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.