Beauty Redefined Blog

Running from Self-Objectification

36

 

 

excercise white backgroundWhen we grow up surrounded by appearance-obsessed media’s “Weigh Less, Smile More!!” and “Perfect Your Parts, Perfect Your Life!!” headlines plastered everywhere, those messages rake in billions and get us nowhere closer to real health and happiness.  Instead, these messages become so normal — SO unquestioned — that we believe and act as we’re told. The point here is not to villainize makeup or hair care or any industry, but to understand the ways these ever-present messages ask us to view ourselves. That view: An outsider’s gaze – from the outside looking in on ourselves. It’s called self-objectification and it’s a normal part of most females’ lives whether we know it or not. Years ago, this cool scholar, de Beauvoir, understood this point. She pointed out that as girl grows up, “she is doubled; instead of coinciding exactly with herself, she also exists outside” (1952). Foucalt  talked about self-objectification as a way we imprison ourselves: “There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by [internalizing] to the point that [she] is [her] own overseer, each individual thus exercising surveillance over, and against [her]self” (1977).

What research and real-life experience make very clear is that when we can begin to see ourselves for more than our parts and respect our bodies as instruments that can do amazing things for us and for those around us, we get much closer to finding health, fitness and happiness. But in the meantime, millions of us cannot break through the constant messages telling us to survey ourselves at all times and spend all the time, money, and energy necessary to perfect the parts of us in need of perfection.

Can you even fathom what that is doing to females everywhere? It stunts our progress in every way that really matters. It keeps us from getting awesome grades, reaching for the coolest possible jobs, raising our hands in class, playing sports and exercising, running for political offices, loving each other and loving ourselves. And that’s not just Beauty Redefined’s take on things. Research shows us that when we live “to be looked at” in a perpetual state of self-consciousness about our looks, we are left with fewer mental and physical resources to do what can really bring happiness. We perform worse on math tests, logical reasoning tests, athletic performance, we have lower sexual assertiveness (the ability to say “no” when needed), and we are left anxious and unhappy.*

And the reason Lindsay and I do what we do with Beauty Redefined is because there is so much power in understanding these truths! All hope is not lost! Actually, there is SO MUCH hope to be had. We know the power and potential of females everywhere to break free from lies that constrain us and move on to happiness and light and love and success.  We know this as scholars, as activists, and on a very personal level. Have you read our post on ditching weight loss resolutions in favor of more health-focused goals? The first resolution we highly suggest is there for a reason — I’ve been testing it out and I swear on everything important to me that it works!

Resolution #1: Set a true fitness goal: If you’ve held yourself back from running, biking, swimming, etc., because you felt self-conscious about what to wear, how red your face gets from the workout, sweating in public, (the list goes on), it’s time to set a goal and fight to achieve it!  Make this goal about your abilities and you’ll be much less inclined to care about what you look like doing it.

Here’s how I know it works:

I’m on the far left :) I faced all my fears – sweat, red face, running, etc.!

In the years since Lindsay and I founded Beauty Redefined, my body confidence has improved by leaps and bounds, but a couple of years ago, I realized one way I was letting self-objectification hold me back from awesomeness.  You see, I’ve never loved running. Before that point, the most I’d ever run outside was one mile.  Somehow, in October 2012, I got talked in to running a half marathon.  If you’d have told me before then that I’d run 13.1 MILES outside, I’d have laughed in your face. But when I signed up for that Halloween half marathon with a few amazing friends, I knew I had to begin training.  I was terrified. Not only is running really hard on both a physical and mental level, but I realized I was possibly more terrified of being looked at while running. I spent the first few weeks of training on a treadmill at my gym, hoping no one was on the stair climber right behind me to stare straight at me.  I felt self-conscious that my face got really red from hard workouts. I felt self-conscious that I wasn’t wearing the right outfits for running. (Is spandex a necessity?!?!) I felt self-conscious that the runners next to me were going faster and farther and they were thinking I was lame.  When I forced myself to step off the treadmill and run outside, my fears only escalated.  Now I was stressed about all the people that were watching me run past their cars, and I chose parks that weren’t heavily populated instead of busy roads. 

But as I trained and built up my endurance, something inside me changed.  Instead of picturing myself running, I started just running. I stopped worrying about being a good vision of me and I gave myself all of me.  Before, I used to do cardio in an effort to burn fat and fit into those jeans I’ve been keeping in the back of my closet.  Now, I do cardio to build up my endurance, get my heart rate up, and prove to myself I can do it.  I used to do weight workouts and sit-ups to tone up the parts of me I thought were just awful to look at.  Now I do strength training to build muscle I use to carry myself through long runs and workouts – and it really helps.  Running now makes me feel really happy because I can set a goal and get there, and working toward that goal allows me to release all those happy endorphins, feel more energy and motivation, and see what my body is capable of.  I have quite literally begun to run away from self-objectification.

