From Body Anxiety to Body Image Activism: Our Story
We are Lexie and Lindsay Kite, PhD, identical twins and co-directors of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit working to help girls and women improve their body image and self-worth as they wade through harmful cultural ideals. We want to tell you about our (very twin-like) path from self-conscious young women to body image scholars and activists. Our story is in Lindsay’s words, but it belongs to both of us. This is our story, and the transformation we have experienced can be part of your story, too.
Lexie and I were swimmers from Day 1. As participants on a competitive team starting at 6 years old, we practiced intensely every day. My favorite part was the excited, heart-racing feeling I’d get before every race. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before that anxious, heart-pounding started to stem from the way I thought I looked in my swimming suit, rather than my performance. In third grade, I stood in front of a full-length mirror, noticed one dimple in the side of my little girl thigh and desperately felt the need to cover up. I vowed to remind myself to keep my left hand covering the dimple on my left thigh at all possible moments I wasn’t in the water.
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 lined up in my home bookshelf, stacked next to piles of teen magazines. 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.
I wasn’t alone. My friends suffered the same preoccupation with weight and appearance. Heather, the president of the ballroom dance team, could tell you her weight from any given day of the previous years. One of our most popular friends cut out dozens of lingerie models from Victoria’s Secret catalogs and stuck them all over the back of her door for “motivation.” Another friend, a cheerleader, bragged to everyone that all she had eaten in days was five Doritos. I wondered how she found the motivation to be so strong. We were all middle-class white girls form Idaho, with happy, successful families of all shapes and sizes, but we all shared the deep-seated idea that the only way to attain happiness, popularity and love was to be as thin and beautiful as possible.
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, all the Disney princesses and TV stars were thin and chased after, while any average-sized or overweight characters (or characters with braces, glasses, acne, a ponytail, etc.) were mocked. Male characters were valued for humor, athleticism, intelligence and power, while female characters were almost exclusively valued for their beauty alone. Ads consistently reflected these differing measures of worth. I recognized it, but never ever thought to question it. That’s just the way things worked.
Freshman year at Utah State University, Lexie and I took an awesome required journalism class called “Media Smarts” on critically analyzing media for its implicit but powerful messages. Learning about the hugely imbalanced portrayals of gender — particularly the ways media sets the standards for what it means to be successful or worthwhile – changed me. No one in my life ever taught or demonstrated to me that thinness and body “perfection” equals happiness or success. But social media, TV, magazines and movies do it consistently. That creates a false reality that makes real-life bodies seem sub-par. I realized the first step to dispelling these myths that had held me and all 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 – they create it to sell unreachable ideals and the products to supposedly help us get there.
I knew talking about women’s representation in media got my heart beating fast for a reason. The palpable excitement of 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 – including what we perpetuate on social media – enrage me and thrill me, and its implications are too real to accept and just move on. 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 learn all I could about the ways beauty and weight are tied to women’s value and abilities to contribute to the world.
Being stifled by a preoccupation with my appearance was not a natural part of me. I learned to hate my body from sources surrounding me, including peers, family, media and cultural messages. 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 concentrate on anything else at all. I was overwhelmed just thinking of the number of activities I could have excelled at, the relationships 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.
Lexie and I knew we had work to do battling this obsession with female appearance and we received awesome fellowships to do our master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Utah, starting in 2007. I felt overwhelmed with the excitement and potential implications of this work I so wanted to accomplish. On August 19, 2007, I wrote the following in my journal:
“I KNOW this is going to be a hard but amazing time in my life. I can feel it. Lots of big things are going to happen, both academically and spiritually. 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 media 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 over the years focused on dating, roommate issues, and vacations — not changing the world. This is one of those rare exceptions.)
Flash forward to today. Since 2009, when we finished our co-authored master’s project that included a visual presentation on body image, Lexie and I have been traveling the country doing big Beauty Redefined speaking events for universities, high schools, middle schools, church congregations, treatment centers, etc. We finished our master’s degrees in 2009 and our PhDs in 2013, building and sharing our nonprofit all along, while being featured in major media outlets as we worked to spread the word. We reach millions online through our website and social media platforms every year and are consistently humbled by the feedback we receive from girls and women whose lives are changed by developing body image resilience through manageable strategies.
And wouldn’t you know – despite all my best teenage efforts – that dimple in my left thigh never disappeared, and it multiplied! But it hasn’t held me back from recognizing my worth and potential as a capable, awesome woman — or my potential to spread that truth to women everywhere. It also hasn’t held me back from swimming every chance I get and using my body as an instrument, not just looking at it as an ornament. 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.
If Lexie and I hadn’t experienced that deep body shame throughout our young lives, we wouldn’t have ever figured out our lives’ missions to combat it. That shame has transformed into an anxious, heart-racing desire to share this truth, and thankfully, it’s contagious! When people hear true messages that help us to see women as more than bodies, and capable of much more than being looked at, their hearts beat faster, too. Those people help share these truths — through blogs, social media, everyday conversation, and changed thoughts and actions in every facet of their lives. We share everything we’ve learned here at our website (beautyredefined.org) and on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and developed an 8-week program (tested during our dissertations) to guide people toward body image resilience. We hope you’ll join us in helping our world see these myths about female power and value as they really are and continuously resist them together.
Our power lies in being able to SEE more than bodies in ourselves and others, and then to BE more than ornaments to decorate the world. We’ve got work to do!