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Win £100 high street voucher! Join Q&A with Dr Susie Orbach about self-esteem and body confidence - ANSWERS BACK

(72 Posts)
HeatherMumsnet (MNHQ) Wed 02-Oct-13 10:49:00

We're running a Q&A this week with Dr Susie Orbach about body confidence and self-esteem issues of young adults and children. Susie is a practising psychotherapist, writer and co-founder of The Women's Therapy Centre.
Susie is also co-founder of The Women's Therapy Centre in London and has spoken at the UN on women and their bodies. Her books include Fat is a Feminist Issue and Hunger Strike. Shes happy to answer your questions this week on how you can help your child avoid the pressures of conforming to beauty stereotypes and feel confident with their bodies. Post your questions before Monday 7 October and youll be entered into a draw to win a £100 high street voucher. We'll upload her answers to this thread on 14 October.
The Dove Self-Esteem Project was founded in 2004. Their mantra is that beauty should be a source of confidence and not anxiety. The projects aim is to ensure the next generation of women grows up to be happy and free from misconstrued beauty stereotypes and the burden of self-doubt. They handle: friends and relationships, bullying, puberty and the role of the media. Susie Orbach is a co-originator of the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty and its related research into women and their relationship with beauty. 
The Dove Self-Esteem Projects goal is to improve the self-esteem of more than 15 million girls by 2015.
This Q&A is sponsored by Dove.

Fuseki Thu 24-Oct-13 21:31:28

I have a one-year-old daughter and a wondering just how damaging (if at all) things are that are marketed to and for children her age and a little older. I'm thinking of things like the all the 'princess' ideals and merchandise, baby and toddler 'dress-up' or play 'make-up' ranges, the toys and clothes that are earmarked for girls because they are pink and/or have an emphasis on friends, social networking, beauty, shopping, etc. over, say, building, learning and being physically active. To what extent are such things innocent fun, and to what extent are they priming our daughters to become obsessed with looks, overly sensitive to peer pressure, or susceptible to traditional gender stereotypes?

HeatherMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 22-Oct-13 12:44:23

Dr Orbach's answers have now been posted. Thank you to everyone who participated in the Q&A.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:42:49


Second what other people have said about perfect skin too. Dd has psoriasis and is very self concious about it. She is helped by other adults who have told her that they suffer from it too. It would help if there were positive images in the media of people looking normal with normal skin problems.

I think this is a brilliant idea. I know the earlier ads showed a woman with alopaecia, and another of a woman in her 90s so that kind of courage would be welcome again.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:40:57


The Dove real women advert is great in depicting different body shapes but they all still have perfect skin. I can't see any rashes, spots, veins, stretch marks, puckered skin, scars, blemishes, bruises etc and they all look smooth and moisturised with not a stray body hair or chin whisker in sight!

Do you think we still have an unrealistic image in advertising because advertisers are still not prepared to go all the way?

Yes I think that few ads will show women's funny marks on skin or stray body hairs because they are glamourizing the way women are portrayed. If we get more advertisers showing women of different ages and sizes and ethnicities and we become accustomed to really seeing variety maybe we will be able to push for the next level of authenticity! Chin whiskers is probably going it some but I am sure you are right to push for more nuanced images.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:39:44


Susie, do you think that the people portrayed on the Dove Esteem website are really diverse enough? I see no one who isn't slim (and no one athletic either), no one with a disability, no one with a different appearance (scars, birthmarks, hairloss, facial deformity), no one from a subculture such as goth, no one who isn't of standard/stereotype gender appearance etc.

I'm bringing my son up to believe that everyone should be proud to be who they are, and how they look, not what others think they should look like. But then, I'm a silver haired 41 year old who has extensive scars and a non functioning arm, who used to be entirely black clad, so I've had my share of comments

I too would like a maximum of diversity – whether it is freckles, skin colour and tone, size, shape, height, bespectacled, scars, age variety and especially people being active as in doing their job or portrayed studying rather than looking to camera.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:39:01


Hi Susie. I love your writing and have gained a lot from reading your books. However, I am a bit hmm about your involvement with Dove. They hardly promote a healthy body image! Granted it's better than most advertising campaigns, but still focuses on women's esteem coming from their physical 'perfection' (in this case, perfect skin). Also, they are part of the Unilever brand which also owns Lynx and they hardly present a healthy body image for either women or men!

