Vanity Fair-Skinned Only? The Race Issue in the “Hollywood Issue”

VF Hollywood Issue 2010

I guess the last few years of backlash weren’t enough to convince Vanity Fair to stop whitewashing beauty out of its pages. Here’s a refresher: the “Fresh Faces of 2010” featured a lineup of nine beautiful young stars, all of whom had one noticeable attribute in common: they were all white.

 Keep in mind that was the year of Zoe Saldana in “Avatar” and “Star Trek,” Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious” and Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire,” among many other stunningly talented women of color who shared the Hollywood spotlight. The 2011 issue featured a slight improvement with the inclusion of Rashida Jones, though she was pushed to the far right of the tri-folded cover photo, which means one had to not only open the cover of the magazine, but also unfold the flap, in order to see the one and only woman of color. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2012 fared no better for the two women of color (Paula Patton and Adepero Oduye ) included in this much-anticipated issue, as they were also – you guessed it – relegated to the right side of the folded-over cover.

The Feb. 2014 “Vanities” section of the magazine included Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o, star of “12 Years a Slave,” though backlash ensued as soon as people were able to compare her digitally lightened magazine-approved skin color to her stunning red carpet photos from the Golden Globes in Jan. 2014.

You’d think that with approximately one-third of the women in the U.S. representing an ethnicity other than Caucasian, media would wake up and catch up – both in terms of writing and offering film roles for women of color and in representing those women positively after they’re stars. In terms of capitalistic common sense, that’s an undeniably large segment of this country’s consumers who don’t see their own races, ethnicities, skin tones, hair colors and styles reflected in mainstream media. Does it matter that women of color are dramatically underrepresented in media, that they’re digitally and physically whitewashed when they do appear in media (by their own choices and the choices of stylists, editors and directors), and that the women we do see almost always already look like white women – with light skin tones, long, straight, lightened hair, digitally lightened eye colors (also achieved through colored contacts), traditionally Anglicized facial features, and slender (and shrinking) bodies? The answer is YES. It does matter.

VF Hollywood Issue 2009

It matters that Vanity Fair essentially refuses to feature a woman of color on the cover of one of their most popular issues of the year that names Hollywood’s newest, most important stars. Consider this in light of their own mission statement: “Vanity Fair is a cultural filter, igniting the global conversation about the people and ideas that matter most…Vanity Fair is the first choice and often the only choice for the world’s most influential and important audience.”

With an audience of 6.76 million readers, the one thing VF has right in their mission statement is that it is undoubtedly influential. But in its role as a “cultural filter,” we’re sorely disappointed to see the diversely beautiful faces of our culture filtered entirely out of the conversation. By repeatedly leaving women of color out of the conversation, and literally out of the picture, VF tells us over and over again exactly who and what “matters most.”

VF Teen Star Issue 2003

Regardless of the race or ethnicity of the women featured, the constant theme women’s magazines like VF teach readers is that your appearance matters more than anything. Fashion and lifestyle magazines have long been the target of research that demonstrating startling links between media viewing/reading and body hatred, eating disorder symptoms, drive for thinness, and other factors. Research shows us that females’ exposure to the beauty ideals in women’s magazines is consistently related to an increased perception of the importance of beauty and the centrality of physical appearance for women (1). This is achieved through images and editorial content that consistently emphasize thinness, weight loss, and the attainment of what the magazines define as “beauty” in order to achieve personal success, happiness, health and attention from men.

As if unattainably thin ideals (that look completely normal due to repeated exposure) across all genres of media aren’t enough of a strike against women’s perceptions of their own bodies, why don’t we throw in a skin color as the foremost standard of beauty – one that at least a third of the women in this country don’t have. In addition to being extremely thin yet curvaceous in all the “right” places, the beauty ideal presented in mainstream media is almost exclusively white, making it all the more unattainable for women of color. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try. Even with the conspicuous absence of women of color from the highest-selling magazines, real life women of color suffer nearly the same effects as white women from our unrealistic, generally unhealthy, white ideals.

Lots of people assume women of color are more capable of resisting the influence of dominant standards of beauty than white women, but plenty of evidence shows otherwise. In studies where Latina girls under age 18 report greater body satisfaction compared to white girls, they still report comparable or higher rates of disordered eating (2). Latina adolescents frequently describe an ideal body type that is comparable to the white norm and report an interest in weight loss at rates similar to those reported by white peers (3). Same goes for African American females: Scholar Kristen Harrison conducted a study with 61 teenage African American girls, measuring the girls’ “thin ideal” television exposure (shows that emphasize thinness through characters’ bodies and dialogue) and how they thought their classmates expected them to look. She found that the larger girls who were exposed to thin ideal media consistently thought their peers expected them to be smaller than they were. For smaller girls, media exposure was strongly connected to the belief that they needed to gain weight and be larger (Harrison & Gentles, 2006).

