Author’s Note: Though this was written by Lindsay, my identical twin and co-founder of Beauty Redefined, Lexie, wholeheartedly says “ditto” to this story and sees no sense in writing a duplicate one to bore you all. So this is OUR story!
I have devoted the last 10 years (since 2003) of my life to studying media and body image (earning a PhD in 2013) and the last 4 years (since 2009) to running Beauty Redefined, a non-profit organization working to help people recognize and reject harmful messages about beauty and health. THIS is why.
As a swimmer on a competitive and demanding team throughout elementary, middle and part of high school, I practiced intensely on a daily basis. My favorite part was the excited, anxious, heart-racing feeling I’d get on the way to every meet and before every race. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before that anxious, heart-racing feeling started to stem from the way I thought I looked in my swimming suit, rather than my performance. I went home from practice one day in third grade and stood in front of a full-length mirror, looking at myself from every angle. I noticed one dimple in the side of my little girl thigh and desperately felt the need to cover up, though I knew that would be impossible every day in my swimming suit. Instead, I vowed to remind myself to keep my left hand covering the dimple on my left thigh at all possible moments.
That is when my appearance started to creep to the forefront of my every thought.
My newly heightened awareness of my looks quickly gave way to a relentless preoccupation with weight loss, starting around age 11. Journals and notebooks filled with weight-loss goals, motivating thoughts and tips, food logs and my most depressing thoughts were still lined up in my home bookshelf, stacked next to piles of Seventeen, Teen, YM and Twist magazines. I would have literally given anything to look like the girls on those pages, or like Kelly Kapowski. That’s what the happiest, coolest teenage girls looked like. For a long time, my weight defined my days – either successful or a waste. One step closer to happiness or another day of worthless disappointment.
By high school, it consumed me. In a particularly melodramatic mid-puberty journal entry, I wrote: “I HATE MYSELF. I have gained 4 pounds in the last 2 weeks. Not exaggerated one bit too. I have no idea why this weight is coming on so fast, but it scares me and it’s all I think about constantly. I hate this.”
I was active, athletic, pretty, social and smart. No one called me fat. No one treated me like an outsider. I got asked out by boys. And I still felt this way.
I wasn’t alone. My thin, beautiful friends suffered the same preoccupation and obsession with weight loss, but we suffered alone. Heather, the healthy and beautiful president of the ballroom dance team, could tell you her weight from any given day of the previous years. Popular and sought-after Jennifer* cut out dozens of lingerie models from Victoria’s Secret catalogs and stuck them all over the back of her door for “motivation.” Jane*, a cheerleader I didn’t know that well, bragged to everyone that all she had eaten in the past three days was five Doritos. I wondered how she found the motivation to be so strong. Jessica*, by all accounts a very thin girl, cried when she fit into a size 12 in black LEI pants, even though everyone knows LEIs are sized extremely small. We were all middle-class white girls form Idaho, with happy, successful families of all shapes and sizes, but we all shared deep-seated idea that the only way to attain happiness, success, popularity and love was to be as thin as possible. I had no real-life experiences to back this idea up, and I don’t believe any of those girls did either.
What we truly shared, along with everyone else we knew, was easy access to media our entire lives, where Kelly Kapowski was always pursued, everyone pitied the chubby girl Zack agreed to take on a date, Jasmine, Belle, Ariel, Cinderella, Snow White and all the other Disney protagonists were unrealistically thin and so sought-after, while any average-sized or overweight characters were mocked, explicitly labeled as fat and often the antagonists. Male characters were valued for humor, athleticism, intelligence and power, while female characters were overwhelmingly valued for their beauty alone. Commercials and advertisements consistently reflected these differing measures of worth. I recognized it, but never ever thought to question it. That’s just the way things work.
Not much changed when I got to college. Freshman year was filled with weight loss ups and downs, but I felt happy and OK about myself, and boys paid attention too, even though I was fully convinced I needed to undergo a major transformation in order for them to like me. The next summer, I got down to my lowest weight ever. August 17, 2004: “Last night I tried on my old pants from Christmas of senior year and they are way too big. I distinctly remember wearing them and feeling pretty good about myself at choir practice, and now I can’t imagine ever fitting into them or feeling good. I’ve gotten more compliments than I can count and it feels so good even though I don’t feel so great about myself. I hope that eventually changes.”
The next semester at Utah State University, I took an awesome required journalism class called “Media Smarts” from Brenda Cooper and Ted Pease on critically analyzing the media for its implicit but powerful messages. We looked at race, class, gender and violence in media and I was amazed by all of it, but none resonated with me more than the hugely imbalanced portrayals of gender — particularly the ways media sets the standards for what it means to be successful or worthwhile. No one in my life ever taught or demonstrated to me that thinness and body “perfection” equals happiness or success.TV, magazines and movies do it incessantly – sometimes overtly, sometimes implicitly, but always consistently. That creates a false reality that makes real-life bodies seem sub-par. I realized the first step to dispelling these myths and oppressive standards that had held me and all of my friends back for so many years was to point out that it’s all made up. Producers, casting directors, advertisers and media executives make specific decisions for specific economic reasons – they don’t simply reflect reality, as we sometimes believe.
