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Redefining Beauty by Promoting Obesity? Not Even Close.



We, Lindsay and Lexie of Beauty Redefined, often get some interesting feedback about our work. Recently, we were told “we just don’t look like academics” by an important scholar, and was asked why anyone would want to listen to “beautiful women” talk about beauty.  Just months ago, we were approached by a reporter from one of the largest international news organizations to be interviewed for a story about our groundbreaking billboard campaign and our movement for positive body image. And then the story was shot down because of radical confusion about what we do. Our post about the harmful forms of “thinspiration” so prevalent online was republished by the Huffington Post and the comments are reflective of this exact same confusion and criticism. When you tell those you love about this type of body image work, you might be met with some of this push-back too, so we’ve got some great ways to help those you love understand the importance of this work.

As you can imagine, we were pumped (!!!) when we were approached by this massive news organization, which we can now tell you was Reuters International. The reporter was fantastic and professional and after pitching the idea to his editor and having it approved, we had a great interview and looked forward to some amazing news coverage of this uplifting, attention-grabbing, relatable story. He also interviewed our impressive friend and fellow empowerment activist, Inês Almeida, of 7Wonderlicious (in Australia) about why she chose to support our billboard campaign from all the way across the world.

Unfortunately, rather than a timely and crucial health story about the dire state of female body image and the efforts many people are taking to contribute solutions, we received an apologetic e-mail from the reporter after Inês followed up with him:

“Unfortunately, the article was killed by my ‘nameless news network’ editor after he previously gave the go-ahead on the story. His reasoning was it lacked newsworthiness. In reality, he did not like the whole positive body image message of the article. His attitude was very narrow-minded and he basically claimed such a message simply promoted obesity. I was very upset because I felt like it was both a positive story and very much newsworthy. I guess it underscores the battle the Kite sisters face in getting their message heard. I would be happy to send you a copy of what would have been written if you would like it.” (We can also now happily report this male reporter quit his job with Reuters after this fallout because he couldn’t be employed by an organization run in this manner. AMAZING MAN.)

Here’s Inês’ eloquent response (via her fantastic blog) to this surprisingly common (and unbelievably flawed) criticism about body image work:

“I think the email from the journalist says it all. I am not disclosing the name of the network or the journalist as I want to respect the privacy of this individual and do not want to get this person in any kind of trouble, since we desperately need  the support of people like this individual that continue to try to get media coverage on important issues facing women and girls.

Question 1 – How can billboards with the messages below promote obesity?

  • You are capable of much more than being looked at.
  • There is more to be than eye candy.
  • Your reflection does not define your worth.
  • When beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong.

Is this editor aware of the increasing number of preteen children being treated for eating disorders? Is this campaign in any way promoting unhealthy lifestyles, junk foods or a sedentary life?

Question 2 – How come a story of two passionate and very intelligent young women standing up for what they believe and helping others is not newsworthy but these stories are:

  • yoga for dogs
  • DiCaprio, Depp are the top best-paid actors

The “news” stories above were posted on the same news network this week. I do not have more information than the email above and my comments are based on the journalist’s interpretation in regards to why the editor rejected the story…. but something does not feel quite right. Even if we decide to focus just on the facts, the reality is that the story got canceled for not being newsworthy.

Having billboards all over one state in the U.S. full of empowering messages that counteract the overload of toxic marketing messages that make women feel horrible in their own skin IS in my humble opinion, VERY newsworthy.

Celebrating the fact that two resourceful, confident, intelligent and well informed young women are making a difference in the world and creating a movement that is positive and empowering IS in my humble opinion, VERY newsworthy.

Fortunately, other news agencies understand this and this project is getting excellent media coverage and rallying the support of many sister movements around the world. YOU GO GIRLS!”

First of all, she is amazing and we are immensely grateful for her support (financially and professionally) and for her kind words. Thankfully, she is one of many wonderful people who are excited about and supportive of the Beauty Redefined movement – and that is seriously thrilling. We are overwhelmed with the kinds words, media coverage (from the national forum iVillage to Fox 13 Utah and many others) and help in every possible way!