Studies like this prove that profit-driven media is working exactly as it is intended to work. Beauty, cosmetic surgery, weight loss, fashion and media industries make billions by sparking and feeding into anxieties in women about their bodies. It’s the classic “grass is always greener” idea – white women need to be darker through tanning and dark women need to be lighter by any means necessary. As long as they can keep women dissatisfied with themselves, they can keep selling us the products and solutions to fix our flaws! Billions of dollars in skin-lightening products are sold worldwide, often by the exact same companies that sell tanning products in the U.S.

Sofia Vergara, with an arm reportedly Photoshopped to fit the Pepsi “skinny can” ideal

You’ve probably, definitely, noticed that Latinas are represented a little differently in mainstream U.S. media, and they always have been. You know, the ultra-sexy, seductive, curvaceous, va-va-voom, exoticized Latina lover – think Sofia Vergara, Eva Mendes, Eva Longoria, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Selma Hayek, Penelope Cruz – the list is seriously endless. In researching the effects of this, young Latina and black women are shown to describe an ideal body shape/size that has more “feminine curves” than the dominant white ideal. Instead of always subscribing to the thin ideal, girls and women of color, in some cases, value a “thick” ideal, comprising a slender but curvy body, with a thin waist, big breasts and hips, and a round behind (4). Greater acculturation into mainstream U.S. culture has been associated with preference for thinner body types among Mexican American women (5), Cuban American women and Latina adolescents. Chamorro and Flores-Ortiz found second-generation Mexican-Americans had the highest levels of disordered eating and acculturation among first- through fifth-generation Mexican Americans (Goodman, 2002). That means girls whose parents came from Mexico are more likely than those whose families had been here longer to starve themselves or binge and purge. THAT is what this culture does to women who have been in this country just long enough to figure out what to do to their bodies in order to fit U.S. ideals.

VF Hollywood Issue 2012

VF Hollywood Issue 2012

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; & Kuhn, 1985), and 25 years later, plastic surgery and digital manipulation. Whereas Latina icons such as Christina Aguilera, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have achieved renown in both mainstream U.S. media and media geared toward Latin audiences, media representations of these women have become increasingly anglicized within U.S. media, with shrinking figures and lighter-colored, straighter hair (6). 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; & Kuhn, 1985), and 25 years later, plastic surgery and digital manipulation. Whereas Latina icons such as Christina Aguilera, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have achieved renown in both mainstream U.S. media and media geared toward Latin audiences, media representations of these women have become increasingly anglicized within U.S. media, with shrinking figures and lighter-colored, straighter hair (6).

Not too dark, but not too white; not too bodacious up top, but not too flat either; not too skinny, but not too fat. This vicious cycle of “never quite good enough” is fantastic for a consumer culture supporting $100+ billion beauty product and weight loss industries, but it is certainly not conducive to real progress as individuals or as a culture.

Today, the prevalence of body dissatisfaction and related disordered eating is impacting females at younger ages and they are no longer confined to a particular class or ethnic group. Does being aware of the insidious nature of media’s representation of women – really its misrepresentation of women – make any difference? Absolutely. You can recognize and resist those messages that tell us white actresses matter the most, that white features are the most beautiful, that large or small chests are ideal, that you need to be thinner or more curvaceous or that your skin needs to be darker or lighter. Reject and resist messages that treat women as objects to be looked at, judged for their parts and relentlessly flawed. Take the words of awesome Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldua and consider what progress you can make armed with this knowledge:

“Every increment of consciousness, every step forward is a travesia, a crossing. I am again an alien in new territory. And again, and again. But if I escape conscious awareness, escape ‘knowing,’ I won’t be moving. Knowledge makes me more aware, it makes me more conscious. ‘Knowing’ is painful because after it happens I can’t stay in the same place and be comfortable. I am no longer the same person I was before.” -Anzaldua, 1999, p.70

