Are we developing a generation of women who will grow up hating their bodies? 

 

Last week I was asked to pop over to my local TV station That’s Manchester to give my opinion on a recent study, which devastatingly showed that children as young as three are developing body image issues. The study centred around Disney – and in particular its recent blockbuster movie Frozen.

This was easy and difficult for me to comment on at the same time. Because whilst undoubtedly Frozen is having this effect on a number of children, I can’t honestly say that I believe Disney alone is a root cause for this worrying trend of body image issues developing at increasingly young ages.

My serious body image issues were formed over years of bullying. Consistently being singled out and told you’re fat, ugly and not worthy of anybody’s time or respect because of the way you look understandably destroys any positive feelings you have about yourself. But looking back further than that to my childhood I never thought about how I looked. I never compared myself to others, never considered that I may not be ‘pretty’ or ‘normal’. I was busy being a child – playing with my mates, going to dance classes, messing about in the garden playing with frogs and snails. I loved Disney – and never compared myself to the bodies and appearances of the princesses – in fact I don’t even think I noticed them. I didn’t become aware of my appearance until it was pointed out to me at school.

A wider issue of how women are presented to the world and how we as women form our opinions of who we are and how we ‘should be’ in society certainly incorporates Disney and Barbie and all these other toys and forms of media which demonstrate women’s place in the world in a very singular way. But concentrating on body image alone I think this has to be a wake up call for society on many different levels. This is just Frozen. Imagine if we were to conduct a general study taking into account all the negative media influences our children are exposed to.

This is the thing. The issue for me with this study is that it doesn’t take into account all the other negative influences we place upon young girls in terms of body image. Increasingly they’re exposed to and look up to celebrities, encouraged by our society-wide obsession with image as adults. Aside from the likes of Megan Trainor and Adele who do we see in the mainstream media aimed at kids who represents anything near ‘normal’ (or at least that isn’t ‘perfect’ or ‘skinny’)? Pop stars all look the same – glowing tanned skin, slim curves, long thick hair extensions, piles of make-up. This manufactured, ‘one size fits all’, ‘there’s only one way to be’ kind of beauty trend has been around for ages. But now it’s influencing our children, because they’re much more aware of other people’s appearance and their own at a much younger age.

The problem with today’s ‘beauty’ is that it’s increasingly manufactured. Whether it’s with wigs, make-up, surgery or photoshop, what we’re seeing is hardly ever real. Yet so many adult women I speak to think it is. They scroll through Instagram and feel bad about themselves. They have absolutely no idea that images are doctored – that the women we see have had lip fillers, implants, veneers. We’re powerless to change who we are – so what’s the point of endlessly looking at and comparing ourselves to other people? When I stopped using social media in a personal capacity and reading magazines my body image anxiety became noticeably better – and this is definitely something I’d pass onto my own children. But as mothers if we are unaware and practice this behaviour then we normalise it for our children. If we are aware that society is set up to make us feel bad (and spend money on diets, make-up and surgery to ‘make ourselves better’) we can explain this to them and warn them. We can demonstrate the difference between photoshopped and natural, filtered and unfiltered, surgery and no surgery. We can emphasise health and happiness over ruining our bodies or starving ourselves to conform and look a certain way.

Social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are also encouraging girls below the age of ten to become obsessed (whether that’s unhealthy or not) with image – with taking photos of themselves and each other. I never really knew how I looked at that age – I rarely even looked in the mirror. Now we’re seeing girls taking selfies aged 8 looking 18. Music videos are over-sexualised, with beautiful young women placed on pedestals. Subliminally all of these things are going to have a devastating effect on the mental health of the next generation of women.

Already we’re seeing an increase in mental health issues amongst children at earlier ages. This isn’t confined to body image issues or eating disorders – but I definitely think that this focus on image and presenting your own personal brand to the world for all to see (and to judge) isn’t healthy mentally.

I know that as well as the constant bullying I experienced media at the time had a role to play in my developing Anorexia, too. The unwavering focus on dieting and body shape and weight and what celebrities were eating (and what we ‘should’ eat) gave me this belief that dieting was normal – it was what I should be doing – especially when I was being called fat. Add to that a raft of celebrities all with sinewy long legs, washboard abs and tiny waists and I didn’t stand a chance. But that was at a time without social media – without 24 hour TV – without the internet in all its glory. No smartphones, no selfies. I wasn’t always watching TV or reading magazines – but minimal exposure had a profound affect on me and my perception of my body and food. So how do these girls stand any chance at all of having a normal relationship with themselves?

