Body Confidence – Girl Guides

Today the Girl Guides are calling for warning symbols to be stamped on airbrushed pictures of models and actresses to curb a rise in eating disorders. They are launching an online petition for compulsory labelling to inform people whether an image has been digitally altered / airbrushed. It’s available on the Girlguiding UK website – and they expect 20,000 young women (and hopefully young men too) to sign up. I have sent them a message of support – and was pleased to see LibDem MP Jo Swinson on Sky talking about the importance of transparency and honesty in advertising.

The Girl Guides have done an incredible amount of work over recent years with their annual ‘attitude surveys’ and their most recent survey showed that girls as young as ten are worried about their weight.

Boys and men too, are becoming more and more under pressure  to have perfectly muscled and toned bodies leading to, in some cases, misuse of steroids.

In 2007 I posted this about the start of my relationship with Girlguiding and I am very pleased that they will be part of the first round table discussion on Body Confidence / next steps – in the late autumn.

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.

Body Confidence

The Sunday Times carried an article today by Marie Woolf on how the Liberal Democrat Body Confidence campaign which was founded by myself and Jo Swinson will be carried forward in government. In the coalition agreement – there is a reference to ‘responsible advertising and the commercialisation and sexualisation of children’. So it fits partly with that – but partly too – with the public health part of the agreement.

There is a growing army of programs, articles, etc because there is a growing awareness of the detriment caused. We always hear about eating disorders – but whilst there is some evidence of a connection in this regard – there are often more reasons than one for that devastating outcome. However, additionally, the constant pressure to look impossibly perfect, be like the skinny celebrities and conform to imposed stereotypes is creating a rising tide of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and so on.

Gok Wan’s ‘How to Look Good Naked’, Susie Orbach; Erin O’Connor, Debra Bourne and Caryn Franklin’s campaign: All Walks Beyond the Catwalk; Girl Guides with their campaign on anorexia and bulimia – and many more – all recognising the pressure now applied to women, girls and coming up fast – men too – to conform to impossibly perfect images.

In the last session, Jo and I held a seminar on Body Confidence. There are so many groups out there working on this issue – because of the constant and unremitting diet of false images that is fed to us and the harm it is doing. Backed by academics and the Royal College of Psychiatrists – the campaign to make advertisements honest and transparent, teach children media literacy, get fashion schools to teach students to cut a range of sizes, encourage more and different sports for young people – found itself joining up with a whole host of work in the same direction.

That seminar was pivotal. When we saw the work and the need for a joined up push back at the fashion, beauty, food , magazine and advertising industries being fought by individual Davids against these mega Goliaths – we brought it to last Autumn’s LibDem conference as part of our new ‘Real Women’ policy paper – where it passed. It was also in our manifesto at the election.

The Conservatives too, have been very concerned about the pressure particularly on young girls – hence the inclusion of all of this in the coalition agreement. 

In the autumn, we are gathering some of the key people who want to take this forward to a round table discussion on next steps. Amongst those will be representatives from: Girl Guides, YMCA, Mumsnet, All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, Susie Orbach and others.

We have no desire to impose regulation or restriction on advertisers or others – so we will be looking to work with the industries involved on a voluntary basis – in the first instance.