I’m a Miss America competitor and active duty soldier. Your idea of ‘body positivity’ is all wrong

The army changed my perspective on how I should view my body

Maura Spence-Carroll
Monday 13 December 2021 15:55 GMT
(Maura Spence-Carroll)

As both an active duty soldier and Miss America competitor, I can tell you that traditional “body positivity” isn’t helpful.

While body positivity has a noble aim, it’s still pointing at the wrong target: appearance. Yes, nobody should ever be ashamed about their appearance nor shamed by anyone else for how they look. However, body positivity still has us focusing us on appearance. That’s wrong. The focus needs to be performance.

Focusing on how the body performs — a.k.a evidence-based body positivity — is about fostering the long-term habits that allow you to reach your goals. Without adopting this vision of the “value” of my body, I don’t believe I would have been able to shake my mental and physical health issues and serve in the army while also becoming Miss Colorado and competing for the title of Miss America this December.

My message is simple: Don’t make decisions about your life so that you can conform to the era’s arbitrarily set beauty standards. Rather, fuel your body in a way that allows you to become the best version of yourself, personally, professionally and spiritually.

Before I joined the army, I had the same obsession with appearance that many girls have today. I thought that the pin-up girl figure was the archetype and that anything else was substandard.

I know I wasn’t alone; one study reports that 78 percent of teenage girls report being unhappy with their bodies. According to the Centre For Mental Health Services, 90 percent of those with eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25. A similar survey from the UK found that over half of respondents worry about how they look.

Research establishes the link between increased social media usage and declining mental health: 40 percent of girls who spend more than five hours a day on social media show symptoms of depression. These girls suffer at the sharp end of a culture that is obsessed with appearance over performance.

As a teenager, I suffered from crippling mental health issues. I would starve myself, gain back any weight that caused me to lose, and then fall into a spiral of shame. My motivation for my vicious starve-and-binge regime was to attain the appearance I was told women should have. My body’s actual ability to function or perform was a mere afterthought.

When I joined the army, I realized I had this the wrong way round. Yes, there are weight “limits” in the army, but only because after a certain threshold you cannot perform effectively as a soldier.

The army changed my mind as much as it changed my body. It taught me to train my body to excel in my profession. The way my body looked simply stopped being relevant. Not only do I feel fitter and healthier, I also feel liberated. How my body looked in the mirror stopped being my metric for success; how my body served me in the field was the only thing that mattered.

This is the key difference between traditional body positivity, and evidence-based body positivity. “Body positivity” as we see in the media and across much of social media today still focuses on how your body appears. Evidence-based body positivity, instead, focuses on how our bodies feel and perform at the tasks that mean the most to us.

No matter how positive the intention, “body positivity” today will continue to perpetuate our harmful image obsession. Body types oscillate in and out of fashion; the bodies we praise today we’ll reject tomorrow. This needs to be the generation that finally breaks free from the cycle.

This is what I want young people, especially girls, in America to understand. The goal of health is not like on social media; rather, health enables us to live long, prosperous and productive lifestyles.

For example, being at risk of diabetes or obesity will stand in the way of you leading a healthy, balanced and generally excellent life. In fact, obesity has overtaken smoking in terms of its mortality rate in America.

People often ask if serving in the military and competing in Miss America makes me feel like I’m living a double life. I don’t think it does. Miss America is no longer a ‘beauty pageant’ with a swimsuit competition. Instead, Miss America celebrates excellent female leaders from across the country. The Miss America Organization doesn’t just tolerate the fact that I’m in the army — they celebrate it.

It thrills me that a whole generation of young girls may look up to people like me and think: If she can go from having a body and mind that crippled her to serving in the army, becoming Miss Colorado, and competing to be crowned Miss America, what’s to stop me from achieving my goals too?

The new Miss America and wave of evidence-based body positivity is representative of a cultural revolution sweeping the nation, one that tells women that their bodies are gifts which, when cherished, allow them to experience excellence and better the world.

As stated by some of the top doctors at Harvard Medical School, when we think about eating and living better, women need to be empowered to think “Will this decision help me to reach my goals?”, not, “Will this decision make me look fat or thin?”

All women deserve to be able to achieve their dreams. If a woman wants to be an astronaut, an engineer, a sportsperson or a model, they can. Their body shouldn’t be a barrier to that goal, but rather a vehicle.

Today, I want women to know that their body is a vehicle for cultivating excellent lives and a better world. For me, and a growing number of other women, that’s objectively more “positive” than body positivity.

Maura Spence-Carroll is an active duty soldier, evidence-based body positivity advocate, and Miss Colorado

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