Beauty Redefined Blog

How We Got Here: Lindsay and Lexie’s Story



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!

Lexie (L) and Lindsay (R) with the beautiful coordinators of Brigham Young University’s Fantastic “Redefining Beauty” Event in Sept. 2011.

I have devoted the last 10 years of my life (and graduating with a PhD in a few weeks to prove it!!) to studying media and body image and the last 4 years 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 swimmingsuit, 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 swimmingsuit. 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 became 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. (*Names changed)

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.

Lexie (L), Lindsay (R)

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.

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.”

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Despite all my best 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 most of our media attentiondoes 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, sticky notes in public places, objecting to harmful messages in any way possible, and so many more strategies for both males and females.

THAT is Beauty Redefined, taking back beauty for females everywhere!

  1. Renee

    AMEN! I was always so conscious of my weight in high school, and now when I look back at pictures from that time I see how truly skinny I was (especially compared with myself now that I’m in my 30’s, heh heh ;o). How could I not have known that back then? All I saw were my blemishes–like that dimple on the thigh–that NOBODY else even noticed.

    When I first met my brother’s fiancee I was 13 or so, and she wrote a big message in chalk on our driveway: Renee, you are beautiful! That seems like such a small thing, but I still think about it even now, and it always makes me smile. More people need to hear this message–everyone needs to hear it.

  2. Sarah

    You two are an inspiration! THANK YOU for all you have taught me. You make my heart beat faster about this stuff too! I want all my friends and sisters and nieces to understand this. In fact, I want all the men I know to understand it too!
    I especially want my husband to understand this. He is very respectful of me and women but doesn’t understand the passion I have for “the loaded term of feminism” as you mentioned. Media portrays feminists as man haters and as absolutely ridiculous and extreme. But this is the type of feminism I want to believe in…that women have power, great spiritual and emotional power, and that power is taken from them if they can’t think about anything but the way that other people see them. When our focus is on our clothes and our makeup and our chubby thighs, how do we have any time to be the amazing influence for good that we are meant to be?

  3. Glen

    Very well written, Lindsay. You guys are awesome.

  4. Amanda- Hip House Girl
    Amanda- Hip House Girl02-23-2012

    Love it! This is my favorite: “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.” A lot of people say, “There’s nothing wrong with trying to look good!” which is absolutely true, but when it becomes an unhealthy preoccupation (and how could it not, in our society?) it severely limits our potential in other areas.

  5. Erin

    I have loved reading and watching your project grow. Thank you so much for what you are doing! I love your thoughts on feminism in our conservative culture (since I think we are from the same one:)). So often women of our faith seem to view the word “feminist” with only negative connotations, and I find your views and take on it so refreshing! I truly believe that what you and your sister are doing is so incredibly compatible with what we believe religiously–that good works, knowledge, accountability, charity and strength are much more possible when we stop worrying about what we look like and how others are perceiving us. It’s so great to read this post about your own journey. Thanks so much for what you’re doing and for sharing. I am, needless to say, a huge fan. :)

  6. Love You Project
    Love You Project02-23-2012

    We love you Lindsay and Lexie. You inspire us! LYP.

  7. Cristina

    Another great read! I felt like your story mirrored my own, right down to the women’s studies courses in college and discovering The Beauty Myth and feeling so empowered and validated to see my own thoughts mirrored in those pages. Have you run up against any backlash or resistance from other women when sharing your message? I’ve talked to women I know about this and I’m always surprised by how many women just don’t see things this way and completely internalize these messages and don’t see anything wrong with them. Any advice for what to say to those women?

  8. Amber Miles
    Amber Miles02-23-2012

    You two are amazing and I love you so much!! I was proud to call you my friends in school, and still proud (if not prouder) to call you my friends now. I was lucky to have such a great group of friends in high school even though I was jealous of every single one of them. I always had a hard time in high school, especially the fact that I was the bigger twin. I really hated that. Alli was always much smaller than me, and still is. There was only about a year of glory when I got to be skinnier than her, but it didn’t last forever. I continue to struggle, but I now have a different outlook on the whole image thing, especially with the help of Beauty Redefined. I can just totally relate to everything you are saying. I believe I started feeling that way around the same age as you too. But all I can say now, is thanks!! Everything you are doing is wonderful and for a great purpose…and it’s working!! What an amazing work you are doing. Thanks girls. I love you so much!!

  9. Emily

    Thanks for sharing your story! You reminded me of when I was a teen and a few times wrote in my journal, “I will not eat candy” X number of times to be a punishment so I wouldn’t eat so many treats. It was probably unhealthy to eat that much candy, but I probably shouldn’t have been worrying about my shape so much.

