Body Image Talking Points from Dr. Lexie Kite Part 1
This is Part 1 of a two-part interview in which our founder, Kristen Jenson, discusses the topic of body image with Dr. Kite, co-director of Beauty Redefined and co-author of the book More Than a Body (see full bio at the end of the article).
In Part 1, Kristen and Dr. Kite discuss
- growing up in a society that objectifies us,
- warning signs of self-objectification,
- tips for overcoming objectification (for ourselves and our kids), and
- the harms of self-objectification.
In Part 2, Kristen and Dr. Kite discuss
- critically evaluating media,
- finding healthier media options,
- weighing the pros and cons of social media with your kids, and
- body image resilience.
Read or watch Part 1 below. Click here for Part 2.
NOTE: Interview has been edited for clarity and accuracy.
KRISTEN: Today we have a really special guest with us–Dr. Lexie Kite. I have followed her work on Beauty Redefined along with her identical twin sister, Lindsay, for so long. They are the coauthors of the book More Than a Body. I highly recommend it–it’s very eye-opening. I recommend it for any woman, and especially any woman who has daughters.
As I said, Lexie and her sister Lindsay are the co-directors of Beauty Redefined. They both received their PhDs from the University of Utah and have been cited by all the big names–The New York Times, The Boston Globe, etc. and have studied to become leading experts cited all over the world on body image and body image resilience.
Welcome, Lexie! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
Today we’re going to talk about how parents can help their children
- grow up with a better feeling about their bodies,
- reject negative body image messages–especially in pornography, and
- gain media literacy skills.
Here at Defend Young Minds, we help parents teach their kids to recognize and reject pornography. I consider pornography to be the most toxic body image poison out there. Girls often go to porn to learn how to be sexually attractive and how to get a boyfriend. And it’s the worst source they could go to.
DR. KITE: It’s the most sexist, disgusting, unattainable ideals of all.
KRISTEN: And it’s so easily accessible to our kids, so we have to inoculate them against it. We have to help them to understand what it is, what the dangers are, and why they need to turn away and keep it out of their brains.
How cultural messages objectify us and change our body image
KRISTEN: When I was a kid growing up, I remember getting to a certain age where I was more conscious about my body. Young children are really just free. It’s wonderful to see how they [feel free to] run around naked–they love it. They don’t care, they’re not aware.
But then at some point, something happens and they start to become aware of their bodies and maybe even critical of them.
How does this happen in a child’s normal development and how does society and the marketplace start feeding children these messages where they start to be critical of their bodies?
DR. KITE: We’ve all witnessed it and we all experienced it. When you think back to those times early in your childhood–especially when you’re swimming at the pool or the beach–I think we can all remember a time, hopefully, when we weren’t self-conscious, when we weren’t ashamed.
We can look to our own babies and our own grandbabies to see that too. There is a stark contrast that happens in every kid’s life–especially for girls.
We grow up and grow older in a culture that objectifies our bodies–literally treats us as objects. We’re being fed [objectifying] messages from our culture, from our parents (who love us and don’t know another way of talking about bodies), from the shows we’re watching, movies, and on and on.
We get this message that we are objects in need of fixing, that as we evaluate and monitor and fix our whole bodies–from the roots in our hair to the size of our pores to the color of our skin, the thickness of our eyebrows, the length of our eyelashes, all the way down–as we fix those parts, as we make our bodies our constant project, that’s how we’ll earn love and happiness and health and success.
That’s the message we get. We get it in a million ways every day.
Even from people who love us. Especially people in older generations, they did not know another way to value women besides making sure they knew how beautiful they were–your beauty is what makes you. Femininity is beauty and you are so beautiful.
And yet we don’t realize that the reinforcement of beauty, looks, and bodies is hurting kids and adults in the most real world ways. So when kids are young–especially little girls–we use a metaphor in our book where we talk about this idea of self-objectification. Self-objectification is a phrase everybody needs to know. It’s the idea that instead of living inside your body as your home, you self-objectify. You split from yourself to watch yourself live instead of live.