1)Goodman, 2002; Harrison & Cantor, 1997; Harrison, 2000; Thomsen, 2002; Stice, Shaw, & Stein, 1994; Labre & Walsh-Childers, 2003
2) Barry & Grilo, 2002; Crago et al., 1996; Granillo, Jones-Rodriguez, & Carvajal, 2005; White & Grilo, 2005
3) Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2002; Poran, 2002; Rosen & Gross, 1987
4) Goodman, 2002; Rubin, Fitts, & Becker, 2003; de Casanova, 2004; Goodman, 2002; Greenfield, 2002
5) Cachelin, Monreal, & Juarez, 2006; Jane, Hunter, & Lozzi, 1999; Gowen, Hayward, Killen, Robinson, & Taylor, 1999
6) Cepeda, 2003; Guzman & Valdivia, 2004
7) Eggermont et al., 2005; Fouts & Burggraf, 1999, 2000; Gentles & Harrison, 2006; Greenberg, Eastin, Hofschire, Lachlan, & Brownell, 2003; Hall, 1996; Harrison & Fredrickson, 2003; Hendriks, 2002; Pompper & Koenig, 2004

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.

Why “Fitspiration” Isn’t so Inspirational

If you are on Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram, you have seen fitness inspiration images just in time for “the holidays” or “bikini season” or your “big day” to motivate you to “get fit” – we call them “fitspiration.” They are almost always images of parts of women without heads or faces. They are always very thin, surgically and/or digitally enhanced, tanned, oiled up parts of bodies with text like this:

Look good, feel good.

Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.

Girls who are naturally skinny are lucky. Girls who have to fight to be skinny are strong.

If you haven’t posted one of these pictures on one of your social networking sites, one of your well-intentioned friends has. I promise. Pinterest itself is a site designed to help people collect images that inspire them, for heaven’s sake. And while a slogan and image motivating you to get out and move and live and do is a beautiful thing, so many of these “fitspiration” messages floating across the web must be exposed for what they are: shame-inducing, objectifying, limiting ideals that keep women in their places as objects to be looked at above all else. 

Ever heard of a thing called “thinspo” or “thinspiration?” It’s an online world of thousands – even millions – of females who share and collect pictures of very thin women as inspiration to keep up their eating disorders. It is a saddening and terrifying world of females banding together to literally get thin at any cost, and thousands of girls and women die every year in this pursuit of thinness. But Beauty Redefined is here to reveal truth – to speak about things as they really are – and we echo Charlotte over on The Great Fitness Experiment: “Fitspo may be thinspo in a sports bra.”

It is.

So we are here to provide you with a few ways to determine if the fitness inspiration you are viewing is healthy and motivating you toward real health goals or keeping you imprisoned in a body that is to be looked at above anything else. You are capable of so much more than being looked at. And if you believe that, it puts fitness back into focus as a way to improve your physical health first and foremost.

Be very aware of any “fitspiration” that is advertising something. Nike, Lululemon, workout DVDs, etc., all profit from these “girl power!” messages that look so empowering on first glance. The problem with so many of these is what Virginia at calls “a lot of big, fancy girl power talk to sell us stretchy pants and sports bras. This is fine if you’re in the market for some new stretchy pants or a sports bra; not fine if you’re hoping their marketing materials will teach you something profound about yourself.”  

See this bit of fitspiration floating around online? It has effectively chopped a woman into just a part of her – without a head as is so often done in objectifying but totally normal and harmless-looking media. This part of her also happens to be sexually alluring, which is so often the case in this same objectifying but totally normal and harmless-looking media. Her hand is placed in her pants in a way that looks very reminiscent of a woman about to pull down her pants in a sexually alluring way. Her hip bones, navel, and cleavage are highlighted by the lighting of the shot, which say nothing of fitness or whatever the “it” is spoken of in the text. This text is open for interpretation so the “it” can be a well-meaning physical fitness goal, but the image would lead one to assume it is a look – a vision of oneself – that is the goal. A sexually appealing, “to be looked at” goal that leaves little room for worrying about internal indicators of health or meeting a fitness goal like hiking to the top of that peak or finishing that race or getting your heart rate up every day.

Pay attention to the advertising so often being done in these “fitness inspiration” messages and you will see what is really being sold here. Is it a message of real health and fitness or a message asking you to commodify yourself by buying sports bras, yoga pants, the latest fitness DVD, etc. to appear a certain way. Advertisers are VERY GOOD at framing their messages as an empowering “You Go Girl!” message with their fists in the air cheering you on. But pay attention to their swift move from using that pumping fist to cheer you on, to punching you in the face for not being enough. If you do not have rock hard chiseled abs, the right workout outfit, etc., you are not good enough until you do. These advertisers will make sure you know that, because their profit depends on your wallet and your beliefs about yourself. They’ll make sure you know you must work for “it” every second. Of every day. For the rest of your life. (Note: Please be aware that we go to great lengths to avoid perpetuating harmful images on this site, so we’ve purposely left out the more obviously thin-ideal-focused fitspo images. A simple Web search for fitspiration will reveal a much more representative spread of what those images look like.)

