A packed train is probably the worst place to start a blog about my self image woes considering the Brits’ habit of leaning over to read their neighbour’s newspapers, magazines… even text messages!
But The Children’s Society and Children’s Mental Health Week has revealed a lot of information I had no idea about, especially around the way girls feel about their appearance.
Self image has been a buzzword over the years with teenagers and young adults sometimes going to extreme lengths to exude society’s idea of body perfection.
For South Asians and even West Indians, there is a huge amount of pressure on our physical appearance as well as the need to be ‘successful.’
Right from the start we face scrutiny over our skin complexion – something we have no control over. You’re fine if you’re fair skinned or a glowing golden brown. But the crazy belief that darker skin makes you less attractive and undesirable is absolute crap.
This whole idea among South Asians goes back to the caste system in India where lighter skin was associated with greater intelligence, greater status and privilege. This is down to institutions that connect whiteness with power and status. The fact that this ideology has taken root is no surprise given British colonialism, which reinforced this hierarchy. It’s part of the reason why today skin lightening products adorn the shelves of ethnic beauty shops and why over 233 tonnes of skin-whitening and bleaching products are consumed each year.
Even if someone doesn’t place lighter skin on a pedestal, it’s still interesting to see these old attitudes subtly come out through conversation.
It makes me so angry that this kind of inter-ethnic discrimination exists but even more so, it’s the first brush young girls have with doubting their beauty and their worth.
If we then add the everyday pressures about weight and body shape into the mix, I’m not surprised that some girls find it hard to be comfortable in their own skin.
The comments I would get around my complexion usually came from family and family friends. I suppose my complexion overall is seen to be acceptable so these comments typically came after a holiday where I had enjoyed basking in the sun.
“Gosh, you got so dark!” They would say. As though my sun kissed skin was disgusting.
After a while I did everything I could to avoid getting a tan. I started to think it would just be easier to not hear tactless comments rather than enjoy myself on holiday.
Without even realising it, I had let that rhetoric affect me. No one thought any less about my intelligence or anything, but my appearance was definitely a topic of conversation. It took a while, but I managed to filter out all the comments and let those who wanted to talk about something as superficial as a tan know how narrow minded it was.
Curves for days
Another difficult hurdle to overcome was in secondary school where my body decided to develop that little bit faster than other teenage girls. I had meat on my thighs, wider hips and a bigger bust all at 15. I never honestly thought I looked too different from other people, until gym class when another girl decided to comment on how big my bust was. I never viewed them in a negative way, or at all, but in that instant, I almost felt embarrassed to have them. I wanted to see what I could do to make them smaller and less prominent. From that point I hated gym, I was less inclined to play sports all because I thought other girls would point out how abnormally large my knockers were!
Looking back it’s so silly to even be affected by someone’s mindless words – I absolutely love my boobs now. However in that moment, you can’t help but feel as though you’re under attack and your confidence gets knocked along the way.
It’s a horrible feeling and especially now where social media can breed cyberbullying, it can be hard to disconnect and block out all the ignorance.
Everyone has some aspect of themselves that they’re not happy with or would like to change – even the bullies. But it’s far easier to project their insecurities on to others and deflect what’s actually making them unhappy.
It’s unfair as their victims who may not have had any body image issues soon develop a dislike for themselves in a really unhealthy way.
Are social networks and the media to blame?
The short answer to the question above is yes, partially. They both play such a role in influencing us, most people don’t even realise it. Not only do we see a life of perfection posted across people’s social media, but pop culture has become such a staple part of our news agenda that celebrity movements are more important than atrocities happening around the world.
The Office for National Statistics have even said in separate research that girls are likely to spend extended periods of time on social media. This has been linked to a higher risk of mental ill-health and I can see why. In between curators crafting this idea of the perfect lifestyle that’s just unattainable for some, and celebrities pushing merchandise that’s beyond our reach, young girls can feel a certain pressure to conform or force being the odd one out.
There are a number of ways to better use social media that can have a positive impact on your mental health though. Join twitter chats, network and use social media as a source of knowledge. These are ways that you can stimulate your mind and help your mental health.
Schools also have a responsibility to ensure that the emotional and mental wellbeing of all students are upheld, which is why The Children’s Society is calling on the government to make a change. Intercepting negative thoughts at an early stage can make the world of a difference to a young person as they go through various milestones and experiences.
After all, that generation will be the next wave of teachers, doctors and innovators. How can we expect them to make confident strides professionally if they lack confidence personally?