Tiffany Stewart explores the intersection of body perception, performance and health

Photo by Collin Richie

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Dr. Tiffany Stewart is an LSU alumna who has dedicated her career to scientific research of body perception and how it affects health and performance. Stewart currently serves as the director of the Behavior Technology Laboratory at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. She takes cues from high-performance populations, including U.S. soldiers and elite athletes, about what an “ideal” body is and collaborates with local and national organizations to explore and illuminate the idea that a body’s idealized form and optimal function are not always one and the same.

Tiffany, who is one of the speakers at TEDxLSU 2017 on March 11, sat down with us to discuss her work and life. Read some highlights of the conversation below.

What inspired you to study body image?

A variety of things. For one, I was a competitive gymnast, and so the pressure to look a certain way was extreme, but the pressure to perform a certain way was just as extreme. The problem with that is that the preferred aesthetic of a gymnast doesn’t always line up with performance. Some of the most powerful gymnasts on my teams over the years were the strongest performers, yet there was pressure to not only win, but to cultivate a lean look. This kindled an interest in the psychology at play behind this dynamic. Gymnastics is brutal. I have had multiple orthopedic surgeries and injuries that did not break down until later in life, after I was out of the sport. Adjustments had to be made to my approach to staying healthy. Reconciling that with our expectations for our bodies is complicated because the world wants us to also look a certain way. As a result, people are doing things to undercut their health to meet these expectations, but as we age, we need to realize this simply isn’t sustainable.

In order to be healthy individuals, what should we be asking ourselves about our bodies?

I would say we should be asking ourselves more about our health, well-being and longevity, and less about our appearance.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t like the way their body looks?

I think it’s time to shift our perspective in a very deep way. There are a lot of campaigns out there now, which are good. People ask me all the time, “Do you think this is a good thing?” Yes, I do. I think it’s good that we focus on positive body image, but it’s hard. Anybody who sees these campaigns says, “Well that’s all good and fine, but it’s hard.” And it is hard. It’s easier said than done to change how you feel in your own skin, and many people have approached this in different ways. What this is about is sort of fundamentally — not necessarily trying to be okay with appearance, it’s deeper than that — shifting our focus to something more meaningful, which I think is our health and capability. So I think a journey of a million miles starts with a single step, and our culture has this deep hold on our thinking and us. It’s everywhere. It’s in every media outlet. It’s in the gym. It’s in the locker room. It’s at our table. It’s in the workplace. Our focus on our appearance impacts our health behaviors. It affects how satisfied we are with our lives. It’s time to see the bigger picture on this issue.

Where do you go in Baton Rouge for inspiration?  

Nature always. I love to walk the LSU Lakes, or meditation on the levee on a beautiful day is really divine.

What is your superpower?

I would say mindfulness. It’s been said that I can be very calm and centered in the face of chaos, which I hope is true when I get up to do my TED talk. When you practice mindfulness, there are two things. There’s practice in daily life and there’s mindfulness meditation, which is actually sitting on the cushion in quiet space. When you practice mindfulness, it is definitely a superpower because it helps you approach almost anything that comes your way with clarity and focus.

What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?

There are about 20 things! If we knew then what we know now about a lot of things, we would be happier people. I would say embrace and cultivate things that make you unique. Trust yourself. When we are young, fitting in seems key, but in the larger scope of our lives, we all contribute in our own way.

What is your favorite place in Baton Rouge?

The LSU Hilltop Arboretum is my favorite because I was married there last year. It is so beautiful. I didn’t even know it existed. It’s a beautiful space in nature with water, turtles and trees. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

If you could switch jobs with another 2017 TEDxLSU speaker, who would you pick and why?

Quiana Lynell. I’ve always loved to sing but I can’t hold a tune. Not only is she an amazing talent but she is putting her passions to work to inspire and help others.

What is one thing people might be surprised to know about you?

People typically think of scientists as being very methodical and rigid, but what people would be surprised to know is that I love creative endeavors. I love art, music and dance. Through the years, I have owned a jewelry business (designed, made and sold jewelry), choreographed dance for different groups, and studied and taught mindfulness and yoga for many years. I also think there is room for creativity in science, and we have certainly brought that aspect into our lab work for years — whether it’s in the design of a treatment program for people in need or the way we approach study design.

To learn more about Tiffany or about TEDxLSU 2017, follow TEDxLSU on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Reserve your seat now to listen to Dr. Stewart’s talk, as well as the talks of all of the other TEDxLSU 2017 speakers.

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