Empowerment, Body Positivity and the Internet: Podcast Interview
Some Backstory: I (Lindsay Kite) am an avid follower of Meghan Murphy, and after being particularly frustrated about sexualized imagery being embraced as the ultimate in empowerment for women, and then particularly refreshed upon reading Meghan’s posts at Feminist Current, I wrote her a quick Facebook message to thank her. She invited me to be interviewed for her podcast about this topic. I have been reluctant to speak much online about this question of body positivity vs. objectification since receiving significant backlash after posting this piece (and I’m exhausted), but I knew a conversation with Meghan would be an ideal platform for discussing this important subject. Below is the transcript (thank you, Rachel Garrison!) and you can listen to the podcast audio here.
This interview was transcribed and then edited for clarity based on an audio interview featured on the Feminist Current podcast earlier this month. It was conducted by Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of Feminist Current with Lindsay Kite, PhD, co-director of Beauty Redefined.
Meghan Murphy: What is objectification? What does it mean to be sexually objectified?
Lindsay Kite: Sexual objectification is generally thought of as looking at and viewing people’s bodies as objects for consumption — so, parts of people to be viewed, to be judged, to be consumed, to be used, to be discarded. Not seeing people in their full humanity. We aren’t valuing how they feel, what they do, what they say, what they contribute to the world. We’re simply valuing bodies (women’s bodies, especially) for what they can do for other people, particularly men — how men can consume those bodies, how men value those bodies.
MM: Objectification is a concept that we talk about so much in feminism because it’s the most useful way to describe the way in which women and women’s bodies are so often represented in media and pop culture, but I it is actually kind of a hard concept for some people to get if they aren’t familiar with feminist theory. I wonder if you can explain what objectification means — what does it look like? What’s the difference between being objectified and not being objectified, in terms of imagery?
LK: For me, from my perspective and from my research, objectification really happens through the viewer. It’s the “look” of the viewer. This also happens through the “look” of the camera. So when we talk about the male gaze, it’s really valuable because so much of what we see in media — especially in mass media and the social media that reflects that mass media — we see cameras tilting up and down women’s bodies, zooming in on parts of their bodies. The dialogue from other characters — the text about those women — revolves around what their bodies look like, what other people think about what those women look like, and how those women are valued, usually (pretty much solely) for what they can do for other people — how they can be used and consumed.
This gets complicated when we start talking about “self-objectification,” which is a really huge part of my research. Most of what we do through Beauty Redefined focuses on helping people to recognize self-objectification. Not just looking at images that they may be objectifying or other people that they may be objectifying, but how they are thinking of themselves. And it gets complicated because we know that when we look at images of women, and we’re solely looking at parts, basically dismantling women and evaluating them based on just what they look like — that’s objectification. We are objectifying those women. Sometimes that choice is taken away from us because of the way the camera or the dialogue treats those women’s bodies. It does the objectifying for us. And so the viewer then becomes kind of complicit in that objectification because we’re viewing it and seeing and understanding images that way a lot of the time.
But then we also end up doing it to ourselves… which a lot of people are confused about. Even people who seem to be familiar with that [reality/concept/term] and talk about and use the term… Sometimes they think self-objectification means displaying yourself as an object —wanting people to look at you as an object. And that’s not what it is at all. Self-objectification happens inside your own brain.
This happens to girls and women of all ages (and increasingly so with boys and men, though not anywhere near to the same extent). We see girls and women picturing what they look like as they go about their days. So, as they engage in physical activity or mental activity, their identities are kind of doubled, because they’re picturing what they look like while they participate in their own lives — while they live, do, and be.
This gets in the way of everything — absolutely everything. It saps our mental energy, our capacity to think complete thoughts, our ability to focus on what we’re doing and to participate fully in our lives, our relationships, and the world. So, self-objectification is an element of this whole conversation that is hugely important, because when we view objectified images and participate in this objectifying culture, whether we know it or not, we end up turning that gaze inward on ourselves and evaluating ourselves in terms of what other people see, rather than based on how we feel, what we do, and what we say and contribute to the world.
