PODCAST: Empowerment and body positivity in the selfie age

These days, we hear an awful lot about “empowerment.” In an image-based culture, explicitly connected to social media, this has meant that young women’s understanding of ideas like “empowerment” and “positive body image” comes in the form of selfies and the positive reinforcement they get when they post objectified and sexualized images of themselves online. Yet, too often when we talk about things like objectification and body positivity, we get stuck in this conversation about “choice” and the way individual women may or may not feel about their own bodies, without pushing further.

Last week, this conversation exploded, yet again, in light of a naked selfie Kim Kardashian posted to twitter. While some wished that the reality TV star could find alternative avenues for validation and attention, others argued that we should support what has been construed has “confidence” in her body.

In order to explore some of these issues, I spoke with Lindsay Kite, PhD, and co-founder of Beauty Redefined, a project aimed at helping girls and women recognize, reject, and resist harmful messages about their bodies.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • marv

    Thank you for your arduous toiling Meghan.

    Lindsay Kite’s definition of self-objectification as learned preoccupation with bodily appearance because of male demand, is well taken. Her solution to breaking free from the shackle of body image by cultivating individual achievements like personal skills or post secondary education, while admirable seemed quite liberal in scope. I wish she would have mentioned joining collectives and social movements to overcome male, white and economic class supremacy as a principal way to uplift each other from oppression and disempowerment.

  • Aylune B. Papyrus

    Very interesting, thank you ! I had read a few posts of Beauty redefined and liked their perspective. I was personally touched by the idea that, indeed, we conflate “feeling good about our bodies” and “showing it off for the world to see on Instagram”, as if it feeling confortable in your body necessarily means displaying it online : recently I posted a Facebook picture of myself displaying my armpit hair (stopped shaving a year ago) and to me it was obviously sort of a milestone, like “YEAH, I’m proud of myself and accepting myself and that’s how I’m expressing this newfound acceptance, through a public picture”. But the truth is, of course I’m not so confident, I’m still afraid of people criticizing me about it most of the time. So what Lindsay said gave me food for thought. All in all, I really appreciate your perspective about self-objectification and supposed “empowerment”, as it was something I kinda felt within myself, not really wanting to admit it : you and Lindsay were sorta the only ones I found that actually voiced my feelings out loud. So thank you for that and keep up the good work !

  • jaye bird

    Agree about the need to be released from self-objectification, and the critical importance of seeking and creating other, non-body-based sources of value, based on inhabiting one’s experience. A few thoughts,
    though, in the order they come to me.

    1- I agree that we should aim to source our value within ourselves. But we’re inherently social creatures; the esteem of others is impactful, whether it’s in relation to our bodies, the roles we take up in society, whatever. I’m not sure it’s even possible to draw a bright line between the external and the internal; *all* the concepts we use to understand ourselves are derived from culture, and we define ourselves intersubjectively, through ongoing interactions with others. No woman’s an island.

    2- Also, realistically, others’ perceptions of us do have some power over the actual opportunities and constraints we encounter through them (e.g., job interviews). Striving to manage or control those perceptions through self-presentation is a survival strategy, and I think it’s unfair to ask people who are trying to *get by* to set survival needs aside for the sake of the greater good.

    3- Success and accomplishment in, say, the career arena, isn’t *less* vulnerable to others’ opinions, or
    less fragile than external affirmation of appearance. It’s not necessarily based completely on one’s own efforts and definitions, either. *Five* hardworking and talented people I know lost their jobs,
    just this week. In general, this is a time in which we all have to work very hard to create those alternate sources of self-esteem, agree with that. But it isn’t easy.

    4- I think the importance of getting over body shame is receiving seriously short shrift, here. Your
    self-concept, your sense of yourself as an embodied creature is absolutely fundamental. We’re also *unavoidably* public objects at the same time that we’re subjects. (There is no escaping it. Strangers don’t
    know you, they see you first, and their interpretation of the sight of you hugely influences how you’re responded to). Grooming and self-presentation have been important activities across cultures and time periods, and not always just for women, some times and places it’s been the opposite. Of *course* the burden of self-presentation, and its effects, is inordinately carried by women here and now, and yes the infrastructures and ideologies around it are complex and arguably more toxic than has been the case at other times/places. But there is a universal human need in the middle of all this. I think there are ways to honour it and minimize the influence of the toxic stuff, but it’s a long, recursive, complicated process. And I think if shame is in the mix, it has to be deal with.

    Shame can be debilitating. It is arguably much more damaging than a preoccupation with appearance that is positive, and I think it’s a mistake to equate the two . It’s also not true that *addressing* body acceptance will lead to continuing preoccupation. One can work towards a positive evaluation of their body, and/or achieve a comfortable level of mastery over self-presentation, and then *move on*. It is completely possible to do
    that, to work to get to a point at which your body no longer, say, actively disgusts you, and is acceptable to you, or even gives you pleasure at its sight, and then *forget it* and move on to more inhabited, firmly
    subjective activity. But people have to get there, first. If you’re at that point, wonderful, but it’s unfair to be overly critical of people who are working on it.

    5- Representation is also getting short shrift. Self-concept is derived from a reciprocal dynamic between self-sourced and society-sourced standards. We all want to be accepted, or at least, acceptable. The
    inclusion of unconventional body shapes, sizes, abilities, and colours into the available repertoire of “acceptable” shapes / sizes is tremendously powerful for those who haven’t benefitted from the
    privilege of being automatically acceptable. It can be easy to dismiss the importance of this. People are responding to positive representations because representations, and their effects on not only
    one’s own self-perceptions, but others’, affect them on a deep, deep level. That’s a massive reason people love it. I don’t follow or involve myself in online conversations about body positivity, so I don’t know about
    issues around that particular vehicle, but I am pretty sure people are not just into it for the followers and likes. TV shows with non-standard-looking actors are beloved, too. And influential, and important.

  • TranswoMON

    Thank you for this! This is SO important to talk about and yet so difficult to bring up. this was a great interview, it was very valuable to hear. 16:11 THIS! oh my god I loved that part well said! I cant talk about this type of thing with most of the other “trans*” folks I know without getting mob shamed and called a bigot or otherwise >.<

    I really liked the distinction:

    "women fighting for women to be more than just bodies to be viewed, women fighting for more women's bodies to be viewed as valuable"

  • Meghan Murphy

    That would be great, if you find the time! I always wish I could transcribe interviews, but I simply don’t have the time/resources…

  • Meghan Murphy

    Sorry! We’re just having an issue with the audio files on the site — it should be resolved soon, but in the meantime, you can listen at rabble! http://rabble.ca/podcasts/shows/feminist-current/2016/03/podcast-empowerment-body-positivity-selfie-age

  • Meghan Murphy

    Oh good! Again, apologies for the inconvenience — should be fixed soon I hope!

  • Meghan Murphy

    Yay! Sorry about that, again.

  • Zoë Lafantaisie

    Excellent interview!!!! I reposted with a glowing review!

  • Zoë Lafantaisie

    In a nutshell Jem!!!