Body Image Talking Points from Dr. Lexie Kite Part 2
This is Part 2 of a two-part interview in which our founder, Kristen Jenson, discusses the topic of body image with Dr. Lexie 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 daughters), 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 2 below. Click here for Part 1.
NOTE: Interview has been edited for clarity and accuracy.
KRISTEN: [In Part 1] we talked about how preoccupation with appearance affects girls’ growth and development–intellectually, emotionally, and socially. When my daughters were growing up, I was really careful. I wouldn’t let them have Barbie dolls because I knew they were not going to grow up and resemble anything like a Barbie. So if they got them as a gift, these Barbie dolls just somehow disappeared–I don’t know what happened to them.
But I would let them watch their favorite Disney and Pixar movies. But back in the day you had to buy the DVD to have the movie, it wasn’t accessible to stream 24/7. So I wouldn’t buy the movie so that they wouldn’t be watching it over and over because I felt like if we watch it once together, then I can kind of pick it apart and see what the good messages were, what the wrong messages were.
What are some of the worst offenders when it comes to movies and entertainment that promote body objectification for young kids? And what should parents do to find healthier media options?
DR. KITE: We’ve heard from lots of parents who say, “I know Disney’s safe. I know that my kids are not going to be exposed to bad stuff if we’re watching Disney movies.” And I honestly believe–and you can back it up by the research–that Disney and Pixar and some of these very kid-centric media platforms are the worst perpetrators of objectification for girls.
There have been some strides made–Moana, Encanto–you can pick out a couple of examples that don’t fit this very particular mold of what it means to be a girl. But largely, all of these streaming services–but especially Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks–they feature girls so narrowly that nobody will ever fit it. But up until a few years ago, they haven’t even been able to point it out.
Lindsay and I have been doing this work for twelve years now and I remember early on it was one of the first things we wanted to pull apart. Why is it that children are not able to see one example of anybody who even looks like me featured positively? Somebody who isn’t just super thin with the works–no pores, etc.
Critically evaluate the media your kids consume
DR. KITE: One thing we see from research is that in all the popular kids entertainment–TV shows and movies, especially animated stuff–male characters are still represented far more often than female characters–in group scenes and as the protagonist. We do not see as many girl characters represented as there are boys.
And we see the male characters represented in a variety of ways: They get to be the snowman, the reindeer, the human man that looks every sort of way you can imagine. And they get to be represented positively in all of these ways.
The girls? While strides have been made in the plot, in what they can do and what they can say, those girl characters are always sexualized and idealized. Always. They have that hourglass figure–even if they’re adolescent characters, even if they’re penguins, even if they’re–whatever it is. They are always sexualized. Because what we see is that male is the default and female is the sexualized other.
You see this happen in things like “Baby Shark.” The male sharks are just the regular blue or gray sharks. And the female sharks–the mom, the grandma, the little sister–pearls, bows, blush, lashes. They are the sexualized other. They are decorative.
That teaches kids from a young age that girls have to put some work into being female. That femininity has been commodified to be something that you put on. It is expensive, it is painful–but beauty is pain. These are the cultural messages that kids get from a young age.
Related: Gateway to Porn? Sexual Objectification in Video Games
Tips for finding healthier media options
1. Look for gender parity
DR. KITE: What I want parents to prioritize is making sure that in the shows their kids are watching they are getting gender parity–that they are seeing female characters represented alongside male characters as a baseline. We want to see female protagonists in action. Once you get there, kids start realizing that male is not the default.
My daughter who is almost six years old will now come to me if she’s watching a Netflix show that I didn’t approve (which rarely happens, but occasionally it will just keep playing another show) and she’ll see something and come to me and say “Mom, I don’t think they represent the girls very good.” And she’ll say that because there either aren’t enough female characters or they only look one way.
And a ton of that is still happening. Because we’re seeing that even though there’s some progress in terms of the plot lines and seeing girls being able to do things beyond just getting a boyfriend or a husband, we still see them only looking one way.
2. Watch out for books too
DR. KITE: Even in kids’ books every animal is defaulted as male. And it shouldn’t be. Start changing the pronouns of those characters so that kids understand that male is not the default, that girls are right there. There’s equality, we’re all human. That is a very simple but profound first step.
Related: Erotic Lit and Young Minds--How Hyper-Sexualized Fiction Harms Girls and Boys
3. Look for options that promote diversity
DR. KITE: There are options that promote more diversity. There are good options. PBS Kids is excellent for this, that’s a good place to look. And there’s also more streaming options that Disney and the others are coming up with that feature a variety of body sizes because body diversity is so important, alongside racial diversity and all of this.