The bottom line here is that we all have a responsibility. It can’t just be down to parents – because as a parent you’re up against the world and you can’t protect your child from every outside influence – especially in a society which is now set up this way. For me as an Anorexia survivor one of the most worrying findings from the study was the way in which the girls’ concerns over how they looked (and how they compared to Elsa) affected their eating habits. Are we going to wait for an epidemic of eating disorders, malnourishment and a generation hooked on yo-yo dieting? Or are we going to do something about this, set an example, campaign against the brainwashing we are exposed to day in, day out by the media?

I still struggle now so I avoid my triggers- and that’s as someone who is completely aware of photoshop and this mental manipulation. None of us are completely immune to this as adults. So how can we expect our children to be?

I don’t focus Tough Cookie on children. But actually what I want to do is to share my knowledge and change the perspective of my own generation as well as those before and after – because we are the ones with the power to change things. Armed with knowledge we can educate children and explain why this mentality is so wrong. Together, we can really make a difference.

 

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Self-Esteem in 60 Seconds – Beautiful Means Nothing

I’m 24 – but since the age of 11 I’ve struggled to believe that I am ‘beautiful’. This is despite the fact that for half this time people have told me otherwise.

This video is about highlighting how superficial and false ‘beauty’ is. We see ‘beautiful’ people and we want to look like them – for recognition, for confidence, for security. But inside those people don’t always agree with your admiration. Inside they may be unhappy, insecure, depressed. So really, outer beauty has nothing to do with happiness. It’s inner beauty you need! Find out why here:

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Self-Esteem in 60 Seconds – There’s More Than One Type of Beauty

It’s fair to say we’re constantly sold one idea of beauty by society. But it’s also fair to say that this image changes depending on where we live, and who we hang out with! Therefore how can you not be beautiful??

Someone, somewhere wants what you’ve got. You may not know it, but somewhere in the world you are considered to be particularly beautiful. Just because the world you live in worships other types of beauty or doesn’t see your worth, doesn’t mean you’re not pretty or worth love! This video is all about remembering that you ARE beautiful – no matter what.

 

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Self-Esteem in 60 Seconds – Letting Go of Perfect

‘Perfect’ (in every sense – not just physically) has a massive role to play in the development of Anorexia, Bulimia and other mental health problems. I’m a perfectionist, and this has definitely contributed to and exacerbated my conditions over the years. Concentrating purely on our aesthetic perception of ourselves though, perfect is something we’re taught is attainable. We’re made to feel as though we ‘should’ be perfect, and anything less is ‘ugly’. But wait – there’s no such thing as perfect – so how can this be? It’s easy to know that you shouldn’t be striving for perfect – deep down, everyone knows it can’t exist, and everyone’s version of perfect differs from the next. But it’s harder to let go of that concept we’ve fallen in love with. In this video I briefly explain how I let go and how you can, too!

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Self-Esteem in 60 Seconds – Find One Thing

Here’s my latest video for Self-Esteem in 60 Seconds, based on one of the chapters in my body image book Tough Love. I found that identifying just one thing I liked (a TINY thing!) forced me to believe that there could be other things, too. We’re often encouraged to ‘love ourselves’ – but self love is difficult when you’re battling personal demons which cause you to feel bad about yourself. So let’s start with like – and one thing, rather than everything!

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My Golden Rules for better self-esteem

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 better self-esteem

I set up Tough Cookie because I spent well over 10 years hating myself. For some reading this that might not sound like a long time, but when you consider that I’m only 24 and I started when I was 11 you can see why in relation to my life as a whole this is significant – it’s pretty much 50%!

A few years ago I started changing things for myself. I realised that I was never going to love my life (or myself) if I continued, and without at least a little appreciation for who I was, I wouldn’t be happy and achieve the things I wanted to achieve. So slowly but surely I started to make small changes – changes which eventually snowballed until I reached a point of what I like to call ‘semi-self-acceptance.’

Now this doesn’t mean I’m ‘better’. It doesn’t mean that everything is great inside my head now. It doesn’t mean I don’t still have body dysmorphia or struggle with how I look. But it does mean that I am no longer imprisoned by my own self-hatred. It means I can live my life day to day and manage the negative thoughts I sometimes have about myself. And it means that if I can, you can too!

 From those small changes I developed my ‘Golden Rules’ to help people in similar positions to me to develop better self-esteem. I talk about these in Tough Love (in fact, the book is filled with tips like this) but for the purpose of this blog I wanted to condense the things I’ve learnt and use every day down into a few simple steps you can follow to help you on your way to semi-self-acceptance.

