Taking back beauty

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Four body image activists joined together Thursday to discuss with the UVU community strategies to cope with and change media culture surrounding women.

Students in the Department of Public and Community Health’s program planning class brought together the panel.

For a Community Health program planning class project, students organized the event to create dialogue about the often-dismissed issue.

“We saw that body image isn’t something being addressed very often and we wanted to talk about it,” Thomas Hall, one of the program organizers, said.

The panel consisted of Beauty Redefined’s co-founder Lexie Kite, popular blogger C. Jane Kendrick, community health expert and UVU alumna Jessica McLamb and childhood body image specialist Esther Okang.

The panel discussion focused on the vast influence negative media stereotypes of women has, ranging from eating disorders to the Photoshop culture now nearly ubiquitous.

“Women from a young age are taught that we are our bodies and our bodies are merely parts to be looked at and used for gratification,” Kite said.

Kite explained that in films and commercials men are largely portrayed and intact, autonomous figures of power, fun and intellect whereas women are portrayed as something to be looked at.

“When a woman first appears you’ll see that the camera will pan up and down her body giving the viewer the chance to breakdown her attractiveness,” Kite said.

The damage this objectification has on women and girls is pervasive and starts young.

“The belief that women should be on a diet starts in the third grade we’ve found,” Okang said. “These girls are about nine years old and are convinced that they are fat and need to do ‘something about it’ so they decide to skip lunch at school.’’

Ultra-thin representations of` women in the media has been found to impact girls as young as three-years-old.

“We’ve found that by the age of three, girls will no longer play with average-looking dolls, they prefer to play with Barbie who is a misleading image of a woman,” Kite said. “They have already learned what is desirable and what is not.”

Kite explained that the little girls of today do not get the opportunity to see the reality of what girls got to see just 20 years ago.  The images of womanhood are not just coming from dolls and television commercials.

“With all the tanning and bronzing and fake eyelashes, fake hair, fake breasts and the perfect make up, these little girls are going to have a lot to fix when they grow up,” Kite said, “unless we are willing to draw a line here and be willing to show a little more reality.”

Pervasive digitally altered images of women are teaching women and girls the standard for normal.  Kite talked about how media illiterate Americans are saying that students learn to read and deconstruct literature, but not media images.

“We are the only developed nation that doesn’t have media literacy as a required course for teens,” Kite said. “This is particularly dangerous considering we are the country that’s major export is pop culture.”

This lack of media literacy leads girls to believe that what they see in magazines is normal and natural.

Audience member Jamie Knudsen commented on the moral dilemma of Photoshop and its effect on the perception of women. She talked about being one of the few women in her Photoshop class and learning to alter photos of women.

“The teacher would always say something like, ‘now we still think she’s pretty but she isn’t industry standard.’” Knudsen, graphic design major, said. “I spent how much money and how much time on learning how to do this? It was a moral dilemma for me.”

The inability to recognize when an image has been doctored can be dangerous for adults as well as children, leading to depression, body mutilation, eating disorders and taking drastic measures to change.

This problem is particularly pervasive in Utah. Salt Lake City was ranked the vainest city in the US by Forbes magazine. Women in Salt Lake consume 10 times as much cosmetic products per capita than anywhere else in the nation. Salt Lake City is also the capital of plastic surgery with more plastic surgeons per square mile than any other city in the US.

“Body shame prompts women to either hide their bodies or change them,” Kite said. “It’s easy to judge them for it, but these women are not trying to become perfect 10s, they’re trying to be what they’re told is ‘normal.’ They are trying to pass below the radar so they can feel like people aren’t looking at them in disgust.”

The high consumption of cosmetics and elective surgeries in Utah is linked to the highly conservative and religious culture in Utah.

“We have lots of babies and we have them young here,” Kendrick said. “We don’t recognize our bodies after giving birth and we don’t look like the 28-year-olds we see on TV and in magazines.”

Kendrick admitted that since the birth of her baby 10 days ago she finds herself more critical of her body.

“This has been the hardest time in my life when it comes to my body. I find myself looking in the mirror in horror going, ‘what is that?’ and I try and figure out what I have to do to ‘get back to normal.’ I need to just learn that this is normal.”

Kite spoke on the disillusionment that accompanies plastic surgery, saying research has shown that women with breast implants are 77 percent more likely to commit suicide than women without.

“We aren’t shy to say drugs are bad,” Kendrick said. “But we are afraid to say truths like plastic surgery won’t make you happy.”

The panelists discussed how this culture leads to rampant feelings of inadequacy, citing research that has found that over 90 percent of women have reported disliking their bodies and feeling uncomfortable with how they look.

“Most women feel disgusting. We catch our reflection in a window or a mirror and immediately tear ourselves down because we feel disgusting,” Kite said.

These feelings of disgust and disappointment have far reaching effects, often causing romantic relationship problems, disordered eating and the perpetuation of low self-esteem onto younger generations.

“We think that if a guy sees us in a swimsuit that it’ll be a deal breaker,” Kite said. “We degrade ourselves in front of our daughters and nieces, teaching them how to look at themselves. We beat ourselves up after eating a cupcake, leading to binge eating or long periods of fasting. It’s dangerous to every facet of our lives.”

Disordered eating, whether it be binging, fasting or binge and purging, are becoming increasingly diagnosed. Okang said that girls and women are taught that eating is not lady-like behavior and that it’s feminine to turn down food or not to be hungry.

“This belief that we can’t eat in front of others or they’ll think we’re fat or gross is out of control,” Okang said. “It’s annoying to go to restaurants with friends who won’t get anything because ‘they already ate’ or aren’t ‘that hungry.’ I mean, come on, we’re here to eat. What do you think we’re doing?”

The panel drew a hard line against the culture of dieting.

“Diets don’t work,” Kendrick said. “They ultimately fail. They take your time, your money, your emotions. They even take your sanity. Diets are my line in the sand. They are not healthy. I’m saying this and getting goose bumps—this is my gospel. Diets don’t work.”

The panelists addressed ways to combat the media attack on women, suggesting that learning to start seeing the women in our lives as people with accomplishments, not just body parts to be complimented.

“After running into a woman we haven’t seen for a long time, one of the first things we do is say something about how good she looks,” Kite said. “We compliment her weight loss or her new hair color or her shoes.”

Okang proposed that it’s time to change how we compliment each other.

“See the good in others that isn’t physical,” Okang said. “Try not to compliment the physical, compliment the mind, personality or strength of another. I don’t care if you think I have pretty eyes. I care about if you recognize that I’m smart. I don’t want you to tell me I look cute, I want to hear that you know I rocked that exam.”

Kendrick said that she and her husband have worked to eliminate talking about their bodies in their home. She said that it’s not just about removing negative feelings, but about teaching their children to care more about what they do than how they look.

Kendrick said that complimenting something physical is too easy and therefore easily brushed off.

“When someone tells me I’m pretty it’s awkward,” McLamb said. “I don’t know what to do with it, so I just brush it off. But when someone tells me I’m smart it means something to me. I can do something with that.”

Kite invited everyone to visit her organization’s website, beautyredefined.net, to gain the knowledge necessary to combat the media industry and to redefine their own body images.

“Body image doesn’t always have to be a bad thing,” Kite said. “What we’ve found is that we can use our body image to empower ourselves. Once you’ve learned to see your body as an instrument instead of an object to be decorated, shaped and looked at, you will have freed up so much time and will have let go of so much emotional baggage.”