“Leave her be, it’s that time of the month.” “Pull your top up, you’re asking for it.” “That bloody Facebook, she never comes off of it.” No, you’re not being transported back to your teenage years in a horrendous and fairly unwelcome time warp. What you are reading are phrases mothers up and down the country throw about like a harmless plaything assuming their teenage girl’s susceptible sponge like ears are not going to drink up and absorb. Wrong. When a recent study found that 34% of girls aged 10-15 years old are unhappy with their appearance , the reaction it first received from most, mother or not (including me) was worry, sadness and frankly complete astonishment at how this figure could be so high compared to boys of the same age. But could the issue here be that there never actually was an issue until female adults decided that there has to be one?
Any mother reading this will probably completely disagree that it ever could be their fault that their daughter lacks in confidence in their looks, bolting to point the finger at social media, the celebrity showbiz generation, and the size 4 models donning all the Topshop clothes a teenage girl can want. And there’s no doubt that there is some truth to this. We’re drowning in images of diets (mostly consisting of avocado and quinoa), exercise and how to achieve the perfect body everywhere we turn. River Island recently launched a fitness clothing range for 3-15 year olds, responding to my dismay online saying “our aim is to promote healthy physical exercise”. Judge that one for yourselves. Fitbit is the new buzzword on the block, with my little sister, only 9 years old, wanting one “to count my steps as I walk around school because it’s fun.” And contour is the new black, with endless accounts, tutorials and videos telling you how to master that Kim K original look perfectly via those irritating ads on any social media app.
Michelle Elman, a life coach for teenage girls, says the increase in insecurity is twofold: “It is partially due to the fact that we see ourselves a lot more than usual. Ten years ago, you would have only looked at your reflection a couple of times a day but now with smart phones, we have become more and more aware of our appearance, to the point where it is actually impossible to be unaware of what you look like because photos are being constantly taken of us. These photos are then being uploaded and compared by likes and comments and therefore enhancing insecurities. The second reason is due to the unrealistic expectations portrayed in the media. With Photoshop being more accessible now, images we have assumed to be unedited such as celebrity Instagram photos are in fact digitally retouched.”
“Body image issues are leading to a rise of eating disorders, plastic surgery, and even bankruptcy.”
So, talking to three teenage girls aged between 10 and 15 as the Children’s Support study did, you would imagine the response to be fairly predictable. Wrong again. When I asked Mia Moore, 15 years old, between one and 10 how much do you care about how you look, she hesitantly said: “Probably 8- I don’t really care about how I look at home or when I’m around close friends. I’m the biggest pressure on myself because if I go out without make up or looking awful I’m going to know about it. If I came into school with dark circles and a spotty face I know people might look at me and I probably would feel more conscious about it. But I don’t mind putting on makeup- I find it enjoyable, and I feel better when I walk out the door.”
When I asked Sophie Scott, 12, she quite confidently said: “I care about 5 because people aren’t very nice and they can judge you about how you look. But I’m quite happy with how I look. Loads of people sit outside school putting on makeup but I just think you don’t need to.”
Her sister Jessica, 13, near enough agreed: “I don’t really care that much. If I’m meeting up with new people like my friends’ friends I do try to make a bit of an effort because I don’t want them to think I’m not nice, but I don’t think about it daily. I only really started wearing make-up because everyone around me did.”
I somehow felt like I was trying to squeeze an answer out of them, an answer that I assumed I would but didn’t get. Their mum, Claire showed me a picture of one of Jessica’s friends with a snapchat filter making her look so perfect that she didn’t look real, and said: “There’s a world of difference between some girls. She’s like that but Jessica would never post a picture like that.” Whether I fully believe her is hard to say. But body image issues are leading to a rise of eating disorders, plastic surgery, and even bankruptcy where people want to conform so badly that they live well above their means just so they can have the latest Mac lipstick.
“If you look at how women talk about other women it’s disgusting and girls are hearing that.”
Mia was the only girl who said anything near what you probably expected to hear. She told me casually how she was planning on having a nose job, saving up already, and couldn’t wait to get a part time job when she turns 16 so she can have it done the moment dawn breaks on her 18th birthday. When I asked her what was wrong with her nose – I genuinely thought it was absolutely fine, although who am I to speak when I’ve had two nose jobs – she laughed and said as if it was obvious: “Well, it’s huge! I’m a girl, I’m meant to have a cute button nose and men are meant to have big noses. It’s just the way it’s meant to be.”