BUT, in the midst of this outpouring of support, we do hear from a few critics that sound a lot like the news agency editor. Does this sentiment sound familiar? Via the comments section on our ABC4 Salt Lake City story, “Alfred” says: “Could it possibly be that the reason women are feeling increasingly bad about their bodies is because THEY SHOULD? Go sit for a few minutes in any mall and count the percentage of obese people compared to normal (ideal weight) people. It’s easily Ten to One, the number of overweight people compared to the normal ones. Rather than a campaign trying to help people feel OK about being UNHEALTHY, how about a campaign promoting fitness???”

My response: “Hi Alfred, I’m Lindsay (one of the billboard creators). We’re in no way promoting unhealthiness or obesity – in fact, research shows that when people feel OK about their bodies, regardless of what they look like, they make healthier choices. They are more active and mindful of what they eat. On the other hand, people who are disgusted with themselves (as many are, especially in comparison to idealized images throughout all of media) are shown to make poor health choices like overeating and sedentary lifestyles. We’re promoting positive messages to remind women they are valuable for more than what their outsides look like, which is a message you won’t hear many places. We hope these uplifting messages will contribute to more positive feelings about our bodies, and in turn, more positive health choices!”

A valid critique that we have received about our four billboard designs is that there isn’t enough diversity represented in the women holding the signs. That is true. Lexie and I were both excited to (literally and figuratively) stand behind the messages we came up with, so we did just that. We both happen to be white with light-ish hair and are 25. Both of our other beautiful sign-holders are also white, though they represent two different generations in age and opposite hair colors and skin tones. We plan to expand this movement far beyond our home turf and include a huge variety of ages, races, hair colors, anything and everything that can help anyone identify with our messages as being applicable to EVERYONE. But just because the person holding up the message appears to be of a certain race or age or any other category doesn’t mean the message only applies to people who LOOK like that. This is not about the looks of the five inches of face and hair showing on our billboards.

Any other criticisms mostly center around our own physical appearances, which is as expected and ironic as it gets. By even appearing on the news (or putting our eyes and foreheads on billboards), Lexie and I recognize that we are putting ourselves at risk for criticism of any kind — and since we’re female, that discussion tends to center around our looks. In November 2011, we presented our latest scholarly research at the National Communication Association Conference in New Orleans. Before we presented, Lexie was told we don’t “look like academics,” because we don’t “look like we’re trudging back and forth between our offices and the library all day.” She was asked “why would women want to listen to you when you’re beautiful?” And guess what? We showed them what academics look like! Lindsay gave a captivating presentation and had the whole room practically shouting “Amen!” about the history of the BMI.  And Lexie won Top Paper in the entire Feminist and Women’s Studies Division. Her research on Victoria’s Secret’s sinister marketing techniques had the full ballroom talking. THAT is what academics look like!

Via ABC4’s Facebook post about the news story they ran on us for our billboards: “I do think it’s interesting that the 2 women initiating are young, beautiful, thin with obvious brains. That alone will turn women off who are no longer thin, young or beautiful, especially if they are struggling to make ends meet. Body image is here to stay from a 57 yo women, with a less than perfect body who has to use makeup!”

Though our initial reaction is immediately argue against this woman’s assessment of our looks as untrue or exagerrated, that simply won’t do. Discussing our appearances completely derails our entire message. Beauty Redefined supporter Kendra described this problem beautifully via our Facebook page:

“I noticed the comment directed at your looks as well. It is problematic for a number of reasons. First, as female activists, you are reduced to *your* appearance. This does not happen to men promoting business or activism. Period. The comment reflects the poster’s ignorance but also her indoctrination that she is beyond the scope of positive body image (age, weight?). It is like she is thinking that how could two “young” and “thin” women possibly understand her plight in this culture of female perfection? So sad. If anything, this comment reflects the need for your work.”

