When we grow up surrounded by appearance-obsessed media’s “Weight Less, Smile More!!” and “Perfect Your Parts, Perfect Your Life!!” headlines plastered everywhere, those messages rake in billions and get us nowhere closer to real health and happiness. Instead, those messages become so normal—so unquestioned—that we believe and act as we’re told. The point here is not to villainize makeup or hair care or any industry, but to understand the ways these ever-present messages ask us to view ourselves.
That view: an outsider’s gaze—from the outside looking in on ourselves. It’s called self-objectification and it’s a normal part of most females’ lives, whether we know it or not. Years ago, this cool scholar, de Beauvoir, understood this point. She pointed out that as a girl grows up, “she is doubled; instead of coinciding exactly with herself, she also exists outside” (1952). Foucault talked about self-objectification as a way we imprison ourselves:
“There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by [internalizing] to the point that [she] is [her] own overseer, each individual thus exercising surveillance over, and against [her]self” (1977).
What research and real-life experience make very clear is that when we can begin to see ourselves for more than our parts and respect our bodies as instruments that can do amazing things for us and for those around us, we get much closer to finding health, fitness, and happiness. But in the meantime, millions of us cannot break through the constant messages telling us to survey ourselves at all times and spend all the time, money, and energy necessary to perfect the parts of us in need of perfection.
Can you even fathom what that is doing to females everywhere? It stunts our progress in every way that really matters. It keeps us from getting awesome graes, reaching for the coolest possible jobs, raising our hands in class, playing sports and exercising, running for political office, loving each other and loving ourselves. And that’s not just Beauty Redefined’s take on things. Research shows us that when we live to be looked at in a perpetual state of self-consciousness about our looks, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness. We perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, and athletic performance, we have lower sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no” when needed), and we are left anxious and unhappy.
And the reason Lindsay and I do what we do with Beauty Redefined is because there is so much more power to be had in understanding these truths! All hope is not lost! Actually, there is so much hope to be had.
We know the power and potential of females everywhere to break free from lies that constrain us and move on to happiness and light and love and success. We know this as scholars, as activists, and on a very personal level. Have you read our post on ditching weight loss resolutions in favor of more health-focused goals? The first resolution we highly suggest is there for a reason—I’ve been testing it out, and I swear on everything important to me that it works!
Resolution #1: Set a true fitness goal. If you’ve ever held yourself back from running, biking, swimming, etc. because you felt self-conscious about what to wear, how red your face gets from the workout, sweating in public (the list goes on), it’s time to set a goal and fight to achieve it! Make this goal about your abilities, and you’ll be much less inclined to care about what you look like doing it.
Here’s how I know it works. In the years since Lindsay and I founded Beauty Redefined, my body confidence has improved by leaps and bounds, but a couple of years ago I realized one way I was letting self-objectification hold me back from awesomeness. You see, I’ve never loved running. Before that point, the most I’d ever run outside was one mile. Somehow, in October 2012, I got talked into running a half marathon. If you’d have told me before then that I’d run 13.1 miles outside, I’d have laughed in your face. But when I signed up for that Halloween half marathon with a few amazing friends, I knew I had to begin training.
I was terrified. Not only is running really hard on both a physical and mental level, but I realized I was possibly more terrified of being looked at while running. I spent the first few weeks of training on a treadmill at my gym, hoping no one was on the stair climber right behind me to stare straight at me. I felt self-conscious that my face got really red from hard workouts. I felt self-conscious that I wasn’t wearing the right outfits for running. (Is spandex a necessity?!?!) I felt self-conscious that the runners next to me were going faster and farther and they were thinking I was lame. When I forced myself to step off the treadmill and run outside, my fears only escalated. Now I was stressed about all the people that were watching me run past their cars, and I chose parks that weren’t heavily populated instead of busy roads.
But as I trained and built up my endurance, something inside me changed. Instead of picturing myself running, I just started running. I stopped worrying about being a good vision of me and I gave myself all of me. Before, I used to do cardio in an effort to burn fat and fit into those jeans I’ve been keeping in the back of my closet. Now, I do cardio to build up my endurance, get my heart rate up, and prove to myself I can do it. I used to do weight workouts and sit-ups to tone up the parts of me I thought were just awful to look at. Now I do strength training to build muscle I use to carry myself through long runs and workouts—and it really helps. Running now makes me feel happy because I can set a goal and get there, and working toward that goal allows me to release all those happy endorphins, feel more energy and motivation, and see what my body is capable of.
I have, quite literally, begun to run away from self-objectification.
And research backs up my own experience. A U.S. National Physical Activity and Weight Loss Survey found that body size satisfaction had a significant effect on whether a person performed regular physical activity, regardless of the individual’s actual weight (Kruger, Lee, Ainsworth, & Macera, 2008). So, those who were satisfied with the way their body looked were more likely to engage in physical activity than those less satisfied. The problem is, research also shows us most females are unhappy with their bodies—even disgusted with their bodies.
The “I feel too fat or too ugly to work out” mentality is rampant, and it keeps us from moving, living, doing, and being. But guess what? When we push ourselves to break free from that prison of being looked at and just move, something miraculous happens. Just like my experience of learning to run from self-objectification, studies show us that when females engage in physical activity, increased self-efficacy, or confidence in your abilities and your body, is the beautiful outcome.
So our Resolution #1 is there for good reason—it can lead you to real health, happiness, and confidence in a way that working toward a number on the scale or a clothing size never, ever will. My New Year’s Resolutions used to revolve around clothing sizes, measurements, or numbers on the scale, and I don’t think I’m alone in realizing that even if the number got smaller, it had little to do with my actual health or happiness. I can look back in old journals and see that sometimes I resorted to extremes in eating and exercising to get to that random number I thought would bring with it all the joy I could imagine:
“If I can just lose this much weight, I’ll be so happy!”
“I’ll love myself if I can just lose this many inches.”
But personal experience, academic research, and body image advocacy have taught me something very different: an arbitrary number is never the key to happiness, confidence, or even health and fitness. A fitness goal focusing on achievements can help you break out of that harmful mindset that maintains a fixation on the look of our bodies, rather than how we feel and what we can do.
So here’s the goal: RUN. Or swim. Or bike. Or jump rope. Or climb stairs. Or do sit-ups. Or push-ups. Or play basketball. Or soccer. Or volleyball. Just move and live and be and step outside the prison of watching yourself be looked at. Using your body as an instrument for your benefit, rather than an ornament for others to admire, is a crucial step to developing positive body image. Now get out there and use it!
Lindsay Kite and Lexie Kite are the directors of Beauty Redefined and 28-year-old identical twin sisters with PhDs in the study of media and body image from the University of Utah (’13). They have a passion for helping girls and women recognize and reject harmful messages about their bodies and learn to develop body image resilience to move beyond body shame and fixation on appearance to much more important things. Read more of their work on their website.