When I learned that the incisive, dedicated, laser-sharp minds behind Beauty Redefined were not only two communication Ph.D. candidates at the University of Utah but also identical twins—well, how could I not want to interview them? Today we have Lexie Kite, whose dissertation focuses on women and self-objectification. (Read the interview with Lindsay, the other half of Beauty Redefined, here.) We talked about internalizing the male gaze, twins as mirrors, and prime-time pornography. In her own words:
Photo by Matt Clayton Photography
When you grow up in a media-oriented world, like we all have, you grow up with the male gaze: the look of the camera, the look of the spectator viewing the object of the gaze on film. It’s the way the camera pans up and down these bodies, the way the dialogue revolves around that woman. It doesn’t happen with men—it happens with women, for the most part. That has become so normalized that the male gaze is now internalized by women. It’s not even something we question. So what’s happened is that now it’s desirable to not only become the object of the gaze—I mean, we’ve been talking forever about this idea of objectification—but also to be the subject too. To be the one who gazes and the one being gazed upon at the same time. I think it really comes down to the fact that when we see this many images of women’s bodies signifying sex and power, we are cut down to our bodies—and somehow we begin to believe that’s true. Self-objectification is just the natural next step—the most harmful natural next step. When we are consumers of women, we are consumers of ourselves.
One of the areas where I see self-objectification playing out—and one that I think is so frustrating—is Victoria’s Secret. Five billion dollars a year! It’s powerful. I got interested in the industry of Victoria’s Secret because I was a shopper there; the semi-annual sale was very appealing. But then I’d get those catalogues in my mailbox, and I started seeing images that were pretty jarring. Then I caught wind of the fashion show they have twice a year on CBS, so I looked into how many people are viewing this show, how popular and powerful Victoria’s Secret really is. I found one other scholar who has really talked about this, and the stuff she said about Victoria’s Secret in her own historical and critical analysis was that those images were women’s pornography. Images of women, marketed to women, packaged and sold. It comes right into your home. It’s kind of like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, in that it’s the most popular, credible sports magazine, and then once a year we get this other thing that is packaged in this way and sits on your coffee table. So you think it’s safe, but it might not be as safe as we think. In terms of Victoria’s Secret, I see that playing out, this idea that it’s just lingerie, but you’re really getting something else.
The Victoria’s Secret mission statement has said that these images are about women feeling good about themselves. They are not for men to look at. But if you look at the images, it couldn’t be anything more than what the male gaze is. It’s as graphic as anything you would see in soft-core porn—it’s just women pulling at their underwear or being naked. They can be completely naked some of the time and they are wearing thongs that say “All-Night Show.” But Victoria’s Secret says this is not for men to look at, this is for you to feel good—and we believe that. Maybe we don’t even think of it as a contradiction, like this is for us to feel good about ourselves, but that says self-objectification to me. To me self-objectification is the idea of taking some beauty thing—let’s say breast implants—and saying, “This isn’t for men—this is for me to feel good about myself.” I see that as the literal embodiment of self-objectification, internalizing that male gaze so much that you can’t even break apart the fact that being gazed upon is your greatest desire. You’ve internalized that male gaze, so that’s how you feel good about yourself. It’s crazy stuff.
I was very confident in my abilities in high school—I was class president every year, was nominated for homecoming queen, I was always running assemblies. I was confident in what I could do and what I wanted to say. But somehow I lived this contradiction: I could do a lot, but for some reason I thought I couldn’t be everything that I was supposed to be, and couldn’t look good doing it. That was internalizing the male gaze, right there: I learned that it was all about how I looked and not about what I could do. So I was confident in who I was as a person; it really did just come down to the looks thing. All those messages that I heard from the media were telling me that if I wasn’t hot enough, I wasn’t good enough. And if I wasn’t going to get to that place of feeling like I really was good enough, nobody can. It’s unattainable, and I don’t think I really knew that. You’re never going to be pretty enough. You’re never going to be skinny enough. Because the whole point is that these messages are telling you that you need to be someone you’re not. It creates a void. I didn’t even know that I had that void, not until I took a class on media criticism my freshman year of college. We were looking into pop culture and how powerful those industries are and what kind of messages they are putting out. I felt my heart beat more rapidly because I was hearing stuff that resonated with what I’d come to think about myself in really harmful ways. For the first time I started being able to critically think about the messages I’d heard. They didn’t necessarily pertain to my reality—but I wanted them to so badly.
I’m a body image activist and I’m so passionate about this stuff, but it’s because of the pain I’ve felt. I know that pain brings progress. I can’t do this work without having been privy to intimately knowing the reason it resonates with people. They feel this pain too. I internalized this gaze, and I didn’t know how to articulate that—maybe that’s just because it’s so normal and so lived. It’s how most of us live our lives. But our research has helped me profoundly. I had been walking through life picturing myself from an outsider’s perspective. I’d taken less time to enjoy what was around me, yet it looks like I’m enjoying what’s around me. That division is so harmful.
On Being a Twin
Most of us view ourselves from an outsider’s gaze. But I don’t even really know how to think about that, because—maybe it’s the same thing as viewing myself from an outsider’s gaze, but in ways I view myself as being like Lindsay. Lindsay and I are especially hyperaware of competition. We’re such similar people—you know, identical DNA, as similar as you get!—and people put us in competition against each other, in conscious and unconscious ways. In terms of our looks—in terms of everything else too—but it definitely made me aware of my own features and my own looks, because I feel like Lindsay is a reflection of me to the world. I know she feels the same. I feel like I want Lindsay to represent me well. Because Lindsay could easily be me to people; we get called by the wrong name still, even in our own program at school. So I want her to be a good reflection of me. And yeah, that part of me is really aware.
Whenever I’d picture my face, I never thought Lindsay and I looked the same. I know the intricacies of my own face and what makes me different from her. Plus, being twins, people point out that stuff like crazy. So Lindsay looks different to me, but I get how people know we’re twins, especially when I see pictures of us. With the body it’s different. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we’re kind of seeing this two-dimensional image of our bodies; we’ve never getting the full feel. It’s why when you see a video of yourself it can be intriguing—you want to know what you look like from all those angles. So I can see Lindsay’s body—I can see her from every angle and it’s normal. She’s right there in front of me, in every dimension. It’s sort of a mediation of my mirror image and myself, and I can’t get that body perspective any other way. And then of course we have identical DNA, and people tell us we look so much alike—so even though I think our faces look different, I can internalize her body as my own. Sometimes I’ve pictured my body how Lindsay’s is; my body image becomes what Lindsay looks like. When her body changes, it can actually change my own image of my body, because she looks how I picture myself. And having someone else sort of be your body image can be a struggle.
My perception of my body image doesn’t have to do with size necessarily. Despite compliments I might get from people, it’s really about what I’m saying to myself. Body image is an internal thing. Lindsay has been able to brush off the negative messages better than I have, despite our similar appearances. To hear Lindsay value herself and not engage in fat talk, and just really refuse to be preoccupied with these notions about our bodies—it’s really helped me, just seeing her be positive. We don’t talk a lot about our bodies to each other—there isn’t a lot of that “Oh my gosh I feel so gross,” talk, and we don’t even do a lot of building each other up, because we’re such a unit that it feels weird. Like, I would never say, “Linds, you look so good!” I mean, occasionally, but that’s just not my first thing. I’m not going to just go to her and talk about her appearance. I don’t even know how to explain that because I’ve never known it any other way. Twins are weird!
For more interviews on beauty, click here.
For more interviews on beauty, click here.