For many years I have been trying to convince our government and others to do education for girls around emotional literacy, about body issues and so on.

In fact, I still do, and it is great that our Minister for Equality is interested in the devastating impact that the beauty, style and music industries can have on girl's perception of themselves and the opportunities that are missed for them to contribute to society.

Last year I went with the previous minister to UN Women to talk about how girls' bodies are being mined for profit and was upset to see how far globalism is associated with body hatred.

Working on all platforms – whether it is BBC on their Body Image season which had some wonderful films, but frankly some that I really objected to – feels politically important to me. So DOVE sits in this category for me; working with who will be committed to serious thinking about the role of the body for girls and women and delivering high quality programmes to schoolchildren.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:36:48


I was a chubby child and my mother hated it. She would constantly put me on diets and withold food whilst my brothers were allowed to have what they wanted. I look back at pictures and I was only slightly overweight when the dieting started but gained more weight as I was so hungry I would eat in secret. I am a healthy weight now but no thanks to my upbringing and it has affected my self esteem for life. I try really hard to not make food an issue at all for my dcs and always tell them they are cute, clever and special and try to build their self esteem all the time.

My question is

Can you recommend any really good role models for my dcs either real or in books/ the media who promote confidence. I thought the Olympics and Paralympics had some great role models but would love some other non sporty role models too. Thanks!

You write about what has happened to so many people. The process of going on a diet and getting bigger because one’s eating gets really out of whack.

In regards to role models I think girls choose their own and it is always interesting to find out who they are and what is attracting them so it is worth talking to them. Sometimes it will be a writer or a computer programmer or an actor or the nurse at the health centre. When they start talking about what they admire you could say" "X also has that quality and I really warm to her because of that."

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:35:14


Good afternoon Dr Orbach (Susie).

I'd like to say that 'Fat is a Feminist Issue' was a seminal read for me as a teenager and I have given a copy to my daughter, son and stepdaughters. I hope it will become as meaningful to them as it is to me.

I wondered if you saw The Times 'Style' magazine fashion spread yesterday (Sunday 6th Oct) in which a model who was significantly larger was photographed naked alongside a clothed model of the dimensions one has come to expect for fashion models. Despite the 'theme' being that of (clothed) artist and her (naked) model unfortunately the message I drew from it was of there being no high fashion clothing made in a size large enough to fit the larger model.

In the face of this, I have a niece of 9 living in Germany who is fashion crazy (the design and style aspect of the industry) and I wondered if you knew of any books about fashion/style that would convey a non negative message about what size or shape a stylish woman should be? I too adore fashion (especially the culture/history of it) but I do struggle with this industry that seems hellbent on erasing the body of the woman inside of its clothing.

Should I try to discourage this interest in my niece instead? She is already noting what a woman 'should' look like sadly in the eyes of European media.

Of course I am Susie...I never go by Doctor Orbach!

I didn’t see the Sunday Times but yes there is lots of work being done in fashion trying to broaden it which might interest your niece. There is ALL WALKS BEYOND THE CATWALK in the UK who are an organisation working with fashion schools to teach pattern cutting and interesting fashion so that the clothes match bodies and not the other way around.

There is also programme at Royston University in Toronto that includes this in their curriculum. There is also which works with young people to define their culture rather than be defined by it. It is important that fashion respond to those of us who aren’t catwalk sizes and prices.

I agree. The history of fashion is fascinating and would be a great thing to be taught in secondary schools.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:33:22


My 7 year old niece asks for clothes, toiletries and make up for presents and has done for the past few years. With Christmas coming up in a few months I'd like to know if I should avoid buying her things that put so much focus on her appearance, or is she just playing harmless "dress up"?

Dress up in costumes like Arabian Nights or kimonos or different national or ethnic dress might be the way to go with her.

She obviously loves appearance related presents but perhaps you worry that she is actually troubled about her body and is always trying to make it fit and make it perform. Talking with her and showing her different bodies in different cultures might be helpful to her and expand her interest in a new direction.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:31:49


I think peer pressure can be hard for the young ones, as they just want to fit in. What advice would you give on handling this?

Yes peer pressure is serious and they all experience it. Talking about how it is a pressure is the only thing to do really. Try to look at magazines or pop videos with her and see what she and her friends are responding to and then find ways to help her show her own talents.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:20:57


One of my daughter's friends is really, really focused on her appearance and in particular her weight. When she comes to tea she always leaves some, with the words 'I'm on a diet'. They're eight.

