Dozens of women flocked to Selfridges last Friday evening yet they weren't their for shopping, pampering or a post work cocktail. It was to discuss a very sensitive subject for many, one that we often avoid speaking about even with our closest friends.
Behind closed doors a panel of four brave women opened their hearts up to talk about beauty and self-esteem. Each of them having had first hand experience of bullying, self-doubt and low body confidence, partly as a consequence of social media like Facebook and Twitter.
I was one of them, offering the point of view of a HuffPo blogger and now author of The Ugly Little Girl trilogy. Rebecca Adlington was the highlight inspiring everyone with her story about being trolled, how she is still called ugly today yet she won't give up her Twitter account - for every bully there is a young swimmer who she can help and mentor.
The debate was in title about social networks but what became clear was that there is a bigger problem. Women have had enough of being judged by their looks, of being objectified, of feeling they are too fat, ugly, not enough, and are clamouring for more.
From a very young age little girls are told they are cute or pretty yet boys are lauded for being strong or smart. Selfies, airbrushing and 'model' culture are exacerbating this and networks are spreading this narcissistic virus like wildfire.
The flip side is that if you don't look good you can be criticised mercilessly for it. There's even a new phenomenon called backstalking where friends will dig out less appealing photos from your archives and republish them. The cancer no make up selfie was a step in the right direction of being true to you, yet it is a sad testament to our image obsessed society that the idea of no make up is such a massive achievement.
For it is so much easier to get away with being nasty online as you can't look someone in the eye. My goddaughter, a normally sweet girl published a jokey video of her and her best friend announcing who was gorgeous or not at school. When I advised her to take it down she hadn't realised how hurtful it was and how it might be seen by parents and teachers. For her it was a fun prank in her bedroom, for others it was public humiliation.
But bullying has always existed. I suffered terribly being called 'geek' 'metal mouth' and 'four eyes'. A mean message chalked on the blackboard was the equivalent of a facebook status but at least I could escape the bullies once I got home. Now cyberbullying invades your bedroom, your privacy so there is no safe place any more.
Self-esteem and 'beauty' are intrinsically interconnected for if beauty became more about our skills, our traits we could actually begin to believe in ourselves. The recent Aussie photographer who became a body builder to feel good about herself is a case in point. Being slim, with the perfect figure did nothing to create resilience, she still felt rubbish. A psychologist Seligman claims that there are 7 natural abilities that form proper confidence, such as developing creativity, unlocking bravery or practising mindfulness. Each of these creates pillars within our pysche and lead to real hobbies and vocations. He also claims that celebrating 3 good things that happen at the end of every day makes you feel happier in yourself over time. It only takes 21 days to change behaviour and transition from niggly self critique to fulfilment. Social media can paradoxicallu really help with this, the recent #100 happy days is a way of making sure status updates are positive rather than wingey, whether it's posting a bacon sandwich or a cloudless sky.
But the general consensus amongst everyone was that more needs to be done to change the conversation. Magazines are still all photoshopping, fashion is sold via young, skinny models and beauty products are about perfection or covering up flaws. Girl Talk magazine, for pre teens, is a lone voice leading the way with its editorial theme of 'amazing girls'. Yes there are popstars and sparkly nailpolish, but there are also real heroines, women famous for sport, science or writing books. Each issue reminds the girls of the selfesteem mantra, to stand up for others, to love themselves as they are and to believe boys are equal to girls. They have been followed by a wave of new toys that defy stereotypes. For instance there are new dolls on the market that are normal looking, as the Barbie proportions have been proven physically impossible on a human. Or Lego has just created its first female scientist (even though the girls lego is still classically pink and has kits for making catwalks). The Girl Guides has also followed suit, recently launching a free to me badge, that makes self-esteem a tangible goal and makes body talk unacceptable. I hope my book is part of this BeYoutiful revolution, as it's told from the perspective of a young girl who doesn't like herself very much and one night she discovers a magic night school Oddbods for children that feel different - red heads, beanpoles, shorties, geeks and loners. Like the women in the Dove beauty sketches ad she realises she is lovelier than she thinks she is, in every way.
The change also needs to happen a lot closer to home. So much of women's conversations are filled with fat talking and 'poisoned' complements, 'you've lost weight' eg you were fat before, 'you look nice today' as if you didn't the other day. We also spread self-loathing to our children without even realising it. Little girls are quick to imitate mummies jumping on and off scales or asking if their bum looks big in this. We all need to commit to posting new types of material online, that reflect who we are, a #nopose #nopout #nofilter selfesteemie, a genuine toothy smile, something we have made cooked or created, a view, a sunset, a gateway to our soul.
75 percent of girls dislike themselves, 6 withdraw from activities like ballet or swimming because they feel embarrassed, 4 out of 5 ten year olds are worried about getting fat and half of women are avoiding beach holidays. This situation has always existed but we are more aware of it now so there is no excuse for inaction.
Women have fought to obtain equal status as men, yet there is one last mountain to climb, the one that allows us to be exactly what we want, without judgement or critique. We are so much more than waxing and manicures, heels and straightened hair yet so much of our time and energy are spent on that. Or there is the opposite extreme of businesswomen who feel they have to toughen up like men to do well. All of it is covering up who we are, as if we have to wear some kind of mask to be accepted.
The actual definition of beautiful is a quality that delights, or satisfies, something extraordinary. Interestingly the origin is from the Greek, 'being of ones hour', like a perfectly ripe fruit. It meant being full of brilliance. In ancient times a woman who tried to appear younger or older was not considered beautiful.
We have come to directly associate beauty with appearance over time, so that now no one would use the word to praise somebody's personality. Maybe that is the starting point, each of us this week need to use the word when talking about something non physical. We need to reclaim the word, something marvellous, amazing, outstanding.
We need to close our eyes and see the beauty.