Thus, the Beauty Redefined project is crucial. You are capable of much more than being looked at. Your reflection does not define your worth. There is more to be than eye candy. If beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong. Health and fitness are crucial, and we promote healthy goals as much as we possibly can. Our Body Hate Apocalypse 2012 strategies are a key example of this emphasis on health and fitness over thin ideals and sex appeal. We strive to take the focus off thinness and appearance-focused ideals of what “fit” bodies supposedly look like for everyone. We do this through extensive research on the way health and fitness are measured and ways to effectively promote physical activity. Let’s show the world that we are capable of anything and everything we want to do. (And feel free to slap a sticky note with a reminder of these messages somewhere anyone and everyone can can see it!)

And, just for the record, these messages are NOT our sneaky attempt at encouraging people to become obese. Because apparently there’s some confusion there.

  1. Amy

    The “obesity” conspiracy is just another example of extremist thinking that often plagues our culture. You must be fully A or B, nothing in between or outside these two choices. How else can someone judge you if you don’t fit neatly into these two categories?

    Keeping the conversation away from appearance is so crucial, and very difficult. We are so indoctrinated to think that appearance is everything (even guys). Keep up the good work sisters – haters gonna hate, but all of us who actually want change and aren’t afraid of it will support you!

  2. Aspen

    I have been doing a lot of reading on the internet lately and hearing the argument that promoting positive self-image = promoting obesity. It makes me angry for a number of reasons, including something that happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

    First, the idea of what = obese is greatly exaggerated. Do any thorough research into the BMI and you will learn that it is inaccurate and designed to allow insurance companies to charge more money by lowering the % rate so more people fall into the ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ category. Watch the first ten minutes of FatHead and you will see a regular looking middle-aged man who is in the ‘obese’ category. Watch the first half hour and you will learn that he is actually very healthy according to real medical indicators.

    Secondly, there is a great variety of healthy body sizes that fall between underweight and overweight, which are SERIOUSLY underrepresented in the media, where models over a size 6 are considered ‘plus size’. THAT is what Beauty Redefined and other positive body image movements are fighting against – the idea that a size SIX is unacceptable. I am nothing close to a size six, and more importantly, I don’t WANT to be – I may personally want to go down a size or two, but a size six would be getting too skinny in my mind.

    Third, this message isn’t for overweight women. It is for ALL women, regardless of how closely they fit to the socially accepted norm of beauty. On to my experience: I was with a blonde size 2 friend a few weekends ago and she said, “I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do if I gain weight while I’m pregnant.” She was surrounded by her size 0 mother, (who was doing a cleanse that involved not eating FOOD for 10 days, and had done HGC) and her sisters who were as tiny and blonde as she was. They all nodded in agreement and commiseration.

    IT BLEW MY MIND. First off, here I was, a size 12 brunette who fit in about as well as a brick floats in mid-air, and none of them even realized how incredibly insulting they were being to me. When my friend was talking about gaining weight being so incredibly terrible, she was still talking about being smaller than me, and acting like it would be the end of the world! I haven’t found my world to end just because I’m not as skinny as a model. Secondly, she was talking about one of the most meaningful experiences she could look forward to in life – the creation of a child, bringing a soul into the world – and her main concern was her WEIGHT? Wouldn’t you hope that a woman would be able to just be happy for the joyous chance she has to be a mother without worrying about going up a pants size? THAT is what Beauty Redefined is fighting against.

    The whole weekend I spent with this family of skinny blonde girls was one of the worst of my life. I felt so out of place, FAT, and unattractive. When I got home, I got online and found Beauty Redefined, along with some other websites. It took a few days, but their messages started to make me feel better about myself. It helped me gain perspective. THAT is what Beauty Redefined is fighting for. Perspective. Perspective for women like me, who don’t always feel attractive, AND perspective for those tiny blonde girls who DO look like the ideal and are afraid of what time and life will do to their looks. Neither side of the spectrum is free from defining their self-worth by their looks.

