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.

5 things to do after you’ve posted your #nomakeupselfie

nomakeupselfieSo I did it. I joined the thousands of people up and down the country who have taken over your newsfeeds with their barenaked faces – all in the name of beating cancer. I knew the nominations from my friends would come eventually – especially since the ‘body image/beauty thing’ is what I spend most of my time talking about these days.

But as I watched more and more friends being ‘brave’ and bearing all on social media, a million thoughts and questions rattled through my head. Ordinarily I would have been one of the first to jump on the bandwagon and succumb to the peer pressure. I’m also a sucker for feeling involved in a ‘movement’ that’s doing good – like raising over £1 million for Cancer Research, for example.

But my questions included: what’s not wearing make-up got to do with beating cancer? Why is showing our mask-free faces seen as bravery? Why is it the norm that women should paint themselves in their attempts to chase that ever-elusive beauty standard? Why was I even hesitating when – regardless of the arbitrary links between beauty and cancer – it was doing good and could go a long way towards curing cancer for generations to come?

And then came the insecure thoughts. What if people think my face sans make-up is… well, minging? What if no one ‘likes’ it? That overwhelming need for affirmation in the beauty stakes. The crippling need that so many women feel to be seen as beautiful: loved, of value, of worth.

I’ve written in my book and blogged previously about my relationship with make-up. It’s a security blanket I’ve worn since I was 16 years old. When writing the book, I deliberately went without make-up to work on one occasion and also posted a barefaced pic of myself for an Adios Barbie campaign. I wrote about the internal struggle that preceded both of these things and the sheer fear of being seen in public bare-faced. I also wrote about that time when I arrived in Israel and realised I had forgotten my foundation. Night. Mare.

So here’s why I did a #nomakeupselfie: because – regardless of the questions, the insecurity, and not wanting to clog up people’s newsfeeds – there is good coming from it. If by doing this we become more ok with our natural bodies and faces, then that’s a good thing. If we happen to raise a lot of money towards eradicating cancer then, that’s even better.

But there is more we could do. The world’s a bit rubbish sometimes. There’s a lot of brokenness. There are causes we can support – and in so doing – we can grow as individuals and learn more about what it is to be human.

So here are just a few thoughts on what you can do after you’ve posted your #nomakeupselfie:

1)    Sign up for Race for Life

I’ve done this Cancer Research fundraising event a few times – most recently running 10k on Blackheath with lots of other women. Most of us were running in memory of loved ones who had died from cancer. It’s a spine-tinglingly amazing event to be part of. What’s running got to do with beating cancer? Not a lot – but if you have to get fit and join in solidarity with many other women to raise money towards funding research to beat it, then so be it.

Find out more about Race for Life here.

2)    Do something that seems impossible

Last night, I watched the amazing Davina McCall’s story of running, cycling and swimming from Edinburgh to London in just seven days in aid of Sport Relief. That’s 500 miles. She was following in the footsteps of celebrities including Eddie Izzard who once ran 43 marathons in 51 days, and comedian David Walliams’ 140-mile swim down the Thames for the charity. “There is not one piece of me that had ever thought I wanted to do some crazy endurance challenge,” Davina told The Guardian. “Not one… But you just say yes.” It was heartbreaking and joyous viewing. It makes you realise how much humans can achieve if they just set their minds on it.

Find out more about Sport Relief.

3)    Challenge the Beauty Myth  

This is a biggie. But increasingly there is a groundswell of rebellion against this idea that women should be judged on what they look like in a way that men have not been (although men are increasingly being objectified and we need to challenge that too). And that a woman’s highest calling in life is to be hot. Germaine Greer writes in The Whole Woman: “Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.” Once you start to notice how much the beauty myth pervades our society, it becomes overwhelming. But there are small changes we can make, like watching the words we say to little girls and our grown-up female friends. Sometimes talking about weight loss, make-up and beauty issues is a way in which women bond with each other. But let’s talk about changing the world too.

Here’s my list of Beauty Myth Fighters on Twitter that you might want to follow.

4)    Rethink that manicure

When we hear about human trafficking, we think: that’s awful. And then we get on with our day. But what if you come face-to-face with a woman who’s been trafficked every time you get your nails done? To think that the woman beautifying your nails could be living in a desperate situation brings it all home and reminds us of the need to fight this. In the past five years, at least 90 nail bars have employed 150 illegal immigrants and been fined almost £700,000. The government is cracking down on this through the Modern Slavery Bill currently going through parliament.

Read more about manicures and human trafficking here.

5)    Sign the No More Page 3 petition

So let’s say that in the future we’ve bared our faces, we’ve done the impossible, we’ve killed the beauty myth, we’ve ended modern slavery, we’ve raised millions for the fight against cancer… And then we pick up The Sun and see a naked young woman on page three. Really? Enough of that please. Boobs aren’t news.

Sign the No More Page 3 petition.

PS: Also, check out this hilarious parody of Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’ – “I woke up like this. I got morning face.”

