Many of us struggle with the way we feel about our bodies. When working with teenage girls who struggle with this so much that it develops into dangerous eating habits, self harm and emotional trauma, I am really careful not to engage in talking negatively about myself, discussing diet tips as chit chat or complimenting women solely based on looks. I am careful as a mother not to criticise myself in the mirror as I see myself as the blueprint to my own children. However, I am not immune from the odd day of feeling rubbish.
Last Saturday I was due to meet my friend to take our children swimming. She is wonderful, generous, funny and a brilliant friend. She is also 6 foot tall, a size 4 and a footballer’s wife. When we go out we normally meet some of her other footballer’s wives friends and they quite often have 'new boobs,' are all very glamorous and have designer bikinis. I have to approach these swimming sessions with the 'mind over matter' approach and my 'safe swimming costume' which I have had since I was in Year 11 (I am now 31). This week, however, when I couldn't find my trusty swimming costume I was surprised to find myself actually in tears and almost hyperventilating 20 minutes before I was due to meet her at the thought of having to wear a bikini. My poor husband tried to console me, telling me I looked nice while I was too busy shouting at him that I didn't want the children to hear I was upset. Meanwhile, I was trying to work out what had happened to me? - I thought I was confident?! What is it that makes me feel my body is not good enough to be put alongside certain other people’s?
To coincide with the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day a series of summits called 'Endangered Species' and hosted by Susie Orbach, founder of Anybody have been taking place across the world to launch a campaign against the rising issue of body hatred. On March 4th 2011 the first of these summits in London brought together relevant groups in order to achieve change in relation to what Orbach terms is a health emergency facing the next generation of girls, so many of whom feel bad about and unhappy in their bodies. The day was for activists who are passionately working in this field to showcase what they are doing and to engage relevant policy makers and representatives of the fashion industry and the media. We were honoured, as Golddigger Trust, to be invited to attend and to speak about our work with teenage girls and came away both totally inspired and completely overwhelmed with the task facing us all.
The girls we work with are so often so far away from this aim. Their bodies are things they hate but have to be attached to. They feel their bodies are what make them inferior to the digitally altered images they see staring back at them in magazines; they are what brings in the abuse they suffer from name calling; and they are what categorises them by the size of clothing they fit into. Their bodies measure how they fail to match up to what they 'should be' and are hardly ever embraced and celebrated as one of the aspects that makes them a unique and amazing individual. We are so used to this mind-set that it doesn't even shock us. It should do. Among statistics brought to our attention through that day were;
- 97% of girls have at least 1 hateful thought about their bodies per day;
- girls of 6 years old are counting the calories in their lunch boxes;
- half of 16 to 21 year olds would consider surgery to change the way they look
With all the focus on how negatively women are feeling about their bodies there is a real lack of attention to the values and qualities that also make up part of our identity which are not based on our appearance.
There is a creative response to this issue of negative body image going on within many different industries. Among the diverse array of speakers we heard from Jo Swinson Lib Dem MP on the Body Confidence campaign; Stephanie Heart about her inspiring project with teenage girls; Pink Stinks who have been successfully campaigning against stereotyping in products for children and are now tackling the issue of makeup ranges being developed and marketed for children; Debra Bourne, one of the founders of All Walks with Karen Caryn Franklin and Erin O Conner who are working to promote more diversity of size and body shape within the modelling industry; Roanna Mitchell who is working to educate actors about the issues and pressures they may have to face and we heard from Lynne Featherstone the cabinet minister for equality who has this issue very much on her agenda. It was fantastic to hear her passionate views on these issues and to be given the chance to share our ideas with her to take back to the government.
So what is it that makes us feel our bodies are not good enough? It seems there are a number of things we are battling which contribute to this. I need to fight the battle in my own mind. I need to battle to get affirmation, not criticism, into my conversations. As Golddigger we need to keep working with, challenging, supporting and educating the teenage girls we work with on these issues. We all need to fight the battle with the magazine editors and the fashion and media industry, the pharmaceutical industry both in our campaigns and in how we buy or choose not to buy what we are being sold. I can feel empowered to do all those things.
But by Monday morning after I returned from the summit, reality struck as I sat with a teenage girl witnessing her mum being criticised by her husband for dressing “too old” and looking “rough and embarrassing with no makeup”. It hit me that there are just so many ingrained thoughts out there that we need to battle against that are less accessible. It isn't a modest aim – it IS ambitious! Susie Orbach also highlights the shame the west should feel about this issue; we are, in fact, sending body hatred all around the world as one of our biggest exports. It isn't a personal issue, it isn't trivial it shouldn't be ignored...we can and should engage with this as a health concern and a widespread political issue and be committed to our role in fighting against body hatred.
Mandy Toombs, Golddigger Trust