I had a healthy childhood, comfy family life and a great education. On the surface I was a balanced and promising kid and then teen. I excelled at school, wanted for nothing and was surrounded by love. Yet I always had this feeling deep down that I just wasn't enough - not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough.
It all dates from that moment when I stopped being the carefree girl that loved having her photo taken and I began to notice what I looked like. It was bad enough with my geeky glasses, buck teeth and frizzy hair but then girls mags bombarded me with images of the ideal body, face, haircut. That was then. Now it's off the Richter sale with a glam selfie or airbrushed ad being posted every second, making girls feel impossibly imperfect. Mags now have 10 times more diet/perfection/beauty ads than mens mags.
At the same time I also began to notice how other people spoke to me compared to boys. They had probably always used the same language with me but I became acutely aware of it. I remember trying telling parents what I was up to but they would quickly cut across and talk about their sons' army/rugby/. Or even more common I'd walk into a room and the first thing people would comment on what I was wearing whereas the guys were congratulated on their football goals.
And then the final of the trio of self esteem crushers, bulling at school. Everyone gets teased but real bullying is not something you can manage yourself. Nor is it something that ever leaves you, the sticks and stones do but the words stay engraved on your soul. It's funny as my ex school mates don't remember bullying the way I did. Funny how memory has a way of filtering out the things you feel bad about. From 10 to 15, till I found my academic hole to hide in, I dreaded school every morning. I would dream of getting flu or snow closing school down. As for school trips they were a living nightmare. I was the smaller more fragile creature, like the weaker animal of the herd and the rough types jumped on every point of weakness - four eyes, bugs bunny teeth, spotty skin, toilet brush hair... freak, geek, sad-do. It was an ordinary girls' school and in my mind the teachers just stood by. My poor mum tried to jump up and down but it only made the bullies dig their heels in further. I used to go home, shut the doors on their nastiness and bury my woes under my pillow. Yet today there is no hiding, cyber-bullying is everywhere, pretty vs ugly videos, gang emails and deleting friends when you've fallen out. There is no escape.
And so I grew up full of insecurities, I left Oxford with a high 2;1 but I was so desperate to get a job I took the first one in advertising. All my fellow grads and many of them men had all the confidence in the world and went for banking, law and management consultancy. I entered a profession by accident not by choice and I actually liked it. After two years into it I chose to work at a strategy start up and had three male bosses. It was my biggest learning curve and toughest experience. I was given access to high profile clients and yet I was always the junior partner, never a partner. In fact there was only one female partner of a ten board and she had to lose her femininity to survive.
Then there were the relationships I chose or again fell into. Low self-esteem leads to irregular behaviour, so I ended up dating and seeing guys that boosted me, supposedly. Yet I somehow chose the ones that brought me down, to reinforce the negative perceptions I had of myself. One of my major past relationships was definitely characterised by dominance/submission. Others relied on me being something that I wasn't, the pretty young thing, the bright spark, never just me.
To cap it all I would fall into patches of other irregular behaviour, eating disorders, to control the one thing that belonged to me, my body. Four out five 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat and half are happier when dieting leading to a rise in anorexia by 130% in the last five years. Thinspiration nowadays starts from a very young age with unrealistic Barbie dolls that then become lollypop catwalk models. It is spiralling out of control.
And then I had a major turning point I left my husband, fell out with my boss and lost my dad. All three forced me to take a long hard look at myself. I had a lot of therapy, did the 'pray' bit of eatpraylove and then met the right man. I began blogging about my life in Paris as a britchick but the content became more about emotional and personal issues. Grief. Anorexia. Miscarriage. Love.
Then two years ago I was sitting at a cafe in Deauville on the seafront and was confronted with a shocking sight. There at a next door table was a little girl, about 10 who looked exactly how I did at her age. It was like a thunder bolt and it immediately triggered me to write that very afternoon during the car journey home and (believe or not) on my blackberry. I wrote a story about an Ugly Little Girl - me - who escapes in her pyjamas every night to a magic school for self-esteem for misfits like her. When I was little I would fantasise through story-writing and somehow I wanted to create a garden for their imagination, a secret zone for their secret thoughts and feelings. In the books there are self-esteem classes in the hall of mirrors and appreciation of freaks of mature in freakography. There is no bitching, judgement or faking it.
Above all Oddbods is a meritocracy where everyone is rewarded for his or her talents and gifts rather than image of social stereotype. In fact some of the little boys who attend are highly sensitive and atypical.
There are very few secure places for children today, where they can be themselves with like-minded children. Oddbods is a safe haven for them that accepts all and judges no one. For self-esteem comes from loving who you really are warts and all. Girls especially are made to feel inadequate at every level due to our image based definition of beauty. In my book beauty is all about your unique you-ness, all the things that you special, gifts, talents, quirks, freckles, ginger hair.
One book can't cure a pandemic that makes 75% of girls have something bad to say about their looks. But it can become part of the movement that involves educators, parents, guardians, psychologists and role models. Dove are doing their bit to champion the cause (and I'm a proud ambassador) but very few brands have joined the bandwagon.
Everyone on this planet has a childhood story about low self-esteem and we often don't realise how damaging they can be in later life. Even the great and the good like Jen Lawrence, Jessie J and Rebecca Adlington have all come out saying they had troubled teen years. Low self-esteem is a major cause of eating disorders, depression, anxiety and addictions.
2013 was the year of the selfie, the means of approval in others eyes, of creating an unreal ideal version of how they would like to look. I propose we make 2014 - and International Women's Day - all about self-esteem, for we are all more beautiful, more intelligent, more wonderful than we think we are.