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Allie Talk: Deprogramming from Society's Body Image Ideals

Every time I see an ad or a new fashion collection that embraces the body positivity movement, I get so happy. As a former CEO of a fashion brand who worked to make inclusivity a priority, I have been devastated by how long it has taken for companies to show clothes, makeup, and skincare on actual consumers.

While the body positivity movement is a good step forward, it has also made me think about how many women, including millennials like myself, are having trouble unlearning the social standards that were both subtly and not so subtly pounded into us for years. The image of Kate Moss in her Calvins circa 1992 was branded onto my young brain, as was my family nickname, Twiggy, a term of endearment that also subconsciously reminded me that my appearance was always being noticed. 

Like so many other teenage girls, I was scared and upset by seemingly minor incidents in my life – girls in my ballet class commenting when I got a Tasty Cake pie with my Dad after class or my own Grandmother telling me to minimize the chocolate or “I might get fat.” I stressed to no end when girls compared their weights during high school sports. Being the tallest on almost every team, I was often automatically at the higher end of the weight scale. 

For years, I didn’t think about these memories. Then, 13 months ago I gave birth to my daughter and started having flashbacks to my own childhood. It’s made me want to protect her from all the body shaming moments that my friends and I went through.

As kids of the 90s, we all watched Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell suffer from bulimia. But it wasn’t a wake up call that our societal standards were wrong; it was merely a reminder that mental health and weight issues were the norm for women. Even throughout college, we never binged or ate “bad” food without explicitly calling ourselves out for it or blaming it on a hangover. Your weight and your size were always being evaluated and everyone knew it. 

These feelings and associations with body size are ingrained in us from our prepubescent years when brains are still myelinating and neural pathways are forming. Research suggests that our brains aren’t fully developed until around the age of 25. That’s a lot of time for your brain to be influenced by outside associations and it’s no wonder that most of us have trouble shaking these feelings even now that we’re adults. 

Some important research is being done in this area. Amazing academics like Jonathan Haidt are showing the negative effects of social media on young girls, including increased depression and suicide, while others like Jean Kilbourne have been working for decades to show the connection between advertising and eating disorders and other health issues. But we need more research that reveals how neural pathways develop, especially during puberty, and how we might untrain these pathways and preferences both for those of us who are now adults and for future generations.

Some of the work that needs to be done is mental: recognizing and accepting the influences and behavior we expose ourselves to. Some is emotional: dealing with our own feelings and pressures to look a certain way. A lot is social: making it truly rewarding to be healthy in whatever way that means for each person and making sure that the ideal of health isn’t associated with any particular body type or size. But a lot of it is also scientific: we need more information, more answers, and more studies to help us heal ourselves and protect the next generation.

The body positivity movement is just the start of changing these norms, but it is nowhere near the end. It’s not enough to have a couple token women who aren’t size zero in an advertising campaign. As a society and as individuals, we need to learn to decouple size from self-worth. We need to reprogram our brains to look at ourselves and others and not see size or weight first. We need to learn to associate happiness with health, whatever that means for you and your extraordinary and unique body, rather than a number on a scale. 

Most importantly, we need this work to be done not just on an individual level, but also as a society, including the companies and the messaging that affects every one of us. Everybody is different just as every body is different, and that beautiful variety should be widely reflected as the norm in the advertising and media that we see all around us.  

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