Teaming up with my daughter, who was 16 at the time, to write a novel loosely based on her body image issues was no easy task, yet one we both loved. But this is not about what we learnt about the process; we have written about that here. This is about what I learnt about body image while writing the book and more importantly what I learnt by interviewing teenagers about their thoughts on body image for the book.
When we think about body image we tend to think two things; firstly the media and celebrities, who are the ones to blame and secondly, that the way out is by educating our young girls. For me this never felt true, and yet again it felt as if the adults were getting in the way of the young people and their voices. So I did something radical, yes I went out and ask them nearly 400 of them what their thoughts were on body image.
A lot of their responses were worrying and a lot were optimistic, however what I learnt, as I suspected when it comes to body image, is that we need to think a little bit different.
Here is what I learnt.
1. Who are they looking up to?
We tend to blame celebrities and Instagram and the seemingly fake lives our young girls lead for their body image issues, but is that really the case? I asked them who their role models were, the people they look up to and the answer, I am sure, will surprise you as much as it did me. While the top spot may not surprise you, with Zoella taking the crown, the second place and only missing out on the top spot by one vote was Mum, followed by Family and Emma Watson. The survey also revealed that Jennifer Lawrence and Demi Lavato scored highly, coming 5th and 6th respectively, followed closely by Jennifer Ennis. These celebrities are not the celebrities we normally associated with body image issues, in fact most of them speak openly and frankly about their bodies and the issues they have had. So I dare to ask a question here; as mothers, are we the ones that are passing our body image issues down to them? Maybe it is not the celebrities after all.
2. Maybe the issues are far more complex than just the media.
When asked the question, "What do you think has the biggest impact on a girl's body image?" girls revealed that a lack of confidence and self-esteem was, they believed, the second highest cause, only 2% less than the main cause, the media. Boys came in third. So they are not passive observers of the media, but being influenced by it. They know that a lack of confidence and self-esteem is just as important. So while showing teens how pictures are doctored is of course a good idea, maybe an even better idea was that we start to work with young girls on how they feel about themselves, instead of blaming everyone else with our young girls body image issues.
3. 69% worried about their weight.
When asked the question, "When it comes to image what do you think young girls worry most about?" 69% replied with weight, 10% with how they look and what they are wearing and 4 % their bra size. I can't help but link this one to their role models; do they want to lose weight because the people they look up to are thin, or do they want to lose weight because most of the adult females in their lives are always complaining about their weight? It makes an interesting observation. Very worrying though was how they described healthy. Most described being healthy as having a perfect body and the elusive thigh gap. Yep, media, you got this one.
4. Who can make young girls feel better about themselves?
At the moment we believe that education is the answer and there are very worthwhile education projects set up around the country teaching young girls about the manipulation of images and how that impacts body image. However, when asked the question, "Who do you think can have the biggest impact on making young girls feel better about themselves?", 40% answered their friends, with their parents coming joint second with YouTubers at 11%. Not what I expected at all. For me, this is hugely encouraging. The girls themselves think the solution doesn't have to be that complicated, citing their friends as the main advocates to solve the problem. They also felt that education and showing more representative models was the answer to the problem.
All of these answers showed another way of dealing with a very complex problem and for me it looks like the way to tackle this is for all women to start talking more positively about how they speak about other women - simple really. But we seem far from it at the moment.
I am now working with the same girls that I surveyed to create a Girl Code, which will be a set of guiding principles about how girls can treat each other to increase self-esteem, self-confidence and consequent body image. If you would like a copy of the Girl Code when finished, please request one here.
What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them.