The way Western media so often depicts “beauty” is problematic for females and males of all ages. Unrealistic representations of what people “should” look like are unhelpful on so many levels, affecting the soul and psyche of women and men, boys and girls. Renae Regehr knows this and she is doing something about it.
Renae Regehr is a Registered Clinical Counsellor in Vancouver, Canada and is the founder of Free to Be Talks, a non-profit committed to promoting positive body image among youth, parents, and educators via education in schools, speaking events, and media. Renae’s voice and her work are inspirational; her message is for all of us who live in the age of media and technology. Renae helps us disarm the appearance-related pressures in today’s media and find a more holistic, life-giving way forward.
Melissa: Yeah, why don't we get started there? If you don't mind, do you want to start by telling me a little bit about the work you do and maybe a bit even about how you got into that work?
Renae: Yeah. So, I'm a therapist and I also run a nonprofit called Free to Be. Free to Be, there's a bit of a backstory; it really started as my way of being able to tell others or express to others what I had been learning. I was really insecure as a teen; I had a lot of body image issues, and then in my early twenties, I watched the documentary by Jean Kilbourne called Killing Us Softly, and it changed my life, like it changed the trajectory of the path that I was headed on.
There are very few moments in my life I can say that have had the trajectory drastically change. I had gone to counseling prior to that, and it was somewhat helpful, but in the documentary, Jean Kilbourne, I'm not sure if you've seen it, but she outlines how marketing, how advertising, started to impact us on these very deep levels, and how they pull us in and how we can be either manipulated or we can feel things for images and for ads. It made me hungry for more.
Throughout my undergraduate and my master's, I researched the representation of men and women in media. I wanted to learn like, "How does this impact our attitudes, our beliefs, our ideas about who we are and how we see ourselves?" At that time, I had created a rudimentary outline for a body image program that my friend was running in a school. She said she wanted to run this body image program. I had a rudimentary outline, so we said, "Let's run it together." This was with grade six and seven girls.
As we started to run this program, these girls, who were volunteering on their lunch, had the same concerns that I had had 15 years earlier were not only the exact same concerns that the girls were having now, but they were having additional pressures and additional challenges that they were being faced with with body image. I won't forget this one time on the whiteboard, this was before I knew that sometimes highlighting all these appearance ideals could actually make someone feel bad about themselves, so the first time that we did this, we had the girls just create an outline of a girl and we talked about, "Okay, what's an ideal girl look like?"
The whiteboard was filled, and it was so specific about all of these details about what an idealized girl would be. It was so sad looking at the whiteboard image, but then also just having these conversations because these girls were so smart. They were smart, they were perceptive, but that wasn't enough.
They needed to also have these deeper tools and different ways of understanding and conceptualizing themselves and understanding the impact of these images around them. At the time, I was in my master's program and I connected with my research supervisor. I said, "Hey, this is what I'm doing. Can I create this as my thesis?" He said, "Well if you find that there's a problem in the literature, go for it." So I said, "Yep, challenge accepted," and I did a deep dive into the literature.
I wanted to know what's been done, what's been helpful, what do we still need to do. And from there, I found that we needed to A, include boys in the conversation because that was something that had been largely missed. Then, two, was that we really, really needed to focus on a strengths perspective. We could deconstruct these images, but then we needed like a "so what" solution. "Where do we go from here?"
From there, Free to Be was born. It was originally run with grade tens, and when I was running the program, even though the data showed, because we took data on it, like did a research evaluation, it showed to be effective, but my intuition and my clinical experience of running the program was the body image was so much more stable for these teens. Then we ran it with grade sixes and sevens after, and that's really where we hit the sweet spot with them. Their bodies were changing, these issues were relevant, and then from there it just continued to grow.
Melissa: Wow. So how long has Free to Be been in existence, then?
Renae: It's probably been in existence, let me think back now…I think 2015 is when I started running the program, and then I worked with another nonprofit in Vancouver because it wasn't a nonprofit at the time, and I think we launched together in 2016 under the head, I worked with Raw Beauty Talks. And then from there, I became a nonprofit and Erin Treloar, the founder of Raw Beauty Talks, became a member on my board and we started to evolve Free to Be. I would say maybe 2015, 2016 is when we started.