    I’m not a model. But you know what I AM? I’m smart. I’m a graduate student, a teacher, and an organizer. The things I do bring people with common interests together. I’m a good friend, and a great listener. I’m funny and interesting. Who I am and how I look is a package deal – you don’t get one without the other. Guess which one should be more important?

    THAT is what Beauty Redefined is fighting for.

  3. Becca

    I am a young woman who is active. I eat healthily, I am a healthy weight. I do what my doctors tell me to do, and I am careful about my body.

    I am, more often than not, disgusted by the way I look.

    Those billboards are for me as much as it is for anyone who might be overweight or might not eat right, and I really appreciate it. Just thought you should know.

  4. Amber

    Aspen! I love you! I think your last paragraph is what Beauty Redefined is EXACTLY about! You know your strengths and you love yourself for them. We should be defined by our character, our positive attitude, our love of others; THAT is a strong powerful woman and you are IT, my friend. These type of qualities encompase ALL women, not just size 12 (or larger) brunettes or size 2 blondes (talk about stereotypes). Who cares what you look like if you can make a change for the better in the world by living and loving.

    To those who think Beauty Redefined is about promoting obesity, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. Take a little pride in just being you because you are wonderful and not because of your size or color. It’s about promoting the BEST you, one GOD inteded you to be and not some multi-(b/m)illion dollar corporation.

  5. Kendra Kennedy
    Kendra Kennedy08-03-2011

    Ok, but I do think it is problematic to hide the identity of the editor and network. Doesn’t that just play into the problem? I mean, if people and networks are going to promote harmful body ideals they need to be targeted. Women are walking targets for criticism and assessment of their external value as compared to the fictive ideal every. single. day. Any way to pull back the curtain on this editor/network?

  6. Darcee

    Redefining Beauty seems to me to be an idea that is intended to educate and reprioritize what should be the focus in ourselves. In other words, it isn’t about what we are NOT…perfect airbrushed models with perfect skin, hair and teeth, but rather about what we ARE…women (and men) with unique characteristics and personalities. In this era of our history, women are strong and independent, capable of taking care of ourselves, yet, for the most part, choosing to take care of others, as well as being taken care of when the need arises. We are visible in all facets of the work force and in many different types of people grouped together as family, whether born or chosen. We strive to be the best we can be, and, while this includes being healthy, it should not include goals of looking like a retouched airbrushed photo, which seems to be the United States definition of beauty. Redefining Beauty is self explanatory…and has nothing to do with being fat. It simply has to do with pulling the focus away from obsession about our physical bodies and the fact that we just don’t look like the cover of the magazine. I say, THANK HEAVENS. I am grateful for the imperfections and uniqueness of my own physical looks. Nope…not a size 6. Bigger. Older, wrinkles setting in, but healthy. My focuses are in on keeping fit and stimulating my intellect, while keeping a strong sprituality in my life. If, when I look in the mirror I am at peace with what I see, I have accomplished the redefinition of beauty that is what these two young ladies are attempting to help others do. Keep it up, Kite sisters. The world is better because you are in it.


  7. Ann Becker-Schutte
    Ann Becker-Schutte08-03-2011

    Your commenters are as powerful and inspiring as the two of you! I understand wanting to protect the reporter, but I agree with Kendra about wishing there were a way to identify the network. That way we could express our position more directly. Thanks again for the critical work you do.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined08-04-2011

      Yes, these commenters are incredible and so insightful! And, as mentioned in my comment below, the news agency is Reuters.

  8. Amy Harman
    Amy Harman08-03-2011

    I love your campaign, and I think it sucks that people think healthy body image=poor physical health. Huh?!? There is one thing I am confused about: In this post the way you talk about obesity makes it sound like obesity is bad. I’m familiar with your work, so I don’t think you actually believe this. Research has shown that it’s possible to be both fat and healthy. Have you heard of Health At Every Size? Perhaps you could clarify your views on obesity. Thanks! Again, I love your work, and I get excited when I spot one of your billboards!