  10. Emily

    I was working out last night and thinking gosh, I wish I was skinner and looked like that lady. I rushed home and then spent three hours looking up information about diet tips and exercise. Finally, I went to bed at 1:00 a.m. and am completely exhausted today.

    Thank you for spreading the truth! I truly love you two!

  11. kelli anderson
    kelli anderson02-25-2012

    thanks for your work! i truly believe in beauty redefined. i am actually writing a paper for my english 2010 class on this topic, and i’m excited to use the books you referenced!

  12. Stephanie

    What an incredible journey. I’m so grateful for you girls and the incredible work you do. You are both amazing!

  13. Ema

    I cannot tell you how wonderful I think that your organization is. I am a masters student in sports nutrition and I have been an athlete my whole life. That being said, I have constantly struggled with body image. I have to be “thinner to be faster” and “smaller to fit the athletic ideal.” I am so sick of feeling this way and it seems the rest of the world is sick of it too. Thank you for sharing your story and sharing your passion for “taking back beauty.” Please don’t let the big corporations take you down. You are doing a great thing and the world needs more role models like yourselves.

  14. anonymous

    It was so sad for me to read that you were only in 3rd grade when you were first affected by body image, but then I had to think back on my own experiences and realize I was only in 5th grade when I began my first diet. That diet initiated a downward spiral into a violent eating disorder that consumed my life for over 10 years and ultimately took away my childhood. I too wonder what else I could have accomplished or what could have been my potential had I focused on my capabilities instead of my appearance. Looking back now with a logical perspective it seems so ridiculous that I put my pant size over being healthy enough to be a good athlete or student, but when you are a young girl lacking logical reason, life doesn’t exist outside that full length mirror.

    I am so grateful for this new found education of media and its effect on our society so I can teach those I love how to combat this unrealistic ideal of beauty that is being forced down our throats by the industry. Thank you for the work you put into spreading your message, it truly is changing lives.

  15. Sue Thomason
    Sue Thomason03-19-2012

    What an amazing story – and so similar to my own in lots of ways. I share the passion for spreading the word and I know intimately the racing heart beat and the drive. Changing the way the media represents women and helping women to realise appearance is not all they are is the only thing I’ve ever stuck with – the passion and racing heart have remained constant for 20 years or more.

    I see so many body image messages and ‘anti diet’/positive body image books and websites but many are still overly influenced by media messages and often flawed and unhelpful, despite being well intentioned. Rarely do I see ones that are as consistent and with such a full understanding of the subject as Beauty Redefined.

    Thank you Lindsay and Lexie for everything you do for us! x

  16. Alanna

    Ditto. Just, completely, ditto.

    Your girls’ story resonates with me so much I don’t even know where to begin. I was a gymnast growing up. I fell completely in love with gymnastics and it was the most important thing in my life. Like you Lexie, I got that high and thrill from excelling and performing in gymnastics. Competition day used to always bring out a performance from me that was better than anything I could do in practice, and I loved that.

    But, between growing up in Los Angeles, a city with a hyper intensified obsession with bodies, with coaches who wanted us to be small, with a mother who put our family on a “low fat diet” starting when I was about 7, the chances that I wouldn’t develop body hatred were slim, and I did. The thrill that came with gymnastics went away by the time I was in middle school, and I think it was because I just didn’t believe in myself. How could I, when I had already internalized the belief that being thin, popular, and having a boyfriend were of utmost importance, and the only source of happiness?

    Lexie, your experience in high school was similar to mine. Every day was simply a new chance to diet better, to do something to lose weight and change the way I looked. I got great grades, I had close friends who I am still close with to this day, but I was simply not a girl who LIVED in my own body. I spent my time looking onto myself from the outside, thinking I couldn’t occupy that body comfortably until myself and the people around me liked the way it looked. My weight was up and down, my eating was very disordered, and life passed me by. I don’t know what I could have done to avoid this experience–my friends talked about weight and dieting all the time, as did our moms. My reality from media and our culture encouraged me to believe that I HAD to change, but so did the people most important to me and most influential in my life. Of course, this was all wrong, we had it all wrong, and we still do.

    I think deep down my 18 year old self knew and wanted more from my life, so I went away for college. Really far away. I went to the Univeristy of Michigan and essentially just started from scratch. While I started dating and feeling more physically confident, I also began discovering all the values that had been missing. I had a very similar epiphany to you girls because I discovered one of my greatest passions–which is being a trial lawyer. I joined our mock trial team my freshman year, and, much like my gymnastics days, just fell in love. Being in the courtroom, giving speeches, crossing the bad guy, getting heat from the judge, working and bonding and struggling with my amazing teammates and friends gave me such an immense joy and high. My parents would fly out and come watch me compete (where I was always somehow just a little better than practice) and I had friendships rooted in respect, admiration, and love for each other and this common (nerdy) goal we all had.