4. Talk it out with your kids and encourage them to rewrite the script
DR. KITE: One thing you can do with your kids is just talk it out. My daughter and I were watching this show about these female rescue rangers–there were ten of them and they all looked exactly the same-very idealized depictions. And she noticed it. And I said, “Why don’t we shut this off and make some girl characters of our own?”
And so she created girl characters that were things that she had dreamed up in her mind–a cloud, a dog robot–these things that were not sexualized and feminized in these ways we’ve been taught to believe is femininity. It was so much bigger than that. So you can do that–you can sculpt, you can create, you can ask questions to help your kids create new worlds where they are more creative than the media makers.
Related: Is Anime Safe for Kids? Top Tips to Find Age-Appropriate Shows
KRISTEN: Those are great tips and suggestions of things that we can do to help our children and our daughters to grow up to recognize these messages, first of all, and then to reject them. And to really teach your daughter to be grateful for her body, her brain, her mind.
I started learning to do this probably later than would have been ideal–to just say “I’m thankful for my body.” It’s not idealized, but now I only try to lose weight because there’s a health issue or a pain issue. But really that is so important for kids.
Building positive body image helps kids reject pornography
KRISTEN: I want to talk just a little bit about how pornography harms girls and how it harms boys. We’re not talking just about addiction, because we all know it can be addicting and that can set you up for lifelong issues. But what does it to do to our kids when they’re exposed to violent pornography, that’s dehumanizing, objectifying–and it’s hard for them to know what’s real. They think what they see in porn must be what really happens.
Related: How Porn Hijacks Young Brains and 3 Effective Ways to Defend Your Kids (Part 1)
DR. KITE: There’s all sorts of pornography out there, but the vast majority of it is violent towards women and it prioritizes male pleasure–not just over female pleasure but over female safety, over female well-being in general.
So when kids–especially kids who are not sexually active–see porn from a young age, they start to think that that’s what sex is. That sex is for boys. And only for boys. And that it comes at the expense of your own health, safety, happiness, and pleasure. And when that happens you are just reinforcing this idea that girls live outside of their bodies, prioritizing how they look over how they feel.
This is such a massive problem that the easiest way to have these types of conversations is early on, by teaching kids that mantra we shared–My body is an instrument not an ornament. My body is an instrument for me, not an ornament for anybody else.
As you prioritize that in non-sex related conversations and how they feel in what they’re wearing, in the shows they’re watching, in the ways we talk about bodies, then when they start viewing porn that is so adamantly and egregiously representing the heterosexual male gaze, then they start to see that porn is asking girls to split from themselves. This is literally begging me to watch myself instead of living inside my body. And it’s easier for them to not just feel immediate shame that what they’re seeing is bad or even maybe it’s shame that what they’re seeing makes them feel good, like maybe it makes their body feel good.
But instead they can be really critical and mindful of what the message is asking them to do. What is this message asking me to believe about myself and who I am? This is a different angle even than a morality angle. Because it asks–especially girls in this case–to see that stuff and see it just like they see all the other objectification in their lives. As something that is designed to dehumanize them. And that just doesn’t feel good. So when they start having active sex lives, they will be able to take control over their own happiness, health, pleasure, as their own. And that will serve them their entire lives.
Related: Fifty Shades of Abuse: 5 Lies Every Girl Needs to Recognize and Reject
Of course we know that the objectification of women in pornography sends a direct lens on the female body, rarely the male body, it’s all about how the female body looks. But we can talk to boys about the fact that–just like in all forms of media, just like in our culture–we have been asked to believe that women and girls are bodies first and humans second. And porn just exacerbates that belief. Women are bodies for use. You use them and you cast them aside. And that is dehumanizing and objectifying.
When a boy can learn that in all of our culture girls are dehumanized and violated in these ways, not just in porn, when they view porn it will feel ethically wrong. It will feel morally wrong. And at some point that has to help push out some of the most egregious porn out there that is causing actual harm to women. In the end that is a net benefit for everyone.
Related: Pornography Makes People into Things
KRISTEN: Absolutely. Thank you so much. It’s just so sad to think that the messages of porn and the messages of a lot of social media and everything are teaching our kids–girls especially–that they’re just something to use. They’re not supposed to think, they’re not supposed to accomplish anything other than becoming the ideal object. That to me is just so sad.
Weighing the pros and cons of social media with your kids
KRISTEN: I want to get in a little bit about social media. I know in your book you suggest putting it off as long as possible. We also say the same thing. You will be doing your child such a favor to not burden them with social media.
