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An awareness of negative messages is not enough.


Yesterday this piece: "'Ugly girl': The negative messages we send to our daughters:We tell young women that they can achieve anything they want, but the extra pressures are everywhere to be seen." by Laura Bates appeared in The Independent. It's heartbreaking and sadly very true. Most women can sympathise with the words by a 15 year old girl that prompted the piece.

"I always feel like if I don’t look a certain way, if boys don’t think I’m ‘sexy’ or ‘hot’ then I've failed and it doesn't even matter if I am a doctor or writer, I'll still feel like nothing...successful women are only considered a success if they are successful AND hot, and I worry constantly that I won't be."

As Germaine Greer wrote in her 1999 book The Whole Woman “Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.” I was at college when I read that book and quoted it in a presentation, I remember a fellow student named Guy being aghast at that statement, I explained that it wasn't about women being shallow, but rather that the feeling comes from societal expectations, and his precise words were "what kind of women are we raising?" Well twelve years on and things have only gotten worse. There are now a great deal of twelve year old girls who were babies when Guy and I had that conversation, who are now scrutinising and berating themselves in the mirror daily, trying to lose weight, hoping for the right kind of breasts, considering surgery once they're old enough, having absorbed so many messages throughout their young lives that makes such preoccupations not only understandable but inevitable. These messages will have come from their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends, TV programmes, advertisements, magazines, cartoons, movies, newspapers, everywhere, it's practically in the air we breathe. 

Our very own group member Holli Rubin is quoted in Bates' piece, “this is a problem of epidemic proportions. Over 60% of adults feel ashamed of how they look…when we put ourselves down in front of our children we are modelling a very negative view.  This gets passed down to children who internalize it and consequently begin to feel the same way.”

Kids listen and absorb a hell of a lot, they're sponges for information explicit and implicit, that's why most adults try not to swear around children, because they have great memories. I remember a lot of things about my mum from when I was little, I recall I was gleefully able to say "shit" over and over with impunity after she burned herself getting cake out of the oven and said..."shit"; she listened to Radio 4 a lot and I'm told I sat in my high-chair saying "Order, Order"; I remember her being tired and having headaches all the time, which I thought was normal but it was because she suffred from anxiety and depression and one of the first things I said was "Mummy I'm worried". I'm now a member of the adult anxiety and depression club, it wasn't her fault, she told me all the time that I was special and clever and I was a confident kid but her actions betrayed her words. And when school bullies swooped in, as they do for most people, perhaps there were cracks in the armour she'd tried to build for me and my confidence took a battering. But it's what we take from those external things and tell ourselves over an over that settle and spread. And those external messages come from people that love us and want to keep us safe even while they hurt themselves and they come from mass media.

Gossip magazines such as Heat and Tabloids like The Sun, that revel in celebrity culture and set out to "reveal" the truth about the lives and bodies of a privileged and notorious few, only really reveal an editorially endorsed hatred of women's bodies and a desire to capitalise on insecurities and rivalry between people who might otherwise be able to admire each other, or at least legitimately dislike each other for good reason, if for once they/we were allowed to be valued for things other than physical attributes. 

Many of us are complicit in this culture, buying these magazines even though we know they're "trashy" and mean, it can be seen as ironic, as if somehow that view renders the reader immune. The tabloid press have adapted along the same lines seeing the success of Heat and all the others (there's a reason it's often referred to by an anagram of its title "Hate" magazine) The Daily Mail's femail bar on its website drools revoltingly over the bodies of women, slavering praise on taut, post-baby bodies and spitting venom upon women who perhaps don't do their hair to go and buy stamps and so fall short of whatever contradictory ideals they're promoting that week. Like the celeb mag, the journalists peddling these opinions, who often aren't named (hmm wonder why?) write as if their inspiration is the nastiest school bully, you know, the kind who pretends to be your best friend one second only to dismiss or tear you down the next. Bullies want an audience, willing devotees, control. The best way to do that is to always make sure your victims are on the back foot, unsure of where they stand, insecure. Being consistently mean to someone is upsetting, but people can rely on consistency, you know where you stand with consistency, it's easier to say "ENOUGH" when someone's being consistent. But it's a different story with someone that charms you, promises things and tells you you're fabulous no matter what, but the next day is slagging off a girl just like you...or paying back-handed compliments. You loved the charm, you want it back, you go back for more, as long as they're poking fun at others they're leaving you alone right? Ever read The Game by Neil Strauss and the bit about "negging'?


It's a way to pick up girls. How it works is you use remarks to tap into female insecurity; Shake their confidence. Neg is a negative remark wrapped in a back-handed compliment. 

So your neg will confuse and intrigue them and maybe even shake their confidence a little bit...[Urban Dictionary]
Much mass media seems to be based on this very concept: "You're WORTH IT! Here's something to reflect that...some shampoo!" Might a college scholarship, job prospects, equality, respect, or something of actual worth reflect worth? Saying "you're great, but wash your hair" is not the way to sustain confidence or robust self-worth.

How do we fix this? There's lots of work being done, but the negative messages fall on us like avalanches, many are buried beneath. For starters it has to be seen as a serious problem and not just "easy" or "sexy" feminism. Tackling the machines that run on these messages is an enormous undertaking, the press, beauty and diet industries have enormous resources and advertising space everywhere but the insides of our eyelids, although having taken root in our brains seems to have been successful since in a recession guess which industries are reporting growth? The rhetoric of "choice" is used often to brush these issues under the carpet as if choosing to have breast implants means that one has chosen to have no voice as if that purchase renders debate moot. But the fact that it's a choice in the first place? That in itself is questionable. When it's a choice of either have your body cut open or hate yourself? It's like being asked if you'd prefer to be given a wedgie or an elbow drop, obvious the most appealing choice is neither but if that's out of the question you'd choose the wedgie right? Does that mean that people can't criticise whoever insisted you choose and exacted the punishments? Does choosing make you complicit? And even if it were so, does it mean there's nothing to be gained from getting people to feel fine as they are? Obviously there are some who stand to lose much if that were the case.

As well as collaborating as a movement we can do things as individuals, as families and as people out in the world. We can question our appearance-based assumptions of others; we can avoid engaging in looks one-up-womanship, y'know where someone says, "Oh I feel so faaat in this dress, I look awful!" and then you say "Oh don't be silly, I look awful!"; when we meet young girls we can try not to comment on their appearance even if they do look pretty, say nice things about what they're good at or ask them things about what they enjoy. These small acts are resistance made large by many people just thinking twice before speaking. Words are so powerful.

What needs to grow is acceptance of our bodies as OURS. Not public property to be dismissed for taking up space or celebrated for conforming. If we saw others caring for themselves and others as frequently as we see competition and negativity, it could grow and we would in turn influence those around us. We know our needs. We know our desires. But we have to find a way to drown out the brainwashing and really listen.

By Jo Harrison AnyBody UK 

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