And research backs up my own experience. A U.S. National Physical Activity and Weight Loss Survey found that body size satisfaction had a significant effect on whether a person performed regular physical activity, regardless of the individual’s actual weight (Kruger, Lee, Ainsworth, & Macera, 2008). So, those who were satisfied with the way their body looked were more likely to engage in physical activity than those less satisfied.  The problem is, research also shows us MOST females are unhappy with their bodies – even disgusted with their bodies.  The “I feel too fat or too ugly to work out” mentality is rampant and it keeps us from moving, living, doing, and being.  But guess what?! When we push ourselves to break free from that prison of being looked at and just move, something miraculous happens. Just like my experience of learning to run from self-objectification, studies show us that when females engage in physical activity, increased self-efficacy, or confidence in your abilities and your body, is the beautiful outcome.swimmer white background

So our Resolution #1 is there for good reason — it can lead you to real health, happiness, and confidence in a  way that working toward a number on the scale or a clothing size never, ever will. My New Years’ resolutions used to revolve around clothing sizes, measurements or numbers on the scale, and I don’t think I’m alone in realizing that even if the number got smaller, it had little to do with my actual health or happiness.  I can look back in old journals and see that sometimes I resorted to extremes in eating and exercising to get to that random number I thought would bring with it all the joy I could imagine: “If I can just lose this much weight, I’ll be SO happy!” or “I’ll love myself if I can just lose this many inches.” But personal experience, academic research and body image advocacy have taught me something very different: An arbitrary number is never the key to happiness, confidence or even health and fitness. A fitness goal focusing on achievements can help you break out of that harmful mindset that maintains a fixation on the look of our bodies, rather than how we feel and what we can do.

So here’s the goal: RUN. or swim. or bike. or dance. or jump rope. or climb stairs. or do sit-ups. or push-ups. or play basketball. or soccer. or volleyball. Just MOVE and LIVE and BE and step outside the prison of watching yourself being looked at. Using your body as an instrument for your benefit, rather than an ornament for others to admire is a crucial step to developing positive body image. Now get out there and use it! 

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

instrument-not-ornament-br-tribal

*Fredrickson et al. 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2004; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004

 

 

 

  1. Ashley
    Ashley01-24-2012

    Great post! It always saddens me when I see women who are obsessed with their looks. Sure I think about the way I look. I put on makeup and dye my hair, but my appearance doesn’t consume me or my mind. I think about things I can accomplish and how I can serve other people rather than how I can improve my looks.

  2. Rachel
    Rachel01-24-2012

    We should start a race for beauty redefined!! Can we?

  3. Lo Hoyman
    Lo Hoyman01-24-2012

    The part about being happy “If I just…” is so true yet so terrifying, depending on who says it. My sister had a fiance who would tell her “You’d be perfect if you just…” She ended up anorexic and ill before she got herself together and left.
    I used to tell myself that I would have my life all together and be happy if I lost weight. I did lose 100 lbs., and was different, but not necessarily happy! I finally found happiness within, and only then was I able to seek joy with others!

  4. Rachel
    Rachel01-24-2012

    Thanks for this post! I recently moved and decided not to bring my scale to my new place so I couldn’t obsess over my weight, and so I would exercise just for the health of it. It was going really well for the first couple of months! But recently I found myself having mini-panic moments about how much I weigh. I felt like I couldn’t be happy unless I knew that arbitrary number and liked it… it was like somehow knowing this number would let me know if I was doing ok as a person. Yuck! This post was so timely. It gave me the encouragement I needed to keep exercising and eating healthy for the sake of my health, not being looked at!

  5. Kristen
    Kristen01-24-2012

    This is a great article, particularly for at this point in my life. I have been overweight most of my life and after being with my spouse for several years, I noticed that I really had “let myself go.” I’ve been focusing on getting healthy, not just losing weight. I started walking regularly and one day decided to try jogging too. However, if I thought anyone would see me I went back to walking. Today, for the first time since I was in high school (8 years ago) I ran past people and didn’t regret it or think too much about it. I know if I keep this mentality (and healthy eating and exercise) I will reach my goals and I will be happy and proud of myself, regardless of what anyone else might think. Thank you for being an inspiration of me.