MM: I’m so glad you brought that up because I talk about self-objectification quite often in my work and, as you pointed out, I think people are really confused about what that means, or they think that [self-objectification] can’t exist because of the way they’ve interpreted the theory of the male gaze. So they say, “Well, if a man isn’t looking at me and objectifying me then I’m not being objectified,” for example, if the audience is female for whatever reason. Or they’ll say, “How can I objectify myself?” Or, “If I’m choosing to objectify myself, it can’t be oppressive.”
Because representations of women’s bodies are so fraught and because women, throughout their lives, learn to hate their bodies, to self-objectify, and to obsess over their bodies in a pretty superficial way (I don’t mean that as an insult to women, I mean literally in a superficial way), there’s a lot of energy put into teaching women and girls to feel good about their bodies… Sometimes this is called “body positivity”… I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what these efforts look like.
LK: Yeah, definitely. My work has always revolved around positive body image. My sister, Lexie, and I, we started this non-profit, Beauty Redefined, fully as an attempt to promote positive body image among girls and women. So it’s something that’s very close to my heart. But that means I’ve been really keenly aware and tuned in to the different ways that others are trying to promote positive body image. And it definitely looks different depending on the strategies that people are using. So for me and my organization, we are seeking to expand what constitutes beauty: what it looks like, what it can look like. But also, and more importantly, the meaning and the value of beauty in our lives — how much value we allow it to have for ourselves in the ways we judge ourselves, and the way we judge and see other people.
There are lots of other people who take a more narrow perspective on positive body image. You’ll see this in viral videos that are absolutely everywhere. You’ll see this from really well-meaning organizations and speakers.
Lots of people have become really aware of the hot topic that is “positive body image” because people recognize it’s a huge issue. Girls and women really do hate their bodies and there’s no arguing that. But they’re trying to fix this problem in generally one way: They typically will say, in so many words, “Girls, women, you are so beautiful just the way you are. If only you understood just how pretty you are, you would have all the confidence in the world. Now get out there and have girl power.” And we [Lexie and I] try to flip the script on this because we know that boys and men have self-esteem issues, too. They have confidence issues. And when people try to fix girls’ and women’s confidence issues — not just their body issues — by telling them they’re beautiful and they’re actually prettier than they think they are, that just serves to further reinforce the idea that your body is the most important thing about you, and that your looks define who you are. So girls and women get this message from multiple angles, even from people who are really well-meaning.
One of the other ways that people really seek to promote body positivity and that has grown really rapidly in the last two years online, especially through Instagram, is through the hashtag, #bopo or #bodypositivity. When you search that hashtag, you’re going to see hundreds of thousands — millions, even — of images of women in their underwear, women who are nude, women who are wearing very little, posing with their backsides to the camera, just showing pretty much everything. But they’re all different shapes and sizes. And the reason they feel that this is body-positive is because when they were young, they didn’t get to see bodies that looked like theirs in mass media. And I can absolutely relate to that. Growing up as a thick girl, you don’t get to see bodies of women who look like yours — your size and your shape, and with the so-called “flaws” we’ve been taught to find in ourselves. I never saw cellulite. I never saw acne. I never saw stretch marks or any of the things that I had, that I learned to view as “abnormal.” So then people turn to the Internet. And they take pictures of themselves in their underwear to show other people, “Look at me. I might not look like those ideals, but I look good and I feel good, and you should, too.” And that has just exploded. That is by far the most popular way that people are interpreting what it means to promote positive body image. And that scares me a little bit. Because while I recognize the value of that, I recognize the value in seeing body diversity — especially marginalized bodies — represented positively, I also am scared because that’s one of the only ways that body positivity is being valued and promoted in any really major ways. And it’s popular because it fits within the rules of this objectifying culture.
I talk about objectification as kind of like a game or a system that gives women points and value based on whether or not they are objectifiable — whether or not people can look at their bodies and think they look good, or consume them and, you know, have whatever thoughts they want to about them. How on earth can you distinguish those images from the identical images that are used to humiliate women; that are used strictly for the pleasure of men? Those same images, even under the hashtag #bodypositivity, are strictly there to arouse men. They’re not there to help girls and women feel good about themselves. And it becomes problematic, because while I’ve seen those pages — those body positivity pages, especially on Instagram — explode when they start to share more underwear pictures or nude selfies. That’s when they get 200K followers. And it’s a little problematic because, again, we are just reinforcing the idea that women are bodies. That our bodies are our value. And [it’s like], “Look at this! Look at more bodies!”