  9. Lauren Absher
    Lauren Absher08-03-2011

    Coming from someone who works with clients with eating disorders, I am so glad the billboards don’t emphasize the body. I guess seeing any part of the body behind the message still causes people to compare. Comparing is one of the huge issues that causes negative body image! But when you speak about body image to groups, they see you and should see you because you are the ones with the message. I agree with more diversity, but people need to focus on your message, not what you or the other sign holders look like.

    And like Amy said, there is health at every size. Even one of your own articles displays that by showing pictures of women who are all different sizes.

  10. Lauren Rodriguez
    Lauren Rodriguez08-04-2011

    It is an absolute disgrace- what this media network has done to you. i think the billboards are a great way to empower and encourage women. I don’t think that they promote obesity. As a women who suffers severely from body dysmorphic disorder, and has sufferend from eating disorders (including overeating) I am just outraged. Growing up I was always surrounded by these beautiful women.. magazines, films, billboards.. books.. all “perfect”. I don’t blame the media for my disorder, but I do blame them for perpetuating this image of the “perfect” women… You know, there was a time when a woman like Betty Page or Marilyn Monroe was considered beautiful “the perfect woman”. they had curves, they had personality and they had CONFIDENCE!!! It gets harder and harder to look at your 145 lb curvacious, unairbrushed, (perhaps small chested?) dimply self in the mirror and feel like you’re beautiful while your boyfriend’s picking up his MAXIM magazine checking out a bikini spread of Olivia Wilde (who probably weighs all of…120 and has not an OUNCE of fat on her).. No offense Olivia-it’s not your fault your thin- we don’t blame you, but we do blame the media for CONSTANTLY shoving you down our throats. We NEED HELP to overcome this. Some days, I wake up and as I get dressed I find myself thinking “ugh if only i were…” Sometimes, I need support. IT WOULD BE GREAT to walk outside and see a woman on a billboard ad that looks like ME. I think you gals are doing a fab job. And I’m going to get involved anyway I can. Starting with my BLOG!!

  11. Beauty Redefined
    Beauty Redefined08-04-2011

    After receiving permission from the reporter, who has since severed his ties with this news agency and taken his freelance writing elsewhere, we feel comfortable revealing the offender. It was Reuters. Let’s hope this editor’s flawed perceptions of a healthy, positive, timely and wide-reaching story as “not newsworthy” are an isolated incident. Unfortunately, we’re not so sure they are, but we’re doing our best to break these misconceptions and spread the good news of body positivity and freedom from objectification far and wide!

    All of your comments are … amazing. So powerful. We’ve both had goosebumps and tears in our eyes repeatedly as we read the comments and e-mails we’ve received in the last 24 hours. Thank you for your support and understanding of exactly what Beauty Redefined is all about, and also what it ISN’T about! We love you!

  12. Emily

    Oh brother!!! The editor probably likes his porn stars and doesn’t want to change anything.

  13. Wendi

    I have Crohn’s disease, so between flareups and medications my weight has fluctuated wildly, and my biggest concern is being healthy, not my weight. In fact, if I were to get anywhere near what my “ideal weight” was, my GI would have me in the hospital on TPN thinking I was in a flareup…he gets concerned when I am on the high end of normal…which is good. But my point is I am 5’5″ and have weighed as much as 190, and dropped as low as 130. When I feel healthy I am usually around 140-145. And in all honesty, I didn’t feel great about myself at 190, but that was because of the prednisone. Once I was starting to taper of the medications, I felt better in the 180’s as far as self confidence and body image than I did when I was in the 130’s. I would stand in front of a mirror in my bathing suit thinking about how much more weight I had to lose to be “ideal”, staring at the jiggly bits, looking at the loose skin from so much yo yo weight loss and gain and loss and gain, thinking it was more fat to lose, and the 5 pounds I wanted to lose would slowly turn to 10, 15, 20. I would be miserable. At least now I feel good about myself and where I am at, and feel healthy. And that should be what is pushed…being healthy. These bill boards are for women like me too. Thank you.