Melissa: Sure. Just out of curiosity, when you do your curriculum, how long do you interact with…you said sixth to eighth graders?
Renae: It's sixth to eighth graders, but we just ran a randomized control trial to see if we could do fifth to eighth graders as well too. I mean, the material is applicable for adults, even; it just needs to be tailored because these messages, if there's anything that we've learned, it's that these messages don't go away. They just become more sophisticated. We get deeper pockets filled with money that we can go get Botox or don't do stuff if we don't like how we look when we get older, but they don't fix the root issue of what's going on there that pulls us in from a very young age.
To answer your original question, it's six sessions, it's one hour each. One-hour sessions done over six weeks when we run it with our facilitator. We've also licensed the program, so teachers and counselors and community leaders or parents will run the program as well, and then they can do it on their own tailored schedule. The benefit with that is that they can go back and revisit the material so that they can do booster sessions and just continuously talk about this information because it's so important.
Melissa: Wow. So, in a moment, I'll transition to some of the questions that I generally tend to ask, but you had mentioned just in passing, you said that this is something that we continue to struggle with throughout life, or we can, and that we don't address the core issue. What would you say is the core issue that’s happening, that we are having these ongoing struggles with body image?
Renae: That's such a good question. I was talking to my husband the other day about this topic because it's so complex. On the one hand, like beauty, there's something very primitive in that we know what's aesthetically pleasing, like we see someone and we can tell that a proportionate face, an hourglass figure, clear skin, shiny hair…Those are all considered objective standards of beauty, kind of cross-culturally, but what's so alluring or what's so seductive, I think, in the media that we see around us is that we have these idealized images, but the subtext to that is what pulls us in, and that's that we matter, that's that we have opportunity, that's that we're lovable, that's that we are going to be noticed. Because we are wired as humans to connect with other people, that's just the way we were created, it automatically pulls us in because we all want to matter.
Because we are inundated with these idealized images and then the subtext or this deeper idea of "if you look like this, this is how your life could be," if we don't think about that critically, and then put up barriers and supports in place to help us live our life in a way that is aligned with our values, and then where we don't get caught up in that because it's just natural that our brains are picking up these messages because that's how our brains are wired, it makes it very easy to fall prey to these deeper traps, these thinking traps.
They're so powerful, and it's not like Snapchat or Instagram, thinking about the two largest social media platforms right now, it's not like these platforms were created and the developers thought, "I wonder if someone's going to use my platform." They knew exactly what they were doing-
Renae: And they capitalized on that. Again, it's nuanced and it's complicated, but I think that starts to get at some of the core issues there.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s awesome. Thank you for entertaining that question. ..Yeah, you concisely did it. I feel like that could be our whole time together, so thank you.
Is there anything else you wanted to say about Free to Be in general before I dive into some other questions?
Renae: I could talk about Free to Be forever. It's my passion, so why don't I let you take it away and-
Renae: I would love to dive into the conversation.
Melissa: Sounds good. So the first question that I generally like to ask people is how you would define beauty? I mean we talked a little bit about cultural constructs, but how about you personally? What do think about that?
Renae: I've been thinking about this question since you sent it to me, and I think there's multiple levels to my definition of beauty. There's the aesthetically pleasing about someone that you instantly recognize as beautiful, so there's that aesthetically pleasing, but then there's, maybe even would fall, and I don't mean this necessarily in a sexual way but almost in a category of lust, like there's someone that in a primitive way you like that they're beautiful, they're an attractive person, but that's across the board with all people.
Then I think there's something so much deeper than beauty and that it's aesthetically pleasing or it's pleasing to more than our senses. It could be someone's confidence, the way somebody cares about you, talks to you, listens to you. It could be a beautiful sunset, it could be a delicious-looking plate of food. There's an element of beauty in that as well, too, and so I don't know if I have a definition of beauty other than something that is pleasing to my senses, and then it would be context-dependent.
I think this is what I would like to write a book about because this is something that I keep going back to…we're wired for beauty, and yet there's so much more to us than being beautiful, and yet we're still drawn to beauty. How do we live our life like that? So that's a really good question that you ask to people.
