By the second week of February, 80 percent of people will have failed in their New Year’s resolutions, according to U.S. News. Just 8 percent will actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions, Forbes reported in 2013.
Lexie and Lindsay Kite, both of whom earned doctorates in the study of media and body image, believe “the focus on physical health at the new year is a good thing and we shouldn’t turn away from that," Lindsay Kite said. However, the twin sisters, who work at the University of Utah and run the nonprofit organization Beauty Redefined, believe there is room to adjust our perspective on resolutions.
“Rather than saying, ‘I’m going to fit into this certain dress size’ or ‘I’m going to weigh this number that has been my goal weight for years by March or July’... our goals instead will focus on how we feel and what our bodies can do,” Lindsay Kite said. “When we set measurable goals, that allows us to not only use our bodies as instruments but to understand them and think about them in a new way."
The sisters sit together in a building on the campus of the University of Utah, seamlessly transitioning back and forth, at times finishing each other's sentences. They talk about how small goals can be achieved en route to completing larger resolutions — like, for instance, running a triathlon.
"Studies show over and over again that physical activity is key to positive body image so you can’t really feel good about your body unless you are using it," Lindsay Kite said.
Practical ideas for improving body image are the focus of the Kite sisters, who are originally from Idaho Falls, Idaho. They have spent the past decade studying and spreading the message of positive body image.
They are 32 and hold bachelor's degrees from Utah State University as well as master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Utah. In addition to being Utah residents, they are also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and offer plenty of insight on the issue of body image in the city and culture they reside in. The Kite sisters emphasize not just physical activity but also spirituality and purpose. Their message for women is simple: "You are more than your body."
A spiritual component
The sisters' passion for exploring media messages surrounding body image was sparked by an undergraduate media literacy class at Utah State University.
As the Kites began their graduate studies on Aug. 19, 2007, Lindsay Kite wrote in her journal, “I KNOW this is going to be a hard but amazing time in my life. I can feel it. Lots of big things are going to happen, both academically and spiritually. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t even know exactly what that will entail — definitely something to do with helping people to become more critical media consumers — to question what they see in media and understand why it is that way, especially how women are portrayed.
"If we can forget how inadequate, fat, dumb and jealous we feel and concentrate on serving others and improving the world, the world be a much better place and women — and their families — will be so much more fulfilled and so much happier.”
Ten years later, the sisters lead a nonprofit with the "mission to promote body image resilience," according to the organization's website.
"Through both research and personal experiences, Beauty Redefined works to arm girls and women with the tools to become resilient in the face of objectification and unreal ideals about female bodies."
The research the Kites completed for their dissertation included interviewing women about self-objectification. They discovered that many of the women, despite not being asked about religion at all, cited "spiritual power" as a way that they are able to be body image resilient. Other studies have produced similar findings.
Spirituality was referenced so frequently in the Kites' research that the sisters identified "spiritual power" as one of four sources of power in body image resilience, the others being physical, mental and social.
“That addition of spiritual power I think is crucial," Lindsay Kite said, "because it rounds out this holistic world of power that tells women that they are more than just what they look like right now."
In trying to be advocates for women, the Kites draw inspiration from Jesus Christ, whom Lexie calls "the ultimate figurehead of our faith."
“A woman was with him at his birth and at his death, standing beneath his cross; a woman was the last person he spoke to, his own mother; a woman was the first person he spoke to when he was resurrected, Mary,” Lexie Kite said. “The miracles that he performed were to women that other men wouldn’t even look eye to eye with or dare speak to in public. ... (He) was a man who was a better champion and advocate for women than I could imagine, especially for the time and that tells me if Christ was a champion for women then this work is important and I believe this work is important, that women are important.”
A cosmetic culture?
The same year the Kites began their graduate studies, Forbes called Salt Lake City “The Vainest City in America,” basing its label on the number of plastic surgeons in the area and the number of surgeons per 100,000 people.
Since then, the sisters have been frequently asked questions about body image issues among women in Utah. They have joined others — including the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah Valley University — in seeking to identify the contributing factors.
Lexie Kite notes that Utah has an affluent population with plastic surgery and beauty industries that are both accessible and affordable. Forbes reported in 2007 that there were "at least 45 plastic surgeons practicing in Salt Lake City, or six per 100,000 people." The article added that Salt Lake City residents spent more on cosmetics purchases at the grocery store than their peers in cities of similar size.
In 2016, The Utah State Plastic Surgery Society reported that the state became even more densely populated with plastic surgeons in the decade that followed.
"Two-thirds of Utah Mormon women know someone who has undergone cosmetic plastic surgery," reported the Utah Women and Leadership Project. "In a state known for its conservative and wholesome values, visitors are surprised at the large quantity of billboards lining Utah’s interstate freeway advertising plastic surgery and other body-manipulating procedures."
Lindsay and Lexie Kite say their message “stands apart from every other body positive message, messages from well-meaning companies and individuals." While some well-intended messages use words of affirmation such as, “You are beautiful just the way you are” or “You’re beautiful, flaws and all,” the Kite sisters say these could also be damaging.
“That is a message that keeps us stuck in this place of our bodies and our beauty being the most important things about us,” Lexie Kite said. “If we can just feel good about our looks, we’re supposed to feel good about everything. ... This message is as objectifying as anything else because it keeps us at this base, as objects, as bodies to be evaluated and looked at.”
The power of purpose
The Kites believe women need opportunities to lead, to use their voices and contribute to the world. Otherwise, they may seek power in other ways, one of which is through their appearance.
Instead of focusing on appearance, they encourage women to find their callings or life's mission. They call this “one of the keys to body image resilience.”
According to the Kite sisters, Mormon women have seen success in many beauty-focused arenas, including Instagram and so-called "mommy blogging."
“Who’s the most fashionable? Who has the most Instagram followers? Whose lifestyle looks the most glamorous online or in person? Women are seeking their value in all of these ways and exceling at it so many times,” Lindsay Kite said.
But there is danger in this success, the sisters warn.
“Because Mormon women are this particular group that are very highly educated, that are affluent, that are powerful, that are so smart, we see that and yet, so many Mormon women are directing their power ... their resources and their talents to ways that they can feel some sense of power and feel value and we think it’s misdirected,” Lexie Kite said.
The Kites encourage supporting women in their efforts to contribute by voting them into offices, promoting women within businesses, and giving women positions on boards and within organizations.
“And we need to prioritize education for women,” Lindsay Kite said. “That’s an ongoing issue here. Even though we do have a highly educated population compared to so many other areas similar to ours, in terms of demographics, we still have a lack of women graduating.”
Beauty Redefined is one of those "purposes" for the Kite sisters.
“We have others," Lexie Kite said. "But we have seen that a major transformative moment can happen for women ... when they can get their sense of power, their source of meaning in their lives from, a source that extends beyond these objectifying measures we use for ourselves, like our Instagram followers, our waist size, our BMI, our weight, whatever these things are."
The Kite sisters hope women "can get to a place where we can see our really tangible power in ways that make a difference," such as making their voices heard and advocating for minority groups, Lexie Kite said. "All of these (are) ways that you can get your power and meanings from your life by really contributing to the world.”