Updated: May 3
Natasha Devon is a writer, media pundit and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme. She writes regularly for the Independent and the Sun and has a column in Cosmopolitan Magazine. She appears on Sky News, ITV Daybreak and BBC Breakfast commenting on matters relating to body image, education and feminism. In 2012, Natasha was named a 'Mental Health Hero' by the Mental Health Association and one of Ernst And Young's Top 50 Social Entrepreneurs for her work with young people.
Since 2008, I’ve worked with more than 30,000 teenagers of both genders in independent and state education throughout the UK. Of those, I’d conservatively estimate 90% of them had found a way to scrutinise and criticise one or more areas of their bodies. It’s these beliefs – That they are inadequate, flawed or ugly – That are often curtailing the potential of students and dominating much of their waking life.
What once was common or garden teen angst – The ‘am I normal?’ concerns churned over endlessly by agony Aunts in Jackie and Just Seventeen – now have a new and frightening face. The landscape of body image has been transformed by social media, by advances in technology that make all kinds of body modification both affordable and possible and by the monstrous marketing machines behind the ‘fitness’, ‘health’ and ‘beauty’ industries which deliberately exacerbate the insecurities of vulnerable people for financial gain.
Body Gossip, a charitable campaign I run with West End actress Ruth Rogers, is proud to include both men and women in the body image conversation. In honour of International Women’s Day, however, I’d like to take this opportunity to focus on girls and what we can do to boost their self-esteem.
Eight years ago, I could walk into any classroom of teenage girls and be confident that the vast majority of them wanted to be thinner. There would be the odd young woman with ‘hollow legs’, the sort that had always been able to endlessly cram junk into her mouth and never gain an ounce who was self-conscious about her lack of 'curves', but by-and-large the conversation revolved largely around diets and weight loss. In a few areas of the country, it remains this way.
For most, however, what is considered ‘aspirational’ in female body shape is now dictated by the likes of Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Rhianna et al. A kind of contrived, constructed ‘curvy’ which isn’t ‘curvy’ at all, actually – rather the same enforced miniscule dress size with a few lumps strategically placed in traditionally 'sexy' areas.
An entirely flat stomach is still mandatory, as is the ever-elusive ‘thigh gap’, but now in addition women are expected to have coke-bottle-esque hip-to-waist ratio, an impressive rack and a bottom you could balance a plate on.
No one is naturally built this way, it’s a shape which excludes both the slender and the curvaceous from the beauty paradigm, the cumulative effect of which is that everyone feels like they don't measure up. Great news for the plastic surgeons, diet-mongerers and gym emporiums, of course.
Speaking of gyms, ‘fitness’ is now a word on most teenagers’ lips. Six pack abs and muscular arms, once the remit of their male counterparts, are now sought after by girls. Look on any young woman’s Facebook page and you’ll invariably find a ‘sponsored link’ featuring a dismembered and extremely muscular female body part and challenging them to test their ‘strength’ through a fitness app or suchlike. Advertisers have essentially replaced the word ‘thin’ with ‘toned’ – It can be just as toxic, but sounds better when you’re trying to justify it to your parents.
These are the same parents who might read the Daily Mail and have bought entirely into the notion that ‘health’ can be assessed visually. The idea that slim automatically = healthy and fat = unhealthy is so all-pervading now that even the medical profession are under its spell, to the extent that patients with severe eating disorders are being dismissed from GP surgeries because they aren’t deemed ‘thin enough’. So it’s little surprise, then, that when I ask my students how we ascertain whether a person is healthy, they’ll invariably suggest hopping on the scales or measuring BMI before asking any sort of questions about lifestyle.
I once had to sit with a young woman in a lunch hall for 2 hours whilst she meticulously carved pieces of raw broccoli and cauliflower into 3 millimetre chunks before she would admit that she was in the grips of anorexia and this was not a ‘raw food health plan’ she’d seen espoused in a celebrity magazine.
Add into this tumultuous and often contradictory mix the effect of 24 hour internet access - which over-stimulates, subjects young women to the instant judgement of their peers and contains entire tumbler accounts devoted to worshipping the ‘bikini bridge’ (involving one’s bikini bottoms balancing precariously from one’s protruding hipbones when one is lying down) and what you are left with is a confusing situation upon which it's my role to pour some clarity.
You might be surprised to learn, then, that the most effective weapon in my arsenal is encouraging students, teachers and parents to move conversations with young women AWAY from body image. Yes, it's important that they learn about Photoshop, advertising, health, and nutrition which are all touched upon in our class, but by far the largest chunk focuses on psychology and the various ways we programme ourselves into patterns of self-hatred.
For, when we compare ourselves to others, whine about a particular body part or wish we looked different, what are we really saying? We're saying I feel frustrated, or depressed, or inadequate. We are asking for reassurance, not of what we are but of who we are. We are asking to be valued as more than the sum of our parts. What we receive in return, a superficial compliment, a 'no you're not' or a 'don't be silly, you're gorgeous', doesn't even touch the surface of where it is needed.
Whereas the issue with male teens is that they are hardly ever given the opportunity to talk about body image, girls discuss it so much that the abnormal is normalised. Our response is to on the one hand tell them they are beautiful and 'perfect' just as they are whilst in the next breath that looks aren't important, anyway. All of which brings the conversation swiftly back to aesthetics, reinforcing the notion that looks are very important indeed.
Instead, we should concentrate our efforts in acknowledging, validating and rewarding the things that REALLY make young women extraordinary. Thing like kindness, bravery, humour and strength of character rather than strength of abdominal muscle.
The language we use has such power in shaping the way women see themselves - far more subtle yet arguably more influential than any picture. This has been recognised in the US, where the Girl Guides are calling for a ban on the word 'bossy' because it's so often used in situations that prevent infant girls from developing leadership skills.
Tone is equally important. I hear young women described as 'feisty' and 'opinionated' in derisory, disapproving tones which leave me in no doubt those adjectives are being used critically. As a writer who makes her living from being outspoken about contentious issues on a daily basis, I find this somewhat perplexing.
By making an effort to change the culture of language in our schools, boarding houses and homes, we can talk our young women into a more confident future. We can build their self-esteem from the inside out, allowing them to see their bodies for what they really are - the icing on a complicated and wonderful cake.