    Outside the courtroom, I still struggled with the desire to be thinner and to change my body. I dated and had really healthy, great relationships, but not a day went by that I didn’t order my eating and my behavior towards the desire to be thinner. Towards the end of college, I began to discover my second passion for social justice and activism. When I graduated and moved to DC to do criminal justice reform work, I again found that passion and spark for doing and creating instead of being looked at and experienced in just the right physical way.

    But the truth that makes me the most sad is that I didn’t really occupy my own body until well after I graduated and began law school. While I had moments (mostly at times that I was at a “good” weight or had a distracting romance with a guy) that I didn’t feel concerned with changing myself, that concern always creeped back in in a very fundamental way. And much like you, Lexie, I have a journal that shows this. At the same time I am writing testimony being submitted to Congress and publishing nationally distributed reports, I am opening up my private google doc and convincing myself to be “good” that day with eating. If at 22 I was already accomplishing what I did, what more could I have done without wasting that time outside my body, wanting to change it?

    Discovering the work of Susie Orbach and Any-Body, and later on Beauty Redefined, has shifted the focus of those journal entries from convincing myself to change my body, to convincing myself to not want to change a thing and start experiencing my world and my body in all its beautiful potential. And even though I’m not perfect, this shift in what I want to change has been massive. In the past two years of my life, and even more in the past year, I can count so many more moments of visceral, genuine, happiness and living than I could for probably the combined 22 years preceding them. I have LOVED law school and the challenges it has brought. I got to compete even more with the trial team, but discoevered even more passion for organizing, leading, and writing (just had an op-ed published this week!) in my personal life, all the normal things that used to be dampened by a distraction with my appearance are suddenly very differnt Dinner parties, vacations, lazy afternoons, running and physical challenges, drunken nights at the bar with my friends, all feel better, because I actually FEEL those moments.

    This campaign and this fight are so important to me because the difference between wanting to be experienced in the right way, and wanting TO experience the right things, means everything. It means real inspiration, connection, optimism, love, creating, and improving yourself. It means real pride, compassion, passion, exhilaration, surprise, wonder, appreciation, ambition, satisfaction, and curiosity. It means, in a word, life.

    Occupying your own body, living in a moment, and loving the world around you and the people in it, is a stupendous and mysterious gift that our perverse body culture takes away from every woman and little girl. That breaks my heart and it’s why I am so determined to support your work, and this fight, in every way I can. I know the most important way to do that is to conquer that in my own life, which, thanks in large part to people like you, I am well on my way to.

  17. Courtney

    THANK YOU! I really appreciate all that you have done to encourage women. I am currently studying abroad in Spain, and if there is anyone who could use your message, it is Europe. I am absolutely astounded by how much women here view their worth as objects. I started doing research on my own into the infantilization and objectification of women before arriving here, and it is absolutely amazing how much more you notice something after you learn about it. I stare at billboards of barely-clothed women all of the time and am amazed at how they can tolerate it. And it is rather toxic. I have found myself staring and wishing that I could look like they do, and avoiding foods that I would like to eat because they would make me “fat.”

    I realize after finding your website, that every time I call myself fat, I am devaluing myself and my worth. My worth is not found in how beautiful I am, or how many dates I am asked on (none, btw!), or whether my butt looks big in skinny jeans. It is so much greater and more important than any of those things!

    I also appreciate how you addressed your faith as well, because I feel as though my faith leads me to the beliefs that I have regarding this subject. I love the website, and I am planning on getting some sticky notes when I come back from study abroad so I can plaster them over images that are hurtful to women’s self-esteem! Thanks, ladies!!

  18. Sharon G. Cobb
    Sharon G. Cobb06-06-2012

    Two ROCK! We have similar goals and missions. I found you via a pinterest pin left on my own website. I am so glad someone pinned your poster! Good luck with your thesis.

  19. Viva Feminista
    Viva Feminista06-10-2012

    This story gave me GOOSEBUMPS! I relate to it so much! I successfully combine my spirituality with feminism and they seem to fit so well together. Keep on keeping on, ladies! The women of this world need you!

  20. DD

    I have only just found this site. I am so sick of trying to be “skinny” and living up to this unrealistic ideal that society has put on us females. I have had an eating disorder since I was 15. I’m almost 27 now and just want to be rid of it for good. I hope your message gets out to as many people as possible and to help girls/women like myself to look at themselves in a better light and feel more self worth. I would not wish what I have gone through on anyone and hopefully through your work and message this world will become much more aware of what we are putting our girls through. So much unnecessary pain, anxiety, sadness, even depression, when we can be loving ourselves and helping those around us love and value themselves as well. Thank you for this website and thank you for all of the hard work you put in. Favouriting this site and checking in on it regularly. Well done girls xo

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