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Summer means togs, which also means self-loathing and body anxiety for many of us.
Melody Thomas explores how to break away from that vicious cycle of objectification and shame.
Summer is here, bringing a much needed influx of vitamin D, salty skin, and long, warm evenings. But while I’ll sing the praises of summer to whoever will listen, the hot season can bring discomfort too, especially for those doing the hard work of unlearning body shame and negativity.
It’s at this time of year that the ever-present messaging about which types of bodies are good bodies really amps up. The magazine covers switch from thinly-veiled racism against Meghan Markle to miracle weight loss and bikini body stories, our social media feeds are inundated with exercise and diet apps, and, like the “feminist f**kboy” whose misogyny is harder to spot through all his woke-talk, even those of us well-schooled in spotting diet-industry sabotage find it harder to dissect the undercover messages of “wellness” (NB: fasting is really just starving yourself with a different name).
Plus there’s the simple fact that warm weather requires fewer clothes, which brings us face to face with parts of our bodies we’ve relegated as “problem areas” and hidden away under stylish layers the rest of the year. All of this means summer can feel like an advent calendar where half of the little doors hide joy and freedom, but the rest threaten to unleash a tidal wave of unexpected and debilitating shame. Fun!
Recently, I’ve been learning about the work of Lindsay and Lexie Kite, who through their organisation Beauty Redefined have conducted extensive research into positive body image and ways we might all help to develop it. They caught my attention after I saw a clip on Instagram from Lindsay’s Ted Talk “Body Positivity or Body Obsession?”. In it, Kite talks about how body positive messaging over the past 15 years has focused on how “all women are beautiful – flaws and all!”, which, while well-meaning, isn’t fixing the problem. Girls and women “aren’t only suffering because of the unattainable ways beauty is being defined, they’re suffering because they are being defined by beauty”.
In other words, the focus is still on the importance of beauty. Deeply-realised positive body image, Kite argues, “isn’t believing your body looks good, it’s knowing your body is good, regardless of how it looks.”
Through the work of Beauty Redefined I also came to hear about “self-objectification”, or the tendency for many of us, especially girls and women, to adopt a third-person perspective of ourselves, so that instead of viewing the world through our own eyes, we experience it as if through the eyes of an imaginary person looking back at us. One of the side effects of this is body obsession, taking the form of an endless internal narrative that sounds something like this: “Smooth your shirt down, suck your stomach in, that person’s looking at you, turn to your best angle, pull your hem down, you need to pluck your eyebrows, shoulders back, check your teeth for lipstick, smile don’t frown” – on and on until you die.
Self-objectification obviously isn’t great – it’s linked to feelings of shame, anxiety about one’s appearance, and negative mood. It inhibits agency and confidence, and just takes a lot of energy that would be better spent elsewhere – studies show that when women and girls are self-objectifying they perform worse on math and reading comprehension, and can’t run or throw a ball as far or lift weights as heavy.
The first step in transforming negative body image into positive is recognising when we are self-objectifying; until I heard Kite verbalise her own body-obsessed internal monologue I’d been pretty oblivious to my own, but now that I know what it sounds like it’s impossible to ignore.
The next step is, when we notice ourselves doing it, instead of responding how we usually do (either doubling down on our shame with disordered eating or other harmful behaviours, or hiding and “fixing” ourselves, for example avoiding the beach while making promises to ourselves to lose weight so we can go to the beach next time) – we confront our discomfort.
We go to the beach and breathe through our anxiety, reminding ourselves as we step into the ocean that what matters is how we feel; the cool water lapping at our skin, the power of our stroke as we swim out to the pontoon. That we choose exercise because it makes us feel strong and capable, not because we want to fit into some dress we should have given away years ago. That instead of judging food as “good” or “bad” we ask our bodies what they need and respond accordingly, be it salad, cake, or both.
All of this takes time. Unlearning messages you’ve heard your entire life about how your worth relies largely on your appearance is a big task, and sometimes it can feel impossible. But we’ve already wasted so much time and energy on these endless, cruel, shaming internal narratives – not to mention the eternal squeezing, shaving, tanning, covering up and shrinking of our perfectly good bodies – that it feels more than worthwhile to divert just some of that energy into rejecting and dismantling the ideas that got us here in the first place.
After all, as the Kite sisters so wonderfully put it, our bodies are instruments, not ornaments.