Beauty Redefined: Mormon Researchers Promote Media Literacy
Editor’s note: Two weeks ago, I read an article in LDS Living about Lindsay and Lexie Kite and their research focused on helping people be more media literate. They want to raise awareness of the way profit-driven media can influence and distort our perception of beauty and worth. We are excited that these determined, passionate Mormon women agreed to talk with us about what they are doing. ~Michelle
MW: First, could you tell us a little about yourselves and your research?
We are Lindsay and Lexie Kite, 25-year-old identical twins and second-year Ph.D. students studying media and body image at the University of Utah. Our project, “Beauty Redefined,” aims to help all people recognize and reject harmful media messages about women’s bodies, and redefine beauty for themselves. With body hatred at an all-time high and an appearance-obsessed society reinforcing dangerous ideas about women’s worth, we believe this work is crucial.
After having a very twin-like experience (which is not uncommon for us) while sitting in separate classrooms, but feeling the same spark of excitement at the powerful truth we were learning, we both knew our academic careers would be dedicated to this cause. Now, eight years and 2½ college degrees later, our hearts still beat just as fast as they did in those freshman communication classes as we study and share our own work to take back beauty on behalf of girls and women everywhere. We echo the words spoken by a fellow LDS feminist leader with penetrating fervor 140 years ago: “We not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demand that we should” (Eliza R. Snow, 1870). [You can find this quote here.]
You have given presentations to youth groups and others on this topic. What do audiences come away with after attending one of these presentations?
Our co-authored master’s thesis and project is media literacy-based. This project teaches audiences strategies to recognize and reject the powerful and often invisible forces of ever-present media in our lives, particularly regarding women’s bodies and what constitutes beauty and health. Feedback from the thousands who have experienced the presentation and followed our research online echoes what we both felt when we first learned about profit-driven media that control the millions of idealized female images we see from every angle. [Read some of the feedback they have received.] Recognizing the unrealistic, harmful and distorted view of women in media is a critical step toward breaking free from ideals that often lead to serious feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.
Tell us a little more about what you have found as you have researched these topics of the media and body image struggles that are so rampant.
When the vast majority of the images we see of women – which far exceeds the number of women we’ll ever see face-to-face – are underweight and digitally and surgically enhanced, our perceptions of not just what is beautiful and healthy, but what is normal, are incredibly skewed. This lie tells us these beauty “ideals” are actually quite normal, and that we, who look much different than the norm we’re shown so consistently, are the abnormal ones. The lie tells us that beauty comes in one singular form, and that form is attainable with enough money, time, and effort – whether in the gym, the salon, the mall, or the operating table. The lie tells us that women who don’t fit the ideal are doomed to be undesirable, unhappy, and unsuccessful.
In the last 15 years of our lives, media’s images of women have morphed into a standard of beauty further from reality than ever before. At the same time, women’s body hatred has skyrocketed. Here, we see a link between what we perceive as media entertainment and all-too-real consequences. Eating disorders have reached scary proportions, obesity doubled from 1980 to 2004, and cosmetic plastic surgery increased 70 percent in the last decade. No wonder nearly half of all 9 to 12-year-old girls wish they were thinner and 35 percent of 6 to 12-year-old girls have been on at least one diet. Unfortunately, some of this hyper-awareness of weight and appearance may be passed from mother to daughter, since more than half of adult women claim their bodies “disgust” them and 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. [See references below for more information.]
Could you talk a little about how your academic work intersects with your faith as Mormon women?
Our work is not only an academic and personal pursuit. It has deep spiritual implications for us both, and that’s what led us to the study of harmful beauty ideals and strategies for combating short-sighted and dangerous perspectives on womanhood. Since we were very young, we’ve been taught that our bodies are gifts from God, created in His image. We have been taught that our purpose in life extends far beyond what we look like to what we contribute to improving the world, and to what we become. We have a firmly-held belief in the gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we appreciate our membership in the oldest and largest women’s organization in the world, the Relief Society. With 6 million female members in 170 different countries, we believe our work echoes the teachings of the Relief Society that we are daughters of God, and can be a powerful source for good in this world. But our years of research show us that fixation on appearance is a real threat to that potential for bringing goodness and light to a world that truly needs it. Self-obsession and preoccupation with weight loss – though ideal for a consumer culture supporting $100 billion beauty product and weight loss industries – are not conducive to real progress as individuals or as a culture.
We are driven by the knowledge that women hold significant value and power as daughters of God. This is, of course, regardless of whether or not they fit media beauty ideals of tall, extremely thin, white “perfection.” To us, the rapid heartbeat that first accompanied our hearing this message is the confirmation of truth we now live to share. We believe our Beauty Redefined message – spoken in academic, not religious terms – resonates with so many people because it is true. Though the profit-driven world won’t tell us the truth about women’s ability to find real fulfillment outside of striving for unattainable ideals, we will.
One of the things that caught my attention when reading about your work is the way you give concrete ideas of steps people can take to redefine beauty and worth in their own lives, and to become more media literate. Could you share some of those ideas with our readers?
First, let us say that as regular girls growing up with regular bodies that don’t fit the ideals we were surrounded by in media, we struggled with negative body image and preoccupation with appearance for as long as we can both remember. And after immersing ourselves in this work, we quickly found we were not alone in those lifelong feelings of shame. Unfortunately they don’t go away easily. Recognizing and rejecting harmful messages about women and then redefining beauty for ourselves is truly a battle. With so much working against empowering messages, such as marketing strategies convincing women to fix their never-ending “flaws,” this conversation needs to be ongoing.
