This post is part of our series on girls’ athletic participation. Did you know that seven out of 10 girls don’t feel that they belong in sports? A major reason for these feelings stems from girls’ poor body image. Drs. Lexie and Lindsay Kite of Beauty Redefined, a non-profit organization that helps girls and women recognize, reject and resist harmful messages about their bodies and what “beauty” means and looks like, join us in this series.
Our research points to one particularly awesome way to experience real empowerment, decrease self-consciousness, and embrace your body as your own – not as a decoration for everyone else to gawk at.
… But not the way the rest of the world tells you your body is powerful. We are constantly sold the lie that makeup, weight loss, new clothes, cosmetic surgery, etc., are empowering for women. The thing is, they’re not. We’re confusing “empowerment” with “feeling beautiful” or, more specifically, “feeling like other people think we look good.” Empowerment has to be so much more dynamic and encompassing than that. “Power” cannot be minimized to something that is gained and wielded through appearance or beauty. “Power” from beauty is cheap. It is fleeting and can be consumed and discarded at any moment. Your power isn’t just in your beauty; it’s in who you are and what you do. It is in your physical power – the power to be, and do, and live, and move.
The fact that you have a body — regardless of your appearance or ability level — means that you innately have access to physical power. Your body is an instrument to be used for your benefit, and not a burden to drag around, hiding and fixing along the way. Want to develop positive body image? When you learn to value your body for what it can do rather than what it looks like, you improve your body image and gain a more powerful sense of control. The truth is, regardless of what you look like, or what you think you look like, you can feel good about yourself because you are not your appearance.
Health and body image experts teach that you can resist the soul-sucking place of constant self-consciousness by participating in non-aesthetically-focused sports (like competitive team sports, rather than activities that rely on the way you look while participating) and other kinds of physical activity. (Read about the problem with objectification in dance, cheer, and pageants here.) Three Harvard women’s rugby players are speaking our language on this piece about how physical activity is the most empowering thing you can do for your self-esteem. Let’s just quote a bit of their genius:
“Loving one’s body is an inherently political act. Maintaining pride in having a body that is ‘too big,’ ‘too small,’ or ‘not ideal’ is a political statement against the many voices that tell us our bodies are problematic. Mainstream culture normalizes the flawless bodies that dominate every kind of mass media… At home, girls are taught to cross their legs in public and take up as little physical space as possible. They are taught that being beautiful is much more valuable than being smart and strong. Magazines preach the gospel of constant diet and exercise to achieve ‘bikini bodies’ that are meant to lounge poolside and be gazed upon. It is a true testament to the misogyny of our culture that women are encouraged to whittle away their bodies and maintain postures that make them as unobtrusive as possible.”
So how do we fight against the all-out war against us and our bodies? Physical activity. Physical activity is shown to lead to body satisfaction when girls develop an appreciation of what their bodies can do, rather than how they appear to others. When women exercise to increase their fitness, rather than to improve physical appearance, they are more likely to feel positively toward their bodies. So, exercise! Play sports! Use your body as an instrument to experience life, and enjoy fantastic health benefits like increased cardiovascular health, improved blood sugar, lowered cholesterol, healthy blood pressure, and countless other internal health benefits in the process.
After a few years of refusing to wear a swimsuit, our junior year of college Lindsay got an invitation to go cliff-jumping with a bunch of friends. With peer pressure, beautiful weather, and the memory of how much she loved to swim all pushing her to accept the invitation, she very reluctantly did. Here’s what happened: “The feeling I got when I jumped in the water and started swimming across the reservoir is almost indescribable. It sounds so cheesy, but I swear it was almost a spiritual experience. I felt incredible, and powerful, and was still a strong swimmer after all those years, and no one gagged when they saw me in a swimsuit. By throwing aside the fear of being invited to “be seen” in a swimsuit, I gave myself an opportunity for wonderful change. Without confronting my shame, I would never have experienced the overwhelming fulfillment of swimming again. The results of that decision have been life-changing. Seriously. Since that day 7 years ago, I have not missed an opportunity to go swimming. I regularly swim laps for exercise and some of my happiest memories of the past several years include fun summer days in the water. Use your body as an instrument – you’ll be so happy you did.”
A couple years ago, I was talked into running two different half marathons and I was terrified – not only is running really hard physically and mentally, but I was possibly more terrified of being looked at while running. I spent the first few weeks on a treadmill at my gym, so self-conscious that my face got really red and that people might be looking at me. I felt self-conscious that I wasn’t wearing the right outfits for running. (Is spandex a necessity?!?!) I felt self-conscious that the runners next to me were going faster and farther. But as I trained and built up my endurance, something inside me changed. Instead of picturing myself running, I started just running. I stopped worrying about being a good vision of me and I gave myself all of me instead. Running now makes me feel really happy because I can set a goal and get there, and working toward that goal allows me to release all those happy endorphins, feel more energy and motivation, and see what my body is capable of.
If you’ve held yourself back from running, biking, swimming, etc., because you felt self-conscious about what to wear, how much you “jiggle,” how red and sweaty you get, (the list goes on), it’s time to set a goal and fight to achieve it! Make this goal about your abilities and you’ll be much less inclined to worry about what you look like doing it. Run a certain distance without stopping. Swim a bunch of laps faster than ever before. Do a certain number of crunches, new dance classes, whatever you can do and enjoy doing.
Use your body as an instrument and you will learn some uplifting truths in action: You are more than a body. You are capable of much more than being looked at. You are not a decoration. Your physical power is not in your appearance; it is in your actions. The world is more beautiful because you are here and it has nothing to do with your looks.
This article first appeared on the Beauty Redefined website.