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.

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.

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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.

What if we shifted this self-reflection and we asked ourselves: how does my body work? If we look at those in our population and take cues from those who are expected to be high performers, like U.S. army soldiers and athletes, we would be focused on just that. Performance.

How does my body work? Soldiers engage in readiness training, which is designed to prepare them for their mission, optimize performance, and prevent injury.

In recent times, military training also includes resilience, the ability to bounce back from challenging circumstances, mental and physical. If soldiers on a mission, or athletes performing in a high-stakes competition get distracted by form, it can have serious and life-threatening consequences.

For example, female athletes, who are focused on appearance goals, such as being worried about being judged in tight-fitting uniforms often engage in unhealthy behaviors to achieve those appearance goals. This can result in weak bones, severe injury, and problems with fertility.

And these are problems that affect life for the long term. So it’s through the study of these high-performance populations we realized that a focus on performance and function and resilience is not just for the elite.

So as civilians, not soldiers, not athletes, are we thinking about optimizing our bodies for the long haul?

Are we thinking about something else? I was a competitive gymnast for 10 years. Quite a while ago now. And after a spine injury, I left the sport and struggled to really figure out what my health habits should be. Eating, exercise, stress reduction. It was overwhelming.

And after a shoulder repair and a left ankle reconstruction, all I could think about was getting back into shape. I thought this was healthy.

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But at the time the correlation between my habits and my body function never occurred to me, because doesn’t body size determine health?

So a few years ago, I found out that I have a condition that makes me more prone to injury. So after I cracked a rib and had a complete right foot reconstruction and then was told I needed a neck fusion, I was thrust in this period where all of my time and energy was spent trying to regain the ability to use my body parts and strengthen others to prevent further loss of function. This was a defining moment.

Because when we are focused on regaining function from an injury or from surgery or fighting to survive an illness it shifts our perspective. And it makes function our primary focus and form our secondary focus. It forces us into this headspace.

So why is it so hard to get there when our lives are on the line?

Given the explosion of social media and technology, we all have access to overwhelming amounts of health information in a constant stream. Yet with all of this information at our fingertips, we’re at a crisis point.

Because the truth is, we no longer know what healthy behavior really is. “Health behavior” is often not really healthy behavior. It’s appearance-driven behavior disguised as health behavior. And given our cultural climate, it’s become really difficult to tell the difference.

Health behavior: behavior to attain, maintain, or regain good health, mental and physical and prevent illness.

So given this definition, if we are only exercising the body parts that we want to look a certain way, aren’t we cheating ourselves out of so much? Strength training, for example, can prevent injury down the road.

Drinking water for hydration, sleeping for recovery, practicing mindfulness and meditation for stress reduction. Or the boundless science that suggests nutrition as fuel and medicine for the body versus a simple calorie count.

Maintaining good health and function is complex and individualized. The fact is our bodies don’t all respond the same way to healthy behavior.

For example, there is great data that shows that our bodies don’t all respond the same way to exercise. So because of this, our appearance goals and our function goals often aren’t even compatible.

So guess what. Healthy body function doesn’t look the same on everyone. And if we take athletes at the top of their performance game, we see significant diversity in body type.

Now, this was a radical thought. Because it’s our default setting to make assumptions about people’s health habits and their body function based on appearance. You simply cannot judge function by appearance.

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And if you can’t judge function by form, it’d seem that we are way off the mark as using appearance as some metric for health despite what we’ve been conditioned to believe.

Think about that for a second. Culture says it’s how we look. What if we said it’s how we feel and we can do with our body? Why should we care about this? Because as fate would have it, science says that it is a good thing to focus on function.

When we focus on function, we’re more likely to engage in actual healthy behaviors, such as balanced exercise, eating fruits and vegetables, wearing sunscreen, not smoking, going to check-ups.

But even more powerful than that is our intention. Because when we’re focused on form, as our main focus, it can sabotage our health behavior. For example, when we’re only focused on what exercise can do to change our appearance, we get less satisfaction out of the exercise and we are more likely to give up.

So this focus on function I’ve been talking about; it’s a deeper appreciation. It’s a respect. It’s a respect for our bodies that includes attending to its functional needs even if it doesn’t meet the appearance ideal you have in mind for it.

As an athlete, as a scientist developing programs for soldiers and athletes, treating eating disorder patients in the hospital, and guiding bariatric surgery patients along their weight-loss journeys, I’ve learned that we all work through these functional needs, whether in elite performance or in daily life.

Ask yourself: what does your body do for you? It does more than you realize. Take time to appreciate the things about your body that work.

Be proactive and deliberate about how you want your body to work. Every moment is an opportunity to start where we are and optimize our function. Start with your intention.

Science also says that when we cultivate an environment of appreciation and respect for diverse bodies and we encourage each other to engage in healthy behaviors, not based on appearance goals, we all do better.

So drop the body-bullying. It’s not our judgement to make. We must convince our younger generation that a healthy body is an ideal body. And that just because something is a standard does not make it ideal.

Architecture needed to embrace a shift in perspective. And so do we.

Thank you.

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