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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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.

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.

Mom-shells: beauty and pregnancy

Image‘When I found out that my due date was May 1st, my first thoughts weren’t of baby blankets and onesies. All I could think about was, how am I going to avoid looking like a wet dish towel in one of those post-delivery photos?’

Yes, these are someone’s real thoughts. They’re the thoughts of Kate Williamson who, writing on makeupandbeautyblog.com, takes us through the lengths she went to to prepare for that photo in a post called How to Look Great During Childbirth.

I’m always amazed at friends of mine who post their brand new mummy photos on Facebook just minutes after pushing out their babies, looking stunning.

But these photos are becoming increasingly common. And this has been accompanied by an ever-increasing pressure to look great before, during and after giving birth.

For example, there are few things as revered in celebrity gossip columns as a hot post-baby body. It seems women in the public eye compete to see who can lose their postpartum weight the fastest. We look on in awe at the new mums posing in bikinis seemingly just days after they were in the delivery room. We’re wowed by these mom-shells because their svelte bodies seem to be contrary to the laws of nature – amazing. New mums shouldn’t look so ‘good’. But the proliferation of these stories makes the rapid return to pre-baby bodies seem like the norm, making those women who do not ‘get their body back’ fast enough – if at all – seem like failures. Actress Hilary Duff took – shock horror – eight months to get back into her 26-inch skinny jeans. And because she ‘took her time’ doing it, with the help of a daily personal trainer and gruelling exercise regime, the celebrity magazines seemed to celebrate her finally reaching her goal weight. Go Hilary!

Janice Min, a former editor of Us Weekly, felt a sense of responsibility at having pedalled these kinds of hot momma stories in the magazine. But she realised the extent of the pain that this caused when she had her own children.

Writing in the New York Times, she said: ‘The notion that instantly stick-thin figures after birth are normal is untrue. Sometimes, in my sleep-deprived nights, I ponder our ideal of this near-emaciated, sexy and well-dressed Frankenmom we’ve created and wonder how to undo her. Even just a little bit.

‘Not only for the pressure to let up on me, and you, but also perhaps so my little baby girl can one day love her own children, too, without hating her body at the same time.’

The all-pervasive nature of modern media means that everyday women, including women in the church, can feel a sense of peer pressure from the example of these celebrity mums.

I am not a mother. I’ve never been pregnant or given birth. But several of my friends have. And I have realised that I too am guilty of giving women the once-over when I see them for the first time after they’ve had their baby. I expect them not to look great, to look less than their former selves. And those who do look great are met with surprised and almost bewildered compliments from me about how good they look – you know – considering…

As far as society’s concerned, women give up their bodies when they have children. And of course it’s a price worth paying. But these women are the same ones who, before they became mummies, longed to feel valued, of worth, beautiful. Motherhood doesn’t change that entirely.

But it does change your body. In ways that I am yet to understand. My survey told me however that around half of women felt worse about their bodies after they had children.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota found women’s body dissatisfaction increased in the months following childbirth, the most dissatisfied time being six months after their child’s delivery. That was the month they were most likely to feel ashamed of their bodies and avoid tight-fitting clothes.

On average, women weighed five pounds more nine months after giving birth than they had done pre-pregnancy.

For women who had suffered from eating disorders, their body dissatisfaction was exacerbated during childbirth, but it also made women who had previously had no such issues feel bad about their bodies.

‘The cultural “thinness” mindset could unfortunately have negative repercussions on a mother’s mental health,’ the researchers said. ‘It’s important to educate women about expected postpartum weight and body changes, and to find ways to enhance mothers’ postpartum self-esteem and body satisfaction.’

Did having children change the way you feel about your body?

Have you felt a pressure from the media or other women to look good after childbirth?

How can we ensure we don’t add to new mums’ post-baby body issues?

Holy anorexia

st catherineWomen were starving themselves long before fashion magazines showed up.

And that includes Christian women.

