The minute I found Beauty Redefined, I knew I’d found a site to take notice of. Giving active points about media literacy, cultural messages aimed toward women, body image, and beauty ideals, every post on Beauty Redefined went beyond merely stating, Hey, folks, there’s a problem here, instead presenting airtight breakdowns of scripts we might take for granted. More important, the site gives active points for readers on how to begin to reject the messages we’re surrounded with. The Beauty Redefined team also gives one-hour visual presentations to arm viewers with tools and countermessages about harmful media ideals, beauty, and health.
When I learned that the incisive, dedicated, laser-sharp minds behind Beauty Redefined were not only two communication Ph.D. candidates at the University of Utah but also identical twins—well, how could I not want to interview them? Today we have Lindsay Kite, whose dissertation focuses on physical health and the ways media distorts our perceptions of what health and fitness entail—and ways to help people of all ages recognize and reject those harmful messages. (Check back tomorrow for an interview with Lexie, the other half of Beauty Redefined.) We talked about the limitations of academia in applied work, laboring to change beauty ideals as God’s work, and the number-one question she’s asked about being a twin. In her own words:
On Rapid-Heartbeat Moments
My very first semester of college, I was sitting in a journalism and media criticism class. At that time I didn’t really identify as a feminist or care about media messages. My professor criticized gender and violence and how those messages are perpetuated through the media, and how that affects our lives. When my professor was talking about advertising, particularly in women’s magazines, my heart started racing. I just felt it had affected me so much without me realizing it. It was a happy feeling. It wasn’t a feeling of fear or of, Wow, I’ve been so controlled by this. That was part of it, but I think I recognized there were strategies we could use to combat this. There are real solutions. So from there I was very much a feminist. I’d never quite known that; my mom always was but she didn’t know it either. We didn’t really have the name for it.
I still take in plenty of media, but to be able to recognize why the women in TV shows and movies look the way they do is liberating in itself, because you have a critical view and recognize that it’s not real, that it’s meant to make me feel a particular way and I don’t have to feel that way if I don’t want to. That’s where the rapid-heartbeat moment came from, this feeling of: Yes, this has affected me, but I don’t have to be affected by it anymore. I don’t have to be brainwashed to believe that this is normal and natural and beauty has always looked this way and men would only want women who looked this way. My heart continues to beat rapidly every time I read books like The Beauty Myth and read scholarly articles about media criticism and feminist work that is trying to counteract these ideals. All these things make my heart beat just as fast and make me feel extremely excited about work that’s happening to liberate women from these restrictive cultural ideals. I love it.
On Accentuating the Positive
It’s a lot easier to criticize things than it is to find concrete actions we can take. It’s easier to get research on how women are affected by certain things—and these are sensational topics. The media likes to focus on dangerous things, the scary big shocking things we hear about women and their bodies and self-esteem and all that. But it’s harder to help people than it is to take apart media, or to take apart the way women feel about themselves. That stuff is easy to document. It’s harder to break out a strategy to combat those feelings and document the way women feel afterward.
If people feel bad about themselves, it’s this normative discontent where basically every woman is unhappy with her body and that’s something we all share, so it’s normal and taken for granted. We need to destabilize that. We need to recognize that this feeling isn’t natural. There are ways to do that; Lexie and I created our one-hour visual presentation for our masters project, showing the ridiculousness of beauty ideals and how money is behind all of it. We need to prove the effectiveness of that, but it’s hard. You try to get approval through review boards at colleges and universities, and that’s mandated by the whole academic system. It’s a process that takes time. So I’m working on how to actually measure the effects of our presentation. It’s hard, but it makes me so happy to see how it is used by other people, for them to rethink the way they think about appearance.
On Being a Twin
Our entire lives, people have been trying to find differences to tell us apart by appearance. So we’ve been picked apart our entire lives by strangers—we’ve received some comments that people don’t recognize are totally insulting to one of us. We’ve gotten really ridiculous comments, like, “You’re the twin who does her hair” or “You’re the twin with straight teeth,” things like that. People think they’re complimenting one of us, but really it means the other one doesn’t have that particular positive attribute. Being compared to your twin sister your whole life can make you a competitive person from day one. It’s led both of us to be like, I don’t want to be the one who gets all the comments from strangers. It’s not fun to be the twin who doesn’t do her hair.
