You’re Not Pretty or Ugly Enough to Talk Body Image. Do It Anyway.
After several years of studying body image and writing/speaking about it publicly, the same brick wall loves to pop up and stifle any productive conversation about what we do: Our looks. Lexie and I will never be pretty enough or thin enough or ugly enough or fat enough (or insert any looks-oriented factor) to be credible spokespeople for positive body image and media literacy. Regardless of how research-backed, profound, truthful or crucially needed our messages are, there are — almost without fail — people who will dismiss us entirely as “just jealous of beautiful women” or “too pretty to know what body shame feels like.” Though those might sound like two radically different statements, they’re the exact same thing. Any comment or discussion that turns attention to our looks instead of our words minimizes us to just bodies. Nothing more than an object to look at, pick apart, judge and dismiss as never quite right.
I experienced this in an interview for a close-up profile on Lexie and me in a newspaper. We’re always immensely grateful for any media exposure Beauty Redefined receives, and this was no exception. The reporter was cordial and professional, and one question she brought up a couple of different times was reflective of a question we get A LOT. She said she was looking through my photos and described us as attractive, fit, young women. Because of that, she wondered if we ever face any bias from people who wonder how we would know what we’re talking about – how we could understand what it feels like to feel crappy about yourself or face criticism from others about your looks.
My automatic first response is the same as many girls and women: shut down the compliment. Dismiss it as an exaggeration or untrue (“No, really, I swear I’m not thin.”). But I know better. That derails the discussion and again, keeps it focused on my looks. Instead, I thanked her for the compliments and told her everyone’s perception of our looks is different, and we face both sides of that coin, which leads me to sharing with her (and everyone) my most important point of all: When we dismiss someone’s words due to our assessment of their appearance, we’re minimizing them to their body. We have got to stop that. One of Beauty Redefined’s most important mottos is “You are capable of much more than being looked at.” We focus on teaching women that they are not defined by what they look like, and teaching everyone to view and value women as more than a collection of body parts.
I reiterated this point two separate times during the interview, after being asked again why promoting positive body image is my passion if I’m already an attractive woman. Here’s what made the final cut for the paper:
“But overcoming deeply embedded stereotypes has been challenging. The youthful and attractive Kite sisters have themselves faced a form of bigotry in their crusade. “We definitely had experienced both sides of that stereotype,” Kite said. She said people who don’t know them assume they’re pushing their message because they’re fat and ugly. When people see what they look like, they face questions such as, “How would they know anything about feeling bad?”
“It’s often the women who are closest to the ideal that feel the furthest away,” Kite said. “They learn to value themselves solely for their appearance. We really can’t win. It wouldn’t matter what our bodies look like. We just need to get out of solely judging women on their appearance.”
After the interview ran in the paper and online, a very popular radio show in Utah, X96’s Radio from Hell, discussed the interview on Sept. 28. (Listen here if you’d like: RadioFromHell on Beauty Redefined). After our front-page story in the Tribune on Feb. 14, Radio from Hell named us “Boner of the Week” for how “idiotic our campaign is.” We won’t even share that radio bit with you because it’s so disgusting. On Sept. 28, Co-hosts Kerry, Bill and Gina read a few sections of the article and then had this follow-up discussion:
Bill: I think this is a g … I think this is an OK thing … I wanted you to look up the pictures.
Gina: Are they beautiful?
Bill: They’re nice looking women. They’re very nice looking women as far as I can tell, and I just thought, well, it’s pretty easy for you guys to talk about that, about body image and changing stereotypes and that kind of thing. Do we have pictures of them? Yes, we have pictures of them. I just wanted your assessment as to what you think they look like.
Gina: They’re pretty.
Bill: They’re very pretty.
Gina: But what does that matter though? Would this be a different story If they weren’t attractive?
Bill: No, I just wanted to say “It’s easy for you to say.” You’ve got it easy. It’s easy for us pretty people to say, “It’s OK if you’re ugly.”
Kerry: It’s like the guy with all the hair saying “It’s OK if you’re bald.”
Gina reading live advertisement: Ideal Image laser hair removal, call 1-800-be-ideal. [Not a joke. This happened. Don’t call that number.]
Bill: A texter says, “Ask the twins if their boyfriends are short, fat and ugly.”
(For the record, the appearances of “the twins’” boyfriends have varied, but all are beautiful in their own ways. “Short, fat and ugly” would not be an appropriate description of any given boyfriend of “the twins” — or of anyone’s boyfriend ever. Rude. Lexie would like to add that she got married a couple months ago and her husband is the opposite of “short, fat, and ugly.”)
We love the shout-outs, and all publicity is good publicity and all that, but this shallow, surface, stifling emphasis on appearance just sucks. There are so many better things to talk about. Like how media literacy is shown to help improve body image in young women. And how girls who feel good about themselves make healthier choices for themselves. And how people who aren’t preoccupied with their looks are literally better at everything than when they’re focused on what they look like. And how Beauty Redefined is teaching people how to recognize and reject harmful messages about women’s bodies in media so they can get on to leading happier, healthier, more productive and fulfilling lives.
What we do is SO unbelievably far from telling people, “It’s OK if you’re ugly.” We’re showing people how their ideas of “ugly” and “beautiful” are distorted by profit-driven messages that are holding us all back from health, happiness and fulfilling relationships, and then teaching people how to redefine those ideas for themselves.
Report on THAT, suckers! (Sorry, that’s now out of my system.)
So the next time you are speaking up about some body image issue, whether it’s pointing out to a group how one-dimensional “beauty” is in mass media or posting a link on Facebook about the awesome newscaster Jennifer Livingston talking back to a critical viewer who minimized her to her body, don’t be surprised if you get a snarky comment about your own appearance. Until women stop getting minimized to their bodies, here’s what we can do:
Don’t defend, deny or otherwise dwell on your looks – whether the comment was positive or negative toward you. Instead, point out the fact that your appearance doesn’t change the validity of your belief, or the truthfulness of your statement (depending on context).
Emphasize the point that whenever we minimize a woman (or a man) to what she looks like, we are contributing to an unhealthy culture of body shame and appearance obsession that is harming all people. Remember that girls who feel badly about their bodies – regardless of what they look like – are more likely to make poor health choices over time. They are more likely to lead sedentary lifestyles and make poor nutritional choices. By body policing or criticizing people’s bodies, we are never promoting real health or fitness. We are promoting body shame. Never let an excuse of “concern for her health” be a shield for body shaming, and when it is, point it out.
Don’t let comments about your appearance stop you from spreading true messages that can promote positive body image. You never know who else is watching, reading or listening that needs to hear what you have to say. You have a greater influence than you realize. We need your help to redefine what it means to be beautiful and healthy in ways that benefit individuals and families, and not corporations and industries.
Know that you don’t have to be the picture of beauty, health, confidence and body positivity to stand up for uplifting truth about female worth, health and potential. You just have to believe it. If you believe women are capable of much more than being looked at, that a woman’s reflection does not define her worth, and that there is more to be than eye candy, then don’t be afraid to show it! Show it in your words – in the way you talk about other women and yourself – but also show it in your actions. Be an example of positive body image. Even if you’ve gotta fake it at first, as you live like you love your body, that will eventually become your reality. And, I promise, your reality is much more beautiful than you realize. Join us as we work on taking back beauty for girls and women everywhere.