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Body positivity is wonderful, but we need to think deeper

(Please note: this article focuses on the intersection of women and body image specifically. This focus does not, in any way, negate the immense importance of considering issues of body image among those who do not identify as women! Many non-binary people and men have also been trailblazers in body image activism. This article also does not touch on body liberation, the crucial activism work defined by the University of Vermont as “the freedom from social and political systems of oppression that designate certain bodies as more worthy, healthy, and desirable than others.”)


Body positivity is a slow-burning, gorgeous revolution. Like the sun at golden hour settling into a contented harmony of creamsicle oranges and watermelon pinks, its devotees have begun to find comfort and delight by simply existing in our bodies and honoring our natural rhythms.

Through online messaging, body-positive activists have dared our society’s narrow, arbitrary standards of beauty to budge — and those standards are indeed changing, slowly but surely. On Instagram, for example, creators of many different backgrounds and physical presentations are combining pictures of their style (think “OOTD”) with candid captions discussing body image and inclusivity.

Thanks to such body-positive activists, many women are celebrating their unique physical beauty and opening new doors to self-expression. Particularly notable are the activists in marginalized bodies who are creating space for folks pushed aside due to by their size, race and/or disability to cultivate the confidence they deserve in their appearances. It would be a mistake to label aesthetic body positivity as shallow because, in reality, it is deeply powerful and transformative in its own right.

But body positivity alone is not enough to heal the deeper wounds of body image that so many women carry. The present conversation about the pervasive, frightening crisis of body image and eating disorders experienced by girls and women misses a crucial topic: objectification. According to body image experts and researchers Lexie Kite, Ph.D., and Lindsay Kite, Ph.D. (identical twins who obtained their PhDs in the study of female body image together), the root of the distress that many women experience about their bodies is the systemic, patriarchal objectification that is placed on women to fit a narrow standard of beauty.

Aesthetic-centered body positivity doesn’t solve this problem, they theorize, because it encourages women to continue to focus on their appearance. Their solution? Prize experiences in the body over the way it looks. The Drs. Kite penned their trademark phrase to this effect: “Your body is an instrument, not an ornament.” This focus prioritizes living in our bodies over passively experiencing life as an object for someone else’s gain.

In their book “More Than A Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament,” The Drs. Kite write,

“Self-objectification occurs when people learn to view their own bodies from an outside perspective, which is a natural result of living in an environment where bodies are objectified. We grow up seeing idealized and sexualized female bodies presented in media as parts for others’ viewing pleasure, even in the most mundane or unexpected circumstances.”

The Drs. Kite warn their audience about just how commonplace and, often, unconscious the act of self-objectification is.

They add, “In 1975, film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term ‘the male gaze’ to describe the phenomenon of women being represented in the media through the perspective of a heterosexual man […] this is objectification. We then learn to monitor and understand our own bodies from the same outside perspective. This is self-objectification.” In an interview with Shape Magazine, Dr. Lexie Kite provides this advice:

“The first step is recognizing and acknowledging the ways our culture of objectification is harming us and holding us back from things we really want to do. Then we need new ways to respond to those things. That’s when body-image resilience kicks in — it equips you with the skills and strategies to get out of the mindset of trying to fix yourself and into the mode of actively pursuing the things you want to do. The only way to unlearn the narratives in your head that say, ‘You’re going to be embarrassed for people to see you this way,’ is to challenge them.”