I'm Not Surprised 17% Of Young Women Miss School Or Work Because Of Their Appearance – I'm One Of Them

More than two million girls are missing education or employment opportunities because our society values women’s appearance as their social currency.
Getty Creative
Getty Creative

When it’s happening I don’t even realise I’m doing it.

It feels like my conscious brain switches off and autopilot takes over – a fog descends for two or three minutes as I stand stationary in front of the mirror. When I come round I notice I’ve hacked away half of my face with my fingernails. Again.

I wouldn’t characterise myself as having skin picking disorder (known medically as dermatillomania) most commonly triggered by anxiety or stress, according to the NHS. But I definitely fall prey to compulsive skin picking from time to time. Normally around my period when hormonal spots can rear their head and I can’t resist the urge to try and ‘smooth out’ or ‘quickly fix’ the problems I see.

I never feel better about myself afterwards. In fact, within a matter of seconds I turn my face from something I’m happy to show without makeup into something I find utterly humiliating and a source of deep shame.

On the one or two worst occasions this has resulted in creating such a mess – exacerbated by my pale Irish skin which does nothing to conceal the redness – I can’t leave the house. I can’t go to work, I cancel all social plans, and the only person I hang out with is my partner who reassures me “it’s really not as bad as you think”. And the truth is, he’s right.

“These aren’t the fears of immature or image-obsessed women. This is a result of a society which values women’s appearance as social currency.”

I don’t suffer with long-term skin problems like acne nor am I a teenager who has to face the stares of potentially-judgemental peers. I’m an adult woman, well-respected by my colleagues who I’m fairly sure would never dare talk about my appearance behind my back. But I still can’t bring myself to face them.

Given this, I’m not surprised that, according to a new poll by Plan International, 17% of young women aged 14-21 have missed school or work in the last 12 months because they felt self-conscious about the way they look, including things like their weight or skin conditions.

A fifth of those polled said they have avoided public speaking; 9% have missed a job interview or not participated in a lesson because of the way they look. And, just like me, 25% have not left the house even to go the shop or for a walk on their own. A huge 69% of girls have avoided at least one social, school or work activity. This equates to a huge 2,030,706 girls missing out.

But these aren’t the fears of immature or image-obsessed women. This is a result of a society which values women’s appearance as social currency.

In the UK it is still not illegal for employers to impose dress codes on just female employees, such as making them wear high heels. It was seen as big news in March 2019 that Virgin Atlantic finally conceded female cabin crew could go makeup-less to work and still do their job. Even a man seen as one of the most enlightened figures in the world, the Dalai Lama, reckons a woman needs to look hot to be worthy of a spiritual position such as his.

And this narrative has a tangible, detrimental impact on women’s prospects. Numerous studies have found the way you look does matter professionally: one survey reported by Forbes found hiring managers most frequently select candidates who are young, thin, Caucasian and brunette. Only 15.6% of those in the survey said they would hire an overweight woman and only 15% would consider hiring a woman who had frowned during the interview process.

“Women tread a fine line between being attractive but not being seen to care about the way they look..."”

Another study by the University of West Scotland, which asked hirers to review a selection of Facebook profiles for candidates, found women are more likely to be judged on their appearance and men on content. Other research found women who take more care of their physical appearance earn higher incomes because they’re seen as more valuable – a clear signal to women that they need to look good or face the consequences.

But at the same time, you need to take care not to seem like you care too much about your appearance or that could go against you – with studies suggesting vanity can make you seem less capable or qualified for your positions. Quite simply – women tread a fine line which they cannot win.

And this isn’t just something you find out when you enter the workplace. A study by Girlguiding found girls as young as seven believed they are valued more for their appearance than for their achievements or character.

So when we hear one in six of our young women is removing herself from education or from the workplace, places where she is empowered to learn and progress, because she feels ugly, we should take note.

This isn’t the fickleness of youth or ‘selfie-obsessed snowflakes’. These young women hold a mirror to the insidious sexism that runs deep in our society.

Sophie Gallagher is a life reporter for HuffPost UK. Follow her on Twitter at @SCFGallagher

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