News & Politics

Women (and Men) Increasingly Hate Their Bodies -- A New Movement Wants to Change That

Everyone knows poor body image is a problem. A new movement wants to stop talking about it and do something to actually change our culture.

Dangerous diets and detoxes, airbrushing anxiety and celebrities under scrutiny, shady plastic surgeons, eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression are all linked in a culture that causes women to feel shame about their bodies. And thanks to global media and an increasing worldwide lens on appearances, this kind of shame and sickness in different but related forms, has spread far beyond the western world to women around the globe, and to men as well.

Most everyone who has stood in front of a mirror and compared the reflection there to an impossible ideal acknowledges this is a problem. But for many, just identifiying the problem and talking about it is no longer enough. Women around the world want to stop hating their bodies, but they’re up against a cultural behemoth, led by a beauty, plastic surgery, diet and fashion industry--not to mention secular and religious patriarchal authorities that are invested in shaming women, and it’s not exactly easy. So how to move from consciousness-raising to movement building?

The leaders at the  Women’s Therapy Center Institute, a prestigious group founded in the late 70s and early 80s in New York and London, had long had this concern. As therapists, scholars and teachers, the women in this group had been focused on psychology and healing of women, but they also sought opportunities to fight fight back against the overarching social pressures that affected the women they treat. 

They were thinking big when they started talking with Courtney E. Martin, a writer and activist who has been at the forefront of this issue in recent years, and had also been seeking to move her body image work in a more action-oriented direction. As Martin wrote in her book “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” the process of plucking, primping, dieting, exercising, and striving to conform to beauty standards--and hating themselves when they inevitably do not (who can live up to perfection itself?)--sucks up much of women’s time and energy that could be used to affect positive change for themselves and others. “It becomes difficult to take actual action against a culture that is so toxic for women and girls,” she says, explaining why she was eager to find ways for women to channel their “pain into activism.”

With so many leaders thinking the same thing, the idea for an international series of summits at which participants could "take back their bodies" took solid form. Convened by the WTCI and called “Endangered Species Women,” the concept behind the movement was that women who aren’t affected by negative body image stereotyping are becoming rare, even endangered. Throughout March, the summits have been and will be held in New York, London, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Melbourne.

“They all have their own flavor,” says Martin of the international conferences. “Our hope is to sort of harvest as many good ideas as we can, put our fingers on the pulse that comes out of the different conferences, and then come together to create an international campaign.” The conference in New York this past weekend had mainstream and feminist representatives like “Fat is a Feminist Issue” author Suzie Orbach and plus-size model Emme. The panels also included men speaking about their role in the movement and representatives from Dove beauty company and Glamour magazine.  In London, the speaker list was equally impressive. Emma Thompson even filmed a statement of support. Topics on the table included everything from critiquing the media to critiquing the healthy living movement’s claim to morality, to interrogating male roles as allies and as sufferers of eating disorders, to globalization and its effect on women’s bodies, art, fat activism and so much more.

Clearly, the momentum sought by the organizers is present. The New York conference was completely sold out and hosts at The New School had to open overflow space because the attendees didn’t fit into the main auditorium. Twitter exploded with tweets from those in attendance, and one person in the audience tweeted that the conference felt like “school/church/group therapy/party/protest/performance/projectmaking.” Martin concurred. "In some ways it's conference. But in other ways it's a massive movement-building exercise and experiment,” she says.

To the “movement-building” end,  conference organizers sponsored a contest called “Loved Bodies, Big Ideas” which invited participants to come up with concrete, replicable, activism-oriented ideas that would actually make a difference for changing body image. They got well over 100 submissions from participants of all ages and stripes. But the three winners were flown out to New York City. Here, (in brief) are their ideas:

One winner proposed new training to educate medical students about the psychological and social context that accompanies weight and fat--far beyond BMI measurements and a clinical approach. This training would increase doctor's sensitivity and also help patients be able to find supportive caring physicians who don't stigmatize them for their size, focusing on health instead of pounds.

To attack the culture of false ideals, another participant came up with a “reality stamp”--a certification to be used for media products that don't alter their images with airbrushing or photoshopping. As Martin says, it would give “leverage” to consumers  but by celebrating the good media outlets rather than decrying the bad ones. This idea seems to have potential to gain traction, considering that some media outlets are already self-advertising as photoshop-free, sensing a consumer backlash.

The third winner is an idea for local art that would channel the kind of work done by the Vagina Monologues, but focused on bodies as a whole. “The body outlaw theater projects” would be  theater projects for campuses, commuity centers, religious institutions to put on themselves, nuch as the vagina monologues have, with instructions on how to do a community theater project around body issues that go far beyond fat issues to include age, ability, and other prejudices that come up when striving to accept a diversity of bodies. The project would also interface with community groups to channel the energy created by the art into activism.

These ideas are the tip of the iceberg--and even for those of us who don't think about body image or personal health in a political context, they're extremely relevant. The war on women being perpetrated by the GOP at the state and national level, with bill after bill being introduced at lightning speed curtailing women’s control over their own bodies, is intimately connected to this personal issue. If we allow racism, sexism, and negative imagery to affect how we think of our bodies, how can we come together to protect them from pernicious laws and policies?

"Activism around the issue of body diversity is a very easy stepping stone to fighting racism and supporting reproductive justice,” says Martin. Without an overarching analysis, women (and men) are prone to think “this is my problem, this is my messed up body,” she says. “So to put it in a political and social context is totally imperative." 

Susie Orbach's speech in London is embedded below, followed by a video from New York's Caren Shapiro.


Endangered Species LONDON - Speech by Susie Orbach from Elena Rossini on Vimeo.



Watch a video from Caren Shapiro explaining the impetus behind the "body revolution":


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Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at