One of the main points that I had been really wrestling with, even for many years, is the different approaches that people take to positive body image and how much they can really conflict with what I’ve learned through my PhD research and what I’ve seen even just through my own experience in helping other women to become resilient in the face of objectification and negative body image. There seem to be two groups. And they’re not completely mutually exclusive, but they’re really different and I don’t think a lot of people recognize that there are two very different approaches going on.
The first one is: Women fighting for women to be valued as more than bodies to view. And the second group is: Fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable. So that second group is the women who are sharing and taking the underwear photos. They are saying, “Yeah you’ve told us that we’re not beautiful and that our bodies don’t look good and we should be ashamed, but look, we’re not ashamed. And we’re going to post [our bodies] on the Internet to prove it.” Those are the images that have a thousand comments from a lot of girls and women saying, “You look beautiful,” or “You look like me, I’m so glad that you have that confidence. I hope I have that confidence someday, too.” Also, a lot of the comments are from men and other people using, you know, every sexual emoji they can come up with in any combination and saying, “Oh I love thick girls, you’re so juicy.”
How do you differentiate between what is objectifying and what is empowering if you’re playing by the rules that give women credit for showing their bodies; that give women value and validation and likes and comments and compliments for doing the very things that men who hate women want them to do? It’s a really complicated subject and when I talked about it on the Internet, people were very offended.
MM: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought that up, because the idea that you can get confidence by being desired is so much a part of the conversation now — in particular when it comes to marginalized bodies, as you say — women who have not felt attractive because they don’t fit into these norms, they don’t look like whatever we’ve been told conventionally-beautiful women look like, etc. And to criticize that is even more difficult. So I did want to ask you a little bit about your experience. For example, I experience a lot of backlash for criticizing the commentary surrounding Laverne Cox’s nude photo shoot in Allure magazine, which was called “radical” and “empowering” by mainstream people and fashion magazines and stuff like that. And I was saying, “Is this really empowering on a large scale? What does this change in terms of that idea that women are things to look at and things that men should want to have sex with — things that are beautiful, things that are desirable, etc.?” I wonder if you can talk a bit about your own experiences in this area in terms of backlash you’ve faced around your critiques of objectification.
LK: Yeah, definitely. There’s no way to talk about objectification — or really anything related to feminism [chuckles] — without getting huge backlash, and you know that better than anyone. That’s something that I’ve really struggled with because it is very exhausting and it makes me not want to post anything else online for the rest of my life. And I did have to go on a little media fast after this last little bout of extreme backlash. But it’s really important and it’s the thing that keeps me up at night, thinking about it. Because I know how important it is for women to be really critical of what feels like empowerment.
I think there’s this really false idea in our culture that if you love your body — if you feel good about yourself, if you’re a confident woman — you should be taking your clothes off and showing everyone to prove it. This is extremely problematic, because that’s this really false conflation of objectification and being willing to display your body for the consumption of others as the ultimate in “confidence.” And we would never ask men to do that. We would never ask men that, if they feel good about their bodies, they better show them off for the world — you better do a magazine photo shoot to prove it. And it’s hard with people that are transgender. They see that sometimes as the ultimate — that the peak of femininity is being able to take your clothes off and other people thinking that looks good. That is something that I really struggle with — especially in talking about that on the Internet to a wide audience. Because there is this really false idea that you have to display your body to prove you’re comfortable with it and happy. And that’s just simply not true. That’s stuck in this idea that women are bodies and that your value comes from what you look like.
So when I’ve pushed back against this, some of the biggest flack really came from people who I thought were kind of on the same team as me. It’s this group of extremely popular, mostly young, women online — on Instagram and on Facebook — who have huge followings. They promote “body positivity” and they call themselves feminist activists in search of promoting “positive body image.” They’re really seeking to fight body shame. And as their followings have really exploded, far more so than mine ever has and probably ever will, they have taken their clothes off more and more and so they’ve been rewarded for that a lot. And the backlash came from them, I think because they felt a lot of cognitive dissonance about it. And that’s not to dismiss how they felt, because I recognize that this is a really complicated subject and I’m not going to pretend to have all of the answers. But I know that my perspective is a little bit different than maybe what they’ve been dealing in.
