Leyah Shanks, campaigner for body confidence
I understand how it feels to be lacking in self-esteem. I understand how it feels to have no body confidence. I understand that many young girls and women still feel this way. I can’t understand why.
I’m 20 years old – a young person today – but, in terms of my own body confidence journey, I’ve come a long way. When I was younger, I had absolutely no body confidence. I had no confidence in general. Why? I guess there’s a few answers to that question. My being bullied throughout school would undoubtedly be a contributor, as would the totally overwhelming bombardment of ‘perfect’ women in the media. I loved reading magazines when I was in my early teens. What I didn’t love was seeing: ‘’perfect girl with this’’, after ‘’perfect girl with that’’, after ‘‘perfect girl with everything I don’t have’’. I remember thinking; ‘’How come her teeth are so white when mine aren’t? How come her eyes are so bright when mine aren’t? How is she so tall AND skinny?’’
Of course, at the age of 12/13, I wasn’t aware of Photoshop. I wasn’t aware that these women had been in hair and make-up for hours prior to being photographed. I wasn’t aware that many models actually harbour anorexic tendencies in order to maintain their highly sought after size zero look. Eventually, because every woman I saw in every magazine, on the TV and even in Disney films looked like a direct relative of Cleopatra, I began to feel that because I didn’t look this way, I was worthless. There was no portrayal of my body type – only exceedingly tall and thin. I felt this uncontrollable need to be like these women who graced the cover of Vogue and the catwalks of Milan. I hated my face so much that I would go through a pot of foundation and mascara a week, sometimes more. I would sleep in my make-up. Not even my dog would be allowed to see me without my slap on. Still not perfect enough, I desperately wanted to be thin. Thankfully I have a family who would personally make me finish every last mouthful of every last meal. I’m very lucky in that respect. I was also lucky in that I wasn’t one of the victims of the ever increasing problem of bulimia and anorexia which many believe is linked with body image in the media. Compared to the girls who have lost their lives to this, I got off lightly.
My family (my mother in particular) were never part of the problem with my body confidence issues. I remember on several occasions my mother telling me she wished she had a figure like mine. But that, although it is such a compliment, could not block out the utterly blinding assault of this representation of ‘the perfect woman’. Who I would see at least several times a day. She took over my brain. ‘I must look like this. I must look like this. I must look like this.’
Beyonce was my turning point. For my 16th birthday, my mother took me to see her live. I had never seen a ‘curvy’ woman with such confidence. She commanded the stage as though it was her slave and nobody would dare question her. Witnessing this – a woman who was NOT over 6’0 and was just over the average height of 5’4 – who was NOT stick thin and was NOT about to change for anyone. She had a body more like mine. And she was embracing it in front of thousands of people. After that night, my whole perception of myself changed. For the better. And I have never looked back. Bodies come in many shapes and sizes. It’s not about stigmatising a particular size, shape or weight – it’s about realising that all bodies are different and that that is a pretty amazing thing. In the media we need to see more than the one same body type represented and appreciated. If we all looked like the photoshopped-so-much-you-would-barely-recognise-the-person-in-real-life-models I used to adore, life would be so boring.
But the vicious onslaught of this ‘perfect woman’ continues. I have an 11 year old cousin and the thought of her feeling the way I did petrifies me. Admittedly, the situation, I would say, is not as bad as it was when I was her age. There is more emphasis on ‘plus size models’ (who are actually just the same size as the national average) and more emphasis on the wide variety of body shapes. I recently stumbled upon a body confidence campaign called Body Gossip which I really wish I had found sooner. They promote ‘the spectrum of beauty’ and teach body confidence in schools. I think if this was being mandatorily taught in schools – around the world – not just in the UK – to BOTH sexes – it would see a significant drop in the cases of anorexia and bulimia. Young people today NEED more projects like this and more role models who advocate body confidence. Not just body confidence for the ‘curvy’ percentage of the population – but for the apple shaped – the pear shaped – the hour glassed shaped – the straight-up-and-down shaped – the slender – the smaller – the taller – the big-boobed – the not so big-boobed – the wide hipped – the not so wide hipped – those with thigh gaps – those without thigh gaps – and everything else in between.
It therefore made me very happy to take part in Body Gossip’s BodyLove flash mob at the end of June. They were ‘’gathering groups of people from all over the UK taking a stand against body insecurity, proudly declaring that we are all unique as individuals. Everyone who took part received a Body Gossip love heart on which they wrote their favorite body part and tweeted it to BG with the hashtag ‘’#BodyLove’’. I cannot praise this BRILLIANT idea enough – engaging people across the country to help banish body shame and promote body love and positivity. I think the nature of the idea; which relies a lot on social media, will see a lot of young people become aware of the event and take part. In turn, this may help to promote Body Gossip’s ‘’Gossip School’’ and see more young people benefitting from their body confidence and self-esteem classes.
If I had such a class when I was at school, I think I would have felt a lot better about myself. My hope is that soon, body confidence will be taught in all schools in the UK.