It’s funny how much I get the exact same twin questions over and over again. The number-one question I get is: When one of you goes on a blind date do you switch in the middle of it? All the time people ask that! I swear they got that from some movie, either the Sweet Valley High kids or Mary Kate and Ashley or even Tia and Tamera. That’s where people are forming their questions for us, based on media. The whole twin comparison thing has really contributed to our ideas about appearance and its importance, and how free people feel about commenting on other people’s appearance.
I just noticed this recently: I don’t necessarily have to look in the mirror to see certain things about myself. I’ll see it in Lexie and just assume I look the same way. I’ll see certain characteristics and think, I never noticed that about myself—but I’m not looking at myself, I’m looking at my sister.
Looking at another face that looks so similar to mine can affect how I would be objective about what I look like. Sometimes I see things on Lexie where she has made a complaint about what she looks like, and I recognize that I look the same way or have that same characteristic, and I’m able to stop and think, Well, I don’t feel that way about it, so there’s no reason that she should. We can keep each other in check and not take certain feelings about features or appearance for granted. I find myself getting offended when she says something rude about herself. Like, if she talks about how she feels so fat, I might feel insulted by that, particularly if at the time I know for a fact she weighs less than me. And I should also turn that the other way around: I should feel more of a responsibility to Lexie to not put myself down. Maybe subconsciously I have—I don’t often say very negative things about myself, just because I’ve found that I feel better about myself when I don’t say mean things out loud.
On Keeping the Faith
Lexie and I are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the church is very against pornography. We view that as something degrading that takes a sacred act between two people who are hopefully in love and hopefully married and causes the people in it to become objectified, dehumanized. So that’s framing our perspective. When we watch TV shows and movies that are just daytime TV—things that are rated PG, PG-13—and we see things that reflect pornography, that’s something that should be eye-catching, but it’s become normal.
We see this normalized pornography all the time, and we’ve become immune to it. We’re numb to seeing women half-naked, or almost completely naked bodies at every turn; it’s not something that’s a big deal. Most of the time the men near the women are fully clothed, and the camera isn’t panning up and down their bodies, zooming in on their parts, and other characters are not necessarily looking at them or commenting on their appearance. If we look at pornography in its strict definition as imagery that is engineered to cause arousal in people, then all of these images of women who are being objectified and stripped for no reason—that’s exactly what they are. We want to help people realize what pornography is—not something that’s acceptable for network TV during the daytime or the Victoria’s Secret runway shows that are a huge moneymaker for a family station like CBS during prime time. It’s not just present on dark corners of the Internet; it’s not something you have to seek out. We have to recognize that in order to escape the harmful consequences it can have on our self-perception and how we view other people.
My faith has been the driving force behind everything I do related to this work. It’s something that fits in perfectly with my religion. I was actually pretty shocked to figure that out. I thought recognizing gender roles and ways women are held back but men aren’t was going to challenge my faith, but it actually strengthened it. In my religion, we view people as more than just what we are on the surface, more than just bodies. We view people as being able to go on and live forever and have eternal life, not in our own bodies but in a more perfected state. So when we’re so focused in this life on what our bodies look like, that’s actually a huge waste of time and holds people back in every possible way.
Doing service for others is a big part of living a Christ-like life, and when we are so focused on what we look like, that’s actually something pretty selfish—and that’s not helping people who really need help in more ways than we need to fix our hair or do these short-lived things that aren’t really making anyone all that happy. My faith has led me to honestly believe that I can do something to help other women feel better about themselves, so they can then go on and focus on more important things than their looks. If we can get women to accept themselves—and not necessarily just for what life they’re currently living or whatever state they’re in—well, women who feel okay about themselves are much happier and more productive, and they lead more successful lives in any way you want to define it. Beauty obsession stops all of that.
I believe I’ve been led to this work by God, and as cheesy as that sounds, I really do believe that through his help I’m able to reach other women who are working for liberation from these painful circumstances. Every time I see somebody relay a positive experience of thinking of herself as more than just parts, as a whole person, I get that rapid heartbeat moment. And I think for women who can access that, it’s the happiest form of spiritual experience. As many times as I can help that happen, I will do it.
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