From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
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The Ugly Media

The Ugly Media

Pictures tell a story. But they don’t always tell the truth. Photographs can be, and often are, manipulated to fit a narrative of beauty that simply doesn’t exist.

Twin sisters Lexie and Lindsay Kite, ’06, are leading efforts to change how women perceive what they see in the media. Five years ago they founded Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit that uses health science and media literacy research to empower women to reject unrealistic body images they encounter every day. Their work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Al Jazeera America. But it began in a classroom in Logan.

As freshmen studying journalism, the Kites enrolled in separate sections of Media Smarts, a class taught by professors Brenda Cooper and Ted Pease. Lexie listened to how women are portrayed in the media in a very deliberate and strategic way—and often for profit. Her heart rushed.

“I realized that what I was hearing was true,” Lexie said. “[I] realized that I needed to do something about this.”

She went home and found Lindsay felt the same way. While neither had ever suffered from an eating disorder, both had experienced moments when they didn’t feel good about their appearance. They are not alone. Numerous studies have shown that more than 80 percent of American women say they are unhappy with their bodies. That semester Lexie and Lindsay set out on a path they would follow for the next decade. After graduating from Utah State, they went on to earn doctorates in media and body image from the University of Utah in 2013. They wanted to put some weight behind their words.

“The thing that Lindsay and I knew was that we needed to have credibility,” Lexie said. “We didn’t just want to have fluffy opinions. We want to be change-makers in this field.”

Beauty Redefined began in 2009 as a blog and part of their graduate studies. The Kites took it a step further in 2011. They purchased advertising space along Utah highways and posted billboards with a different kind of message for women—one of encouragement. The non-profit ads featured women holding posters across their bodies containing phrases like “Your reflection does not define your worth,” and “There is more to be than eye candy.” The idea was that what they’re saying should be more important than how they look. The Kites didn’t know that what they were doing was unprecedented; they just knew that is was important.

“We know this is a public health issue,” Lexie said. “Women’s health is definitely on the line.”

She points to studies that reveal that women who don’t feel good about their bodies are more likely not to take care of themselves. For example, they are less likely to eat healthily and to exercise. The Beauty Redefined campaign is not against being a size two; it’s about renouncing impossible expectations. Still, the Kites have their share of critics. Read the comment section of any news article about Beauty Redefined and their work is dismissed as “nonsense,” advocating obesity, and hypocritical since the sisters are blonde and slender. They know they face a near Sisyphean task.

“The one thing that Lindsay and I try to focus on is that [the] media isn’t going anywhere,” Lexie said. “It’s too profitable.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services addresses this issue on its website for women’s health. It notes that “By presenting an ideal that is so difficult to achieve and maintain, the cosmetic and diet product industries are assured of growth and profits. It’s no accident that youth is increasingly promoted, along with thinness, as an essential criterion of beauty.” The site prescribes restricting the amount children watch television and talking about the images on screen.

Airbrushed advertisements depict a version of beauty that only occurs after a team of artists is paid to hide a model’s flaws during a photo shoot and graphic artists remove the detritus—the pores, the lines, the things that make us human­—the things that show that a person was once happy, Lexie said.

The sisters down-sized their placards to sticky notes as an easy way for others to get the word out. In 2013, they launched an online campaign encouraging supporters to cover up issues of the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition with sticky notes reading “You are capable of much more than looking hot.” The Kites target media consumers rather than industry executives because they know too much money is at stake to change. So they focus their messaging on individuals who don’t yet have a business card and are still developing a sense of who they are going to be.

“This is a bottom up effort on purpose,” Lexie said. “Once people see how they’ve been affected they can’t unsee it. We speak to young people most of the time, middle school students and college students, whoever can be a change-maker in the future.”

The Kites employ a multi-pronged approach from standard advertising tactics of billboards, social media, and guerilla marketing with sticky notes, to old-fashioned, grassroots meetings. They regularly present their research at church meetings, schools, public libraries, and professional organizations. While their campaign focuses predominantly on women, the Kites try to include men as part of the conversation because they have mothers and daughters, sisters and wives impacted by the pressure to look perfect.

“This is the kind of message that does affect everyone,” Lexie said. “If you don’t experience body image issues, someone else you love does.”

This year they are ramping up their schedule of speaking engagements, writing a book, and expanding the number of group leaders working to bring the Beauty Redefined message around the world. They’ve also enlisted women with larger networks to join the effort. Musicians Tegan and Sara began including Beauty Refined sticky notes on their Facebook page at the launch of their 2014 Let’s Make Things Physical tour.

Comedian Nikki Glaser heard about Beauty Redefined while on tour after viewing a sticky note in a bathroom in New Orleans and ordered a pack for herself. She will be doing the same type of outreach from her own platform, Lexie said. “This whole thing is bigger than us. I think that beauty is so much more than everything the media has led us to believe. In real life, you can see evidence that a woman smiled, that she’s been out in the sun, that she has lived. And real is beautiful.”