Why we need to listen when little girls tell us they feel ugly

lipstick 2“When I feel fat, I tend to either hide myself or not go out. I try and put on a lot of make-up to hide behind a mask.”

 These words from a year eight girl interviewed in research out today, which showed English children are among the unhappiest in the world, broke my heart.

This girl is not alone. Because today’s global well-being chart from The Children’s Society showed that one in five girls are unhappy with the way they look.

The study draws on a range of other international research and contains the first analysis of findings from the Children’s Worlds survey – a study involving 16,000 children aged between 10 and 30 in 11 countries around the world: Algeria, Brazil, Chile, England, Israel, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Uganda, and the US.

It’s feelings about our children’s appearance that drags England down to ninth place out of 11 diverse countries in which we perform badly when compared to some developing countries who might not have living standards as high as ours.

English girls were twice as worried about their bodies as the boys.

I am far from surprised. It’s just another reminder of how pervasive is the idea that girls and women – although increasingly men and boys – must conform to some arbitrary beauty standard in order to be deemed acceptable society. It’s a reminder too that feelings of inadequacy in this area can cause a great deal of anxiety and sadness.

It’s why every day I read articles about the beauty myth and how we need to challenge it. It’s why I’m a big supporter of things like the No More Page Three campaign which says ‘enough’. We’re tired of women being judged on their bodies and we no longer want to live in a world where women are ogled because of their vital statistics rather than valued because of their intelligence, their wit, or how they treat people. That’s why there’s a deluge of these types of articles every day and an increasing army of men and women who want things to be different.

Here’s the thing. None of this is really about how we look. It’s about stripping away the things that hold us back from being all that we’re meant to be: happy, fulfilled, confident. While writing my book Am I Beautiful?, I had a few hours of panic when I felt guilty about writing on a subject that seemed trivial when compared to some of the world’s biggest issues.

I wrote about nearly chucking it all in until I realised that this is far from trivial: “Issues of beauty, self-confidence, body image, and the feelings of inadequacy that can so often surround these issues, are ones that play some part to a lesser or a greater degree in every woman’s life. For some, it is a hurt that they live with every single day of their lives. For others, it comes and goes. Some make a conscious effort to not let it take hold of their lives. For others, that feeling of being un-beautiful is crippling. It stops them from fulfilling their potential. It makes them count themselves out. It makes them feel less than anyone else and unable to do what they should be doing.”

The Children’s Society research found that unhappiness about their appearance only grows as they get older. Little girls who have body image issues grow up to be women with those same issues. The small voices in our heads that tell us we are inadequate, that we’re ugly, or that we don’t fit in or conform to beauty standards, only get louder as the years go by.

Unless something is done about it.

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “Childhood is a happy time for the vast majority in this country. But we can’t shut our eyes and ears to the half a million children who say they are unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives.

“Children are telling us that they’re unhappy about their future and how they look, as well as the things that make them happier, like being active, having strong friendships and going online. It’s crucial that all of us – from policymakers to parents and teachers – listen very closely to what they have to say.”

I’m not a parent, but I have a lot of women – young and old – in my life. And, though I occasionally slip up, I want to make sure I build up rather than knock them down. That I tell them they are beautiful, but don’t focus on this as the only reason why I value them.

Because beauty should only be part of our story.

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