Toward body positivity and radical self care

It was an article on eyebrows that finally made me snap.

Skimming through my social media feeds a few weeks ago, I did a double take at an article with a click-baity headline that said: “15 mistakes you’re making with your eyebrows.”

Fifteen mistakes. Even in a best case scenario, if I figure I’m duplicating 7-8 mistakes per brow, that still seems like a LOT of mistakes to be made on a very small section of my body.

(Which, by the way, I attend to maybe once a month. This neglect may qualify as my “16th eyebrow mistake.”)

Beyond my myriad eyebrow failures, a quick search for the word ‘mistakes’ on Huffington Post‘s healthy living section pulls up links to articles eager to inform me of countless mistakes I’m likely making with my brain and body: 20 mistakes I’m making with my teeth, six mistakes I’m making with exercise, nine sleep mistakes, seven healthy eating mistakes, eight sunscreen mistakes, seven sugar elimination mistakes, five lip liner mistakes, nine happiness mistakes, eight stretching mistakes, and six weekend health mistakes, just to name a few. (Or 100, if you’re keeping a tally.)

And unfortunately, thanks to internet algorithms that track my every online move, the very fact that I clicked on these judgmental headlines for the purposes of this critique increases the likelihood that my social media outlets will feed me more of the same content.

Unfortunately for many of us (women especially), the nature of viral media content and its related advertising models reward sensational headlines and ‘listicle’ formats that promise a better, more beautiful body and life in just a few quick steps (and with the help of a few brands featured in strategic product placements throughout the articles, of course.) These “mistakes to avoid” articles tend to focus on the negative, because fear and insecurity fuel web content just as they have always fueled the larger advertising industry.

In cultures like the United States especially, we are bombarded with hundreds of advertisements and thousands of brand exposures every single day, and the central message of many follows a simple formula:

Step 1: Convince an audience member that something is wrong with his or her body, and that this ‘problem’ will result in social or professional embarrassment.

Step 2: Tell the audience member that your product can cure the ‘problem’ that you identified, preying on his or her insecurity.

Step 3: Make billions. (Even hundreds of billions, at least in the case of the global beauty industry, which is projected to make $265 billion in revenue in 2017.)

Despite my many years of engaging with feminist media studies, I’m still not immune to this deluge of messages, but I believe that three interrelated concepts can help us navigate this endless barrage of negativity, and I’ve decided to use this blog as a space to reflect on them: body positivity, self care and media literacy.

Body Positivity

I hadn’t heard the term ‘body positivity’ until I was in grad school in my mid-20s, but I can assure you that the philosophy would have come in handy a heck of a lot earlier. Put most simply, a body positive perspective acknowledges that our bodies are capable and deserving of all good things as is, and that physical traits (such as waist size, bust size, or pant size) have no correlation with our worth as human beings.

A body-positive mindset reminds us that there is no future or past version of our bodies that is more or less deserving of love or capable of success.

A body positive mindset reminds us that there is no future or past version of our bodies that is more or less deserving of love or capable of success.A body-positive mindset reminds us that happiness, friendship, romantic love, success, contentment, and sexual pleasure are available to us in our current bodies, and that these realities do not require a physical transformation in order to manifest.

We need body positivity because of the billion-dollar industries built on the premise that you will feel ashamed of your natural body and pay money for products that promise to alter it. Marketers are banking that very early in life we’ll climb aboard the hamster wheel of self-loathing and spend our lives running and running and running our way to a better version of ourselves that might finally be capable of happiness and satisfaction.

Body positivity isn’t just for larger bodied people. It’s for people of all shapes and sizes, of all social economic backgrounds, of all sexualities and abilities. It doesn’t come naturally for me or for many people I know (my women friends, especially), which is all the more reason I want to spend some space here reflecting on what a body positive worldview has to offer.

Self Care

Very few people in my life are very good at self care, myself included. In posts to come, I’ll talk about my own struggles in this area. Between the ages of 25-30 I pushed myself in every conceivable way possible, and though I ended up where I wanted to be (raising a houseful of kids with my husband and in a tenure-track teaching position at a university I love), I did not arrive how I wanted to be. I felt spiritually deflated and physically dull after five years of unreasonable pushing.

Some girlfriends and I recently embarked on a summer of radical self care, because that’s what it’s become in our fast-paced world, particularly for those of us with families and budding careers that need nurturing: it’s a radical act to slow down, to check in, and to do something solely for your own wellness or development. I’ve far from mastered the art of self care, but I’ll extend that work here on the blog, sharing with you some of my own insights as to how I continue to try and reconnect with myself, and to explore what it really means to take care of myself as a woman, a professional, a wife and a mother.

Media Literacy

Though I teach a wide variety of college classes in a communication studies department, media literacy is the learning objective that unites all of my classrooms. It’s the heart of what I do as a teacher and a writer. To be media literate is to think critically about the messages that we receive through a variety of channels (including TV shows, films, advertisements, music, social media, and more.) Media literacy doesn’t just ask us to describe what we see in the media, but also to think about the social, cultural, historical, economic, and political context that helps explain how we have arrived at this current moment in time. As a feminist media scholar, I’m particularly interested in how gender, sexuality and bodies are represented across various types of content. My own interest in body positivity and self care is deeply rooted in the media messages about identity that we’re exposed to each day, and so media literacy will be a recurring theme throughout my posts here on the blog. Specific responses to popular shows, ads, music videos and more will also be part of my work here.

This project is a way for me to expand my scholarly thinking in a more popular format, to connect my teaching with my social media use, and to connect my personal life with my teaching life. I’m excited to get started, and hope you’ll join me on the journey. And in the meantime, try to take it easy on your eyebrows. They’re doing the best they can.

Ever watchful,

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P.S. Interested in reading more on the relationship between marketing and shame? See The Smithsonian for a great recap of how marketers created embarrassment around body odor (one of hundreds of such examples from that era.) The Power of Habit is another fascinating read for many reasons, one of which is its exploration of how marketers used embarrassment and shame to shape consumers’ personal care habits.

 

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