And so a lot of the pushback sounded like this: They would say, “Well, that’s just not practical, to take displaying our bodies out of the equation, to take that off the table. What does that really look like? If you say women are more than bodies and we need to get past the underwear photos as a means for empowerment, then what are we supposed to do here on Instagram?” And my response to that is: The practical implication is that you just don’t have to show your body to prove that you value your body, and to prove that other people’s bodies are acceptable, and that women are valued for more than that. Like I said before, we don’t ask men to prove their confidence by sharing their naked bodies online and we don’t expect men to get so much validation from what they post on the Internet, particularly in terms of what they look like.
But a lot of women, especially these ones who have huge followings online, they do depend on that for their validation and even for their income, because most of them — all of them — get paid to promote plus-sized swimwear and different lipsticks and things like that. And so the practical implications are really difficult for them, to think about not sharing those types of photos. But they feel some cognitive dissonance because I think they read this thing that conflicts with what they already believed before, but they recognize maybe a little bit of truth in it — that maybe it is true that, if we’re more than bodies and if we really want to understand positive body image and promote it in a responsible and lasting way, we do have to get beyond showing bodies. We have to get beyond just seeing and valuing and sharing bodies.
That’s really kind of the gist of our whole message. [It] is that, if we’re more than bodies to be viewed, we need to prove that in the ways that we value ourselves, in the way that we live our lives, and recognize that self-objectification — and really, the obsession with what our bodies look like inside our own minds — is the thing that’s really hurting us. It’s the thing that’s causing the body shame. A lot of these people try to fight against beauty ideals and that’s why they share images of marginalized women’s bodies in an attempt to say, “This doesn’t fit the ideal but I still think it looks good and you should, too.” But that still is further just posing these women’s bodies for consumption by other people, reinforcing that idea that we are there to be consumed and that’s where we can gain our value.
It’s definitely a complicated issue. Another one of the bits of pushback we got was the whole idea of, “Okay you don’t think it’s empowering for women to share their lingerie photo shoots online, but what if they think it’s empowering?” And to that I say: We’re not trying to tell anyone that we have all the answers or you’ve got to do this, and this is the only thing that will work. But what we do know is that we need to be very critical of what we’ve been told is empowering.
We’ve all seen the photo shoots online from every celebrity in the world. You know, people think Miley Cyrus is a feminist icon because she takes off her clothes and does really sexual movements for millions of people. And there’s lots of other women that do that and yeah, that does kind of seem like power. Because when you think about it, there’s two different types of “empowerment” going on here. This culture that we live in will give women power for showing their bodies. It will give them money and followers and likes and magazine photo shoots and fame. There are so many women who have risen to extreme fame because of the way they present their bodies online and what they look like. So I can absolutely see how that feels like empowerment. And a lot of people absolutely think that’s true. But really, from a feminist perspective, from a lasting power perspective, that power can be taken away as quickly as it’s given because it is determined by a culture that only values women’s bodies as objects. As soon as that culture and those people decide that someone else looks better, or we’re into a new body type now, or, “You’re disgusting, we saw your unphotoshopped images,” then that power can be gone.
So who determines your power? If that “empowerment” is coming from the outside, it’s probably not real. It might feel like it is, and it’s hard to dismiss that because a lot of people are seeking it, but I think real empowerment feels a little bit more like what comes from within you; what you believe you can contribute to the world when you can stop yourself from being held back by the voice in your head that says, “You’re not worthwhile, you’re not valuable, until you fit this certain ideal or until you do this certain thing.” And that empowerment is absolutely possible. And it does take getting past and through body shame, through resilience in order to accomplish it. But by sharing photos of women’s bodies and viewing them online, we’re not going to get there. Even if you end up really liking what your body looks like, you could still be obsessed with what your body looks like.
That’s the problem, here, is that so many women are fighting for more women’s bodies to be viewed as valuable no matter what they look like. But even if they end up feeling good about their bodies, they are still very often stuck in a complete rut of self-objectifying all day long; being preoccupied about what they look like as they go about their lives. And that is not empowerment. That is something that is debilitating for women and studies back that up.