Next time you see one of these “fitspiration” messages, please ask yourself how it makes you feel. If these images and texts motivate you to respect your body as something that can do so much good, make and reach fitness goals, and maintain health that will keep you happy and able, then they are appropriate for you. If they motivate you to worry about being looked at or to improve parts of your body to meet a beauty ideal you see in media, you must be aware of this. Being self-conscious of your looks, in a state of self-objectification, stunts your health and well-being in physical and mental ways. Virginia at so concisely says, “Pay attention to how it makes you feel to be ‘inspired’ by lots of photos of a largely unattainable beauty ideal. Because that’s what rock hard abs are, after all. Yes, sure, core strength is important for your health. But pictures of bikini-clad, chiseled muscles beaded with sweat? That’s about pretty, not about health.”

If these images and messages categorized as “fitness inspiration” actually inspire body shame – you feel ashamed of the beauty ideals you cannot reach and want to hide or judge your body or covet other women’s bodies – then these messages are not inspirational at all. They trigger you to feel anxiety, hopelessness, and ask you to resort to extremes to get somewhere largely unattainable for healthy people, which does not discount that some people may be able to attain that ideal, but most cannot. This powerful quote from a woman centuries ago has everything to do with the fitness inspiration we are discussing here:

“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison” (Wollstonecraft, 1792).

This woman hundreds of years ago described what girls and women growing up today are asked to do every second of every day for the rest of their lives. We are asked to believe our power, our very identities, our worth, all lie in our bodies because we ARE our bodies. So we are asked to fix every part of our bodies – from the wrong-colored roots of our hair to the scratchy bottoms of our feet and every new flaw in between (baggy eyelids, insufficient eyelashes, saggy knees, cellulite, stretch marks, and every other sign of life). Men are not asked to fix these “flaws” because this is women’s work – a work that must last a lifetime. Of course there are exceptions to these beauty ideals being pushed on men, but for the most part, beauty and beauty under the guise of health, is women’s work. We are advertised in media to ourselves as parts of ourselves to encourage us to view ourselves as simply parts in need of constant maintenance and perfection. We are asked to believe we are our bodies and nothing more, and we are asked to adorn the prison that we must reside in every second. Of every day. For the rest of our lives.

Now look again at those “inspirational” fitness messages. Are those messages carefully crafted to appear to be health and fitness inspired, only to sell you a product, keep you fixated on parts of yourself that have nothing to do with your actual health and physical fitness, and keep you roaming around your prison? Our bodies are not prisons – they are gifts that allow us to live and breathe and act and do and be. But when we believe we are only bodies, and health is simply making those parts look presentable and beautiful to people looking at us, we are at once prisoners and the prison guards.

We borrow from the fantastic Virginia Sole-Smith again for our last very important point: “
Any motivational statement that has to diss another type of body in order to make you feel good about your body? Not. Helping. Anyone.” You’ve seen those photos of Marilyn Monroe vs. Nicole Richie with the words: “When did this become hotter than this?” or some variation. Ugh. When we pit female against female, we get nowhere fast. We continue minimizing each other to our bodies EVERY TIME we judge each others’ bodies, comment on them, even compliment each other.

One thing Lindsay and I mention at every speaking engagement is this: We have been taught from a young age that girls are to be looked at. So we compliment little girls on how pretty they are and little boys on how funny/rambunctious/smart/anything else they are. When we greet another female, we so often compliment her on her appearance: “Have you lost weight?” “I love your hair!” “Is that a new outfit?” But reverse that scenario. When guys greet each other, how often do you hear them minimize each other to their bodies and appearance? I almost NEVER hear a man say “Is that a new outfit?” or “Your hair looks great today!” to another man, because they do not learn they ARE their bodies like females do. We are capable of so much more than being looked at, but when our dialogue revolves around our bodies and we judge other women’s bodies, we are not getting anywhere progressive or happy or healthy. So next time you see a “fitspiration” post that pits one woman’s body type against another, please comment on it and link to this post!