I don't think she is actually on a diet - she seems a healthy weight - but how can I gently indicate that we don't 'do' diets in my house, and crucially, prevent my daughter from 'learning' that girls and women are not good enough unless they conform to a narrowing ideal.

I think your idea of gently is important. You could just say of dear xx, "We don’t do diets in this house. We like to eat robustly when we are hungry and stop when we are full." That will be a novel idea to her if there is dieting going on in her home.

You might want to ring her Mum and just tell her – again gently – that her daughter is dieting and does she know as you see her as being a healthy weight.

Willemdefoeismine Tue 22-Oct-13 12:20:04

Thanks for the response to my question and those of other Mumsnetters too - very insightful!

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:18:40



My 11 year old daughter started secondary school last month and has to change for PE now in front of lots of new girls in the changing room, she has made a few comments about being a bit embarrassed to get changed then I caught her exercising in her room.
My daughter is a normal size not fat or thin. I tell her she has nothing to worry about. I said to her if she wanted to exercise then she could come to zumba class with me which she did last Saturday we both enjoyed it and had a laugh at the same time.

I don't want to belittle her feelings but is encouraging her exercise with me the right thing to do? I don't want to lead her to become obsessed with exercise or eating. Many thanks for any advice.

Sounds like you absolutely handled it beautifully. Obviously keep an ear and eye out for any serious increase in exercise desire and tell her there is a danger in over exercising. Limits are important.

Assuming she is ok, focus on the changing room. This is a good Dove video about girls in the changing room you could watch first yourself and then watch with her:

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:17:42


i have had problems with disordered eating for most of my adult life. although i am not ill anymore, and have a good healthy diet with balance, i know i do not eat 'normally' and still have a few hang ups here and there. how can i prevent passing this on to my dd? i have heard of so many dds going on to have eds because their mums have. it would destroy me. i am very careful not to mention weight, fat, thin, anything like that and not to link food with rewards, is there anything else i can do.

also, i was bullied in school because i was too skinny (pre ed) my dd has the same body shape as me - no matter how much she eats she is extremely thin. how can i prevent this becoming an issue for her. i think that because i was 'too' thin naturally and it was an issue for people and they always commented wether positively or negatively, then when i began to develop at puberty i couldn't handle it and an eating disorder developed. how can i prevent my dd going through this?

I think your awareness is half the battle and you can prepare her for puberty when the time comes. Say it is a funny time getting to have a woman's body and be preparing for having babies so many years in advance and explaining what a body has to go through, all done with a light touch, of course. Our bodies do change dramatically and it is both exciting and confusing. Her knowing that you know how both alarming and interesting it can be will be a real help.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:15:57


hi ive lost a lot of weight due to stress and have lost all my curves, have no bust and im very thin, i have lost all my body confidence i have two daughters and hide myself away getting changed etc, will this have an impact on them im worried that it will but not sue how to feel confident enough for them even to see me in my underwear,

Oh dear, sounds difficult. I hope you can start to regain your appetite and eat some more and feel a bit more confident. They must know you are stressed and you could lightly say, "I’ve lost too much weight and I’m trying to regain it as I feel too scrawny for me."

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:15:08


I am overweight and have around 8 stone to lose. I have no confidence and self esteem myself, I know I am not gorgeous like most women my age and I know men don't find me attractive.

I never wear make up etc as there just isn't any point.

How do I sort out my issues and ensure I don't pass them on to my own daughters?

Are you waiting to live until you are eight stone lighter? Can you risk doing the things you might want to do in this body? If you do, then you might get used to the things you avoid at present so that you and your daughters see you living a fuller life, and see that your body is not the only or central thing defining you and what you can be about.

If you want to become smaller, this then becomes a matter of how you eat, how you deal with difficult emotions, how you move or exercise. If you separate out these issues for yourself and don't complain about your size you are far less likely to pass negative things on to them.

There are some useful materials on self-esteem of your daughter at the Dove Self Esteem project website which might be worth a read.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:12:59


I am very overweight, I have 2 sons and a daughter. sons appear to be following their dad and are skinny. daughter is following me and is overweight. grandparents have noticed, one set has made comments to her. how do i arm her against the damage comments can do (ie bolster her self esteem) while promoting being a healthy weight? she is 4. ideally she'll lose extra weight over next year or so, but what to do in mean time? also, how do I explain my dieting without it affecting her eating patterns?

