I heard something really sad today. A friend of mine told me that her 12 year old daughter wants some ‘tummy control’ pants, because she thinks she has a fat stomach. This 12 year old girl is quite beautiful – in recent months, she’s really started to blossom from the puppy fat stage into a striking – and slim – young woman. And yet, at just 12 years of age, she’s feeling pressured enough about her body shape to put in a request for underwear that I only started wearing after my second baby was born 18 months ago.
Seriously, how did we get to a stage where this is even a thing? That a young girl, who isn’t yet a teenager, is worried about this kind of stuff?
When I was 12 years old, I didn’t really have a concept of ‘fat’. If I remember correctly, at 12 years of age I was excited to wear my mum’s clothes on special occasions and my spare time was spent listening to the Top 40 and obsessing over Take That. I started to care about my appearance when I was 16 or so – but even then, as an indie kid, I dressed down, with short hair and zero make-up. In contrast, my best friend at that age was a goth, with heavy black eyeliner, fake fur jackets and enormous black boots. We thought we looked pretty goddamn cool. Whether we did or not isn’t the point – the point is that, yes, we cared about how we looked, but the aim was to look different. We didn’t want to look like everybody else. Teenage years were for forging our own identity, wearing outfits that made our parents look puzzled or aghast. And – and this is the big difference – it was never about changing our body shape. We were happy as we were.
When I think back now, I was a size 10 – 12, and was probably the thinnest girl in my social circle. Teenage girls were normal sizes – 10, 12, 14, 16 – and nobody thought anything of it. We certainly didn’t diet. Most of us put weight on during our university years (bad food and drinking), but other than that we remained pretty much consistent. The thing is, I honestly do not think any of us could have been a size 6 or 8, even if we’d starved ourselves. Our bodies were just too big. Our hips were just too wide, our thighs just, well, there. Because we were young women, no longer pre-pubescent girls. And, importantly, this was the norm. I remember shopping in TopShop as a teenager and having to rummage to the back of the rack to find the one size 10, because size 10s were unusual. There wasn’t a size 6 or a size 8 in sight.
I’ve often thought that a big part of the problem with body-consciousness these days is that girls now shop in women’s fashion stores. It’s not unusual for tiny girls of 11 or 12 to be wearing high street fashion, which means that these stores have tiny sizes available. Even I wonder if I’m ‘supposed’ to be fitting in to a size 8 these days, so I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a teenage girl whose body frame is never going to allow it.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve let our girls down. We’ve created a society with conflicted messages, where women’s body shapes (and pubic hair) are expected to stay girl-like, and yet other so-called aspects of ‘femininity’ are so over exaggerated they’re often faked. Hair extensions? Check. Boob job? Check. False nails? Check. It’s now a perfectly normal thing for young girls to be getting eye brow waxes and fake tans. And this depresses the hell out of me.
We were the generation that grew up wanting to be smart and independent, yet we’ve created a world where self-narcissism dictates everything. Kim Kardashian, for example, is my age, and she is fawned over for having a massive butt and taking selfies. Inexplicably, this woman is an idol to teenage girls all over the world. How the hell did we allow this to happen?
To any young woman out there who is feeling insecure about the way they look, on behalf of my generation, I’m sorry. You have no idea how beautiful you are – just as you are – and I’m sorry that we don’t say this loudly enough so that you can hear us.
And to women of my generation, we need to be saying this more loudly. This message isn’t getting through, and we owe it to all those girls who are scrutinising and criticising what they see in the mirror when the rest of us can only see their beauty.