Stop comparing

Comparison is single-handedly one of the WORST things you can do to yourself. It’s a great way to destroy your self-esteem, as generally when we compare we do so to find some sort of fault in ourselves and a positive thing in other people.

It’s likely you’re making comparisons with others without even knowing it. Staring longingly at a celebrity’s abs in a magazine, feeling jealous of your friend’s hair, looking at other people’s skin because you feel as though yours is bad.

 Firstly, you’ve got to be aware of what you’re doing before you can combat it, so try to pay attention to yourself when you’re feeling bad and see whether that’s because you’re feeling negative about what you have because of something ‘positive’ somebody else has. Then when you find yourself doing this remember one thing you like about yourself (more on this in a second). You might feel as though there isn’t anything – but there will be one thing, however small. If you’re struggling to do this, then removing the trigger that causes you to compare may be a positive step to take – and this could be reading trashy papers, trawling diet sites or social media.

 

Avoid social media

Social media is toxic for a number of reasons. Generally I have come to hate the concept of it and the behaviour it encourages – from a mental health perspective and in a personal capacity. It’s  exacerbates insecurities and   . But where self-esteem is concerned it can be especially harmful.

I understand that for some people, cutting out social media is like chopping off a limb. And by ‘avoid’ I don’t necessarily mean you have to cut it out completely – not if you don’t feel you need to. But you really need to be honest with yourself here. Does social media add something to your life, or does it take something away from you? Does it make you feel inadequate? Does it encourage you to focus on everything you don’t have and forget about the qualities and good things you possess?

Social media is filled with images of ‘perfection’. It’s designed to help people boast about themselves and their lives. You’ll rarely see things shared and loved which are ‘ugly’ – i.e, less than perfect. Where does that leave those of us who aren’t ‘perfect’ then? Don’t forget that what you see online isn’t reality. It’s a carefully-constructed version of reality which is 100% going to make you feel bad by comparison.

I found myself constantly comparing without even realising it, feeling as though I couldn’t stop. I was almost addicted to scrolling through Instagram and twitter, following models and ‘hot girls’ accounts, hoping that through looking at the images and links I could better myself, I could look and be like them. Obsessively

 More on why I quit social media for better self-esteem here.

 

Assess potentially damaging situations

I know when I am going to be in a position which may trigger my insecurities. But we can’t go through life avoiding everything – even if we want to. Some situations I will actively avoid if they serve no purpose other than to make me feel bad (I stopped attending modelling castings for example), but for those which are unavoidable (or things I should definitely be present for) I have to put protective measures in place to help me to cope in case I feel bad (thinking about a positive thing I like to counteract comparison when I’m going to be in a situation which causes me to compare, reminding myself that beauty is subjective, remembering that often what we see is fake and manufactured if I’m watching a movie or a television programme I would normally avoid). If you suffer social anxiety because of body dysmorphia also remember that it’s never as bad as you think it is – and you may even end up feeling better after you take a leap of faith.

 

Don’t give a shit about what other people think

 This one’s hard – I know that. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that happiness is never achieved through trying to please others. You life and worth should be based on doing the things you love with people you don’t fear judgment from – but unfortunately social media and other modern-day social conventions often make us feel as though our lives are lived for the approval of others. Whether you’re being bullied or constantly worry about how you come across to others, remember that their opinions really don’t matter. Enjoy being you and work on being comfortable in your own skin without compliments and approval from other people.

 

Find something you like

This has been really helpful for me on my own journey to better self-esteem – and although you might at first think (just like I did) ‘what the hell is there to like?’ actually you’ll find something. And once you find one thing, you open the door to others. 

I started aged 17 with my nails. I always got compliments on them – they were long and strong and square – they looked artificial but they were all mine. At the time I thought that was all I had going for me, so when a friend asked me: ‘tell me one thing you like about yourself.’ I thought long and hard and came up with my nails.

Aged 21 I (finally) felt able to change my mind over my thighs and my arse – parts of me which had been a big problem for me for ten years. Aged 23 I felt able to stop weighing myself. Now aged 24 I don’t feel as anxious about how I look. Starting with something so small as my fingernails actually helped me on my journey to self-acceptance – or at least semi-self-acceptance – so choosing one thing you like as a starting point can be really valuable.

You can see that my journey wasn’t an overnight change of heart. It took me a while to accept myself (mostly) as I am. But starting with one thing allowed me to consider others – and over time this snowballed until I came to love parts of myself I never thought I would.