So where do you turn for fitness information and happy inspiration?! If you are seeking positive inspiration to get fit and healthy and respect your body as something so powerful and capable of more than being looked at, we can help. That’s why Beauty Redefined is here! Read our post on how your body is an instrument, not an ornament here. Check out our in-depth look at the Body Mass Index (BMI) that has a shocking history and completely flawed present status. Read why fat shaming and focusing on numbers on the scale won’t get us anywhere in terms of real health here.

You are capable of much more than being looked at. When you believe that, you break free from the prison walls that keep you confined to your body, pitted against every other woman/prisoner in her own individual cell, always monitored by a gaze that controls your beliefs about yourself and your actions. 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.

Since the Huffington Post published this very piece and we got hundreds of comments and shares from it, Lindsay was interviewed by the F Word Media Collective’s radio station to talk about the post and the backlash. Listen to her interview here!

ESPN’s “Hot or Not” is Soooo Not Hot.

ESPN700’s Image. We hate it.

(For an exciting update as of 1/16/2013, be sure to read to the end of this post!)

Every week, Utah-based sports radio station ESPN 700 takes a break from sports commentary to host a forum for objectifying, degrading, insulting and marginalizing women called “Hot or Not Wednesday.” This happens on air, on Facebook and on their website. Three weeks ago, after receiving a sincere and eloquent e-mail from one of our fans (the lovely Laura Henriksen), we decided to voice our own opinion that their weekly poll is sooooo not hot, in different terms.

It turns out, many of these sports fans don’t like to have their opinions on objectification challenged by hordes of smart, beautiful ladies. On a photo of the stunning actress Paula Patton, amid dozens of comments debating whether or not she looks like The Rock’s younger sister and the sexuality of men who disagree with her hotness, we left this comment, which received 160 “likes” in the next couple of hours:

Hi ESPN 700, we’re also based in Utah and we are fully in support of good sports programming and commentary. What we don’t love is your “hot or not” series. Beauty Redefined works to fight the view of women as objects (from men’s perspective and women’s own perspectives), and helps women to fight negative body image and shame so they can move on to bigger and better things like health, happiness and contributing to the world. So…campaigns like yours about whether amazingly beautiful, scantily-clad celebrities and models are “hot” is doing a huge disservice to real life girls and women who see those posts, the comments, and the men in their lives who participate in it. Further, it is alienating your current and potential female fans (like us). We got this e-mail from one of our fans and wanted to share it: “ESPN 700, a Sandy, UT-based sports radio station posts pictures regularly and asks their facebook followers to vote on the woman’s attractiveness. A nice man in my life voted on the picture by “liking” it and thereby all his friends and family were confronted with the image. He’s in his late twenties, married, educated and generally not the sort that would consciously demean a woman in real life. It got me to thinking about how many of the respectful, intelligent men in our lives are rating women by their looks first and everything else second? Worse, how many of them think it’s harmless? I suggest that you encourage your readership to post on ESPN 700’s photos with quotes that remind them that women are not objects. I believe this would make many of the “nice guys” realize that this isn’t harmless fun.” We hope you’ll reconsider the “hot or not” tradition, or that your fans – who are likely great guys who don’t mean to purposely degrade the women in their lives – will reconsider participating in it. Thank you!

Our fans left dozens of subsequent comments supporting this sentiment, and a few of ESPN 700’s own fans even chimed in with some much-welcomed self-awareness and support of our fight against objectification of women in general. Among sooo many insightful, powerful opinions, a guy named Adam said, “The harm that comes from this that people are talking about is that men may start to value women based only on their looks, and that women will base their own value on that same attribute; that it is their physical appearance that determines whether or not they are worth the consideration of others. Since we can’t sit down and have conversations with these people to see what they look like (sans Photoshop) and see them for their other qualities and beauties, maybe we should stop spending our time passing judgment on these women (and I might argue that the judgment is on all women), not only in this small weekly post, but in other venues as well. If this focus on the physical causes a woman to only want to be an object to be had, and a man to see the women around him as faulty, then the harm of which we speak has already come to fruition.” Love it.

Unfortunately, several more comments illustrated the hateful, degrading attitudes that are naturally cultivated by any “hot or not” poll targeted at either men or women: you know, the regular “you must be on your periods,” “go back to your embroidery,” “you must all be ugly fat chicks” — the most mundane, predictable insults you could imagine being hurled at women who oppose sexism. 

