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Body Image

Building a Better Body Image

It may seem impossible to avoid the persistent images and messages that confront us every day—and inevitable that at least some of the constant chatter will make its way into our heads. But being aware of the way media and advertising distort girls’ and women’s appearance and cultivate a body-obsessed culture can go a long way in helping to fight their influence.

Progress is also being made politically. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) have introduced the Healthy Media for Youth Act to promote and fund media literacy and youth empowerment programs and support research on the role and impact of depictions of girls and women in the media. It also calls for the establishment of a National Task Force on Girls and Women in the Media.84 In the wake of an alarming report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls,85 multiple advocacy groups convened the first-ever summit to campaign for change. The SPARK Summit (spark summit.com), which stands for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge, was held in 2010 at Hunter College in New York City. Younger women activists learned about media literacy skills and how to create their own media and build alternative representations. (See p. 818 for more discussion.)

One of the most underdiscussed issues regarding body image and our eating-disordered culture is the loss of joy and authenticity that it engenders. When we become obsessed with our weight and appearance, not only are we unwell physically; we also settle for lives less vivid and fulfilling.

When we are counting calories, overexercising in rote, uninspired ways, and/or spending so much of our mental energy on self-criticism, we forget what we used to enjoy doing, such as spending time with friends or pursuing our passions. We also have less time and energy for productive social and political activities that make our communities better places for everyone. It is totally radical for a woman in today’s society to heal her relationship with her own body. You can be a model for everyone around you.

Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, offers these suggestions on how to stop settling for self-hate and reclaim your right to wellness and joy.

  • Reconnect with your authentic hungers. What do you feel like eating? When are you hungry? When are you full? All of the wisdom you need lies within, not in the next diet book.
  • Move in ways that make you happy rather than getting caught up in strict exercise regimens. The more diverse and joyful your physical activity, the better.

  • Don’t weigh yourself. Instead ask: How do I feel in my own body right now?

  • Interrogate your own self-talk and dispute it when it is either self-hating or judgmental of others’ bodies. Invite your biggest fan into your head to counter the criticism. What would your best friend say about the viciousness you just unleashed on your belly?

  • Change conversations about weight to conversations about well-being.

  • Speak up against fat discrimination.

  • Ask yourself: When and with whom do I feel happiest and most beautiful? How can I be there, with them, more of the time? Consciously choose your community.

  • Put your money where your heart is. Don’t buy products from companies that make you feel inadequate, dirty, or insecure in their advertising.

  • Get involved in feminism! It offers an empowering lens by which you can understand what you are going through.

  • Redefine your notion of what a successful girl or woman looks like. She’s not just a high achiever. She’s also healthy, resilient, joyful, and full of self-love.

  • Make intergenerational friendships that help you see the big picture. Suddenly life may seem long and the size of your thighs might just prove irrelevant.

  • Shift your priorities from achievement and appearance to fulfillment and joy at every opportunity.

  • Learn to love the beauty of your own true nature.

  • Say it out loud. If you tell a trusted friend or family member about your struggle, you help make it real. This creates accountability.

  • Never diet. It is documented that this industry is the gateway to eating disorders.

  • Get professional help, if needed, as early as possible. It’s critical that you trust your own instincts, not the medical profession’s definitions of wellness. Only you know what it’s like being inside your own head.

Seeing an individual struggle with body image as part of a larger social and political struggle can be helpful as well. Organizations and movements, such as NOW’s Love Your Body campaign, provide a full context for understanding the role of corporations and the media in keeping women dissatisfied with their bodies and offer easily accessible ways to take action on the issue. Check out the presentation on “Sex, Stereotypes and Beauty” at loveyour body.nowfoundation.org, where you can also find other guides to help develop a critical eye toward beauty standards. Plus, there are tips on everything from staging a mock beauty pageant on a college campus to sounding off to offensive advertisers.

Altering our attitudes and behavior is only a first step in chipping away the prison bars of the beauty culture. In the long run, the only way for any of us to truly break free is to change girls’ and women’s position in society. As Rose Weitz writes in Rapunzel’s Daughters, “Only when all girls and women are freed from stereotypical expectations about our natures and abilities will we also be freed from the bonds of the beauty culture.”86

Fostering this affirmative environment for all of us is ultimately a collective project, where we join forces to educate new generations and transform our present one.

Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.


84. M. Magowan, “Congresswomen Urge Healthy Media for Youth” San Francisco Chronicle, April 15, 2010,

85. American Psychological Association, report of the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf.

86. Rose Weitz, Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us About Women’s Lives (New York: Farrar, Straus, 2005), p. 225.


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