Be yourself, were told but thats just another tyranny and theres nothing worse for our self-esteem, says Eva Wiseman
British women feel the same about their bodies as we do about Goebbels, or school dinner. Full of hate. Our arms are made of old ham; our genitals are like the closed-off wells that it is rumoured a child once died in; our bellies are obscene; our faces, bloody hell our faces are exploded mines at best. A handful of wet clay chucked against a wall. Nose like Broken Britain, skin like an umbrella that came free with the Express. Our thighs are a collective nightmare dreamed in a small tent in Wales. Our breasts are useless gym bags, our arses like an apocalypse.
British women have almost the lowest self-esteem in the world, with only 20% feeling confident about their bodies. This according to interviews with 10,500 women and girls across 13 countries for the latest Dove self-esteem in women project. Nearly all British women interviewed (85%) said that when they feel bad about the way they look they opt out of life they dont play sport, see friends, have a proper laugh. Seven in 10 girls with low body-esteem say they wont be assertive in their opinion or stick to their decision if they arent happy with the way they look, while nine out of 10 women will stop themselves from eating.
Though the study is new, the information, of course, is not. 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.
The two new things that this study tells us are: first, that Britains body anxiety is getting worse. And second, that on top of all this anxiety there is an added cherry. While 60% of women say they believe they need to meet certain beauty standards, 77% believe it is also important to be their own person. And yet werent we promised that if we simply be ourselves, the pressure to meet beauty standards would fall away? It seems clear now that the two arent 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 shes just got off a Californian horse.
This obscure requirement for the modern and liberated woman to be herself feels increasingly pernicious. While we should give Dove 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 theres 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.
At least the old pressure was prescriptive. You could see the edges of it, you could walk around it, subvert it, laugh at it, chuck it in the bin. It is possible to work out exactly why we shouldnt all aspire to look like 15-year-old Swedish gymnasts and refer back to the list whenever were feeling uncomfortable on a beach. But its much harder to unpick the problems with the new requirements, especially when they havent 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 womans 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.
Email Eva at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jul/03/the-problem-with-being-yourself-self-esteem