Dying to be beautiful?

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Writing about body image and self-esteem has taken me into some dark places within my own mind and given me insight into the dark places that other women’s minds take them to. But none so dark and disturbing than my realisation over the past few days that there are little girls who are literally dying to be beautiful.

I’ve read about Fiona Geraghty, a lively, charming and talented 14-year-old girl from Somerset, who killed herself because she thought she was overweight; hanged herself because she felt she did not look like girls in fashion magazines.

I’ve learned of Rosie Whitaker, 15, who jumped in front of a train in Kent after her feelings of being unattractive and overweight led her to suicide and self-harm websites.

And then there’s Ashlynn Conner, an honour roll student from Illinois, who was just 10 years old when she killed herself after her classmates called her ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’.

The list goes on.

A study of more than 14,000 high school students in the US in 2009 found that overweight teenagers and those who believe they are overweight are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who are not, or those who think they are not.

Monica Swahn, who led the study, said: ‘Youth feel very pressured to fit in and to fit certain limited ideals of beauty.’

How did the world become a place in which little girls can’t bear to live because they don’t feel they look right? How did the world become a place where little girls are so bombarded with messages that they are not as beautiful as fashion models that they just can’t take another moment of being alive? How did we arrive at a world where a 10-year-old will hang herself with her scarf because her classmates taunt her with ‘fat insults’? How did the world become a place where the pressure to be beautiful robs little girls of any sense of hope?

When Michael Rose, the West Somerset coroner who presided over the inquest into Fiona Geraghty’s death, gave his verdict, he gave a warning to the fashion industry.

‘The one class of person not here who I hold directly responsible for what happened is the fashion industry,’ he said. ‘The problems of eating disorders amongst young people, particularly girls, did not exist before the 1970s. From that period onwards the fashion industry and the magazines promoted thin models and the thin figure.

‘I do ask, particularly the magazines in the fashion industry, to stop publishing photographs of wafer thin girls. I do implore it, because at the end of the day for their benefit, families like this must suffer. It is, I am afraid, an increasing problem and until they control themselves it will continue.’

If I ever have daughters, I want them to know that they are beautiful. I don’t want them to even give it a second thought. I don’t want them to face the anguish and pain that so many women of my generation face all because of a sense of feeling un-beautiful.

But even as I say this and I write about it, I realise the extent of the battle that needs to be won. It’s a battle not just for our minds and our own feelings about ourselves, but it’s a battle against a culture which insists on making us feel un-beautiful.

Because people who don’t feel beautiful buy stuff, read stuff, watch stuff, which promises to make them beautiful.

Even as I researched the stories online of the tragic girls mentioned above, adverts popped up on my screen for skinny pills, anti-ageing products and one which promised to reveal how celebs get flat tummies.

As I battle with my own body image issues, I hear stories of young girls who despise their bodies; who are desperate to look like glamour models or television stars. Or feel that they should at least want to look that way. And my heart aches for them.

‘Ugly Girl’, who recently posted on the Everyday Sexism website, is a teenager who said she ‘chose to wear modest clothes for religious reasons’.

Sharing her pain, she wrote: ‘I’ve had people call me hideous, mock me for expressing feelings towards the opposite sex, and outright laugh in my face for believing I could somehow be beautiful and value myself on the inside… Just because I am a woman, my image is treated as the only thing that should define me and that should matter. This is the concept of sexism that haunts me in everyday life and I despise it.’

I think of the beautiful girls in the youth group at my church or my young girl cousins and I am certain that they are going through the same battles as we have gone through and we continue to go through.

And I think that at some point this has got to stop.

It has to stop.

But it will take some radical changes to ensure that our daughters and their daughters don’t have to go through this.

The radical step starts with believing that we are beautiful and modelling that belief in our own beauty. It will mean no longer accepting it as the norm that we think we are un-beautiful. It means showing them that we are happy with ourselves, thanks very much. And it also means challenging those words and images that might make them feel inadequate, unworthy and unloved.

Amanda King is a blogger who is modelling that radical belief about her own beauty as an example to her daughters.

The mum of two from Pittsburgh writes this on her blog:

‘I am slow and I am tired.  I am round and sagging. I am harried.  I am sexless.  I am getting older. I am beautiful.  How can this be?  How can any of this be true?

‘I don’t want my girls to be children who are perfect and then, when they start to feel like women, they remember how I thought of myself as ugly and so they will be ugly too. They will get older and their breasts will lose their shape and they will hate their bodies, because that’s what women do. That’s what mommy did. I want them to become women who remember me modelling impossible beauty. Modelling beauty in the face of a mean world, a scary world, a world where we don’t know what to make of ourselves.

‘”Look at me, girls!”  I say to them.  “Look at how beautiful I am. I feel really beautiful, today.”’

So, some questions for you:

How do we raise daughters or encourage younger women to feel beautiful?

How did your mother’s view of herself influence how you feel about your own body?

Is it possible to raise daughters with high self-esteem while you yourself have low self-esteem?

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5 thoughts on “Dying to be beautiful?

  1. Wow powerful stuff Chine. And issues I think about a lot – especially since my six-year-old daughter’s comment hit me like a dagger through the heart: she poked the minutest bit of flesh on herself and announced ‘I am fat’. My immediate reaction was to say ‘Don’t be so stupid’, quickly followed by a grilling about where she got that idea from. I still don’t understand it – she has a group of well-rounded, lovely friends of differing shapes and as far as I know doesn’t see too many glossy mags or images. But I guess it is all around us isn’t it? Inherent in the fairy tales she’s loved over the last few years too. And her teacher, for one, is a beautiful, blonde, slim woman. Just today I was showing my daughter videos of Vanessa-Mae, as her reading book had been all about her. And, as we watched, my daughter was transfixed by her violin playing, and ooh’d and aah’d at her outfits, saying she was beautiful. All the while I was looking at Vanessa’s amazing figure, mourning the day when my stomach was flat and wondering why I never wore things I wish I could now but don’t have the figure for. What is it in-built in us that makes us do it?! How I wish I could turn it off! But I’m determined to do everything in my power to ensure my daughter’s experience is different. Every day I tell her she is beautiful – which she is. And when her daddy says, ‘doesn’t mummy look lovely today’ I keep quiet and try and accept the complement, even when everything inside me wants to retort back something negative like ‘don’t be so silly’ or ‘I certainly don’t feel it’. Oh how I hope she doesn’t face the same issues with image that today’s women do – but a lot needs to change in the world around us for her to stand a chance of being free from them I fear…

    • Thanks for this Claire. It can’t be easy bringing up daughters to feel beautiful about themselves when we ourselves have our own insecurities! But I wonder whether it does actually have the opportunity to help us shake off those un-beautiful feelings. And maybe if you’re forced to accept compliments from your husband, you will start to believe them! I do wonder though whether girls today are more pressurised in this area than those growing up a few generations ago? Or is this something that is actually inherent in womankind?

      • Yes – certainly having a daughter makes me confront an awful lot of issues in myself – when I take the time to work through them it is very beneficial. I also think as I get older (urgh the big one is fast approaching!) the intensity of feelings aren’t there all the time – I can, at times, relax and just be myself as I am in a way I couldn’t when I was younger. To answer you questions I would say a bit of both! Overall I think there is more pressure today – but there is also an in-built mechanism in women too…

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