MM: A really good example of what you’re talking about here is Kim Kardashian’s recent nude selfie. I mean, she’s posted plenty of nude (or almost nude) selfies on the Internet in her career, but this recent one caused a lot of commotion for whatever reason. She posted this nude selfie of herself on Twitter, as you know, and I guess part of the commotion happened because several celebrities said things like, “Put your clothes back on,” or “Why can’t she seek positive attention or validation in other ways, based on skill or talent or intelligence or something else? Why does she need to get attention in this way?” And then there was this huge backlash from people, mostly who are women, mostly who I think would consider themselves feminists, probably mostly younger women, I’d say, who were calling any kind of critical commentary around the image “shaming” or were saying, “She feels good about her body so why shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that she’s posting these photos of herself online?” And I actually saw this man had posted a comment online saying (and obviously feminists say these things all the time, he’s not the first one to say something like that) something relatively non-controversial, like, you know, “We need to teach women healthier ways of seeking validation.” I think he probably could have chosen his words better, but in any case, he received this huge backlash from young women who were saying, “Why are you shaming her? She can seek validation however she wants. Why is this image even bad?” I wonder if you can comment on that situation in particular and the kind of commentary that surrounded Kim Kardashian?
LK: Yeah, that really was a huge deal… I was kind of surprised by how much controversy that stirred up because it’s nothing new.
LK: We see those things all the time, but what made that so controversial is Kim talking back to those people. I think what they said was pretty benign and a lot of the things that people said were true, you know? “I wish you would be a role model for girls who can value more in themselves than just what they look like.” I think most people in the world would agree with something like that. That would be a positive way to be a role model for girls. At the same time, Kim Kardashian is not intending to be a role model for anyone, and no one should expect her to be…
But her response, her big response — I’m not completely convinced she wrote it herself — but the whole thing about, “I’m empowered by my body. I’m empowered by my husband. I’m empowered by showing the world my flaws”… That “flaws” part is what really stood out to me, because Kim K is notorious for photoshopping all of her images. There’s no image she’s ever posted that isn’t just Facetuned to the max. And she’s been caught many times slimming her waist and enlarging her butt and things like that. You know, there’s probably nothing wrong with that. If she wants to do it and she thinks she looks better that way, then great. I would hope people recognize that those images are altered and that they’re not real, but unfortunately most people do not recognize that. And that’s why we get so many hashtag #bodygoals comments on things like that.
In any case, what made that whole thing controversial is her argument that goes back to this idea of what I would consider “commodified feminism” or “post-feminism,” where anything goes. If she says that she’s empowered by this, then she is empowered and we should all be happy for it — we should applaud this.
And that is something that really kind of irks me because I don’t think we should ever just let something slide that sounds like empowerment (or has been reinterpreted and re-appropriated as empowerment) if it is exactly the same thing that people who hate women want women to do. And I’ve said that before, but we’ve got to be really careful when organizations and people that just really don’t respect women in any way –but really “value” women’s bodies in whatever way — when those same groups would definitely want Kim Kardashian to take her clothes off and share her photos on the Internet. We have to maybe think, is that really empowering or is that just the same way that she gets rewarded and that all women can be rewarded in a system that only values their bodies and nothing else? She got a ton of publicity for that so I’m sure it was a very calculated move, and it definitely helped her career. I’m sure she’s making more money off it, I’m sure it distracted from all of Kanye’s tweeting, but it doesn’t necessarily add up to empowerment and we need to recognize that.
If, as feminists, we want equality for women and we want women to be valued in the same ways that men are valued — as humans — then we need to recognize that women being valued purely for their bodies is not helping us get there. Women being valued for their bodies and through the “empowerment” that objectification might bring to them is really holding us back. Because it’s keeping us all under this umbrella of “the game of objectification” that gives us arbitrary points for doing certain things with our bodies; for looking a certain way that is currently in vogue — and Kim certainly fits that.
