The Body Revolution We Need: Function over Form by Tiffany Stewart (Transcript)

Tiffany Stewart

Dr. Tiffany Stewart is currently an Associate Professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center (PBRC) in Baton Rouge and is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of Louisiana. She is Director of the Behavior Technology Laboratory: Eating Disorders and Obesity, at PBRC.

Below is the full text of Dr. Stewart’s TEDx Talk titled “The Body Revolution We Need: Function over Form” at TEDxLSU conference.



I have a question for you. Would you exercise if you thought it would not impact your appearance?

As a culture, we are deeply invested in appearance. Modern Western culture emphasizes perfection and youth and stigmatizes individuals who don’t meet certain ideals. We feel the pressure. We risk our good health every day to look a certain way.

The relationship between exercise and appearance is murky, but the deeper health benefits are there: prevention of brain and heart disease, improvement of bone and joint health, increased muscle strength.

So back to my question. If you knew that you might not lose weight, you might even gain weight, but you would improve the functional health of your body, would you still go to the gym today?

Back in grad school, I developed a technology that measures how people perceive their body weight, size, and shape. Our work at that time found that more often than not, and even across diverse cultural backgrounds, we are unhappy with the way our bodies look.

So much so that a term was coined to describe this effect: “Normative discontent.” Basically, we’ve normalized being unhappy with our appearance.

We struggle with the way we look and health behaviors – eating, exercise, drinking water – are marketed to us for the sole purpose of helping us look the way we think we should.

But there is a huge disconnect here. The disconnect between health, performance, and appearance.

As a scientist, I’ve spent nearly two decades studying how we can optimize our bodies and performance and thrive psychologically or be happy at the same time.

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Let’s take a moment and think about this in a slightly different way. Take architecture. In the late 19th century, shifts in economics, technology, and design made it necessary to create new architecture styles.

If a style and shape of a building were not going to be chosen from past models, something had to determine its form or what the building would look like. The late Louis Sullivan said – architect – “Form ever follows function.”

This was a profound shift in thinking at the time because what he’s saying is that function comes first and form comes second. This concept is not hard to see in our world today.

Houses in South Louisiana are built up off the ground to protect them from flood waters. The Pentagon has intentional design that supports its function. It needed to hold 40,000 people, have 10,000 spaces to park cars, four million square feet of office space, and not be higher than four stories.

So if we look at how and why we design our buildings today, it’s easy to conclude that function comes first.

But why is it so hard to apply the same logic to our bodies?

Today, I’d like to offer a shift in perspective on our bodies for us to consider. Function over form. Not unlike the architecture example, form ever follows function, means prioritizing performance and purpose over appearance.

However, every day, in many different moments, in many different situations, we ask ourselves: how does my body look? Framing it up as an object to be judged.

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