The findings suggest that the problem may be getting worse, with the survey reflecting a five-year decline in girls’ body confidence. Almost 40% of girls aged seven to 21 do not feel happy with how they look in 2016, compared with 27% in 2011.
The results are hardly surprising, in a world where airbrushing is ubiquitous. When I visit schools around the country as part of my work with the Everyday Sexism Project, I am constantly struck by the emphasis on girls’ body image in conversations with young women. Even at the age of just 12 or 13, girls already know that we live in a world where women are judged, first and foremost, not on their abilities or achievements, but how closely they match up to an unrealistic, media-mandated beauty standard. They feel, deeply, that they must strive to emulate the tall, thin, white, large-breasted, long-legged, glossy-haired, perfect-skinned models they see everywhere in adverts and magazines. They specifically reference the women they have seen online, from the unrealistic body shapes of pornography to “perfect Instagram girls”. Dieting and slimming tablets frequently crop up in conversation.
At one school, I handed out worksheets to a group of 12- to 14-year-old boys and girls, asking them to draw two pictures: “me now” and “me if I could change anything”. The worksheets that came back from the boys were varied, with some showing that boys, too, are clearly affected by pressures around idealised male body image. But the responses demonstrated that boys also had a wide variety of other ideas for improving their lives – from money to magical powers. The responses from the girls, however, were heartbreaking. The same picture came back again and again – a sausage-like drawing of a girl in the first box, and a stick figure in the second. They just wanted to be thinner.