Melissa: Thank you, and thank you for your answer. I do think that it's such a, I almost want to use the word "mysterious" thing, and that's why I think it's so interesting to hear people's ideas around it, and it's been really interesting to see the nuanced answers that people give, so thank you for that. I appreciate it. I know it's-
Renae: It's a really good question. I'm going to have to go back and look at the other interviews to see what other people have answered because it is nuanced.
Melissa: Yes. Yeah, so thanks for entertaining it. I know it's not an easy one. So then the next question, you kind of alluded to it but maybe there's more there. Given those ideas around beauty, where do you see beauty in the world?
Renae: I see beauty in so many places. I think because I'm in body image research, I'm really aware of the importance of broadening my conceptualization of beauty and inviting experiences into my life that really embody that or allow for that to grow and to nurture.
I really try to practice, I guess like gratitude. That may not seem quite related, but to me, what I've found is that when I try to focus to gratitude, or it's not necessarily gratitude, but just that perspective shifting about something that I'm grateful for, I can see the beauty or the silver lining of a cruddy situation. Or I can see the beauty in a lot of things.
I'll try not to be so abstract, but I mean, like I see beauty in my kids. I don't just mean, like of course I think they're adorable physically, but their personalities, their tenacity, their perseverance. I see it in my relationship with my husband with the way he can talk to me, with my friends.
I keep going to relationships; I think I see a lot of beauty in relationships because that's where I feel seen, I feel understood, I feel like I matter.
Then there's also just things like, I love being outside in nature and I find it's so rejuvenating. I see beauty on a soul-filled level in nature as well.
Melissa: Yes, that's awesome. Thank you so much. Again, I think it's kind of hard to, especially when you have adopted that practice of seeing beauty in a lot of different things, I think that can be a hard one to pin down, so thank you.
Renae: Yeah. I do think there's, and this isn't always a popular topic to talk about, but I don't think that we are all physically the most beautiful people in the world because beauty is by definition, for people especially, there are somewhat, physical beauty I'm talking about, like there are objective standards cross-culturally of what we think is a beautiful person, but that's not to say that they're less valuable.
We so often conflate those two; we get so confused by that. I believe everybody is intrinsically valuable, but if everybody's beautiful, then actually everybody's average. Like logically, that's how it has to work. That's physical beauty, and we live in such a visual, let me qualify that, like a visual world, I mean on screens.
We live in a world where we're constantly focused on someone's appearance, whether we're scrolling on some social media platform, whether you're on the news, there are so many reminders around us of looking at people's bodies, but we're so much more than that. Our appearance is one aspect of who we are.
That's why I love conversations, and I think I see a lot of beauty in being with people because there's an infinite wealth of beauty that we can draw on when we get to experience someone's character, kind of like you talked about in the beginning, like those eternal qualities. What was the word that you used?
Melissa: Like "characterological beauty?" Is that what, or-
Renae: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, "characterological beauty." Yeah.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. You make a great point too about that image focus because for some reason, that seems to be the definition of beauty in our culture, at least from, I mean just because a lot of our culture comes to us visually, I suppose, in magazines and-
Renae: And we're wired that way, right? Yeah, totally. It makes sense.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. That's interesting.
So the next question is around brokenness. Again, this could go really anywhere, but for you, what would be just an incident of brokenness that you've experienced? It could be currently or in the past, and then I think oftentimes, the challenge of these places of brokenness in our life is finding the beauty in the midst of that, if that's accessible. So, I’m curious if a certain situation comes to mind, and then if so, perhaps how beauty emerged in the midst of that?
Renae: That's another really good question. You think of really good questions.
Renae: As I was thinking about this one, something that came to my mind almost quickly and it's not like a one-time incident. So I'm a mother; I have three kids: eight, two, and then nine months. They are super busy, and they are so much fun, but they get into everything. I love my kids to the moon and back times infinity, and I'm still human, and they push my buttons. I don't have enough grace; I get tired, I snap at them. I'm not gracious when I should be sometimes.
