The lesson my five-year-old daughter taught me about body image

Society, media and culture have an adverse effect on girls' understanding of beauty as they get older

Ballet dancers performing in front of mirror in pink leotards and tutus (Courtesy: James & Alex Dance Studios)

In the summer of 2016, a furore broke out across London, the UK and ultimately the world. The London Underground’s walls had been plastered with posters of a woman in a bikini along with the question “are you beach-body ready?”. Women were enraged by these posters and roundly rejected the notion that only certain body types were acceptable for them to enjoy the beach. "I have a body," many women seemed to be saying, "which means I am ready."

The response was indeed loud and clear: women don’t need to be body-shamed or excluded from public.

The same year I recall being blown away by a bold – some even said controversial – move by the newly elected Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to ban body-shaming ads on public transport. It was the right thing to do, but it also made me wonder whether the public should be doing more to confront this issue.

Later that summer, I stood in front of my mirror patting my muffin top exactly as mothers should not do in front of their impressionable children, moaning that I wasn’t beautiful. My five-year-old daughter fiercely corrected me on my self-criticism. While I was incredibly proud of her reaction, it made me worry about the way society, media and culture would influence her perception and understanding of beauty as she got older.

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Beauty ideals place constraints on girls and women

There are shocking statistics.

According to the Girls’ Attitudes Survey, a study carried out by the charity group Girlguiding UK, 47 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 said the way they look “holds them back". This feeling takes root much earlier than we might think: 35 per cent of seven-to-10-year-old girls agreed that women were rated more on their appearance than their abilities, and 36 per cent said they were made to feel that their looks were their most important attribute. Further, 69 per cent of girls aged seven to 11 felt they were not good enough.

According to a report published by the US-based Common Sense Media, an organisation that reviews and provides ratings for media and technology, more than half of girls aged six to eight thought their ideal weight needed to be less than their actual weight. By age seven, according to the report, one in four children had tried dieting.

In November 2017, the UK Parliament’s Youth Select Committee published a study citing that children as young as six years old were going through depression, anxiety and eating disorder as a result of the negative image they had about their bodies. The study stated that it was normal for young people “to be unhappy with the way their bodies look".

This is not a trivial matter. As we observe Mental Health Awareness Week this week, it is worth reminding ourselves that body image plays a huge role in lifelong mental health.

A 2019 survey for the UK-based Mental Health Foundation found that one in eight adults have thought about killing themselves because they were distressed over their body image. A little more than one in five of all UK adults and almost half of 18-to-24-year-olds said images on social media had caused them to worry about their body image. One in three British adults have felt anxious or depressed because of concerns about their body image. And one in 10 women said they had self-harmed or “deliberately hurt themselves” because of their body image.

Many women do not see themselves in a positive way. Pawan Singh / The National

Judging by these numbers, there is clearly a problem and it is our imperative to lay the foundations for self-belief and body image before children reach their teens.

The impetus I had for writing my recent book titled BeYOUtiful was to help ensure that girls grow up believing in themselves and being confident enough to carve a niche for themselves in the world. In the book, I have attempted to use examples from culture, society, history, art, science and social media to show that while beauty may be a serious subject, we don't have to take ourselves too seriously. Physical beauty should, instead, be a matter of joy and self-expression.

Today's girls need to better understand how ideas of beauty are created and why. They need to be inspired by the most diverse possible range of women all of whom are wildly successful, whose accomplishments are centred, and all of whom bring beauty to life in their own unique ways.

Beauty ideals place constraints on girls and women by limiting them to society’s ideas of what a "good" girl or woman should be. They also reinforce power dynamics, which is what has triggered the crisis we see today in women and girls’ body image, self-esteem and mental health. Furthermore, beauty is too often viewed within the context of competition.

Which is why for girls to look in the mirror and be genuinely happy with what they see becomes a truly revolutionary act. The rest of us – parents, guardians, relatives and policymakers – must therefore do more to support them and make sure that they are secure and happy. We should also speak up about the need for girls to have the space and the freedom to decide for themselves who they want to be.

Published: May 13, 2022, 7:00 AM
Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National