This happened two weeks in a row, though we decided to take a much smaller role in the Week Two installment featuring a more fully-clothed Lori Laughlin, but also featuring the same awful, losing-faith-in-humanity type of comments on her looks. This week (Jan. 18), the station thought it would be fun to feature Ricki Lake, since “no one would want to objectify her.” They also mentioned the name of our organization at least 100 times on the air, saying they have “redefined beauty” by choosing this “big-boned,” “lumptuous – not voluptuous” woman since we were all “so intimidated by beautiful women.” They also repeatedly mentioned they hadn’t heard from us, so naturally, we decided to call in. Lexie was told she’d be on the air at 3:30. At that time, the show hosts (after asking every caller what they thought of Ricki Lake’s looks) said a woman from Beauty Redefined was on line 2, but there was no way they were going to let her on the air and we all need to “get a life.” The person who answered the phone told Lexie they weren’t going to let her on after all, since this has “nothing to do with sports.” If they don’t understand the irony in that excuse, then things are worse that we even thought.

Our wonderful fans weren’t so pumped about that angry on-air rejection, despite the hosts continuing to talk about us and misconstrue our message, and have left hundreds of comments on our Facebook page and ESPN’s in the last few hours. It is absolutely fantastic that people are talking about this stuff! A couple of network TV stations here in Salt Lake City have already contacted us to potentially air the story, and we’d love to be able to speak our side rather than be misrepresented as angry, beauty-hating, jealous women. With or without further media coverage, we know some good has definitely been done here. The targeted actresses have gone from the nearly nude Hilary Swank to the fully clothed Lori Laughlin in a shockingly short amount of time. And even if they never stop doing the poll, there are definitely fans of their page who will think twice before participating in it. We realize it’s often unlikely that we can make major changes in media, but we can most definitely spark changes in real people’s minds and behaviors.

We’ve tackled this local example of objectification in a small way, and we realize most media will never change its degrading, woman-dismissing ways, but we can change what we’re exposed to, how we view the world, how we view ourselves and how we treat others. This work isn’t about shutting down all the media that hurts us – that’s a losing battle, thanks to the billions of dollars made off women’s anxiety about their bodies. But good men and good women can have an infinitely positive influence by questioning crap like this “hot or not” poll that is presented as innocent and harmless, but in all reality just promotes harmful attitudes toward women and body hatred in the women exposed to it. Harmful attitudes that damage relationships between men and women, parents and children, and women to themselves. Body hatred, or disgust with one’s own appearance -regardless of what that person looks like – is a major contributor to some of the most pressing mental and physical health issues of our day, from obesity and disordered eating to anxiety and depression.

“Hot or Not” and Viewing Women as Objects: So What?
Our work makes one thing very clear: Part of growing up female today means learning to view oneself from another’s gaze, and public polls encouraging the view of women as objects to be judged encourage that view. As psychological researchers Fredrickson & Roberts describe it, self-objectification is manifested as “the tendency to perceive one’s body according to externally perceivable traits (how it appears) instead of internal traits (what it can do).” Research shows young girls and women “self-objectify” when they think of themselves mostly or exclusively in sexual terms and when they equate their “sexiness” with a narrow idea of physical attractiveness (generally achieved through extremes like disordered eating and cosmetic surgery). And what do you know? Young women experience appearance-related anxiety the majority of the time, especially after viewing media images of sexualized female bodies or language so normalized today.

Dozens of studies show people suffer in very literal ways when sexualized female bodies inundate our media landscape*.

  • Research tells us girls and women who learn from media to pay extra attention to the way they look have fewer mental resources available in their brains for other mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning and athletic performance.
  • Hospitalizations for children with eating disorders went up 100 percent in the last decade – 92% of those being little girls.
  • Further, cosmetic surgery increased 446 percent in the last decade to reach $12 billion in 2010, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast enhancement) performed on females – some younger than 18. No wonder that is the case when even the “mildest” of entertainment represents females of any age as sexual objects made up of digitally and surgically enhanced parts, and even they, are often publicly discussed as being not hot enough.
  • Females as young as 12 years old place greater emphasis on their body’s appearance than on its competence and girls and women self-objectify more than boys and men do. Much research has documented losses in self-esteem for girls the moment they reach adolescence, and perceived physical attractiveness is closely tied to self-esteem.
  • Females with a more objectified view of their bodies have diminished sexual health, measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness.

