Looking in the mirror can be stressful, and sometimes scary. For me, and so many others, it’s tempting to see this discomfort with our reflection as normal or even acceptable, and this has a damaging affect. Discomfort with our appearance can harm our confidence whether we’re playing sports, meeting new people or going to job interviews; and it can impact our mental health.
So I was struck by the shocking statistics on body image included in Girlguiding’s 2018 Girls’ Attitudes Survey. The research gathered the views of nearly 2000 girls and young women from around the UK and revealed 41 per cent of young women aged 17-21 say they are not happy with how they look, a rise from 30 per cent in 2009.
This is not acceptable and, worryingly, it gets worse.
The survey showed that 50 per cent of girls aged 11-21 have been on a diet and 33 per cent sometimes skip meals to help themselves lose weight. Aged 11, I developed the habit of trying to lose weight. It is a habit I’ve spent seven years struggling to break. And yet this pernicious habit, which can so quickly become all-consuming, is one that half of girls and young women have already developed.
With so many girls saying they are not happy with how they look, and a third skipping meals to lose weight, it’s clear that now is the time for action and thankfully, the Girls’ Attitudes Survey provides hope that we can do something to reduce the pressure young people feel to look a certain way. In contrast to the 17-21 year-olds, 51 per cent of girls aged 7-10 said they were very happy with the way they look. Seemingly, then, something is happening to make girls less happy with their appearance as they get older. And that could well be the potentially triggering images we cannot help but see every time we pass advertising hoardings or newspaper racks, or open Instagram or Facebook. Young women are surrounded by images of celebrities, vloggers and models who are often unhealthily thin, misleadingly flawless and heavily airbrushed. However, as the Mayor of London’s decision to ban body-shaming ads on London transport shows, these harmful images are neither necessary, nor inevitable; they are something we should change.
In fact, 79 per cent of girls aged 11-21 said in the Girls’ Attitudes Survey that there is too much discussion about women’s body shape in the media. The fact that so many young people have recognised there is too much focus on women’s body shape shows they know what action needs to be taken to help them feel more comfortable in their bodies.
Even very young children are increasingly recognising how the images around us can shape the way we see gender. Between 2015 and 2018, the proportion of 7-10 year-olds saying that naked pictures of women in the media negatively affected how people treat girls and young women increased from 50 per cent to 67 per cent.
Clearly, movements such as MeToo and TimesUp are increasing awareness of everyday sexism, so that even the very youngest children now know what needs to happen to make them feel more comfortable in their bodies. And that’s exciting, because those 7-10 year-olds are the feminists of the future. What we need now is for this awareness, to lead to change. If children under ten can recognise the damage done by images of naked women in the media, maybe the rest of society needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
By Juliet Dowley, Girlguiding Advocate