think of sexualized female bodies, or sexualized parts of female bodies, which isn’t the whole idea here. When we understand the whole of objectification, we can better grasp the role it plays in our daily lives and the ways it may keep us from fulfilling all we want to do with our days. When we travel around giving our one-hour Beauty Redefined visual presentation, we explain to our audiences that objectification takes on many roles, including self-objectification.

Say you’re walking down the sidewalk on a beautiful day. Someone who has internalized an outsider’s perspective of herself and is self-objectifying will often spend more time adjusting her clothing or hair, wondering what other people are thinking of her, judging the shape of her shadow or reflection in a window, etc. She will picture herself walking – she literally turns herself into an object of vision – instead of enjoying the sunny weather, looking around, or thinking about anything else. If you find yourself thinking and acting like this, you aren’t alone. In fact, you are just one of millions of females growing up in a world that teaches us to survey ourselves every waking moment. Profit-driven media tells us how we can “Look Hotter From Behind!” in fitness magazines, “Look Wow Now!” on makeover shows every hour of every day, “Look 10 Years Younger!” using every anti-aging procedure and product under the sun. Notice the emphasis on looking … Do you find you survey yourself as you move through life? That you ever turn yourself into an object of vision: a sight?artgirl

One way I see self-objectification taking place in rampant ways today is through girls, women, and selfies. You know, those pictures of ourselves we post online at the most flattering angle, with the most flattering photo filter? When I see someone posting dozens of selfies, I think about the ways they are trying to present a perfect vision of themselves to an outside world looking at them. I always want to tell those people and their selfies this true, but cheesy thought:

You are capable of much more than being looked at. Do you know who you are? Have you grasped the powerful role you can play in a world so badly in need of your unique talents, wisdom, and light? Are you aware of your unique mission at this point in your life? You’ve got something great to do, that only you can do. And if you are here to be looked at, to appear, to survey yourself, instead of do an inspirational work that only you can do, you are not fulfilling your mission. Cheesy? Yes. True? Oh yes. More true than you know.
I see objectification playing out in my own life in many ways. When I’m walking past people, I often catch myself imagining what I look like to them – from the front and from behind – and think irrational thoughts about what the people walking behind me or past me think about me. I often adjust my clothing to what I assume is the most flattering position as I walk. I can admit I’ve been known to look at my own Facebook profile to see what I look like to the cute guy who just added me or the friend I just added. I look through my photos and try to gauge my looks from the perspective of someone who is not me. If that isn’t self objectification, I don’t know what is! Unfortunately, I know I’m not alone in doing this.  I am a body image activist and I have a Ph.D. in research on self-objectification, yet I still catch myself envisioning myself from an outsider’s perspective instead of moving on to so many things more meaningful and productive. This just goes to show it’s a constant battle. I am constantly working to remind myself I’m capable of much more than looking hot. My self-objectification is complicated by the fact that I am an identical twin, so in some ways I see a body of a person with identical DNA in real life in a way that most people cannot experience. Unless you have an identical counterpart, your vision of yourself comes from photos, videos, and your two-dimensional reflection.

So let’s talk about mirrors, shall we? Even as I sit in my bedroom typing at 2 a.m., I see a full-length mirror peeking through the closet door, one with hooks hanging all my jewelry, and a centerpiece mirror above my bed. While I don’t think I’m vain or image-obsessed, I spend about 30-40 minutes in front of the mirror every morning, keep a compact in my purse, and apparently have about 100 in my room for safe keeping. I am surveying an image of myself for at least one of the 24 hours in my day, and imagining that image of myself as I move throughout my day. What role do mirrors play in your life? “Women are constantly being looked at. Even when we’re not, we’re so hyper-aware of the possibility of being looked at that it can rule even our most private lives. Including in front of our mirrors, alone,” says Autumn Whitfield-Madrano at her always inspirational website, The Beheld.

The thought-provoking Autumn undertook an experiment I was amazed by: A month-long break from mirrors. Thirty-one days of no mirrors, store windows, shiny pots, spoons, or the dark glass of the NYC subway she rides daily. In her own words: “There’s nothing wrong with looking in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes looking to your reflection—even when it is impossibly subjective, and backward at that—for a breath of fortitude, centeredness, and assurance. I just want to see what life is like when I’m not using that image as my anchor; I want to see how it affects the way I move through the world, the way I regard myself and others. I want to know what it’s like to sever a primary tie to one of my greatest personal flaws—extraordinary self-consciousness—and I want to discover what will fill the space that the mirror has occupied until now.” She goes on: “Sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself, or whatever I understand myself to be. Other times, I distinctly see an image of myself. When I see my image reflected on a mirror behind a bar I think, Oh good, I look like a woman who is having a good time out with friends. Or I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer? You’ll notice what these have in common: My thoughts upon seeing my reflection are both self-centered and distant. I’m seeing myself, but not really—I’m seeing a woman who looks like she’s having a good time, or a writer, etc.”

Autumn’s insights echo Berger’s powerful words. Too often, we travel through life with an outsider’s vision of ourselves. We are to be looked at. We watch ourselves being looked at. We become objects of vision: sights. But isn’t there so much more to life than watching ourselves self-consciously stroll through it? Life is beautiful when you live it – really experience it – not when you are concerned about appearing beautiful as you try to live. When you think of your happiest times, were they only when you looked picture perfect? Were you happiest when you were working to appear happy or attractive or beautiful to others? Happiness and beauty come from doing, acting, being – outside the confines of being looked at.

So, today, what will you do to shake off the outsider’s gaze you envision of yourself? Will you do as Autumn has done and experiment with what your life becomes when you spend less time with your reflection and more time doing, acting and being? Will you enjoy the world around you instead of hoping others are enjoying their view of you? Will you do something your self-policing outsider’s gaze kept you from doing before – like speak in front of a group of people? Run without worrying about the jiggle or the sweat? Go to the store even if you aren’t all made-up?

Today is the day to remember you are capable of much more than being looked at. And when you begin to realize that, you can start realizing the power of your abilities and the good you can do in a world so desperately in need of you. NOT a vision of you, but ALL of you.  What will you find you are capable of?

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