I can distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable as a child when I heard ‘grown-ups’ say that someone-or-other was “no oil painting” or such-and-such had “a fine figure”. I think these comments stood out to me because they were absent from my own home. I am lucky enough to have come from a family where we rarely talked about what a person looked like and concerns about our own appearance were low on the list of priorities. However it didn’t take long for outside influences to take hold. I might not have cared about my looks when I started secondary school but I had transformed into a self-conscious young woman by the time I started college and I cringe when I think of the bitchy conversations of my teenage years. Like the young women around me, I went on passively absorbing and internalizing the messages that bombard us every day. A woman’s real value is in her appearance. Perfection is attainable. Thin equals good, beautiful and successful and anything else is unacceptable.
It might seem easy to dismiss the impact these messages have on our lives. After all, we are intelligent human beings who understand that people come in a variety of shapes and sizes and that the limited representation of beauty that we see in the media is not a reflection of reality. We can laugh at the ridiculous false promises made by anti-wrinkle creams or the obvious photo-shopping of the latest fragile looking teen model. However, the damaging effect of this constant pressure is all too evident from the statistics on body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, self-harm and depression.
When I finished my undergrad degree in psychology and decided to continue on in the world of academic research, I was drawn to the area of prevention of mental health difficulties. I became fascinated with interventions aimed at preventing negative body image and unhealthy weight loss practices. Suddenly it became clear that feeling uncomfortable in your skin was not inevitable! Programmes that promote self-acceptance, media literacy and understanding of the natural variation in body size and shape are being evaluated in different settings around the world and they are having varying degrees of success. This is the topic I chose to pursue in own research and four and a bit years later, I’m as passionate about it as ever!
Last year, this passion led me to apply for the position of intern with the Endangered Species campaign. Susie Orbach and a team of committed body image activists around the world are planning a series of international summits to challenge the culture that teaches girls and women to hate their own bodies. Crucially, the summits will not only recognize what is being done, but also hold panel discussions on what needs to be done and make recommendations to government to protect future generations from the misery of body hatred. My role at the Endangered Species summit is to represent what is going on in Ireland at the London summit on the 5th of March.
In my preparation for the summit, I have been reaching out to groups and individuals in Ireland who are working towards making change here and it is encouraging to see the variety of approaches being taken. For example, Bodywhys has been getting more involved in awareness and prevention work in recent years. They now offer a ‘Be Body Positive’ school programme, an interactive psychoeduactional CDRom, and an online preventative tool called SeeMySelf for people who have concerns about body image and self-esteem. In recognition of the need for resources aimed at younger children, myself and my colleague Deirdre Ryan have recently collaborated with Bodywhys to launch a children’s book which aims to promote positive body image and acceptance of diversity. There’s more good news from Jigsaw Kerry, a group that brings together community supports to meet the mental health and wellbeing needs of young people. With help from Jigsaw, a group of 15 year old girls successfully applied for funding to organize a body positive fashion show called ‘Beauty is an outfit, one size fits all’. Here’s hoping the enthusiasm and commitment of these young people is infectious and leads to actual change!
If you know of other projects that deserve a mention or would like your point of view to be shared, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For the campaign to be successful we need to spread the word as much as possible so you can really contribute by just telling people about it! Talk about it with your friends, post it online and if you are on Twitter please tweet #EndangeredSpecies to get it trending. Thanks!
Deirdre is working on her PhD in Psychology in UCD. For more info on the summit see http://www.endangeredspecieswomen.org.uk/. ‘The Magnificent Toby Plum’ is available online at http://www.magnificentlyu.com/.