Does your dieting ever work? Or is it something that you've been doing on and off for years? Most diets are a prelude to weight gain in the long run whereas learning:
1)How to identify hunger
2)How to satisfy it (again please read ON EATING)
3)What to do when you are eating when you aren’t hungry will be the most important lesson for her and for you. Children mimic their parents. If she sees you depriving yourself one moment and then stuffing yourself the next, all the messages about losing weight will make no sense to her and simply add to her confusion.

What she would find helpful is to hear you say, "gosh I really fancy eating more of xxx but I realise I’m not really tummy hungry." You might also look into Health at Every Size who provide good ideas too.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:11:28


I think it is easier to boost self-esteem when children are younger, as they have such an important, dependent relationship with their parents.

My question is apart from keep repeating the same mantras of 'we are all different', 'you are amazing just as you are', 'beauty is on the inside' etc, how do we really support children to deflect other overt and tacit criticism from other people and the media?

We can’t avoid the impact of their world but we can be an anti-viral agent. Children feel most underpinned when you can say something specific about their attributes and their capacities or their place in development.

So being able to say to a 10 year old complaining about her tummy, "you are so lucky to be having a baby tummy while growing little buds" explains and turns things into something they can make sense of. You could go on to say, "we don’t know how your body will develop, it is all a surprise and things will feel funny for a while as you get wider hips and bigger shoulders which we do and we never know whether we will end up looking like Auntie Jane or Grandma."

As children become preteens, issues of identity and being like the others become crucial, so we see girls all blowing their hair straight and wearing the same clothes.

Once they’ve solved the problem of looking alike they then like to show their differences and uniqueness and this is a difficult developmental task we and they have to go through.

So something to say there might be, "I like the way you, and Sasha and Jess are all so on trend and yet so individual and different." That helps them know that you have understood them and then your other phrases will sound more authentic and not just "oh Mum of course you say that, you’re my mum."

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:07:14


Hello Susie,

I'll repeat what OmNom mentioned above!

My sons seem confident and happy about their body image so far.

The difference I've noticed when we have girls around to play is that he will talk about being strong and fit and wanting muscles, whereas the girls (only 7-10 years old) will talk about healthy eating to stay slim. I was shocked to hear this from such young girls. They also seemed a bit against the idea of a woman being physically strong, like Jessica Ennis (a great role model in my opinion) .

They are not my girls but I've discussed this many times over dinner. What other differences have you noticed?

I think girls and boys are still being exposed to women looking at camera pouting or prancing rather than seeing women doing things and this is part of what constructs the idea of slimness and prettiness. I agree with you, showing girls' strength is really important. This could be done through sports figures, as you suggest, but also by showing women working in a hospital or being gardeners etc. That is the way to represent women to both girls and boys.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:06:11



I've got two young-ish sons, neither of whom have any food/body issues that I know about - at least, not yet.

I know this is an issue that predominantly affects girls, but it seems to me that the pressures on boys are starting to mount as well. What are the things to look out for with boys as they go into adolescence and perhaps start to become more aware of physical ideals?

Boys are being sold similar rotten solutions to the problems of growing up as girls have been. You only have to look at the ads for Abercrombie to see that they are being presented with the same wan yet tough yet needy look as though that is a way to be in the world rather than act.

As boys develop and get interested in sexuality, they may well start to criticise girls or themselves as a way to work out their identity. The important thing is to tell them about their strengths and talk about how bodies go through enormous changes from 10 to 25 and that you don’t know what kind of frame they will have.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:04:10


Hi Susie,

I have a 5 year old DD who is starting to talk about 'not wanting to get fat' and about 'how pretty she is'. I have no idea where this has come from. I am overweight but do not diet and certainly do not talk about my weight, either to her or anyone else in the house. I'm happy with myself and my self esteem is very good.

I can only think it has come from things she sees around her and/or school friends.

I have told her that being beautiful is not the most important thing in life and that being caring and kind is. I don't want her to get hung up on her weight, ever, and certainly not at such a tender age. I find it very unsettling that she is even talking about it.

My question is what can I do to instill a healthy view of her body?

(P.s. she is not overweight. She is on the 25th centile and is well within healthy range weight/height. )

Could you try saying she is pretty and that you love the way her eyes sparkle, or whatever you find especially appealing, because denying beauty and prettiness in this beauty obsessed culture is probably quite confusing for her.