In terms of sexually objectifying media, studies show men and women who viewed just six hours of pornography (one hour each week for six weeks) reported significantly reduced satisfaction with their present relationship, both with their partner’s sexuality and appearance. Participants also reported being faithful to their partner was less important by study’s end and their view of sex without emotional involvement rose in favor (Bryant & Zillman, 1988). In 2003, the top 1,600 U.S. divorce attorneys submitted data showing 62% of the divorces they handled claimed the Internet as a major cause of divorce and 56% of those went further to claim “one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.” Keep in mind the current no-fault divorce statute in place makes it advantageous for attorneys to entirely ignore and never record the causes of divorce, which means this 62% statistic is shocking and most likely drastically higher. To clarify, we’re not asserting that the photos posted by ESPN 700 in the last 3 weeks were pornographic, but we are asserting that the act of viewing sexually objectifying media (or media that reduces a woman’s sexuality and worth to her appearance) like the “hot or not” poll, which are frequently discussed in terms of whether or not the men would sleep with her – is harmful to men, women and their relationships with each other.

Alleviating the influence of objectification is a crucial fight for both males and females, and there are countless ways to start. We generally address females, but the ESPN controversy offers us a perfect opportunity to engage more men and boys in strategies to redefine beauty for themselves and the girls and women they’ll love and associate with their entire lives. We are so grateful to the males who already stand with us in this battle against objectified appearance-obsessed ideals that limit and marginalize females. Here are several ways to continue this battle:

Be a Positive Example: Be especially cautious when making comments about girls’ and womens’ appearance, even if they are celebrities in magazines or on the big screen. Even if you say something you think is positive about a woman, like “She is so hot!” it is likely that the girls and women in your life will automatically make judgments against themselves based on what you said. Even if they don’t tell you, most girls and women care very much about the way the men in their lives treat, view and speak about other women. Your example can have a profound effect for good or bad. When girls and women see or hear your negative comments about other women’s bodies, especially those bodies commonly considered to be attractive like celebrities or models (like, for example, in a “hot or not” poll on Facebook), those comments may have a lasting effect that could contribute to body hatred and distorted body image so common among females today.

Check Your Vision: Be conscious of the vast amount of media we consume each day, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. In fact, the average American spends about 7.5 hours each day with at least one form of media, and is exposed to about 3,600 advertisements each day, from every angle. As you go through your day, pay attention to what you see and what messages go against what you know be true about yourself and others you love. Recognize that those images far outnumber the women we see in real life, which creates a distorted idea of what women do (and should) look like, thanks to unavoidable Photoshopping, profit-driven ideals of extreme thinness and surgically enhanced curves.

Unreal Ideals: Remember it is reasonable to assume no image we ever see of a woman in media has gone un-manipulated. As early as 1991, a media industry insider referred to the digital alteration of women as a “retouching epidemic.” And today magazine editors refer to airbrushing as an industry standard. Plus, vertical film stretching to make women appear taller and thinner is a common technique, as are filtered lenses on video cameras and soft lighting, which do away with wrinkles, pores, and other so-called “blemishes” for women on TV and in movies. The next time you start comparing the females in your life to those you see in media, remember that even the beauty ideals don’t actually fit the ideals they are supposed to represent.

Go on a Media Fast: Choose a day, a week, a month, or longer to steer clear of as much media as you can. That way, you can see how your life is different without all those messages and images, and when you return to viewing and reading popular media, you will be more sensitive to the messages that hurt you and those you love and those that are unrealistic. One male college student in Utah went on a “media fast” for three months, and found that one unexpected side effect was that he found the real women in his life more attractive throughout that time, and continued to find them more beautiful once the fast was over.

Turn Away From Harmful Images: The girls and women you know and love are hopefully trying hard to remember that the women they see in media are digitally manipulated to appear “perfect,” even though they don’t really look that way. When you put those types of pictures in your locker or subscribe to magazines that depict women in unrealistic and degrading ways, the females in your life may then believe those are the types of women you value most. Turning away from media images that hurt women (and men) is a perfect way to help the females in your life understand what you really value in women – real women you see face to face.

Object to Objectification: Pay attention to media that is objectifying to women, which means it shows women and girls as just PARTS of themselves. That happens when the camera pans up and down their bodies, or zooms in on certain body parts. This also takes place when magazines or movies and TV talk about women’s bodies in ways that degrade them and turn them into just body parts instead of thinking, feeling humans. Boys and men exposed to sexually objectifying messages (which are inescapable in today’s media landscape), learn to primarily view and value females for their outward appearance and actually endorse objectifying images in the future. Turn away from objectifying media – it is harmful for you and for the females you love.