When I think about times that you talk about brokenness, and I constantly come up against my human limitations of being a mother, of just not feeling all the time so much patience towards them, being able to model the exact behavior that I want back, scaffolding the responses that I want from them, and ... in that, I mean I think that's a work in progress, and recognizing ... I think first, coming to terms with me that I am a human. I am flawed, I'm not perfect. I never am going to be perfect, and that I need to rely on ... something bigger than myself to be able to have the strength when I can't do it on my own has been hugely helpful.
Then to follow up with that question, "Where do you see the beauty in it?” I see the beauty in people being able to come alongside me, like my husband is really supportive.
Just yesterday, I had an incident with one of my kids and I was pretty worked up about it and he wasn't. So I was like, "Well who should go talk?", and he's like, "Well, I'm feeling okay." I was like, "And then it's you. You go talk right now with them." Being able to receive that grace and be able to receive those little breaks, and to be able to parent together, I see that as a really beautiful thing. It's probably symbolic of commitment and love and those things, which I do find just so important.
Then even just other things, like being to learn the wisdom from my parents or other parents that have parented, and being able to grow from them as well. I see there are lots of opportunities to take the beauty of other people's experiences as well, going with this parenting example, and being able to grow.
Does that answer your question? I feel like-
Renae: This is a mine that we could dig with parenting.
Melissa: Yes, yes. No, that definitely answers it. Yeah, for sure, and I imagine many people can relate to that, so thank you for sharing that. Appreciate it.
I mean at the beginning, you talked a little bit about how watching Jean Kilbourne's movie or her documentary, I don't know if it would be considered a "documentary," but her film-
Renae: Yeah, it's like technically considered a documentary but it was her just chatting up at the front of an audience.
Melissa: Okay. Yeah.
Melissa: So, then my next question is around any experiences that you've had that have transformed your ideas about beauty. It sounds like that would be one, but I don't know if there's anything else that comes to mind when I ask that question about experiences that have transformed your ideas around beauty.
Renae: That's another really good question. I think I've had lots of experiences. I think I'm very fortunate growing up ... my parents always emphasized internal characteristics for myself and my siblings. Although they commented on our appearance, they really instilled the importance of cultivating empathy, kindness, determination, honesty, those sorts of life-giving qualities, I guess you could say, and characteristics or traits to nurture and continue to cultivate and value.
I really think that those formative years of my life, I had so many foundational experiences that just, it really did teach me that beauty is not just in one's appearance but in so many different places. I think partly what it is is that we focus on what we value. You know, you see in the news when something is a really big topic, they talk about it on every single news station. On so many "news stations," I'm putting air quotes in here that we talk about appearance but there's so much more to us than our appearance, and yet we're going to learn to focus on our appearance if that's all we hear about.
Having those experiences growing up that it's beautiful to be kind, it's a really important quality to have…to be able to listen. That's one, and then Jean Kilbourne's documentary was hugely important.
Then, I actually had an epiphany probably just a couple weeks ago that really comes to my mind as well. My oldest son is adopted and I have two biological children, and so I've had two pregnancies and my body has changed drastically from these two pregnancies. I was talking to my husband about how I was just, like I know intellectually that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and then that's good. I was just having a bad body image day; I wasn't happy with my body.
I was reading a book, and I came to this realization that I am inundated with beauty, like beautiful images all around. Even though I am a body image researcher, I know this, the fact that I'm inundated with these beautiful images, whether that's on social media or I'm looking at Photo shopped images to be able to tell kids about them, these images are going into my head.
Because I just simply can't have my radar up all the time, they're being stored in a template in these deep recesses of my brain, and I'm comparing myself to that.
So I realized I was inviting experiences in my life that I actually didn't want because my brain isn't impervious to these messages. It’s just the way my brain…everybody's brain is wired. And so from that moment, this was in January actually, I have really taken measures in my life to limit how much time I'm on social media, be careful of what I watch online, how many mirrors I have in my house, just things that constantly remind me of my appearance because I am inundated with these messages. I just have to leave my house or go to many different places and be reminded about my appearance.
So, if I want to remember and really know that I'm so much more than my appearance, I have to go have experiences that allow that and that I work at and embody that. That's been a really big change, I guess I could say, and it's been so great. It's been so freeing because we're wired to compare. That's just the way our brains are made up.
