15 October 2015
I was privileged to attend London’s first Women in the World summit this week. Some, many in fact, may question why women would need their own event in this day and age. Speaker after speaker at the Summit demonstrated why there is every need: the scale of sex trafficking of women, basic rights like education denied in many countries, inequality of pay, the lack of women across senior roles in business, politics and the arts and the frequency of violence against women even in Western countries. From my perspective as a self-esteem campaigner, what stood out for me was that at the heart of many of the issues tabled was a crisis in female confidence.
The pressure in every country for women to be perfect looking, is filling their conversations and thoughts. Women spend over an hour a day looking at themselves and young girls over 80 minutes a week on selfies. In the last 100 years women got the vote, fought for fair pay, but then new shackles were created, those of beauty.
Yet the confidence issue is deeper than it looks. Whilst the basics are there, there is still an invisible ceiling that women, from every walk of life experience in every culture.
Without exception all the speakers at the conference – from Chantelle Winnie, struggling to be accepted by the fashion industry due to her skin condition Vitiligo to the story of Helena Fraser, a bright, studious but bullied school girl who was singled out by an abusive teacher – every single one talked about self-confidence as the key to happiness.
In business the lack of senior opportunities for women is also esteem crushing – indeed there are more John CEOs in the Ftse 500 than women. The film world is dominated by male leads and directors. Indeed we learnt from the Suffragette director that men turned down the parts in the film as they weren’t ‘big enough’.
At the Dove mentoring session young girls eagerly flocked to listen to the advice of journalists, businesswomen and entrepreneurs. My mentee – a bright, communicative, exceptional human being – has the ability to do anything, and the session engendered her self-belief. But not every young girl or woman has access to confidence boosters.
So what to do? We need to all actively support our daughters, nieces and friends. For a start we need to make our behaviour as exemplary as we can. The more we auto critique the greater we pass on learned habits. A mum who checks herself endlessly in mirrors will teach her child to do the same. Then there is the filter factor. Social media has given girls a means of self-expression, but unlike a diary, it is accessible by many, and utterly appearance based. Thoughts and words have been replaced by selfies and vlogs. And parents are a million miles away from this universe. Intruding into their cyberspace is counterproductive but ostrich syndrome can overlook all manner of issues from image obsession to cyberbullying. The ideal scenario is to create a dialogue, a safe forum for discussion, that is both supportive and non-judgemental.
There are also some practical exercises that help build healthy opinions of Self. Reading a beauty magazine can lower self-esteem by 80%, because all the ads, articles, images are of ‘prettier’ girls – they promote perfect hair, skin, fashion. Yet most are photo-shopped, so as in the Dove school workshops, mums can demystify these fake ideas.
I also suggest to every Mum, and Dad, to use some positive psychology techniques. If for 21 days you celebrate 3 positive things that happened to you every evening then you will start to shift you mindset from greyish to rosy. Some schools benefit from the great Dove workshops or the added support of the Self-Esteem Team. But they aren’t the majority. Parents therefore need to clamour for body confidence classes before the age of 10, at the critical point before they have hit self-consciousness of puberty. 5 out of 6 ten year olds are indeed worried about getting fat and half are on a diet. No wonder that eating disorders are a pandemic.
At the Women In The World Summit, Dr Susie Orbach the brilliant psychologist, said that we have taught girls to display rather than contribute to the world. Yet there are so many young role models such as Malala doing incredible work. Yet often the media would rather talk about the Kardashians than a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The battleground for women thus has many fronts – education, journalism, social networks, parenting.
The time is now to build and empower future generations of secure, fulfilled and thriving young women.
Elizabeth Kesses – October 2015