Self esteem, it’s something you’re born with, a bit like having a good sense of humour, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. The notion of teaching such an abstract and unquantifiable life skill, to me, sounded impossible. At least this was my mindset when I was invited to attend a talk for parents and teachers about body image and self esteem by Body Gossip, a charity that focuses on teaching positive body image. The talk promised ‘simple, effective tools for parents and teachers to build resilience in young people, by looking at communication and language, the internet, and how to engage with the worlds of fashion and beauty’. These were bold claims. Surely to teach anyone, no matter how thick skinned, to safely navigate our current photoshopped and immaculately airbrushed media landscape was surely too big a rock to be pushing up the media mountain?
At this point I would usually describe the energy I had to muster to drag myself and my low expectations along to this event, but I had come across Body Gossip before. Specifically when their co-founder Natasha Devon articulately dismantled provocative journalist Samantha Brick’s outlandish claims that all women should to be on a lifelong diet, on the sofa of This Morning. For anyone familiar with these debates, where the public can vote on who they agree with, Natasha achieved an uncompromising 94% of the public’s support. Based on this and looking at the Body Gossip website (click here), I knew I would be taking something epic away from this experience.
|Body Gossip co founder Ruth Rogers introducing the charity and the work they do.|
The venue the talk was due to be held at is worthy of a post in it’s own right. The Canvas Cafe, a not for profit social enterprise on Hanbury St, Shoreditch, is beyond remarkable. What can be so special about a cafe? Well the clue is in the name, this cafe is quite literally a canvas. The walls are white and customers (including kids) are encouraged to write on them. Each wall has a question at the top for you to answer, such as ‘what was your best gig’ or ‘what is your guiltiest pleasure’ and already the walls are merrily graffitied with poems, doodles and glorious sentences. The Cafe’s link with Body Gossip is that it is managed by the charity’s co-founder Ruth Rogers, who introduced the talk with a short film detailing Body Gossip’s incredible work to date, which you can view HERE. It includes just a few of the raft of high profile supporters, including Gok Wan, Cerrie Burnell and of course William and Kate.
|Come along and add your answer to this wall of the Canvas Cafe.|
Natasha took to the stage and began to describe her work as a member of the Self Esteem team, who visit schools and transforms their PSHE classes (personal social health & economic education) into life lessons on how to resist media bombardment and traverse the internet. Natasha highlighted the importance of these classes because actually, without self esteem, a whole world of possibilities can feel closed to you like: feeling able to take part in sports; applying for jobs; wearing certain clothes; or just putting your hand up in class. 47% of teenage girls allow body worries to affect them in this way. A great example of the need to be able to cope with media bombardment is in this advert here (but do bear in mind it is sadly non-inclusive of boys). Natasha then described the three main tools that she outlines to her students to assist them in developing a good relationship with their bodies.
1) Question everything.The world of advertising’s main endeavour is to impress upon you a need for something, even if this involves creating problems that don’t exist. Natasha provided some embarrassingly obvious examples of this, one being Cheryl Cole describing her remedy to ‘straw-like’ hair which, when I think about it, even on my worst days my hair has never resembled straw. Using animal bedding as a metaphor for describing anyone’s hair is downright inaccurate, not to mention a little impolite. However, the real catch in this particular advert is the small print that appears stating that at the time of filming, Cheryl’s actually wearing hair extensions. Fake problems for fake hair. Another brilliant example Natahsa gave was a well know deodorant advert, which starred the 6 highest paid supermodels in the world. Despite their status as the most successful in their profession, there were no thigh gaps until the advert was treated to a post production photoshop makeover.Another great example, refreshingly from a male perspective, can be found in the film 300, starring a scantily clad Gerard Butler and his similarly undressed Spartan army, all sporting a physique not dissimilar to He-man. You will find page upon page on Google of various ways to go about getting these muscles, from exercise and protein powders to illegal steroids. The fact is that even Gerard Butler himself has admitted in interviews that the entire film was photoshopped and never, in reality, did he posses that polished, action-man physique.Of course, in an ideal world the media would be staunchly considerate of the impact of what they project. There would be no airbrushing, page 3 or magazines feasting on decimating celebrities. However, Natasha pointed out that, in a time where we take in more information in one day than our grandparents did in one year, we cannot just delete the media. Our best foot forward is to develop a critical facility to manage and sometimes protect ourselves from these media messages. Natasha also touched on the history of the industry, how in the 70s the leading icons were Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, who didn’t have a ripped muscle between them. However, the 80s saw the trajectory of the fitness business and suddenly people were being urged to go the gym.
The concluding point was to think about why you are doing something i.e. are you putting on makeup because you love it and your appearance or because you feel the need to disguise how you look or resemble somebody else (who has probably been photoshopped)? By questioning the action you are being given more time to think about your motivation for this process and why. Only then can you make a more balanced decision.2) The person you are and the person you present to the world.Easily my favourite sentence of the talk. Natasha described the 2 personas we sometimes flit between: the person we are and the person we allow the world to see. If the gap between these 2 becomes too wide this is where these issues such as addiction, lack of self esteem and mental illness will accumulate. Of course it’s not always simple to close this gap but, by drawing attention to these two entities, the closer you become to bringing these 2 together. Staying true to who you are and not feeling like you need to be someone else or put on a different face isn't easy, but if you can nail this then already you are half way there. A good place to start is with how you pay compliments. It is easy to tell someone how slim they look, how great their hair is or covet their fabulous shoes. A greater act would be tell someone how much you've enjoyed their company, how much they've made you laugh or how great they are at helping you to feel like you're not actually going insane. Which leads almost seamlessly onto the final point.
3)Learning to take a compliment
It is undeniably a quintessentially British trait to brush off compliments, generally whilst spluttering and maintaining an expression of what can only be described as deepest shame. It's true and we've all done it. We wear our affable modesty like fashion's latest trend. So set a new trend. When receiving a compliment smile, be gracious and say thank you. Think about the psychological health benefits of listening to and absorbing positive feedback about yourself. A compliment is born from a good intention directed at you, so drink it in and enjoy it.
|Natasha Devon and Nadia Mendoza, 2 members of the Self Esteem Team, coming to a school near you.|
It's easy to see how Natasha Devon’s intelligent and humorous delivery strikes a chord with teenagers. I left the evening's discussion in awe of the benefits kids will reap by taking on board and utilizing some of these tools Considering that rates of mental health problems among children can almost double as they reach adolescence, this reinforces even further how necessary the work of Body Gossip is. Currently the Government do not fund Body Gossip or The Self Esteem team in any way and 63% of the schools that benefit from their talks are private (93% of children are educated in State schools). To sign the petition asking the government to increase the funding and importance given to PHSE lessons click HERE
You can buy Natasha's book co written with Lynn Crilly 'Fundamentals: A guide for parents, teachers and carers on mental health and self esteem' HERE.
To find out more about The Self Esteem team click HERE.
To find out more about eating disorder charity Beat's 'Transitions Project' supporting young people in London affected by eating disorders click HERE.
Mumsnet Hackney received a complimentary ticket to attend this event but was not instructed or under any obligation to write this post.