What are some of the pros and cons of social media? When a parent is thinking about girls around 10 to 13 using social media–first of all, they’re not legally supposed to be on social media until 13. So if you’re allowing your child to lie about their age, you’re kind of teaching them it’s ok to do that. And then they lie to you later thinking that’s ok. So I always warn about that.
But how can you talk to your kids about social media and some of the traps and the problems with it? Because they’re all going to be begging for it, their friends have it.
DR. KITE: Yes, they’re all going to be asking for it. There’s so much pressure. Honestly, for kids 10-13 you know your own kids better than anyone, but if you understood the way the algorithm works you would keep them off as long as possible. It’s designed to cause people–especially girls–to become addicted to Instagram, TikTok, the works. And I do not think 10-13 year old kids should be on social media. Unfettered access to social media does them so much more harm than good.
KRISTEN: The development of their brains is really put at risk.
Related: 5 Reasons Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids
DR. KITE: When your kids get to the point that they “need” social media, that it’s doing them more harm than good socially (to not have it) or whatever you might think [is a reason to have social media], I want you to have a candid conversation with your kids. We’ll talk about daughters, you can also use this for sons.
We write explicitly in the book about how to do this with a pros and cons list.
Talk about the pros–and there are pros!
The first thing you should ask when your daughter comes to you saying she wants to be on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. is talk to her about why she wants it. Questions to ask:
- What do you want?
- What do you think some of the pros are of being on social media? What do you think you’re missing by not being on it?
- What do you think you’ll get from it?
There are some pros. List them out with her. Here are some pros:
- Beauty Redefined and all of our work is because of social media. The only reason our message has gotten out over the last ten plus years is because of social media. It’s amazing in that way.
- You can connect with cool activists and experts and information that you didn’t even know existed. We had to make this stuff up years ago and now there are so many of us who are doing this work online and that is amazing.
- You can connect with people in your community you couldn’t have otherwise.
- You can form new communities of people who have things in common with you that maybe you don’t have in your small circle of your school, family, and friends.
There are amazing pros, we could go on about the pros of social media.
Talk about the harms of social media
Then I want you to think about the harms and say them out loud. Here are some questions to start that conversation:
- What do you think would be harmful about getting on TikTok right now?
- Have you heard about anything harmful on social media?
- Have you seen any examples?
Then share your own, because we all have examples of how social media has hurt us. When the time comes, I will share with my daughter that for me, if I go down the rabbit hole of looking up my ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend years down the line–What does she look like? What’s the new one up to now? Or my husband’s old girlfriends? If I go down the rabbit hole of the influencer and what she’s wearing and has she gotten her nose done? Then I’m just scrolling and scrolling through her feed, it serves no one and it hurts me. And I have experienced feeling very triggered and very self conscious by going through the Instagram rabbit hole of influencers. I completely avoid the Explore Page because of how it makes me feel.
Related: Social Media and FOMO: What the Fear of Missing Out is Doing to Your Family
When you can lead with your experiences, what you actually feel, what you actually experience on social media, I think your kid listens a little bit better. So then you create this cons list–what are the cons? We share a bunch of them in our book, too. There are actual, real cons. Here are a few:
- Social media–especially for girls–creates body anxiety, it causes them to feel more lonely. So even if a pro is being more connected with your friends and community, one of the cons is that even in the midst of so much connection, you feel more alone. It’s real. That is a real con.
- The algorithm on social media for girls and women is designed to push the most idealized content. There’s a literal algorithm that shows faces and bodies and if your face conforms to the ideals–the profit-driven ideals: big eyes, dark brows, long lashes, long hair, few pores, thin in the body all the way down–if you conform to those, or if the people filming conform to those, the algorithm pushes that content to you. Then you have more engagement, it shows up in your timeline if you’re following them, it shows up in your explore page if you’re not following them. It puts content that is designed to cause you to stay in a feedback loop of seeing stuff, feeling self conscious because you don’t measure up to that, watching more of it because you want to zone out–it’s this loop. We literally become addicted to social media because of the shame it causes us to feel. And then we want to zone out because of the shame, then we’re stuck in this pattern of viewing. Talk to your kids about that. That is a problem! Social media isn’t designed to help you, it’s designed to take from you.
KRISTEN: And to sell you stuff. Like you said, commodification. You’re not enough, but if you buy this product you can fix yourself. I know Jean Kilbourne talks a lot about that.
DR. KITE: That’s all it is. That’s why influencers make money. They’re selling these ideals.