You picture your worst fears of what other people might be thinking when they look at you–whether you’re in a meeting or walking down the street. You start thinking about your body as your project, instead of living inside it like you did when you were little.
Warning signs of self-objectification
DR. KITE: Self-objectification starts very young for girls. Research used to tell us it started around puberty. Now we see it happening much earlier. The warning signs are girls
- saying things like “I’m not pretty. I’m ugly. I’m fat.”
- getting really fixated on what they want to wear, and
- prioritizing how they look instead of how they live, how they experience their own bodies.
Those are warning signs to watch out for, when girls are starting to really take on these messages from our culture that tell them their bodies are the most important thing about them.
KRISTEN: When we see these signs, what do we do? I also want you to talk about how parents–especially mothers–can model [healthy body image] for their daughters. Your kids overhear you, they pick up on everything. If you’re saying “I just need to lose this much” and “I just wish I didn’t look like this…” [that sends them a negative message].
I remember as a kid looking at myself and thinking my arms were too thick. And I wasn’t overweight. But I realized they were not thin, model arms. But I‘m actually kind of strong and it got to a point where I was proud of that, but I remember thinking I’m not this enough or that enough. I started comparing myself [to others]. So what do parents do when they start seeing these signs of their kids…
DR. KITE: …splitting from themselves.
KRISTEN: Yes. We talk about objectification–I wish there were a stronger word. The way I like to talk about it is that you can kick an object and there’s not going to be any pain felt. You can kick a ball. You can throw a doll. But when you objectify another person–as is done so much in pornography–it’s easy to hurt them. If they’re objects, it’s easy to hurt an object. You can kick it, you can treat it badly, and we don’t want that for ourselves or our children.
DR. KITE: Jean Kilbourne–one of our media literacy pioneers from early on and who endorsed our book–we cite her as saying that the first step to inflicting violence against somebody is to objectify them. When you objectify someone you dehumanize them. You make it very easy to hurt them, to use them. And we do that ourselves, too.
KRISTEN: We dehumanize ourselves by objectifying ourselves.
DR. KITE: We break ourselves into parts. We hate our parts, we drag around our bodies like they are burdens that are disgusting because we have been taught that, even from our moms. Even from the people who love us the most.
4 things parents can do to stop self-objectification
1. My body is an instrument not an ornament
DR. KITE: What I would recommend to parents, to grandparents, to people who work with kids in any shape or form is even before you see the self-objectification happening, I want you to teach your children a paradigm shift that will change their lives and it will change yours too. We made up this mantra and I still use it every day.
“My body is an instrument not an ornament.”
This is a paradigm shift that even little kids–three year olds–can understand when you explain it to them. I taught this mantra to my daughter when she was three and she memorized it. She said it back to a teenage girl the other day. My daughter, Logan, was with her when the teen saw a picture of herself she didn't like and said something out loud about it. And Logan said, “You’re body is an instrument not an ornament.” That teenage girl told me and my heart just swelled.
We can teach kids from a young age to
- prioritize how they feel inside their bodies,
- focus on what they can do with their bodies–even if they don’t have a full range of mobility or ability,
- understand this body is the only home they’re ever going to have, and
- realize their body will grow and change and that it will not conform to the very narrow ideals that are presented to them in the media.
2. Help your daughter focus on how she feels
DR. KITE: We only see pretty much one way to be a female in media–even in kids' media, even in animated media.
We can teach kids from a very early age. [For example,] when your daughter is getting dressed if she gets fixated on wanting to wear the frilliest things because she consumes a lot of princess content–like girly, girly stuff–you can help her get back into her body by asking her questions about how she feels: Is it soft? Can you stretch in it? Can you lunge in it? Do some jumping jacks for me. Do some stretches. Maybe we can put some soft pants under it so you don’t scratch your legs when you're climbing. These are things we can do to help them get back inside [their bodies].