At the age of seven, after having a vision of Christ, St Catherine of Siena, who lived in the 14th century, stopped eating normally, in an attempt to deny her body, to pay penance, and become more divine. From a young age, she started throwing her food under the table. She tried to survive only on the eucharist, to the concern of all those around her.

Sound familiar?

Reda and Sacco at the University of Siena explored her eating disorder and explain:

“So as not to cause scandal, she sometimes took a little salad, fresh vegetables and fruit, but would then turn around and spit them up. And if it was the case that she swallowed just a single morsel, the stomach did not let up until it could not regurgitate any more: the incessant vomiting gave her so much pain that her face was almost bursting. On occasion she would go away with one of her friends and prod her throat with a stick of finnochio or with a goose feather, until it was thrown open depending on how much she had swallowed. And this she called ‘doing justice’. ‘We do justice for our miserable sins,’ she liked to say.”

St Catherine was a poster girl for holy anorexia.

Some social psychologists have made the link between religious faith and eating disorders. CG Banks in the early 1990s said that religious motives such as asceticism and fasting could sometimes play a role in anorexia nervosa.

In See Me Naked, Amy Frykholm explores stories of religious faith and how harmful beliefs about the place of the body can lead to dysfunctional lives. She tells the story of Ashley who in a bid to bring her body into submission and to become perfect, denies herself food. She writes:

 ‘Ashley believed herself to be living out a protest against her culture. She was determined not to be exploited or displayed. Her body would not become a ‘vehicle for pleasures,’ not for others and not for herself. Instead Ashley worked to become a master of the will. Food was a constant, ordinary place to practice. She judged that she was doing well by the fact that her thighs did not touch each other – this was a direct indication of the control of desire. Excess of any kind, except excessive denial, was a sign that she had not given herself completely to God.’

A lot of the blame for women’s poor body image has been put on the fashion industry, the glossy magazines and the Daily Mail. Yes, each of these has a part to play in pressurising women to fit into – or aspire to fit into – a certain body ideal. They have a part to play in the high levels of body satisfaction.

But this week I’ve been realising that so many women’s poor body image, and subsequent pre-occupation with what we eat –  whether it’s bingeing, starving, over-eating, food anxiety – comes from some other place.

I’ve seen studies which show that eating disorders exist among women living in rural tribes in Africa, for example, where glossy magazines are not really available.

I’ve been surprised by the number of Christian women I know who have suffered from eating disorders – at either end of the continuum. This week for example I interviewed Carol, 55, who lost 16 stone after a bypass and realised that it really wasn’t about the weight or the food, but about the soul-pain issues which eventually led to her quest for control and self-worth.

In a survey I did earlier this year (which you can also take part in here), I found that it was around one on five  Christian women – with a further 10 per cent ‘unsure’ about whether or not they had suffered from eating disorders.

Here are just a couple of the things women told me in the survey:

 “Eating disorders are a way to regain control over your life when you can’t control other things and stem from much more than just feeling unattractive. I was bulimic for a while at school, but have struggled with food most of my life. Having an unhealthy relationship with food and/or an eating disorder is really isolating. You can’t separate food from life, it’s there on all major occasions, good and bad, social situations as well as everyday life. Food can be used as a reward and as a punishment. For someone with an eating disorder, food is terrifying, regardless if you are a bulimic, anorexic or compulsive eater. It consumes your world, becomes all you think about.”

 “I spent about three years in a food restriction/binge/purge bulimic cycle, but prior to that was about another five years of very unhealthy food and body image thought processes and action. The main perpetuating factor for this was anxiety/control issues but heavily influenced by a low self-esteem and negative body image. I was healed amazingly by coming to an understanding of God’s love and grace in my life, and was also hugely supported by outpatient hospital care which helped me reset a lot of my thought processes and habitual eating/activity behaviours. I believe I may always be susceptible to the thoughts and behaviours I had during that time but it does not define/control my life like it did.” 

Increasingly, I’m realising that when we talk about body image, beauty, food anxiety – we are talking about something much deeper; something which needs holistic inner healing and an encounter with He who “satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness” (Psalm 107:16).

Image: St Catherine of Siena, Creative Commons