KRISTEN: It’s a tool that can be used for good, but you have to be mature enough and you have to understand what the reality is and how to use it wisely. And that is something that doesn’t come easily. But I love in your book, like you said, there’s a great list to help you have these conversations with your children. So definitely check that out in the book, everyone.
Related: TikTok: The Sound of an App Stealing Your Kid's Life Away
Building body image resilience in you kids
KRISTEN: What advice would you give parents on how to talk to kids about their bodies and how to be more resilient in their body image?
DR. KITE: You can do this simple practice–it’s this question we ask as our baseline in our online course, in our book, and in our speaking events–we ask this basic question and I want you to ask your kids this:
How do you feel about our body?
Just that basic question. Don’t tell them we’re talking about body image or confidence.
How do you feel about your body?
Have them write it down or say it to you and you record it. Because you’re going to parse it out. What we’ve found is that 80% or more of women and girls who we ask this question to, respond in the same way. They respond by talking about the way they look. And almost always what they don’t like about how they look.
So they’re doing that self-objectification thing where they’re talking about their worst fears about what someone outside of them might be thinking about them. And when you are doing that, when you are self-objectifying, it is a problem designed to cause you to hate your body. Because the bar is constantly out of reach. Even the most beautiful girls and women among us are some of the ones who need our work the most and they come up to us and tell us that, because they’ve been defined by their bodies their whole lives, and their beauty.
When you can ask that baseline question to your kids, you can start to parse out whether they’re self-objectifying or talking about what they’ve experienced in their bodies–what they can do, how they feel, what they want to do.
Once you start there, you can share with them your feelings about yourself, because vulnerability is so powerful here. We’re all on this journey together–myself included. Being able to be vulnerable and honest is such a good place to start. Teach your kids about what it looks and feels like to split from yourself–to watch yourself from afar. And how can they really connect back to that little them, that didn’t. Show them pictures of themselves from when they were little and ask them if they remember. Maybe they do have actual memories of not caring, of letting their tummies out, being free. Then work to reconnect with that inner child, to be able to come back home.
What we talk about in our book–which I feel is such a powerful metaphor–when we’re little we split and we drift off into this sea of objectification. We leave our whole self on the shore, to just become a person that is to be looked at. And we live our lives chasing these mirages trying to fix our bodies, but that doesn’t fix us. It never has. It doesn’t fix your body image. It doesn’t fix your confidence. Or your life.
The thing that does fix us is to come back home to ourselves. To prioritize how we feel, who we are, and to prioritize our own experience in the world over anybody else’s experience of looking at us.
And that as we can reunite with ourselves, to come back inside ourselves every time we feel that anxiety cloud split us from ourselves, we’ll be happier and healthier. Our relationships will be better because we’re more present. In every way, our lives are better. And when we can help our kids learn that, as we learn that and model that–our lives open up in the most empowering of ways.
KRISTEN: Thank you so much, Lexie, I appreciate your work and the work of your sister.
When we think of how we want our children to be healthy and happy and how we want them to really thrive in this world instead of be hurt by it, this is so important and it’s so important for them to grow up with healthy body images. It’s so important for them to grow up understanding that pornography betrays women and men as objects and that won’t lead you to be happy at all. It will lead you to be unhappy and lonely and critical of yourself. That’s painful. We want to give ourselves that gift and we want to give our children that gift.
Thank you so much for giving us the gift of being with us.
Where can people find you and your book?
DR. KITE: On Instagram we’re at beauty_redefined. We definitely get the most engagement there. We’re on Facebook at Beauty Redefined. Our website is www.morethanabody.org where you’ll find lots of resources. And our book, More Than a Body: Your Body is an Instrument Not an Ornament, is out everywhere. It’s an audio book, e-book, paperback, and hardcover everywhere. We appreciate your support!
KRISTEN: It’s a very wonderful book, very eye-opening. I highly, highly recommend it. Thank you so much, Lexie. I appreciate you being with us today and helping us to understand things that we may not have even thought of before.
If you’ve fallen into this and the culture has told you to act a certain way and be a certain way, and you see some issues. Give yourself grace, give yourself forgiveness. It’s ok. And just begin to back away from the toxic body image practices that are harming you and are harming our daughters and our sons.
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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"I really like the no-shame approach the author takes. It's so much more than just 'don't watch or look at porn.' It gave my children a real understanding about the brain and its natural response to pornography, how it can affect you if you look at it, and how to be prepared when you do come across it (since, let's face it... it's gonna happen at some point)." -Amazon Review by D.O.