So, you have to put up safeguards. I've had to put up safeguards to help me value and live a life that's really aligned with my values. If I don't want to be thinking about my body all the time, then don't myself into experiences where I'm constantly focusing or reminded of my body.
Melissa: Yeah. That's so important. That's super interesting too because like you said, you know this logically but sometimes when we realize something on a deeper level-
Melissa: Yeah. Everything you said, that makes so much sense. Yeah, I love that. Almost like guarding our mind against what we know isn't going to be helpful or "life-giving," like you said. Yeah.
Renae: I think in the last year, I really became very interested in interpersonal neurobiology, which is something by Dan Siegel, which I became so much more aware of not only how embodied we are, like what happens to our mind happens to our bodies, and vice versa.
As a young child, I heard the phrase "garbage in, garbage out." I was like, "Yeah, right. Whatever, Mom," when she would tell me that, like if I listened to music that didn't have the most uplifting lyrics, she'd be like, "Garbage in, garbage out," and I'd be like, "Yeah, whatever. That's not going to affect me." But I've come to realize from a neurobiology level, from understanding our brains and our minds and how things are wired, that is so true and I think that clicked for me in such a deep way. It's conventional wisdom that our grandparents and our great-grandparents, they know this but we forget. So then, to be reminded of it, it was just like a paradigm shift for me and so helpful.
Melissa: Yes, yeah. It’s always interesting, those moments where you're like, "And my mom was right again."
Renae: Yes, absolutely.
Melissa: Yeah. Yes, to your point of how that sounds like it's just settled in in a deeper way. I thank you for that reminder. Myself and many others will benefit from that reminder, so...
Renae: Oh, good.
Melissa: So, the last thing I like to ask, and this is actually super, I think, interesting to ask you because of the work you do, is if there's something you wish other people knew about beauty, what would it be? It could be from the work, just because you sit with kids and you talk about these topics. Maybe it could be something you teach them, or maybe unrelated to your work, but that was something that I thought of.
Renae: So the question is, if there is something that I could tell people about beauty?
Melissa: Yeah, like if there's one thing that you're like, "Gosh," either from life experience or the work you do, "if there's one thing that I wish that I could tell people about beauty," what would it be?
Renae: I think ... it would be, and if I could make this message go to someone's heart, because it sounds so simple on the surface level when you hear it, but I would say, "Cultivate all of who you are."
Appearance is one aspect of who you are, and yes, there are benefits to being a physically beautiful person; that's well documented in the research literature. I think that the benefit of that that is starting to shift and change as people become aware of their biases and start to take measures to ... practice hiring in a way that doesn't necessarily reflect someone's appearance. That's just one example…and there are benefits to someone being a physically beautiful person.
Someone could equate that with having power, but I caution that and I say it's not true power, because true power doesn't expire when you're 30 years old. It doesn't come with a price. It doesn't come with an expiring date of "when you're 40, you're invisible," "when you're 50, unless you look like this, then we can consider you." That's not true power.
Cultivate all of who you are so that you can have a holistic, meaningful life, but then you can [also] live in such a way that you can have true power, and that would mean…power in friendships, power in relationships. Power in the way you articulate yourself and the way you deliver your thoughts, because those things are going to make the world better, because you're going to make yourself better. Then you're going to make your friends better, then you're going to make your family better, and you're going to become a better person to be around, and in turn, that's going to impact your community.
All of those little things, those incremental changes where you cultivate, and all these aspects of yourself are going to have a ripple effect.
If I could just, and this is what I want to do with my kids and I try to live in such a way because I'm so aware of I want to practice what I preach that I need to cultivate all of who I am, and so I would really, really encourage people to take that to heart about, "Who do you want to be? Cultivate it."
Melissa: That's awesome. Thank you, I really appreciate that.
Renae: Yeah. Those were such good questions that you ask people. I think that ... they open up for such a deeper conversation to be had and just to think over such important topics.
Melissa: Well thank you so much.
