The pressures on young girls

In a class a couple of years above me at my secondary school was the most beautiful girl imaginable.To those of us less physically blessed teenagers – she embodied all that we wished for. She became a model at about sixteen gracing the covers of the top fashion magazines. One day at assembly, the Headmistress said she had some sad news to give us. This girl, this beautiful being, had been found dead in a suicide pact with her boyfriend in New York.

Of course, I don’t know the story behind what happened – but it was a salutary lesson about how there is so much more to life and happiness than physical appearance.

We all have a hard time growing up. Some of it really painful. Much of it to do with will I be liked? Will boys ask me out? And even if they do -that never really assuages the self doubt. And even if it does – just wait until you next see the TV, read a newspaper or pick up a magazine. Look younger now, Be slimmer tomorrow. The pressure to be self-conscious and anxious about your image is nearly relentless – and that much harder to deal with the younger you are.

At the recent Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, I was invited to speak at a fringe meeting where the report ‘Under 10 and Under Pressure’ was launched. The Girl Guides along with Beat (the UK’s leading eating disorder charity) had commissioned research into girls between 7 and 10. It seems incredibly young – but there is an increase in eating disorders amongst this age group – and that’s only one aspect of the pressures so many young children seem to be under from our modern society and media And what kind of identity does Western society offer to women and girls? Why does this lead to such dramatic problems of self-esteem, such as depression and eating disorders?

Well – if you ask a woman what she likes least about herself, she will rarely say “I hate my personality”; instead she will say “I hate my teeth”, or thighs, or some other physical attribute. I am as guilty as the rest.

Of course, the younger a person is, the less capacity they have to counter negative influences, due to their lack of experience and intellectual maturity. Children will be influenced by myths of perfection much more easily than adults. And it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to resist, given that ever-younger demographics are being targeted by advertisers, acting on behalf of business wishing to sell products to a new market.

Now, it’s very easy to blame the media as regards promoting these superficial values, where physical perfection is prized over internal integrity. And certainly, the media IS the primary arbiter of our culture; its influence is ubiquitous and provides the benchmark by which we judge ourselves. However, laying the blame solely at their door is not desperately constructive.

The lifestyle of the pre-teens has been the focus of a relatively recent campaign of commercialization, including adult-style clothing and makeup at the same time as they have unprecedented access to the media via the internet.

So the pressure to become mini-clones and mini-consumers is immense – and the effect on some girls has clearly been the same as on their teenage counterparts.

The answer is to seek balance – to value forms of status other than simply appearance. So, friends, activities, sport, study – and just being a nice person – kindness, humour, gentleness – need to become valued virtues.

Part of the solution lies with the media – and what a fantastic service it is that the BBC provides with its CBeebies channel, allowing children to enjoy the best of what TV can bring – the fun, the entertainment, the education – without being subjected to a commercial barrage of advertisements. That is public broadcasting at its very best.

But the clear message from the research was how important peer relationships are to young girls’ self-esteem.

This is why girl-guiding, or groups such the Girl Guides are so important, as they offer the perfect environment for girls to develop in a safe and secure environment – helping them to improve and develop positive self-esteem and to see values both in life and in their compatriots that go beyond appearance.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007

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