Girls as young as seven are being made to feel ashamed about how they look, with a quarter of those between seven and 10 feeling pressure to look “perfect”.
That’s according to a “devastating” survey from Girlguiding, which found that just 61% of girls aged seven to 21 now feel happy with their appearance, down from 73% in 2011.
Even in primary school, girls are worrying about body image, with a third of girls aged seven to 10 saying people make them think the most important thing about them is their appearance.
Worryingly, more than one in three (38%) of this age group feel they are “not pretty enough”.
The report suggests that relentless exposure to media and digital images that objectify women, along with to street harassment and sexist online abuse are all contributing to this low confidence.
The survey of more than 1,600 girls between the ages of seven and 21 also found that almost one in six (15%) of seven- to 10-year-olds feels embarrassed or ashamed of how they look.
With 29% aged seven to eight and 41% aged nine to 10 agreeing that women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability, it’s sadly unsurprising that more than half in the seven to 10 age group (52%) feel they are “not good enough”.
Now, girls from across the UK have told Girlguiding that the single most important thing that needs to change to improve their lives is to stop judging women on how they look.
Lyra, 10, a South London Brownie, said: “I think more girls are judged on their appearance than boys. I don’t think it’s fair that men get treated differently to women. You have to treat everyone the same.”
Meanwhile Lienna, age 7, added: “A boy at school said I had a moustache.”
And Francesca, age 9, said: “I rode my bike past some teenagers and they said I looked ugly.”
Liddy Buswell,18, Girlguiding advocate and Brownie leader, said she’s “shocked but not surprised” by the survey findings.
“As a Brownie Leader, I’ve experienced these issues first-hand. I’ve witnessed girls unwilling to speak to groups because of how they look, I’ve heard girls saying they’ve been called names at school and aren’t confident trying new activities as a result,” she said.
“No girl should have to worry about the way she looks – she should be having fun and enjoying herself. This year’s survey is a damning indication that something needs to be done to tackle this growing issue.”
Nadia Mendoza, one third of campaign group the Self Esteem Team, agreed the results are “devastating” but not entirely unexpected.
“It’s not a new problem. The mental health and self-esteem of our young people has been escalating towards crisis point for years, as reflected in the fact that experts estimate the four most common mental health issues faced by teens — anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm — have risen by 600% over the past decade in the UK,” she told The Huffington Post UK.
“It’s important to recognise that this is not a girl-only issue, and we must look towards improving the self-esteem of all young people.
“Unfortunately, there is no single solution to building self-esteem, it is something which requires a cumulative effort. Similarly to physical health, we wouldn’t just go to the gym once and expect to be healthy for the rest of our lives, it is something we must on work on daily or weekly. This is true of mental health too. It is a work in progress.”
The Self Esteem Team, who go into schools delivering workshops on mental health, believe there are three key areas to boost self-esteem: critical thinking, healthy habits, and constructive conversation.
“We also give kudos to ‘me time’, having a creative outlet to express yourself positively so you recognise your self-worth is not determined by the number of likes on your last selfie,” Mendoza explained.
“We stress to our students the importance of complementing one another on the things they value, for example, because a friend was a shoulder to cry on, or because they were fun to hang out with, rather than because they have nice trainers or pretty hair.
“We also encourage parents to be mindful of the language they use at home, for example, if mum doesn’t want to eat bread because it ‘makes me fat’, children can and do pick up on these messages about body image.”
Like Mendoza, Simon Ragoonanan, who runs the blog Man Vs Pink, thinks parents can play an important role in instilling body confidence in their children.
“As parents I think we need to be aware of the potential issues and problems ahead, and introduce ways to reframe them as well as encouraging resilience,” he told HuffPost UK.
“My daughter is four years old. She has asked me if she looks pretty. I say yes, but it’s not important to look pretty. What is important is what kind of person you are, and how you treat others.
“We ensure we compliment her for being kind, creative, clever, and thoughtful. If I do compliment her appearance, it’s for her creative choices of what she’s chosen to wear (which I often share on my Instagram), not for looking pretty.”
Ragoonanan believes the report “underlines the importance not letting damaging gender stereotypes – that place an overwhelming value on a girl’s appearance – dominate their lives”.
His comments were echoed by Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, who said the Girlguiding report details sexism women experience throughout their lives.
“Women and girls are persistently judged on what they look like. This survey shows that it starts young,” she said.
“We know that 85% of young women have experienced street harassment, 59% harassed at school and one in four young women self-harm. They have significantly higher rates of depression and mental health problems than young men.
“This is serious. As a society we need to face up to the fact that objectification and harassment is ruining girls’ lives and we are letting it happen.”
Thankfully, Girlguiding is making positive steps towards improving body confidence among its young members.
“Girls have told us to stop judging them on how they look. Every day in guiding, girls inspire us with their bravery, sense of adventure and their kindness,” Girlguiding director Becky Hewitt said.
“We are calling on everyone to show girls that they are valued for who they are – not what they look like.”
Throughout October, Girlguiding will challenge the public to think twice about the way they compliment or praise the girls in their lives.
They’re calling on all of us to tell young women how amazing they are, without making reference to their appearance.
Whether you know a young person who’s been kind or has achieved something they’ve worked hard on, share a post on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram @Girlguiding tagging #YouAreAmazing #GirlsAttitudes.