I think the backlash is important to get people talking about it, I just hope they don’t only hear comments from very young people calling themselves feminists who say, “Yeah, get it girl, you’re our new feminist icon.” Because, you know, if all women did that, none of us would feel any better about our bodies. Maybe a few “likes” and comments would help us [feel temporarily good], but ultimately, you live in your own mind. You live in your own brain. How you feel about yourself all day long isn’t really affected by how many photos you post on the Internet. Even those girls and those women with huge followings who post things online about how much they love their bodies and say they’ve embraced their flaws, and post these photos that a lot of people wouldn’t consider flattering and they don’t look like anything that would be in a magazine — those women don’t necessarily feel great about their bodies, even if they say they do. A lot of them might, and I don’t mean to dismiss that at all, or claim that they don’t. But a lot of those women are feeling just the same as everyone else when they are fixated on what they look like, instead of just living their lives.
When people, you know, stop exercising, sit out of sports, don’t raise their hands in class, don’t comment in a board meeting because they don’t want people to look at them… Or when maybe their hair doesn’t look right or their skin doesn’t look right or their clothes are too tight or any other fear they have about people seeing their bodies — that is self-objectification. And that is holding all of us back, whether you like what your body looks like or not. Empowerment feels different than that. We can’t gain empowerment by just posting photos of our bodies online and looking at photos of other women’s bodies. It keeps us in a rut.
MM: So, we know what empowerment isn’t… Objectified, sexualized imagery of women’s bodies doesn’t equate to empowerment. But what does? What does empowerment mean? What does it look like?
LK: I think it’s probably a little different for every person — I’ve never heard a really amazing definition of it and so I think it becomes this really abstract, kind of arbitrary word. But if we’re thinking of “power” for ourselves, I tend to think of it in terms of what I value in myself. And I feel like I’ve been a person for most of my life that felt pretty capable. I felt like if I wanted to do something, I could do it, I could figure it out. And for a lot of my life I completely held myself back from what I could do, could’ve done, the relationships I could’ve had, because I hated the way my body looked. So empowerment for me, personally, was learning to see more in myself than my body, than my appearance, regardless of what it looked like. I didn’t feel more empowered when I was my very thinnest, or when I was considered most beautiful by other people. I felt most empowered when I achieved things. And I know that that comes with privilege — being able to go to college and get a Master’s and a PhD — that certainly comes with privilege. But it contributed to me feeling like a capable person. But I think as we set goals for ourselves that don’t revolve around just what we look like — which is something that women very often get stuck in a rut with — we can set goals that revolve around what our bodies can do, rather than weight goals or size goals and things like that. All of that can contribute to empowerment.
Empowerment is also self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is this term that I used a lot in my research, and a lot of people in positive psychology and health promotion use that term as well, in order to describe a feeling of being able to accomplish what you want to accomplish, generally. Having self-efficacy is something that brings empowerment, because if you don’t have that, you won’t even try to accomplish things. You won’t even try to break outside of your comfort zone.
As women we have to do that because our comfort zones are not really all that comfortable, if what research shows us is true — that most women are very uncomfortable in their bodies, are not happy with themselves, and are judging and defining themselves according to what they think other people see when they look at them. We have to break out of that really uncomfortable comfort zone, and that takes looking at empowerment a little bit differently than what we’ve been taught, and seeing it outside of just what our bodies look like.
Every commercial on TV today for a beauty product or a weight loss plan or a diet plan, as well as for clothing and fashion lines, are all using the idea of empowerment to sell products. All of them. It’s all over the place. It’s kind of blowing my mind lately. And so, this whole term “empowerment” has really been co-opted by people who want you to think that empowerment comes when you finally lose that 10 pounds or when your skin looks younger and you look “ageless.”
But people who buy those products and do those things — when their skin looks more “ageless” — very often find out that it doesn’t feel all that empowering and that they’re even more preoccupied with making sure their skin looks “ageless,” or making sure they lose another 10 pounds so they can feel even more empowered. Those things just aren’t lasting.
So that’s a very long way of saying we have to be very critical of what empowerment has been sold to us as, and concentrate more on setting goals for ourselves that yield to actual feelings of accomplishment. Of feeling capable and being proud of who we are, what we feel, what we do, and what we contribute to the world — outside of just what other people see when they look at us.
This interview was transcribed by Rachel Garrison (thank you!)