Show Them What You Value: Most girls and women claim they’re trying to achieve these beauty ideals in an attempt to become more desirable and attractive to men. If the things they are trying so hard to obtain are not actually all you value in a woman, be sure to make that known by speaking about women in positive ways and referencing their characters, personalities and talents as things you admire and seek in girls and women you want in your life. Choose to compliment the girls and women in your life for those things, too. The compliments that stick with you for a lifetime are those that acknowledge your valuable qualities, like a good attitude, selflessness, talents, and honesty.

Be Critical of Media, Not Yourself or Women: While the U.S. is the No. 1 producer and exporter of media, we are also the only industrialized country in the world without some form of media literacy in public school curriculum. We need to feel an obligation to put media under closer inspection for the influence it has in our lives. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching a movie, train yourself to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, remember you can turn away from the messages that hurt you and those you love!

  • Do you feel better or worse about yourself when viewing or hearing this media? Do you believe the females in your life would feel better or worse about themselves after viewing or hearing this media?
  • Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen? (Look for ads and commercials and you’ll see who is paying the bills for your favorite media messages)
  • Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, video game or website you are viewing? (Research the company and its owners and you’ll find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes of your media of choice)
  • Is the media you read and view promoting real health or impossible ideals meant to make you spend money and time? Who are those messages promoting impossible ideals usually speaking to?
  • How are women and girls presented here? Are they valued for their talents and personality? Do they look like the females in your life?

Get Back to Reality: Since we’ll see more images of women in one week of media viewing than we’ll probably ever see face to face, it’s important to give ourselves a reality check! When we look eye to eye with the women we know and love, we can remind ourselves what real women and real beauty look like. This real definition of beauty is so much more than just looks! It is your best girl friend’s basketball skills, your sister’s hard work on her English paper, the lines on your mom’s face from years of beautiful smiles and laughter, and so much  more.

Take Media Into Your Own Hands: Post links or start discussions on blogs and social networking sites to continuously spark conversation about dangerous ideals (like the thin ideal, surgical enhancement, white ideals, etc.) and to bring to light those who profit from our belief in those ideals. And when thinking about your future college studies and/or present career, consider going into journalism, advertising or media production so YOU can produce messages that uplift rather than degrade. Since it’s rare to see an ad that does anything positive for female body image, we launched a campaign to fund billboards promoting healthy body image in 2011-’12. We’d love to do it again! If you can help, please do!

Be an Advocate: If our suggestion to turn away from media that degrades or otherwise women is just not enough for you, consider your fierce influence as an advocate for truth and uplifting messages. When you come across a company’s advertising that fuels female insecurity or a magazine that objectifies women even as it claims to empower them, speak up! Blogging your disapproval is a great start, and so is posting links to news stories that reveal harmful ideals on social networking sites. Join us on Facebook for regular links to share and continue this conversation! If you’d like to go a step further, write to and/or call your local cable company, TV station, newspaper and any other media outlet perpetuating harmful messages. Get the word out that the media message you have seen is inappropriate and dangerous and threaten to boycott if it is not removed. If your complaints are not heard, do NOT patronize those institutions and suggest the same to your loved ones.

Redefining Healthy: Getting back to reality involves figuring out what “health” really means – and it’s not what media shows us. For-profit media like women’s fitness magazines or TV shows would have us believe health and fitness are all about what women look like, and any doctor can tell us that simply isn’t true. If you know a girl or woman who believes her health and fitness depend on what she looks like, encourage her to talk to a doctor, nutritionist or other health specialist to figure out what healthy really means for her individually. She can then work with them to set healthy goals for herself that aren’t based off profit-driven beauty ideals.

The Power of Media Makers: Media decision-makers like editors, producers, writers, directors, and web developers can and should disrupt the steady stream of idealized bodies with positive representations of more normative shapes and sizes, with positive dialogue or editorials regarding those images that does not focus solely on appearance.

Exciting Update (1/16/2013): We are happy to announce that ESPN700’s long-running tradition of objectifying and degrading women every Wednesday with “Hot or Not” has NOT happened since Oct. 17, 2012! This post originally ran in  January 2012, and it appears the weekly series slowly dwindled in support over the subsequent months and was quietly discontinued with no public statements we have been able to find. Bear in mind, we can not accept full credit or responsibility for the station abandoning “Hot or Not,” but we’re still smiling.

* Fredrickson et al. 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2004; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Harter, 1998; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004; Impett, Schooler, and Tolman, 2006; Major, Barr, & Zubek, 1999; McConnell, 2001; Polce-Lynch, Myers, & Kilmartin, 1998; Roberts & Gettman, 2004; Slater and Tiggemann, 2002; Strelan & Hargreaves, 2005; American Pediatric Association, 2010.

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