Like many body positivity activists, I’m committed to creating more inclusionary and diverse images of women in mainstream media. I’m concerned that the increasingly unrealistic, unattainable images of beauty in popular culture are contributing to rising rates of body image and eating disorders in young women. That’s why I’ve been busy developing a documentary that seeks to give the latest icon of “thinspiration” — the yoga body — a makeover.
But lately it hasn’t been going so well. Because after watching the recent “This Girl Can” video (which featured women of all shapes, colours and sizes, leaping, dancing, jumping, gyrating and jiggling with abandon) I’m beginning to suspect that all this focus on image itself may actually be counterproductive.
Part of a British health initiative to promote physical activity, this video sets out to overcome the most cited obstacle in getting women to the gym, the fear that their butts will not look good in tiny shorts. Its shots of heaving breasts, quivering buttocks and bouncing bellies, overlaid with text like “hot” and “foxy” have been hailed by many in the body positivity movement as ground breaking and visionary. But I am not as enthused.
I admit, when I first watched the video I wanted to leap to my feet and cry “You Go Girl!” Almost. I couldn’t understand why the text didn’t reflect the joyful exuberance being seen onscreen — why not words like powerful, free or strong? Sure it’s revolutionary in bringing bodies of differing sizes and colors (and cellulite) to the screen, but it’s still about being sexy. This ad isn’t selling exercise because it makes us happier, healthier or more resilient, it’s about exercise as performance, one in which sweat and jiggling are the new signifiers of desirability.
But here is the critical point – it reinforces old disempowering stereotypes i.e. that women exist to be looked at — even when pushing weights. And it conditions us to see our bodies as observers, through the lens of a camera, a mirror and/or other people’s perceptions. This is important because when we view ourselves from the outside in, we dissociate from what our body is feeling, a quality or state of being that neuroscientists call interoception.
Interoception is our ability to sense our bodies internal states (whether it is hungry, cold, in pain or tired). It is not ‘thinking’ about your body — as if contemplating our physical image in a mirror, but on experiencing what our body is feeling inside. And here is the kicker. Growing research suggests that poor interoception is linked with body dissatisfaction and body image disorders!
Vivien Ainley and Manos Tsakiris of Royal Holloway, University of London found that low interception is linked with self-objectification (experiencing our body as an object in our life) and leads to a preoccupation with outward physical appearance. They suggest women with low interoception lack an internal sense of self and this can lead to a false sense of their own body, i.e. they may be slender but view their bodies as large.
In a 2012 paper submitted to the Psychology of Women Quarterly, researchers Marika Tiggemann and Elyse William suggest that young women with eating disorders have, on average, lower levels of self-awareness and interoception than healthy controls. And those women who most frequently thought of themselves from other people’s perspectives – had the most eating disorder symptoms.
In fact, just looking in a mirror, as a study in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found, can hinder how you listen to your body — especially when it comes to food. Researchers asked two groups of women to watch a movie on a computer — but only one group had a mirror placed in their room. There was a bowl of M&M’s placed next to the computer. Researchers found that the participants with the mirror consistently ate more M&M’s than the participants without a mirror.
This research challenges the commonly held notion that self-objectification, disordered eating and eating disorders are due to cultural factors like media and advertising. It suggests instead that women with eating disorders think of themselves as objects because of their impaired interoception. And this leaves them even more vulnerable to messaging telling them how they can get their “best body”.
Even more fascinating — and suggestive — is another study from 2006 which found that women preoccupied with how others perceived their bodies were more likely to be distracted and unable to focus on cognitively challenging tasks. Umm — like critically analyzing the constant onslaught of advertising selling them the latest fat blaster core workout or butt sculpting yoga pants?
So is helping young women develop interoception the real key to developing body positivity? A recent study in the International Journal of Women’s Health suggests so. It found that adolescent girls with good interoceptive skills had lower rates of body image and eating disorders.
And does this explain why yoga has been shown in countless studies to be a such a powerful therapeutic tool in the treatment of eating disorders? Because doesn’t yoga encourage interoception by directing us to pay attention to what our body is feeling, moment by moment, breath by breath? Obviously some women in yoga do get caught up striving for the “yoga body”, but I’m curious if any statistics exist as to whether practicing yoga in a studio with a mirror has any impact on interoception or self-objectification?
And so I’ve been asking myself – is giving the “yoga body” a make-over going to help promote interoception? By portraying yoga bodies of differing shapes, ethnicity and abilities (a la this Girl can — without the sexualization) am I not keeping women entrained in a way of seeing their bodies as exterior to their inner selves and inner experience?
Of course it’s important to help young women become more critical and media literate about the thousands of images they are besieged with daily. But is the project of diverse representation enough? Many, many women who already understand how body image in mainstream culture functions to uphold the beauty myth, white privilege, gender stereotypes, the male gaze etc. still suffer from disordered eating and body shame.
Is this just the result of overexposure to one too many unrealistic images of bodies in media? Perhaps. But what if “looking” sets us up to compare ourselves to images (whatever their size, color, age or ability)? Does this encourage us to dissociate from our bodies, predisposing us to self-objectification? Does this suggest that the deeper work of body positivity is about breaking the cycle of images — period?
This presents a challenging quandary – because how do I as a filmmaker use images to bypass image itself? Do I, on a black blank screen, ask the audience to take a moment to breathe into their belly, to experience one by one (Yoga Nidra style) the sensations occurring in their body, heart, fingers and toes? Could creating this simple moment of being present in our bodies, help connect us to the real yoga body? The one that waits inside each of us, ready to be felt and called into being?
I’m not sure. But lets face it, when comes to visceral impact, it just ain’t going to compete with the “This Girl Can” video – or its message. For young women already convinced that they need to “look good” in order to feel good, this soft approach is a hard sell.
That’s why my work on the documentary has ground to a halt. Because I need a new direction, one that doesn’t focus on remaking the image of the ‘yoga body’ but on convincing women to get themselves to a yoga class. And so, once again, dear readers, I ask for your help. What kind of film would be most useful in promoting interoception? Ideas, suggestions -and critiques are most welcome…