3. Model positive body image
DR. KITE: We can also do lots of things in the way we talk about our own bodies. And that means that from this point forward you pledge to never again talk disparagingly about your own body or anyone else’s. I’m talking we don’t say a word–even for good or bad–about how people look.
Because our bodies are so dynamic and always changing, when we can help little kids understand that bodies come in a vast array of sizes, shapes, and colors and they’re all good and that their body will come in a vast array of sizes and shapes their entire lives, then they can break the value system that tells them that their body is only good when it looks a certain way. And that your mom’s body is only good when it looks a certain way, and on and on.
We set them up with this instrumental idea of their bodies so that they can prioritize movement that serves them, that doesn’t hurt them or punish them for what they ate–these things that they grow up learning. Along those same lines you talk to them about how food is fuel for their bodies–that a variety of colors and textures is good for them, for that fuel.
All of those things can help them more intuitively understand their body is their home–the only one they’re ever going to have.
KRISTEN: That’s beautiful. And modeling it is so hard. Like on social media when someone shows a cute picture of a baby or a little girl in a cute thing and everyone says “Oh she’s so adorable!” And you want to say the same thing, but I’ve caught myself and tried to say something else–like “She’s precious.” I don’t know what to say, but it is hard because there’s this social expectation. But I try to come up with something different to say other than just focusing on that she’s adorable.
4. Prioritize how we feel instead of how we look
DR. KITE: The most important thing we can do is name it. As it happens to us, as it happens to our daughters, when you see it take place, you say “I noticed that you’re splitting. You’re thinking about how you look instead of living inside this amazing body.”
Call it out, even when it happens to yourself. If they catch you looking at yourself in the mirror and feeling a little bit self-conscious about how you appear or if you slip up and say “Oh I shouldn’t eat that,” or whatever it might be, be honest with them. Depending on their age and maturity, you can say, “I just caught myself slipping away from my body again to look at it instead of living inside it, I’m going to get back in.”
Then here’s a really simple practice you can do:
- Take three big deep breaths filling your lungs with oxygen. Because so many of us live in this anxious state–especially when you’re self-objectifying–that’s an abstract state in your mind. It’s a thought. It’s not reality. You’re thinking through these fears. Get back down into your body by taking deep breaths.
- Then soften your stomach muscles. Let that belly go. Let it breathe. Women from a young age have been taught to suck it in. We’ve been taught to always stay sucked in, even when we’re alone. We police ourselves according to these ideals, even when we’re sitting at home in our own offices and beds. It’s what we do. With your daughter, relax those stomach muscles.
- Get back inside your body in those anxious times by doing some lunges on the floor if you can, or do something with your legs to feel those muscles work. Go up and down the stairs with your daughter one time. Do something to feel your muscles in action.
- Then say out loud, “What do you see? What do you smell? What do you feel right now? Can you feel your heart beating? Can you feel your lungs filling up with air?” Get back into that home and prioritize that with her.
Harms of self-objectification
KRISTEN: In the book you talk about how our bodies become these problems to either hide or fix. And of course there’s a whole industry out there that’s willing to give you the products–including surgery–to fix your body or hide it in some way.
So what happens to girls who internalize all the messages that they’re hearing and seeing? What are some of the harmful things that are happening to these girls? And what are the consequences–the real life, physical consequences?
DR. KITE: There are mental and physical [consequences]. When girls begin to self-objectify–when they split from themselves and get more self-conscious about how they look than prioritizing who they are, how they feel and what they can do–it is very visible.
When we’re doing these big presentations for universities or corporations and we’re speaking about self-objectification, you can see the light bulbs go off in the minds of all the women in the room. There’s a name for it. This is what I do. Even when I’m alone I’m sucking in my stomach, I’m putting my legs the way I think they look the best. We need a name for this. It is self-objectification. A lot of times the men in the room can’t relate. They don’t have this portion of their mind and their energy dedicated to how they appear in the same way that women have been taught to do this. And we have been taught to sexualize.
