Moira McKenna: Language about our bodies needs to change to keep young girls safe

Social media has a big part to play in how young girls perceive themselves
Social media has a big part to play in how young girls perceive themselves
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It’s a common question asked by us all – “Do I look alright?” – and something girls in ­Scotland are worrying about too. With flawless images everywhere we turn and Instagram stories of perfection, it’s sadly no surprise that research by Girlguiding Scotland found a staggering 40 per cent of girls aged 7-25 said the pressure to look a certain way was a concern in their everyday lives.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme this year is body image – looking at how we think and feel about our bodies. A time to reflect on our relationship with what we see in the mirror, how this affects us and what we can do ­differently so that girls and young women in ­Scotland have better body confidence or if they do feel down, how they can cope.

Moira McKenna, Scottish Chief Commissioner of Girlguiding Scotland

Moira McKenna, Scottish Chief Commissioner of Girlguiding Scotland

We know that as girls get older they become unhappier with their appearance. This can have huge ­consequences for girls’ wellbeing, relationships and ability to enjoy themselves and can stop them doing the things they love. With more than a third of girls saying they feel uncomfortable talking with a trusted adult about body image, many girls and young women are left not knowing where to turn.

It’s no wonder girls and young ­women are feeling this way, with ideals of beauty constantly changing the pressure to keep up can be ­overwhelming. This isn’t a problem confined to the 21st century either.

We know from history that ­women have always faced pressures to look a certain way. But what we can’t ignore in today’s world is the volume of images girls and young women are being exposed to – especially online and on social media.

What’s more, these images are often ones that have been altered or airbrushed, selling unrealistic ideals which can serve as a real blow to girls’ self-esteem as they strive for ‘perfection’. We’re also seeing a concerning number of girls developing negative relationships with food, with 55 per cent of girls aged 13-25 reporting that they know someone who has experienced an eating disorder.

That’s why it’s so important that we bust the myths about how girls and women ‘should’ look and encourage young people to be happy in their own skin.

We’re supporting our young ­members do just this through our Free Being Me programme, created by The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and Dove. This sees peer educators deliver ­sessions to other girls focusing on thinking positively about our bodies and challenging the image myth.

It’s not just for girls in Guiding – girls are spreading the body confidence revolution to their friends and in their schools, empowering more girls across Scotland to boost their body confidence and self-esteem.

I’m proud that Guiding is giving girls a space where they can be themselves and share the experience of what it’s like to grow up as a girl today.

By offering a safe, supportive and non-judgemental environment we’re equipping girls to be confident and resilient in an ever-changing world. Our new programme has also been designed for every girl, with a key theme being Be Well, where girls learn how to look after their minds and bodies. Taking part in Guiding has long terms benefits too, and may help to lower the risk of mental illness in later life.

Only by talking more about how we feel about our bodies and by ­challenging beauty standards, can we ensure that girls and young women realise their full potential in life, without worrying about their looks. At Girlguiding we’ll be continuing this work during Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond, inspiring others to do the same and empowering all girls and young women to be body confident.

Moira McKenna, Scottish chief commissioner of Girlguiding Scotland.