  14. Sara Grambusch
    Sara Grambusch09-08-2011

    How terribly unfortunate but not surprising you were met with this type of reaction. This is indeed the entire purpose of the movement and these people are utterly clueless. If people would spend even a little time looking at the research on obesity and body image it’s so obvious that the key to physical health is emotional well being, which in this case means not letting dieting or eating disorders rule your life. We also need to redefine what is “healthy” because our culture thinks thin=health which is rarely the case considering how our culture achieves thinness. Again, the HAES movement has so much great research, it’s hard to understand why people reject their ideals. Keep doing this great work, you have support, and this can make a difference!

  15. Cori

    Thank you Beauty Redefined for your amazing website! I have struggled with my weight and body image all my life. I’ve dieted and lost weight, gained it back, hated myself, and subsequently stopped caring all together. I stopped exercising, stopped paying attention to what I was eating, and kept on gaining weight. When I found myself 140 pounds over my “ideal” weight (or 110 pounds more than the last time I was comfortable with myself) and I was having difficulty climbing the stairs I was devastated. I was wearing the biggest size most stores carried and I wondered, what happens if I get bigger? How in the world did I let myself get to this point? Is there any hope for me?

    When I was accepted to be a leader on a trip to a foreign country I became determined to lose some of the weight. The thought of flying on an airplane with a seat belt that may nor may not fit terrified me. However, I knew that the last time I’d lost a significant amount of weight, I gained it all back. How could I make this time different? How could I get HEALTHY and not just thin?

    Well, I started exercising, eating smaller – and healthier! – meals more often (no more starving all day because I felt fat and then giving in by eating one big meal at night), and thinking about how I WOULD be healthy again someday. I had the power within myself to take charge of my life, no one else could do it for me. I stopped being critical of myself and started paying attention to the small achievements I was making. “Wow, I can walk up the stairs now without panting!” “Amazing! I can walk for an hour and still want to keep going!” It helped that I have an amazing husband as well as a mother who encourage me and remind me of how far I’ve come.

    Although I have lost over 80 pounds, I am still considered obese and have not lost weight as fast as I did the last time I “dieted.” The difference? This time I’m focused on how I feel, and I feel great! This time I feel beautiful…This time, I feel powerful! What is my goal? I don’t know yet, I’ll know it when I get there. Wherever my body decides to be with an active, healthy lifestyle is where I will stay.

    So is promoting a positive self image also promoting obesity? Absolutely not! For me, weight loss and getting healthy has been an extremely emotional journey. I always knew I needed to lose weight, but I felt so terrible about myself that I ignored it for far too long. I let myself get MORE obese because I felt embarrassed of myself. When I decided enough was enough and that I was POWERFUL, I was CAPABLE, and I was BEAUTIFUL…THAT’S when I made a change in my life. I had to feel good about myself to care enough to get healthy.

    Your campaign is exactly what every man, woman, and child needs to hear. It’s time to change the world, get healthy, and stop worrying about what we – and others! – look like. Thanks again Beauty Redefined, you are amazing!

  16. Karen Schachter
    Karen Schachter09-01-2012

    I just want to reiterate what others have said. First off, want you to know that your work is INCREDIBLE and life-changing and so very very needed. You are promoting self-acceptance and self-love. No matter what our size, our shape or even our health – love and acceptance are the only thing that works. Hate and self-judgment and criticism never work. They don’t work to promote self-care, health, connection, confidence…anything.
    I work a lot with girls and teens (and moms) and it pains me to my core to see these girls (and women) with so much amazingness inside of them literally HATE themselves because they don’t measure up to some ideal. And even if they do look like the ‘ideal” they often believe that that’s the most important thing about them, which is such an insecure feeling. Wait an incredible way to block girl’s brilliance and power and energy.
    There is so much to say on this topic, but mostly I wanted to give you a HIGH FIVE and say thank you for being pioneers in such important work.

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