Bring back body confidence
This week it's Eating Disorders Awareness week and our guest blogger Natasha Devon thinks teenage self-esteem has hit an all-time low. The co-founder of the Body Gossip campaign says parents can't be the only solution. She explains why she visits schools to teach teenagers about body confidence.
Britain’s youth are in the grips of a low self-esteem epidemic. What was garden variety teenage angst has a new, far more frightening face. It's this week, which serves as a stark reminder of the confidence issues teens still have about eating and their bodies. The internet, increasingly sensationalist television programmes, aggressive advertising, growing materialism, airbrushing, normalisation of dangerous behaviours surrounding food and exercise and the expectation of having cosmetic surgery have all eroded the confidence of our young people. Teenagers are now exposed to dangerous coping mechanisms such as self-harm, eating disorders, bullying, body dysmorphia and depression.
I consider self-esteem education to be an essential part of any school’s curriculum. That’s why in 2008 I founded ‘Gossip School’,
part of the Body Gossip
© campaign for positive body image, which delivers hour-long self-esteem classes into schools, colleges and universities throughout Britain.
The effect of low self-esteem on young people in the UK is so widely reported. In the past year alone studies have been published revealing that suicide is the most common cause of death in men under 25; in any average classroom, three students will be self-harming; and 1 in 10 people under 25 will develop an eating disorder. Just this month, Channel 4 showed the documentary ‘Gok’s Teens: The Naked Truth’
, which I took part in and which shed even more light on the matter.
But what hasn’t been reported is how young people’s self esteem issues are affecting a generation of parents. A few weeks ago, I presented my self-esteem class to a group of mothers in a school in Surrey, having taught their children during the day. I witnessed first-hand the turmoil they faced. Often believing themselves to be ‘too close’ to have a positive impact, these parents were convinced that their children must have suffered abuse or trauma which they had failed to notice. Meeting these parents, who were hand-wringing, white-faced, tight-lipped and beside themselves, was one of the most heart-breaking experiences of my life.
So, for all those parents who recognise themselves in the description above, here is some good news: helping your child towards a healthy and happy future is now a team effort. Teachers have never been more aware of the situation and from what I have seen, many are providing excellent and extensive pastoral support. Then, there are individuals like myself who swoop in and out of your child’s life, providing a fresh perspective, opening the door for them to think differently, providing a segue into honest discussion, inviting them to be frank and honest with someone they never have to see again. You might not be the first person your child speaks to about self-esteem related problems, but there are responsible people out there who can be. You are not alone.
When it comes to discussing the self-esteem issue, your own attitude to your body and self is crucial. If you tell your child they are gorgeous, but then criticise your own physique, for example, you’re giving them the message that a developed adult body is unacceptable and something to be avoided. Your own past experiences are also valuable. Saying “you know, when I was about your age, I went through a growth spurt and remember feeling really awkward for a while” is a lot easier and less accusatory than saying “I’ve noticed you seem really self-conscious recently, anything you want to talk about?”.
When it comes to lack of body confidence and low self-esteem, mothers are relentlessly blamed. Time and time again, the finger is pointed in mums’ direction. This is both unjust and counter-productive. There are far more sinister factors at work – like huge industries with billions pound budgets specifically dedicated to making your child feel inadequate, hence devoted to a lifetime of consuming their products in a bid to conform to a terrifyingly narrow beauty standard.
What is helpful is a new book we read at Body Gossip – ‘Hope with Eating Disorders’
by mother and counsellor Lynn Crilly – a book for parents who want to be given genuine understanding, unbiased guidance and, above all, the support they deserve.