Here are a few of the practical strategies we recommend to not only defend ourselves in the battle to take back beauty individually, but to help win the fight for girls and women everywhere.
Stop negative self-talk: Too many girls and women have a constant script of mean thoughts about themselves running through their minds. That kind of negativity is not motivational or inspirational. In fact, it tends to show up on the outside. Recent studies show us that girls who don’t like their bodies become more sedentary over time and pay less attention to having a healthy diet. And that makes sense. If you think you’re gross and worthless, why would you take care of yourself?
Think nice thoughts instead: On the flipside of the last study, research has found that girls who feel good about themselves, regardless of their weight, are more likely to be physically active and eat healthy. They are less likely to gain unnecessary weight and they make healthy lifestyle choices way into the future. Remember that what we think about our bodies has a strong connection to how we treat our bodies.
Object to objectification: It’s been shown that girls and women exposed to sexually objectifying messages (which are inescapable in today’s media landscape) experience body hatred, learn to primarily view and value themselves from an outsider’s perspective, and actually endorse objectifying images in the future. And a particularly scary fact is that research shows female preoccupation with physical appearance leaves fewer mental resources available for other things, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills and athletic performance. Yikes.
Be an Advocate: If our suggestion to turn away from media that degrades or otherwise hurts you is just not enough for you, consider your fierce influence as an advocate for women. When you come across a company’s advertising that fuels female insecurity or a magazine that objectifies women even as it claims to empower them, speak up! Blogging your disapproval is a great start, and so is posting links to news stories that reveal harmful ideals on social networking sites. If you’d like to go a step further, write to and/or call your local cable company, network TV station, newspaper and any other media outlet perpetuating harmful messages. Get the word out that the media message you have seen is inappropriate and dangerous. You can threaten to boycott if it is not removed. If your complaints are not heard, do not patronize those institutions and suggest the same to your loved ones.
Redefining healthy: Getting back to reality involves figuring out what “health” really means – and it’s often not what media shows us. For-profit media like fitness magazines or TV shows would have us believe health and fitness are all about what we look like, and any doctor can tell us that simply isn’t true. Talk to a doctor, nutritionist, or other health specialist to figure out what healthy really means for you individually. Work with them to set healthy goals for yourself that aren’t based off profit-driven beauty ideals.
Forget yourself: Sometimes the best way to improve our self-esteem is to forget about ourselves for a while. Get out and volunteer to help someone who needs a friend or who needs a hand with jobs around the house. Service fills us with love and light that radiate from within.
Get back to reality: Since we’ll see more images of women in one week of media viewing than we’ll probably ever see face to face, it’s important to give ourselves a reality check! When we look eye to eye with the women we know and love, we can remind ourselves what real women and real beauty look like. This real definition of beauty is so much more than just looks! It is your best friend’s basketball skills, your sister’s hard work on her English paper, the lines on your mom’s face from years of beautiful smiles and laughter, etc.
Be critical of media, not yourself: U.S. readers should note that while the U.S. is the No. 1 producer and exporter of media, it is also the only industrialized country in the world without some form of media literacy in public school curriculum. In a society where media is so ever-present that it often goes unnoticed, we should feel an obligation to put media under closer inspection for the influence it undoubtedly has in our lives. Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching TV and movies, train yourself to ask important questions about what you see. If you don’t like the answers you find, remember you can turn away from the messages that hurt you!
- Do you feel better or worse about yourself when viewing or hearing this media?
- Who is advertising in these pages or on this screen? (Look for ads and commercials and you’ll see who is paying the bills for your favorite media messages and entertainment.)
- Who owns the TV show, movie, magazine, video game or website you are viewing? (Research the company and its owners and you’ll find out who the powerful decision makers are behind the scenes of your media of choice.)
- Are the media you read and view promoting real health or impossible ideals meant to make you spend money and time?
- How are women and girls presented here? Are they valued for their talents and personality? Do they look like you and the women in your life?
Thank you so much for taking the time to share some of your work (and your faith) here, and for helping us think about some of the ways we can combat the negative influence the media can have on our sense of worth and well-being.
Editor’s note: The Kites explore many more strategies and suggestions in How Girls and Women Can Take Back Beauty. (Actually, that post includes ideas for health practitioners, media creators, and others as well.) They also include thoughts on what boys and men can do to help fight the battle on behalf of the women and girls in their life.
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Lindsay and Lexie sent us several links and references for those interested in more information and research related to the findings reported above. This does not reflect the whole of the body of research they have drawn upon, but it does give some additional background to all that the Kites have shared here and elsewhere.
Academic research on connections between increasingly thin ideals in media, media exposure and body image distortion, disordered eating, body hatred, etc.: American Psychological Association, 2007; Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008; Harrison & Fredrickson, 2003; Levine & Harrison, 2004; Myers & Biocca, 1992; Stice & Shaw, 2002.
Why Women Lose Weight – or Don’t — Newsweek article citing research by Patricia Van den Berg and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer done in 2007 that shows that “overweight girls who were more comfortable with their bodies were less likely to gain weight as they entered young adulthood.” (See also van den Berg, P., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2007). Fat ‘n happy 5 years later: Is it bad for overweight girls to like their bodies? Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, 415-417)
The Media Education Foundation at www.Mediaed.org is a wonderful resource for media literacy info for people of all ages.
Dove International Study, 2002: Women strongly agree that “the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve.” More than two-thirds of women globally expressed this viewpoint in a recent worldwide study. Sadly, the impact is that only 13% of women are very satisfied with their body weight and shape, only 2% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful, and more than half of women say their bodies disgust them.”