Some girls feel the same about their bodies as we do about when men say, ‘it can’t hurt that much’ about your period pain. Full of hate. Girls with low body esteem can feel that bad about the way they look ‘they opt out of life’. They don’t venture out of the bedroom. They don’t see friends and in the extremes if they aren’t happy with the way they look they will stop themselves from eating.
None of this is wildly surprising. Chances are you know, or you are, or you have known a woman, and you have stood with her beside a reflective surface, and you will have heard her tut and rearrange her body to make it look smaller from a distance. You will have always known she thinks her hips are evil and that she wanted to abort her hair.
But is body anxiety is getting worse or better? Well when you have a media saying, ‘you must meet certain beauty standards’, but then in the next breath be saying, ‘it’s important to be your own person’.
If we simply “be ourselves”, the pressure to meet beauty standards would fall away? It seems clear now that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Luckily, we have two shoulders for these devils to sit on. What do you do with a tension like that – between the pressure on you to be thin and blonde, and the pressure to “embrace your curves”, “love your imperfections”, to enjoy that vague candied sense of sorority with every other woman you encounter? To be strong, brave, “natural”, real, and at the same time look like Jennifer Lawrence when she leaves the house.
This obscure requirement for the modern and liberated woman to “be herself” feels increasingly pernicious. While we should give the media credit for its mission to inspire confidence in women, however wobbly the premise, I fear the modern panic it helps create. First there was that side-eyed term, “real women”; now there’s the order to “be yourself” – authenticity is currency, especially for women. But only if the authentic you is not insecure, or whimsical, or sad, or has that old worry chewing at her throat – that she would be more lovable if she was whiter, thinner, blonde. Only if the authentic you believes not only that your body is beautiful but that beauty really matters.
It is possible to work out exactly why we shouldn’t all aspire to look like a 17-year-old super skinny model whenever we’re feeling uncomfortable on a beach. But it’s much harder to unpick the problems with the new requirements, especially when they haven’t even replaced the need to look thin and white, just swaddled it in motivational Instagram quotes. To “be yourself”, when that means to appear confident, happy, brave and healthy, takes more than Botox – it requires, among other things, a denial of all the societal crap that has brought you to a place where you feel the need to cover up those parts of your personality that are deemed unattractive. And that gap-year-style journey is not only far more expensive than a decent concealer but a reminder that it is still the woman’s responsibility to feel better about herself. The problem with “be yourself” is the insistence that, rather than the culture, the adverts, the media and the politics, it is still you who needs to change.