Body Image Baby Steps (and an announcement!)
One of my most important missions in life is to help girls and women understand their value and rise up in the face of objectifying ideals that come from media and other people. Being an advocate for women feels like something I am called to do, and I’ve spent the last decade working on that the best I can. But apparently I’ve got more to do than just advocate for women, because now I’m going to have to raise one. Right now there is a baby girl wiggling around in my womb. She’s been in there for almost six months, and I’m still wrapping my head around it.
Baby Beauty Redefined will be joining the fight in March 2016!
I’m not going to lie to you. I’m terrified. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything more daunting. (Lindsay, on the other hand, has never been nicer to me or so interested in touching my stomach). I want to do a good job. I’m keenly aware of the pressure and pain girls, in particular, face in the world. I experienced it firsthand as a little girl with all sorts of body shame, a teenager on every diet I could find, and as a scholar and activist fighting against objectifying ideals while fighting *for* girls to find their value beyond the mirror, the scale, or their Instagram likes.
At the very beginning of my pregnancy (before finding out the sex), I was taking a break from being a feminist to watch a Bravo reality TV show, and it was during the pointless dialogue between two Real Housewives that I had this revelation: “You’re going to have a girl. You’re her mom on purpose. You’re going to be an empowering example to her.” I sat there with that thought for a while, trying to figure out if I made it up or heard it on the TV (I quickly realized one of the H-wives definitely didn’t reveal this bit of truth to me). I didn’t make it up. And the little message I got gave me hope that maybe I’ve been training for many years to be (kind of) prepared for raising a girl in this world.
But I need help. Really, we *all* need help growing up and growing older in cultures that rely on us believing our physical attributes are the defining factors that determine our happiness, loveability, health and success. The truth is, our bodies are instruments for our use — not ornaments to be admired. We take better care of ourselves and our health when we live free of body shame. We are much happier and more fulfilled when we believe our worth is defined by what we contribute to the world, not how we look while we contribute. We are empowered as we learn to *see* the objectifying ideals that look so normal in everything from children’s programming and broadcast news to those faux-empowering all-booty fitness IG pages.
Lindsay and I have spent the last several years traveling the country doing speaking events and meeting so many of you face to face. It’s easily our favorite thing. In the last few months, we’ve met amazing bR supporters in Portland, Nashville, Indiana, Atlanta, Boston, and Utah (and this baby was with me the whole time). After I give birth and she joins us on tour, we’re going to meet so many more of you.
If you get to meet and hang out with my little girl, will you promise to take these 5 tips into consideration? I promise to do the same for you. We can all elevate the status of women, one baby step at a time.
Ask, Don’t Tell.
I sometimes panic a little when I see a little girl and all I can think to say is “You are so cute! Look at those little shoes!” (or insert other looks-based compliment). The easiest way to remind a girl of her worth beyond her shoes is to ask, don’t tell. Ask her what books she is reading, what sports she is playing, what job she wants when she’s older, who her favorite teacher is, what her favorite subject is, who her friends are, what she likes to draw, what she likes to do for fun, who her heroes are, what her favorite joke is, etc. The list is endless! Let her talk. It’ll teach her and those listening more than any easy compliment about her adorable hair could.
You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.
Many girls and women are featured on TV, in movies, or magazines purely as props to be ogled. In children’s animated movies, female characters are barely represented and when they are, they are wearing just as little clothing as women in R-rated films. Did you know male characters outnumber females 3:1 (in group scenes it’s 5:1) in kids’ movies? Let’s show our girls media that uplifts them and shows them what they can be. Read girls stories about girls. If you’re reading a story to kids (even a scripture story!) and you can feasibly change the gender from male to female, do it. If you are searching Netflix for a children’s show, do a bit of research to find something featuring girls doing anything more than just being looked at or searching for love. (Please comment below if you’ve got any favorite books or shows that feature strong female role models for kids!)
If You’re Talking Bodies, Change the Subject.
We stress the message that we are all more powerful than we realize and our influences matter. If you say something negative about your body or your looks (or any other woman — celebrity or otherwise), that little girl near you WILL HEAR. It will negatively affect her view of her own body. If you say something positive about another’s body (celebrity or otherwise), that little girl near you WILL HEAR. It will be a drop in the bucket of opinions she hears about what is most important about being a woman (weight loss, beauty, etc.) If we consciously work to move the conversation beyond the look of bodies, the results are powerful and immediate. We are more than bodies to be looked at, judged, and fixed. Start now to change then conversation. Read this awesome post on mothers and daughters for more inspiration.
Let’s Get Physical.
A wonderful spark in this dim world of body shame is lit through physical activity. And this is incredibly important when we think about what little girls, in particular, are up against. When girls hit puberty, they are TWICE as likely to experience depression as boys. This happens because we live in an objectifying culture that teaches society that girls and women are most valuable for how well they decorate the world and they need to spend precious time and energy evaluating and controlling their bodies in terms of their sexual desirability. Instead of raising their hands in class or playing soccer at recess or achieving a state of “flow” during a test or study period, too many little girls are caught in extreme anxiety about how their bodies appear to onlookers. Girls and women are picturing what they look like to others while they are living instead of just living. Serious mental and physical capacity (not to mention happiness and self-esteem) is lost in the process of focusing on your appearance when you should be focusing on anything else. Participating in sports and enjoyable physical activities is an excellent way for girls and women to resist the soul-sucking self-consciousness that they are often plagued with. We highly and regularly recommend getting involved in physical activities to beat body shame and experience your body as an instrument instead of an ornament.
Show Her Beauty Isn’t Supposed to Hurt.
What does our world look like for little girls growing up today? And how much pain, energy, time and money will they have to put into their own bodies to meet a standard of beauty perpetually out of reach? Each year, women invest billions of dollars into the latest procedures, products and prescriptions to try to reach that bar of normalcy — not even perfection, just normalcy. What would happen if confident, happy women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, hair removal, tanning or skin lightening regimens? What about foregoing makeup some days just to show what natural faces and lashes look like? What about shaving less often so little girls can see they aren’t gross for having hair on their legs? What about going swimming even if you feel self-conscious at the thought of putting on a swimsuit? How could that change the way our daughters, students, friends, and nieces perceive themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real bodies and faces? 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. And our daughters need to see that truth now more than ever.
Lindsay and I have seen Beauty Redefined supporters around the world go from fixated on their appearance to developing a greater focus on their unique missions free from looks-based obsession. In the seven years we’ve been running this nonprofit, we’ve seen girls stop cutting themselves and recover from eating disorders and overcome abuse to rise with body image resilience and bravely speak out against objectification. I have all the hope in the world that my baby has a shot at a fulfilling, empowered life, capable of resilience in the face of harmful ideals. I have all the hope in the world that you can live that same happy, hopeful, purposeful life. These strategies you use when you hang out with girls like mine will change them, and these same strategies will change you, too. We all deserve to know the truth about who we are, and who we are is more than a body to be admired. Let’s help each other see more and be more.
Want more in-depth help to reframe your health perceptions and improve your body image? Check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Program, developed and tested through our Ph.D. dissertations. See dozens of other people’s thoughts on this discussion on our Facebook page here.