  6. Dana Parriera.
    Dana Parriera.01-24-2012

    The problem with your goal of running makes running the object of salvation.
    I loved running. And that same love of running escalated into an over exercising problem that came with my Eating Disorder. The problem with running is it coincides with everything that our media is telling us woman to do. Our media is telling us to be fit and work out. To fit into this box thy we shouldn’t be pushed into. Isnt that what your against?The problem with running is that it fuels the idea that our worth is now based on our performance. The problem is your value is now based on how far you can run and how great you feel. Instead of resting in the confidence of being just who you are. That’s the problem.

    • Michelle
      Michelle01-25-2012

      I have to admit this is a good point. I can’t run anymore because of pretty bad neck issues, and sometimes I find myself feeling ‘less than’ because it seems that running is the ‘cool’ thing to do. To be for me is to accept my health issues and work with them, not fight against myself because of them.

      I also experienced the running addiction as a young adult when I struggled with a body image/eating disorder. I ran to stay thin, rather than to be in shape. It was as pernicious in the underlying thought patterns, I think, as unhealthy compulsions (starving, purging) can be. It’s healthier for the body, but the disorder is in the mind.

      Still, I love this phrase “Just MOVE and LIVE and BE and step outside the prison of watching yourself being looked at.” And I think the core message of learning to recognize when we got in such prisons (whether this one or other) is SO important.

  7. Angie
    Angie01-24-2012

    I feel the same way at the gym sometimes or when I run outside… Love the article! Now I’m inspired to conquer this self-objectification thing for once and for all : )

  8. Beth
    Beth05-31-2012

    It would be great to have a run/walk for beauty redefined. I would love to help organize an event in my city. I just LOVE this organization!

  9. Richard
    Richard10-02-2012

    And even from the viewpoint of the dreaded male gaze, it works too. You and your friends in the race picture look perfectly nice. I’m sure it’s the happy, confident smiles- which I think do far more for your appearance than trying to obsess over what you wear, your body shape, being less than dressed-up, &c.

    Whether such a viewpoint should matter of course…

  10. Richard
    Richard10-02-2012

    (Or, in other words, it shows too.)

  11. Caitlin
    Caitlin11-29-2012

    I think a lot of this stems from our culture’s idea of individualism. We focus so much on who we are as individuals that that ends up being all we think about. We end up worrying so much about what other people think because how we are defined as an individual is so important to us. But we need to realize that we are all one and that every single woman out there struggles with one thing or another. I definitely agree on the post that there should be a race for breaking free from the chains of self-objectification.

  12. Leah
    Leah05-13-2014

    I this is is great! But I also think there can be a fine line between exercising because you want to, and exercising because others tell you too. I still think that people should be allowed to decide what they would like to do for their bodies, and not always be pushed to exercise. If they feel they should exercise that is great, if not that’s okay too! People are complex, and should have the agency to decide how to treat their body.

  13. Jenny Ford
    Jenny Ford06-04-2014

    Absolutely loved this post Lexie. Congrats on running your race, and thank you for sharing the positive experience it was for you in your life. I’m a fitness professional, and see firsthand what an amazing influence even a little bit of physical exercise can have on increasing self esteem, happiness, strength, and stamina. Would love to see a continuation of posts on Beauty Redefined about the wonderful benefits of exercise for women everywhere.

  14. Kiss & Make-up
    Kiss & Make-up06-08-2014

    This was a great read, so inspiring. I totally agree with what you say. That said, I won’t lie, I am one of those women who’s probably a bit too hard on herself and focuses too much on looks. It’s just that there is so much pressure, you know…

  15. Haukurinn
    Haukurinn10-26-2014

    Don’t think it is only women who suffer from self-objectification; men do suffer from it too.

    Bodybuilding reinforces the notion that real men are those who look a certain way (muscular) and it is even worse when you know that a hypermasculine appearance and behaviour fuel aggressiveness, mysogyny and homophobia.

    So, both men and women are the victims of self-objectification in so many levels.

  16. Eileen
    Eileen10-27-2016

    I adore this quote. Foucalt  talked about self-objectification as a way we imprison ourselves: “There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by [internalizing] to the point that [she] is [her] own overseer, each individual thus exercising surveillance over, and against [her]self” (1977). ‘Well well prescient social media peer pressure especially amongst young people.

    As a larger but fit middle aged woman I find a few ascerbic retorts and the odd rude gesture helpful wile going up hill on my bike against the unfit males who provide unwanted commentary.

Leave a Reply