The important thing is to add in attributes that are about her personality so that pretty is simply a small description of who she is.

You could try looking at the characters she likes on TV and talk about why she likes them. There will be so many things you can say about their other attributes which will help her to see what she is responding to beyond the 'pretty' bit.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:02:33


I am shocked by the number of parents already referring to people/children as 'pretty' when speaking to toddlers. Judgment on perceived good looks starts very early which I find sad.

Any advice on use of the word pretty as a value judgment around toddlers?

Yes it has become commonplace to say to a toddler or their parent, "oh she’s so pretty or what a pretty little girl." I don’t think we are going to stop it but I think we can expand it, so when someone says that you could try adding in "and she has such energy and enthusiasm" or something similar so that pretty is not there to stand in for the whole of who that little girl is.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 12:00:51


We have a DD (8) (who happens to be very svelte, long-legged and has lustrous, long hair) who is already getting many remarks along the lines of "you're going to be a model when you grow up". Much as it's flattering for her, we are not the type of family to encourage our children to follow that type of career trajectory or indeed to consider themselves primarily in terms of their physical appearance. How as a parent can one positively help one's child so manage such compliments whilst at the same time ensuring that they don't become over-obsessed with their looks and see themselves in those terms?

I think laughing about it is a way to handle it. You have no idea what her body shape will be after puberty and neither do your friends. A way to go would be to reply: "yes, maybe you’ll be that, but maybe you’ll be an astronaut, physicist, geographer, writer, etc" - whatever she has a real yen and talent for.

You could also say "well it all depends on what kinds of bodies are considered beautiful – one might have to be very rounded as models and ballerinas were in previous eras" and again add in for her benefit as much as the people who comment: "She’s just as much of a Maths or French etc enthusiast."

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 11:58:36


Hi Susie, I have a son with body image issues, not a daughter,
He has various medical problems which result in him being overweight, and since starting High School he gets bullied quite a lot about this, especially as his ID twin is of "normal" build, and naturally people do tend to compare them alot,
DT1 says he is "fat because of me" (the medical issues were due to problems when he was developing in utetro) and gets very down about his weight, and refuses to eat at school because when he does, even if it is the healthy lunchbox I provide, other horrible children make grunting noises, immitating pigs. Then he comes home and eats whatever he can find from the cupboards/fridge,(I dont get home until an hour after the boys due to my work). The school have tried to help, but it just goes underground for a few weeks, then rears its ugly head again He has attended a "live well" course, and knows about healthy eating, but he eats when he is miserable, then he is miserable because he is overweight, its a vicious circle. Any advice for me to help him?

This is really difficult for him and for you. Of course, if he can’t eat at school he will be ravenous when he gets home and when one is starving it is a protective mechanism for the body to get in as much food as possible in the shortest possible time.

So the first issue is him not being able to eat at school and that really needs to be addressed. Can his twin try to protect him and tell the others to leave off? He really does need to be able to eat during the day. In fact he needs to be able to eat properly when he is hungry and stop when he is full. That may mean he is larger than his brother but that might be the correct size for him.

It seems as though he has a compulsive eating problem now which is compounded by feeling his size is all wrong and that he is eating for emotional reasons rather than for hunger.

You and he might want to look at my little book On Eating to see if it can be helpful. The exercises look simple but they are actually quite challenging and can help him find his own right way to eat with your help.

SusieOrbach Tue 22-Oct-13 11:56:31


And my niece who's only 6! Is self conscious of her weight. She says girls at school call her round belly, so she told her teacher who asked the girls to stop and makes sure that the girls go no where near my niece; but she still only eats half of her dinner, etc

This is an increasing and ghastly scenario. As more and more people become obsessed with body image, more people get bullied about the way they look, and it can start them on the path to being preoccupied with it for years.

People bully because they are insecure and it might help her to know that. It is good that she is your niece because you can speak to her and see if there are things at home that are having an impact on her, such as a lot of concern about diet and body shape which are making her feel she should not be eating with her appetite. Perhaps her mother is constantly dieting, or her older siblings, and she is getting the idea that this is a way to live when it is actually important for her growth and development that she eats well.

As to her round belly, children are meant to have round bellies so it is disturbing that the teacher isn’t teaching that in class rather than isolating her. It would be good to talk to the teacher and ask her to do something positive and affirming on body development. As a starter for ten, there are materials for teachers on the Dove Self Esteem Project website that might provide some useful inspiration.

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