I knew talking about women’s representation in media got my heart beating fast for a reason. The palpable excitement of learning about it reminded me of my swimming days – the anxiety before a meet, the anticipation of putting all of my hard work to use. Media’s messages to women enrage me and thrill me, and its implications are too real to accept and just move on. I took my first women’s studies class for that reason, and was assistant to the director the Women and Gender Studies program for the next year and a half. My heartbeat didn’t slow down – instead, the work became more and more personal as I identified that passion as the loaded term “feminism” and began to reconcile the many facets of feminism with my own conservative religion. With time and studying, they fit together so comfortably, and I felt a strong desire to share my newfound compatibility between spirituality and feminism with anyone and everyone.
I read “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan and felt overwhelmingly impressed by its truth, by the oppression imposed upon women by media standards defining the ideal woman by her homemaking and housekeeping skills, which serve to isolate women inside their own homes and families while propelling a thriving economy backed by women consumers seeking fulfillment. I immediately sensed a connection to beauty standards as the “feminine mystique” of today, and was amazed to find a book detailing that very belief – “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf. I cried as I underlined entire paragraphs that resonated with my own lifetime of experiences of being stifled by a preoccupation with my appearance that was not a natural part of me.
“We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement.” (p. 10)
“Consumer culture is best supported by markets made up of sexual clones: men who want objects and women who want to be objects, and the object desired ever-changing, disposable and dictated by the market.” (p. 144)
While the feminine mystique produced isolation and unfulfillment, I saw the beauty myth as also a force for prompting misery, competition, jealousy, self-obsession and an end to productivity. When I became more worried about the dimple in my thigh than my race time, I stopped excelling as a swimmer. When I am fixated on keeping my clothes in the most flattering position and everything sucked in just right, I can’t think of anything else at all. I am depressed by the number of activities I could have excelled at, the friendships I could have cultivated, the goals I could have pursued, and the girls feeling the exact same way I did that I could have helped if I hadn’t spent so much of my life preoccupied with the way I looked.
I know media-imposed beauty ideals divide and conquer. They pit one woman against another and make one woman’s success the other’s failure. The connection between my faith and my feminism became so much stronger as I recognized the potential for fulfillment and unity among women that already existed within my church congregation. With a focus on serving others, taking care of each other and loving God, there is no room for competition and preoccupation with appearance. That’s when the feminine mystique and the beauty myth lose their power: when women unite to step outside themselves and concentrate on bettering the world around them. I implemented this belief into church meetings and talks, school speeches, papers, newspaper articles and my own writing. I applied for graduate school with this motivation behind me and was thankfully awarded a full fellowship to study media and body image at the University of Utah in 2007.
Soon after moving to Salt Lake City for grad school, I felt overwhelmed with the excitement and potential implications of this work I so wanted to accomplish. On August 19, 2007, I wrote this in my journal (only slightly less melodramatic than previous teenage me):
“I KNOW this is going to be a hard but amazing time in my life. I can feel it right now. Lots of big things are going to happen, both academically and spiritually, but also socially and emotionally. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t even know exactly what that will entail – definitely something to do with helping people to become more critical media consumers – to question what they see in TV, movies and magazines, and understand why it is that way, especially how women are portrayed. If we can forget how inadequate, fat, dumb and jealous we feel and concentrate on serving others and improving the world, the world be a much better place and women – and their families – will be so much more fulfilled and so much happier.”
(As a side note, most of my journal entries have focused on dating and roommate drama and vacations, not changing the world. This is one of those rare exceptions.) Through earning a master’s in communication, I hoped to shed light on the powerful, invisible forces behind idealized images of women and the influence they have on all of our lives. In 2008, during my master’s studies, I wrote my lofty intentions in a class paper:
“I want to help redefine women’s values and worth outside the terms of idealized beauty by reaching out to girls who are developing their own ideas of true womanhood and success. I, along with my twin sister Lexie, aim to hold classroom workshops, seminars, conferences, school assemblies, courses and even individual conversations to further this goal. Those mediums can be powerful tools in uncovering oppressive ideologies, questioning ideals and sharing liberating truths that have the potential to expand girls’ and women’s ideas of what it means to be valuable, successful and desirable – despite media messages that will continue perpetuating even more consistent, coherent, oppressive lies about women.”
Despite all my best teenage efforts, that dimple in my left thigh never disappeared, but it hasn’t held me back from recognizing my worth and potential as a beautiful, capable, awesome woman — or my potential to spread that truth to women everywhere. My appearance (though it is ironically at the center of discussion in much of our media attention) does not determine my value, no matter how much the fashion, beauty and diet industries benefit from me believing that message. I’m unbelievably grateful that the anxiety that came from becoming aware of my body’s “flaws” has continuously been replaced by this empowering knowledge about my worth. It has transformed into an anxious, heart-racing desire to share this truth, and thankfully, it’s contagious! When good people hear true messages that help us to see women as capable of much more than being looked at and value women as more than objects, their hearts beat faster. Those people help share these truths too — through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, everyday conversation, sharing our Beauty Redefined sticky notes in public places, objecting to harmful messages in every way possible, and so many more strategies for both males and females.
Side note: I have not missed an opportunity to go swimming in the past several years, and have never once regretted that — no matter what I looked like in a swimsuit. I will always choose fun, friends and memories over self-objectification and I hope you do too. THAT is Beauty Redefined!