KRISTEN: Wouldn’t that be nice if we could get rid of that?
DR. KITE: Yes. Consider your eyelashes alone. From the time girls are very young–about puberty or before–we start thinking about our eyelashes every day. And we police them. If they’re not dark enough, I can’t leave the house, I don’t look like myself. If you take your extensions off, you look naked. The eyelashes alone are just one way to really see how sexist these ideals are that cost us so much time and energy.
So if you think about self-objectification in terms of the toll it takes on your life, it is very real. It’s not only a toll that means you have to spend more time hiding and fixing your flaws your whole life and thinking about it, but research shows that when girls are in a state of self-objectification they
- perform worse on math and reading comprehension tests,
- can’t perform as well during physical activity,
- can’t get into a flow state when they’re running on a treadmill because they’re self-conscious about how they look to the person who’s behind them (which happens to all of us), and
- can’t get into a flow state to create, to sing, to create art.
All of this because a portion of their mind is always distracted by how they appear.
There are real world consequences for being defined by your body at the expense of your humanity.
The consequences of self-objectification extend far beyond not performing well in school. They extend to unhealthy relationships where she might get involved with a guy just because he likes the way she looks and she’s grateful that someone is attracted to her because she’s been told her whole life she’s disgusting from all these other media messages. Too many of us stay in unhealthy relationships. We don’t say no when we want to say no, because we feel like we owe it to them.
We sit out on the sidelines of opportunities–like girls stop raising their hands in class because they don’t want to be seen.
So if you can start young by helping her prioritize how she feels in her body, she’ll be less likely to binge eat or starve herself, to over exercise and hurt herself, she’ll be less likely to prioritize relationships that hurt her, that objectify her. Because she knows that her body is hers first. It’s her home. And it’s hers to reclaim.
KRISTEN: You mention in the book–in addition to some of the harmful things you’ve already mentioned–you talk about cutting, etc.
DR. KITE: Yes. Suicidal ideation and self-harm are on the rise like you would not believe…among young women. We have heard from thousands of them after our live presentations who come up to tell us that they hurt themselves, they show us the scars on their wrists. And we talk them through the fact that it’s because of great pain and shame they’ve experienced.
Many have experienced sexual assault–that’s just a given. A lot of girls who experience such severe body shame and pain do so because their body was used as a weapon against them. A lot of that, as you know, is learned by boys and girls who view violent porn–which is, in fact, the majority of porn out there. And so these girls, after their body has been used as a weapon against them, they hate that body and they want to exert some control, they want to feel some visceral pain, so they hurt themselves.
One of the ways that we can help these girls reclaim this home as their own–reclaim their joy, their health, their safety as their own–is by understanding that their bodies are instruments for their use and no one else’s. Their bodies are not ornaments, they are not to be cast aside and used. And as they can start identifying objectification in their world, in the way they’re treated, in the media they consume, in the ways people talk about women, they can get mad. And mad is a good first step. We want them to get mad in order to rebel against this stuff.
KRISTEN: Yeah, I don’t think anger is always a bad thing, if it leads you to a positive action. That’s when I think it’s great.
Be sure to watch or read Part 2 of this interview. You can find it here.
Dr. Lexie Kite and her identical twin, Dr. Lindsay Kite, are co-authors of the book More Than a Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament (2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and co-directors of the nonprofit Beauty Redefined. They both received PhDs from the University of Utah in the study of female body image and have become leading experts in body image resilience and media literacy. Authors of numerous studies and books have cited Lindsay and Lexie’s original research and they have been featured in a variety of national media outlets, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, the Boston Globe, Slate, Shape, Glamour, and more. Lindsay and Lexie help girls and women recognize and reject the harmful effects of objectification in their lives through their significant social media reach, online Body Image Resilience course and facilitator program for dieticians and therapists, their popular book (More Than a Body), and regular speaking engagements for thousands of people of all ages.
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