Renae: Absolutely. I think that there's something ... We're drawn to beauty, and I was lamenting this the other day, again with my husband because he's who I debrief everything with. I give these talks and I talk to kids about our brains, how we're wired, how we need to cultivate all these aspects of who we are, and then in the talks that I give, I say like, "What are things that you could do to help yourself if you have a bad body image day?" So often I hear, it's often girls, go back and be like, "Well I'll just tell them that they're beautiful." I say, "Okay, yes, but then we're just reinforcing beauty as a value there."
I've had this happen so many times, and I think this is what I want to write a book about, because we're drawn to beauty, and I think there's something philosophically, we think like a beautiful soul in a way. There's something that draws us to beauty, and yet, there's more to us than our physical appearance.
I really try to make that come to life and to really understand that in a simple and meaningful way for kids, and yet it's something that I'm still trying to figure out how to make them connect with that because really, you get one life to live, and when you're 90, you're not going to care that you had how many followers on social media, that accumulation of a million likes.
Those things are going to be fleeting and not important, and often a lot of those things are tied to beauty because we focus on people like comments and people's selfies and whatnot. Those are some additional thoughts.
Melissa: Yeah, those are amazing additional thoughts. Yeah, and I just keep thinking about this "ephemeral versus the eternal," like you said, and that-
Melissa: The characters, like your character is this long-term formation versus-
Melissa: Our external, but I suppose culturally, it's a shortcut to beauty, so to speak, because you can put on makeup, or I don't know. It seems quicker, where soul cultivation takes a lifetime.
Renae: It does take a lifetime, and again, there's nothing wrong with wanting to look beautiful; I just think it's about how much time, energy, money, and our resources that we're investing into it and making sure that it's aligned with a life that we want to live.
Melissa: Yes, yes.
Melissa: Yeah, well said. Well, thank you so much. Those are all of the specific things that I had wanted to touch on. I don't know if there's anything else that you had wanted to name or anything else that came to mind as you were thinking about the topic today?
Renae: I mean, we could talk about these things forever. If people do want to learn more or they want to be able to access the materials for Free to Be, we just launched an online training portal and facilitators/members area so that people can become licensed for the program. I'm constantly updating it with not only additional research and resources and supplementary information, in addition to the materials, but I think Free to Be is one of these great programs that you can run it even if you are having a bad body image day because it doesn't assume you have it all together, because we all can have bad body image days where we don't feel good about being in our bodies sometimes.
It helps get at the root of what's going on and just reminds you about, it helps you realign your priorities and your values about the life you want to live. So, if people are interested in learning about that more, they can check out the website or ... they should also check out Jean Kilbourne's documentary. It's fantastic.
Melissa: Yeah. Is that accessible on YouTube? I know I've watched it, but I can’t...
Renae: No, that one's not accessible. I think that one is through a media platform, like an educational media platform. There's another documentary that's fantastic called The Illusionists by a filmmaker, Elena Rossini. I think you can rent that one for $4.99 on her website, and she's working on the sequel right now called The Realists, which is about how technology influences and shapes our self-worth and self-esteem, and how to be mindful of technology, which I think ties closely into this beauty conversation because so much of our life is lived online these days, so those are two other additional resources, and we have the trailers to both of those on our website as well under the "Resource" section.
Melissa: Okay. Can you just say your web address? Is it-
Melissa: I don't want to say the wrong one, so...
Renae: Yep. It's www.freetobetalks, so "Free to Be," and then "T-A-L-K-S" dot com.
Melissa: Okay, perfect. Awesome. Yeah, you have really great resources on there. I watched The Illusionists a couple weeks ago, and it is amazing. It's-
Renae: Oh you did? Yeah. It's such a powerful documentary.
Melissa: It is, yes. I think everyone really needs to watch that as well, so...
Renae: Yes, absolutely, and we do a giveaway on our Instagram every month for The Illusionists, to just give away a coupon code, doing that in collaboration with Elena, who's generally allowing us to do that.
Melissa: Cool. That's very cool. Well awesome. Thank you so much for your time today and for the work that you do. I just think it's-
Renae: Thank you.
Melissa: So important.
Renae: Thank you for chatting with me today, and I look forward to learning more about the mentors that you're going to be having on your blog.
Melissa: Awesome. Well thank you. Yeah, me too, so yeah. Thanks so much, Renee, for your time. I really appreciate it.
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