 

Stop monitoring and weighing yourself

Throw away the tape measure, the weighing scales, the calipers. Stop scrutinising yourself and basing your worth on a set of numbers. When I had Anorexia I spent a long time in the mirror or just staring at myself to see whether I was ‘thin enough’ yet. Weighing myself had become a way to obsessively monitor myself but also to feel better or worse depending on whether I achieved my goals. This started with the diets I went on aged 12 and finished only a few years ago when I realised that my obsession with weight did nothing to benefit me mentally or physically. I always looked the same, even when my weight fluctuated dramatically. The only thing that made me feel different (usually bad) was the number on the scale, so I ditched them. You can read more about why I stopped weighing myself and why here.  

Ready to get better self-esteem? Need help implementing the Golden Rules? Take a look at Tough Love here.

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YASP

National UK mental health charity Mind have always been one of my favourites. That’s because I see them actively doing things to help people in this country with a variety of mental health issues – unlike other charities who have funding ploughed into them only to squander it or not to offer valuable and important help to the vulnerable people they should be supporting (I’ll name no names here!)

Recently I got involved with Manchester Mind’s YASP initiative – which specifically works to improve the network of help available for young people in the North West of England. Whilst I do go into schools, colleges and charities independently to talk about my experience and share advice on nutrition, body image and eating disorders, I am currently also go in with the YASP team to talk about mental health and wellbeing in general.

As part of what I do in schools I also speak with teachers, peer mentors and pastoral staff to help them to be aware of the issues which can contribute to somebody developing anorexia, signs to look out for and things they can do to help.

If you find yourself with nowhere to turn to, I really do recommend looking up Mind as well as other charities who specifically deal with eating disorders. If you’re based here in the North West, YASP in particular offer counselling, activities, work experience and mentoring – all of which can be really helpful if you feel as though you are helpless or struggling without anything to do or work towards. If you’re in another part of the UK or Ireland, (or overseas) you can find a list of helpful charities below.

Whatever you need support with, you can find more details about helpful charities here.

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Pure FM Interview

A couple of weeks ago I was honoured to be asked to help with a special programme on Stockport’s local radio station Pure FM’s evening talk show. The aim was to raise awareness of the rise in eating disorders in the UK generally, and to share my own experience and advice with people in the local area. If you fancy having a listen then please click play below or follow the link – like the interview with That’s Manchester it allows me to reach more people to share my message of hope and positivity, and allows you to hear me chatting about what I do and why I do it.

http://podcast.pureradio.org.uk/index.php?id=2661

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How to be kind to yourself

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When was the last time you paid yourself a compliment (or accepted one from someone else)? ‘Oh, I look nice today.’ Or ‘My hair is great!’ I’m guessing you might be struggling to remember?

One of the main themes I explore in Tough Love is this difficulty we have with liking ourselves – and treating ourselves with kindness as we would a friend. That’s why I thought this would be a fab post topic – especially as the nights set in and the Christmas food fest looms. Are you ready to learn a few quick tips on how to be kind to yourself?

Stop comparing

I dedicate a whole chapter in Tough Love to this, because it really is something we all do without thinking which makes us feel bad. Scientific research has shown that our brains process our own image differently to images of others. What this means is that your less than favourable opinion of yourself in comparison to other people is down to chemistry – not because you are any less beautiful. We rarely come off better when we compare – so try to keep the focus on you and what you are doing rather than on how other people look.

Identify one thing you like

In the book I dedicate a whole chapter to this, too! We spend so much time finding and thinking about things we don’t like that we often forget to identify something we like. Take a look at yourself and try to be impartial and non-critical just for one second. Is there anything you like? Perhaps it’s your nails, or your eyes, or your big toe. If you’re struggling, how about noticing something you don’t hate? That’s a step in the right direction. You might learn to like it more once you notice it.

Focus on what really matters

We’re taught that our outside appearance is the ‘be all and end all’ – but actually, it’s a very very small part of who we are. Although undoubtedly the way we appear to others is important, we don’t need to lay so much store by it – and even less so when it effects the way we live our lives. I always find it sad that people will miss a fantastic event because they are so busy trying to snap the perfect selfie – or sacrifice time they could spend with family and friends or doing something they love agonising over outfits and make-up and hair. I’ve been there, and I’ve done it, and I know how miserable it is to be obsessed with ‘perfect beauty’. It doesn’t exist – and what’s more, the ‘holy grail’ of satisfaction you’re striving to achieve will never match up to the euphoria of doing something you love, or that warm fuzzy feeling inside when you sit and enjoy gossip with friends or take off on holiday and bask in the warm sun. You matter – as a human being – and that includes all of you, not just what’s on the outside.

If you need more encouragement, support and tips on how to see yourself in a better light, take a look at Tough Love here.

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