And the question that everyone wants answered is who is to blame? It’s all too easy to blame the media, or the new online presence that young girls and boys can have, but if these were cut out of their lives would it make the statistic of 34% any better? Sarah Newton, a self-professed ‘teenologist’ talks to teenage girls day in day out about body image worries and mental health concerns, but brings a completely new argument into play, one that she knows is decisively unpopular amongst parents:
“How a mother talks to her daughter is the most impactful thing on body image ever. If a child has been bought up with her mother constantly saying things about other women, then of course when that child goes on social media it exasperates that. I did some research asking teenage girls who they think had the biggest influence on how they feel about their bodies and they actually said their parents. The media was there but the parents were almost double. If you look at how women talk about other women it’s disgusting and girls are hearing that. It’s “wear what you want, be empowered” then it’s “don’t wear that, that’s a bit too short” and its messed up and confusing. And that confusion leads them to not know how to feel about themselves and it’s easier to say I don’t really like my body than to look a bit deeper.”
It’s not even just the clothing talk, but diet chat as well. The Professional Association of Childcare and Early Years says staff have noticed children as young as three being worried about their appearance and even refusing food for fear it will make them fat, which is most likely influenced from overhearing that chat about ‘cutting back’.
This generation of girls are called ‘generation z’, born from 2001 upwards, and according to psychologists they’re emotionally intelligent and very aware of fitness and health (this explains the Fitbit), and they do care about what they eat, but it’s not in vain of having the perfect body, Sarah says: “They’re also obsessed with makeup but if you talk to a lot of them it’s a creative art form where you can make yourself look different. It’s really hard when we’re older to understand what they’re doing on Instagram. They’re not necessarily making the perfect selfie.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the pressure we all feel to look a certain way is the Body Positive movement, which has gained enormous momentum in the last year, with Dove’s ‘Real Women’ campaign, plus size model Ashley Graham being the first of her so called ‘shape’ to grace the cover of Vogue and Mattel releasing curvy, tall and petite versions of Barbie dolls. This movement encourages women out there to love their bodies, embrace how they look and overcome conflicts they have with their body image. Only if you’re larger though, of course.
“My daughter is a lot thinner than average, naturally. But because being a ‘real woman’ only focuses on being ‘curvy’ she says to me: “So am I not real?” I’ve gone out with my daughter, she’s 19, and she might be wearing something slightly revealing and women say awful things to her”, Sarah says. “We were going to this modelling competition and this mother said to her young child, about my daughter: “If you ever go out looking like that I’ll kill you.” We bash Victoria’s Secret models and we forget that there are actually young girls that look like that. Yet we’re too busy blaming social media because it can’t fight back. I think you need to stop blaming the media and start looking at how women are behaving in front of their children.”
“You grow up and you learn to love yourself, even though there might be that one thing.”
When I returned to listen to what Mia carried on saying after hearing Sarah Newton’s theory, it all seemed to fit together in an oddly coloured, but snug fitting jigsaw: “It’s worse going to an all-girls school because girls are bitchier. They are more critical, probably way more than boys ever would be. But I think social media is more of a fun thing, I’m not trying to impress anyone. I don’t think of anyone else when I’m uploading a picture. I think it’s all blown out of proportion because unless you have an eating disorder or something, girls aren’t as worried as people say. Everyone wants the perfect body, but it’s not as bad as they make it out to be. You grow up and you learn to love yourself, even though there might be that one thing.” That one thing being her nose which I’m determined to change, as her big sister.
But the jigsaw still has many odd shaped gaps that we’re yet to find the pieces to. Everyone wants a quick win to the puzzle and a straight forward solution to the problem, but the problem is much more varied than just giving a statistic of girls that are unhappy with their looks and blaming it on x, y and z. We can’t wholly blame social media- it’s a technology, not a person going around telling teenage girls they look bad. In fact, maybe that’s more of an issue on an adult’s social media profile, going solely on how many times my own mum feels under pressure to prove her family is happier than the house next door.
Victoria Beckham recently wrote a letter to her younger self (if you haven’t seen it have you been living under a rock?), telling teenage Vik to be confident in herself even though she’s different, to trust in her instincts and to accept her flaws as her best assets. What we need to do is take a leaf out of Victoria’s very well written page, and accept that most teenage girls out there know what they’re doing, they just need a bit of help and love along the way. Let’s just support other ladies out there, we still need all the help we can get! And above all, remember that these girls were, are, and eventually will be, us.