Why my book won’t change your life…

butterflyTonight, I’ll be standing in front of friends, family, colleagues, publishers and journalists at the launch party for my book Am I Beautiful? which was unleashed on the public a fortnight ago.

I’ll be standing in front of them and talking about the book: this book that is a rallying call for Christian women to wake up to society’s beauty myth, to think less about what they look like so that they can find freedom to be the women they were created to be.

I’m passionate about all this – that’s why I spent months obsessing over it and confronting some of my own body image baggage, spilling out some of my darkest, most private thoughts to give permission to other women to do the same. So that we can move past all this together.

Am I Beautiful? is very much a journey.

But here’s the thing: I’m still on it. The journey has only just begun.

Because as I stand there as the author of this book, they won’t know that I’m still struggling in this area. Big time. They won’t know that I’ve cut down on carbs in the weeks before my holiday. They won’t know that I’ve been waking up at silly o’clock to do a ridiculous US workout DVD. They won’t know that I’ve agonised over what to wear this evening.

I may be passionate about dispelling the beauty myth; but I still live in a world where I’m bombarded by images of outstandingly beautiful women, where both online and offline I’m forever seeing advertising aimed at making me feel bad about the way I look and offering a solution.

Writing this book has not instantly changed my life and the way I see myself. When I look in the mirror, I’ve not yet got to the point of always being completely content with what I see. Because I’ve lived in this looks-obsessed world for 29 years and been smothered by it. I haven’t been transported out and I haven’t instantly unlearnt all society’s beauty messages. But it’s only through having written the book that I’ve become aware of just how much – and how deeply – all this has affected my life and the lives of the women around me.

I’m committed to the eventual eradication of these negative thought patterns, but it’s very much a process – a continual, minute-by-minute choice to work on the complete renewal of my mind (Romans 12:2).

When I started the journey, I was one of the 96 per cent of British women, according to a Dove survey, who was not able to bring myself to believe and say that I was beautiful. But when I ask the question ‘am I beautiful?’ now, I know the answer is absolutely, yes. But this beauty isn’t necessarily anything to do with looking hot. I’m convinced of my beauty because I was created in the image of the one in whom the essence of beauty is found.

Writing the book was not like some magic, instant solution to the body image thing. So reading it won’t  be. But I know that reading it will mean you’re joining me on that journey towards recognising our true beauty and being content in it; of being more aware that inner beauty is far more important than the outer; and of recognising that the ultimate essence of beauty lies far outside any arbitrary, man-made societal standards.

Reading this book won’t change your life instantly…

… but it will start the process. 

Am I Beautiful?, published by Authentic, is out now priced at £7.99.

Why I’m not surprised by Inverdale’s ‘looker’ comments

ImageOver the weekend, BBC commentator John Inverdale landed himself in hot water when shortly after French tennis player Marion Bartoli had won Wimbledon, he took it upon himself to remind everyone watching the champion that she was not very hot.

The Radio 5 Live presenter’s comments came as Bartoli went through the crowds to celebrate with her dad. “Do you think,” he said, “Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker, you’ll never be a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5’11”, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.

“You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it,’ and she kind of is.’”

I’m angered by John Inverdale’s comments.

But I’m not surprised.

Because that’s the world we live in, folks.

The sentiments behind Inverdale’s outburst – though shocking, hurtful and outrageous – are all too familiar. In a world where women are objectified, as if their primary goal in life should be to be pretty, perhaps Inverdale was merely saying what so many people had taken as a given.

Germaine Greer writes in The Whole Woman: “Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.”

Every woman has that suspicion that beauty is the standard by which she is being judged; it is a marker of the elusive ‘complete package’. Many women feel there are many things they would trade in, just to be considered beautiful. So many intelligent, potentially world-changing, kind, compassionate, talented, championship-winning women are all too aware that they live in a world that will judge them – regardless of their achievements – on whether they conform to a rigid and arbitrary standard of beauty.

But what upsets me most about sentiments like those made by John Inverdale is their potential impact on the future generation. My hope and prayer is that what Naomi Wolf calls ‘The Beauty Myth’ will be less prevalent in the lives of future little girls. But I fear that little girls who might for a split second have watched Bartoli’s victory and dreamed of being just like her one day would have heard the message that their future dream victory would be meaningless if they did not grow up to be ‘a looker’.

Whether we’re parents or not, it’s our responsibility not to follow John Inverdale’s parenting tips: telling our daughters all the things they probably can’t be (beautiful), or can’t have (long legs). But instead telling them what they can do … (everything).

Maybe there’s hope. Because people  are talking about this issue. We are no longer accepting comments like John Inverdale’s. More than 600 people have complained to the BBC over the comments. Outrage has spilled out in social media. We’re saying enough is enough.

The revolution has begun…

But there’s is such a long way to go. Take a look at some of these horrendous tweets if you’d like some evidence)

On judging a book by its cover

ImageSo, here it is, the front cover of my book Am I Beautiful? 

What do you think?

Do you like? Does it draw you in and make you look forward to reading it? Do you dismiss it as too pink, too girly? Were you wowed by its font? Did you make assumptions about me, the author?

