Thursday, July 11, 2013

What do you like about your body?

You might have noticed the recent silence here--I've been busy going on long road trips to visit family. We got back from a 2-week trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin and left town a few days later to drive to northern Ohio.

I was invited to give a presentation about body image and visual media to a group of 120 teenage girls. They were on a week-long campout and had to be evacuated yesterday evening to a nearby church building due to tornadoes and flooding. I gave my presentation this morning, after they'd spent the night sleeping on the floor of the church. Here's an overview of what we talked about:

First, I did a really fast tour through 200 years of Western women's fashion, including Regency, Civil War, and Victorian eras, the Flapper girls of the 1920s, Christian Dior's post-WWII "new look", the lean and leggy 1960s, and current-day supermodels. I displayed pictures of both undergarments and outer clothing to show the girls how drastically the ideal female body has morphed from decade to decade. We looked at average heights and weights of the ideal female body early in this century, compared to today.

We also looked at what body types are marketed to females (uber-slim supermodels) and to males (curvy, busty women with small waists) versus the average American woman. I highlighted some issues raised by former Vogue editor Kirstie Clements; over the past two decades, she has seen models' bodies dramatically slim down, to the point that today's models often faint multiple times during photoshoots and spend a lot of time in hospitals due to near-starvation. I discussed how the majority of American females are dissatisfied with their bodies, due in large part to unattainable beauty ideals.

Next, we discussed our exposure to visual media and how extensive digital manipulation and photoediting is. I used the brilliant site Beauty Redefined for this segment of my presentation, particularly their before and after photoshop exposes. This segment was super, super fun--the girls really got into comparing the before and after images. I also showed some still photos from the Dove Evolution commercial (I didn't have video capability so had to do everything on Powerpoint).

After looking at these images, we talked about how to counteract the sea of visual media that we swim in every day. I showed them this photographer's project: "I like my body because it's magic!" She asked 4-9 year old girls what they liked about their bodies. Their answers were fascinating--they all discussed their bodies in terms of what they could do and experience, not in terms of what they looked like.

I suggested that if we can learn to dislike our bodies and to relate to them primarily in terms of what they look like, we can also deliberately unlearn and reject those attitudes. I emphasized that we need to learn to love our bodies for what they can DO, CREATE, and EXPERIENCE, not for what they look like.

I had so much fun giving the presentation. The girls were very lively and were practically jumping out of their seats to make comments or ask questions.

I know how hard it is to truly feel positively about your body. I've taken multiple graduate courses on these very topics, learned the tools to analyze and break apart visual media and advertising, and yet I still have more negativity than I'd like towards my body. So I get it. It's not just as simple as deciding you'll love your body and poof! you're done.

I shared with the girls that I am 35 years old and I still have many moments where I get frustrated with my body. I don't like how fluffy and bulging my stomach is right now, 3 months postpartum. I have to remind myself that that same body grew four new lives, brought four babies into the world, and nursed four babies. And that's really, really amazing. I had Ivy with me, so they were able to coo over her afterwards.

I'd like to hear how you relate to your body, what you've done for yourself or for your children to counteract the damaging media culture we live in. What has helped? What resources do you like? How can we stay sane when we see an average of 600 photoshopped images per day?


  1. Our bodies amaze me on a daily basis as I watch them grow, birth, feed, nurture, develop, fight disease and sometimes win, suffer degradation and humiliation and still we are strong, we are invincible, we are women. Insane and yet, here we are....

    It's hard to love our bodies that see those photoshopped images and I have no magic bullet. Just years of watching my body keep going, keep working for the most part, keep allowing me to work at caring for others. I hope that we come to a place of acceptance of the huge variety of sizes and shapes we come in; education of course helps.

  2. I wish I was there for your presentation.

    There are aspects of my body that I think I would like different. For example, I'm thick waisted and a long lean belly looks nicer but all in all I'm pretty happy with my body and think it serves me well. Even as a teenager I didn't focus too much on the way I looked. I was athletic and in decent shape. I didn't love the shape or size of everything but I was ok with it. The things that frustrate me about my body are more function and age. For example I have small wrists and hands, they tend to be weak and ache - something I didn't experience when I was younger. I'm 36 with 1 child.

  3. I would love to see the pictures of the tour through women's fashion!

  4. The best thing I've done is start weight training and running. I feel so strong! It is a great feeling of accomplishment, and I appreciate the mental boost from all those endorphins.

  5. I think you've got it exactly right: what our bodies DO is what matters, not how they look. I think of people around me who have arthritis and other physical problems, and their loss of "doing" is the real problem. My mother has a big scar from knee surgery, but being able to walk is more important than how her leg looks. We need to put things in perspective.

    600 photoshopped images a day? That's horrifying, but I believe it. I have a crush on a certain musician and I'm always amazed at how images of him differ depending on the circumstance. Sometimes he's been make-uped and photoshopped completely--like on a magazine cover--so that all his freckles and spots and interesting things are invisible. Other times, such as in concert or in a livestream, all those interesting bits have been left alone. I love those interesting bits and I think we should all honour and appreciate them in ourselves. Interesting is better than perfect.

    I think one of the most important things we can do in terms of normalizing the average body for our children is to let them see it. My 5-year-old daughter frequently sees me naked when I'm changing or getting out of the shower, so she regularly sees a body that is not photoshopped. It shatters some illusions that she has absorbed from princesses and models and pop singers. I never saw a naked woman until I got into midwifery in my mid-20s, so I always feel like this is something big and revolutionary in our lives!


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