It’s ironic that in a book that tackles society’s obsession with appearance, the publisher and I have agonised over the front cover. Because there’s no pretending about it: people do judge a book by its cover. Book buyers browsing book stores make up their minds within a few seconds about whether or not they want to buy a book. So your front cover – the window to the rest of the book – is the place you entice the reader, but also give some clues as to what lies inside.

We do the same thing with human beings.

We make snap judgments about people’s characteristics, their background, their capabilities, their class and their intelligence based on a few seconds of scanning their faces, their mannerisms, what they’re wearing.

According to Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, our judgments about people’s physical appearances can even determine who gets the job and who wins in presidential elections. He writes that CEOs and US presidents are on average a lot taller than the general population, for example, with taller people giving off an air of capability.

“Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations.”

There’s a famous leadership story in the example of David and Saul found in 1 Samuel. I expect King Saul was … fit. Like an Eric Bana or a Henry Cavill (the new Superman) towering above his counterparts like some kind of superhero. He looked the part. We’re told he stood head and shoulders above the rest. But we’re also told that that whole judging a book by its cover thing is not really how God plays things.

But the Lord said to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Over the past few months, I’ve enlisted friends and family members to give me their opinions on the various different designs and iterations. And what I’ve found is that getting every person’s opinion on a good book cover is tiresome. Because everyone has a totally different opinion on what constitutes a beautiful book cover. Because beauty is totally subjective. One person’s bestseller is another person’s bargain bin. And all this reminds me once again that beauty-with-a-small-b cannot be confined within some narrow definition constructed by a society intent only on making us feel inadequate and making money out of us; the one that requires each of us to conform and squeeze into it.

Looking for the intrinsic value and beauty in each human being is far from easy. As visual beings our tendency is to judge books by their covers. But let’s be aware that’s what we’re doing – and maybe some day the covers won’t matter anymore.

To all the dark girls

Image“Dark am I, yet lovely.” – Song of Solomon 1:5

When I was five years old and asked to draw a self-portrait in reception class, I drew myself with long, blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. In case you don’t already know what I look like, here is me aged five:

Image

 No blonde hair, no blue eyes, no white skin.

It was pointed out to me by a clearly more aware fellow pupil that the picture I had drawn of myself looked nothing like me. So that self-portrait turned out to be the first time I became aware of what I looked like; became aware that ‘I’ did not look like the white-skinned children in my class. My hair was different, my eyes were different, my skin was… dark.

And I remember being disappointed.

Because darkness – blackness – never, ever represented anything good. Fairy tale princesses were white – and they were beautiful. Nobody wanted to be the black sheep of the family. The darkness of the night-time represented fear and the unknown, while daytime brought lightness, safety and goodness.

In the 1980s, there were even fewer representations of beautiful black women in films and in the media than there are today.

At the time I was drawing my self-portrait, not much had changed since 1954 when the famous Clark Doll Experiment took place. In the experiment, held in Harlem in New York City, black children aged between six and nine were shown a black doll and a white doll and asked to choose between them based on which doll was the ‘nicest’ and which one they would prefer to play with. The majority chose the white doll. In a re-creation of the study in the mini-film A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis in Harlem in 2005, the situation hadn’t improved much. The black children still chose the white doll, and agreed the black doll ‘looked like them’ even though they identified it as being the ‘bad one’.

This feeling that black women are not beautiful is not just found in Western societies either. The number of skin-bleaching products available in Africa has increased significantly in recent years. The World Health Organization reports that 77 per cent of Nigerian women have used these potentially dangerous skin-bleaching products, while 59 per cent of those from Togo have, 35 per cent of South Africans and 25 per cent of Malians.

People are finally waking up to the fact that this is not ok. That beauty is found in all of God’s wonderfully diverse creation. That beauty is found in blonde hair and blue eyes and red hair and pale skin and brown hair and brown skin and black hair. And hourglasses and washboard stomachs and flat chests and long legs and ‘cankles’ and bingo wings and double chins and high cheekbones. That beauty cannot be defined solely by some narrow interpretation of culturally-relative biases towards certain traits. That Beauty comes from somewhere far greater.

But first we are addressing the hurt that so many of us have felt because we have believed we fall outside of these arbitrary standards. This heartbreaking trailer for upcoming US documentary Dark Girls shows the pain that so many black women have lived with, but have kept hidden for so long: 

The film by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry explores the deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin colour, particularly dark-skinned women, outside of and within black American culture.

This feeling that we do not fit into to a narrow definition of beauty lies deep within a woman’s psyche, regardless of her skin colour. Sometimes we look at ourselves and think that we are the ‘bad one’. That we are not good and that we are not beautiful; that the description ‘beautiful’ applies to someone else, despite our craving for it to be used to describe us. With every image, every doll we create that leads a little girl to think that she is not OK as she is, we are robbing her of her childhood. We are force-feeding her insecurity when, instead, she should be made to feel secure, at home in her own body.

Let’s make it our duty to ensure that no girl or woman feels that they fall outside the realms of beauty.