The self-esteem and female body image problem

It’s no secret that women and girls often struggle with the way they look. Magazines, television, film, adverts, magazines, and any other kind of visual media always have a lot to say about how women look and what’s right and wrong. Even the places that you’d think would be supportive, like magazines aimed at women, tend to show perfect pictures or airbrushed women and then spend a lot of space and column inches telling you how to spend money so you can look the same. Most of the time, discussions of women’s insecurity focusses on being slim and losing weight, particularly as the fashion industry continue to use often unhealthily thin women to promote their often unwearable clothes. As someone who is more than averagely slim, I think people sometimes assume that I must not be so affected by this constant push for perfection. On the contrary. I have had issues with the way I look since I was eleven years old, and I’ve realised lately that even though I’m much more conscious of the social rules that have made me feel this way, that hasn’t actually helped me see myself in a more realistic light.

When I was growing up, people were always telling me I was too thin. I got called names: stick insect, twiglet, twiggy, and so on, and people would ask me in the lunch queue if I was anorexic. Whenever I went to the doctor they would ask me unsubtle questions to try and find out if I had an eating disorder –  I never did, not even close, I ate loads, but had my father’s fast metabolism and never put on any weight. My mum got used to doctor appointments always ending with me in tears because I was so tired of people looking at me and assuming I had a serious mental illness. Looking back, I do look unhealthily thin. I hated it but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Boys would snigger at me and make jokes behind their hands and friends were whispering between themselves about my eating habits right into university. To this day I hate eating in front of people because I think they’re judging how much I’m eating and whether I go straight to the bathroom when I’ve finished.

I remember when I was in my early teens I saw a quote from Jennifer Aniston in a magazine which I cut out and kept for years: “You’re damned if you’re thin and you’re damned if you’re too fat. It’s impossible to please everyone and I suggest we all stop trying.” It was one of the first times I saw someone acknowledge that this was a thing, that people who were considered too thin were ostracised too. As I grew up I kept hearing things that made me feel worse. That men only like curvy women, and that nobody finds models attractive because they’re too skinny. For me, it all focussed on one area in particular: breasts.

This is a topic I’ve felt such deep shame about that I’ve barely ever spoken to anybody about it: I don’t talk to friends about it, I never mentioned it to a therapist I saw for two years despite it being a huge source of low self-esteem. I always felt like people were laughing at me about it, but now I realise how much of the problem has been feeding and growing on its own in my head all this time.

Right from age ten or eleven, I could see how important big breasts were. My crush in primary school had pictures of Lara Croft pasted all over his workbooks, and he used to obsess over the curvy drawings like a man (boy) possessed. He also fancied my best friend, who developed far earlier than I did. Boys passed around magazines full of women with big breasts in RE, and men on buses were staring openly at page 3 models. Girls in teenage novels I read were constantly trying to improve their busts to attract boys, and everywhere I looked were films and TV programmes saying the bigger the boobs, the better. As I hit puberty and started to develop in some limited way, I looked around in vain for someone who looked the same as me. The only people who looked similar were models, and everyone had told me they weren’t attractive because they were too thin.

Keira Knightley was one of the first famous women I saw who had very small breasts, and who also gave very few fucks about the fact. Her producers did, and over the years I’ve read many interviews with her complaining about being “enhanced” in adverts and film posters and magazine covers. One great quote from her after a Chanel advert was: “I don’t know whose those are, but they aren’t mine.” When I was about seventeen she was voted the sexiest actress of the year by Empire, and I felt a bit more hopeful. But it was still a drop in a bucket against the constant comments and cultural references to the fact that only big breasts were sexy.

At my lowest points, I considered surgery. Even websites advertising clothes showed this perfect curvy silhouette you were meant to achieve, and all I could see was that I didn’t look like that. I watched some godawful daytime TV programme where a woman had a breast enhancement and she was grinning all over the shop. I felt miserable and alone. I was always too afraid to do anything about it but I did believe it would make me happier. Boyfriends had to deal with me constantly putting myself down: compliments rolled off me like water off a duck’s back. I realised recently that in over ten years of dating, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times men have complimented me on my breasts and I’ve genuinely believed them. 99% of them I’ve immediately discounted what they’ve said as them trying to make me feel better, firmly convinced that actually they would much rather I had bigger, bouncier breasts for them to- do I don’t really know what with. Use as a pillow maybe.

The psychological block on my own breasts was so strong that for a few years I wore totally the wrong size bra. Bra shopping was always a mental torment, usually utterly dispiriting and frequently also ended in tears (and no purchases). I was a 32A for years and then they became uncomfortable in my early 20’s. Convinced I couldn’t be anything other than an A, I switched to a 34A for a few more years before finally becoming too irritated with none of them bloody fitting and getting someone to measure me. Turned out I needed a 32C. I was amazed and overjoyed; emotions immediately punctured by my mother when I told her what the woman had said: “Don’t be ridiculous! You can’t possibly be a C.” I felt two inches tall, and never completely recovered that joyful feeling, despite the evidence clearly showing me that my mother was wrong and I was (and am) a 32C, based on the fact that they fucking fit (well, as well as one size ever fits, am I right ladies? It’s never a certainty, like sizes in jeans. That’s why bra and jeans shopping are THE ABSOLUTE WORST).

Despite my new size and the small increase in confidence it brought, I still felt like I wasn’t good enough. This was reinforced every time I went bra shopping, a) by the pictures of stunningly curvy (yet slim) women plastered over the walls and b) by the fact that half the bras are extra padded and many of them scream things like “INCREASES BREAST SIZE BY UP TO THREE CUP SIZES!!” I once tried on one of these apparently magic bras only to discover that there was no room for any breast tissue. Literally, none. I actually got horribly embarrassed and triple checked the label, thinking I’d picked up a bra for women who’d had a mastectomy by mistake. Although I thought that one was a bit extreme, I still believed that wearing bras that showed me au naturel were not attractive, not pleasing to the eye, and that people would be judging me for it. I kept looking worriedly at the “BOOST YOUR BOOBS!!” bras until very recently, when my partner and I were browsing bras and I pointed out one of these bras saying that it looked pretty uncomfortable because there was no room for you. He said: “Well yeah, plus if you’re wearing something like that, I can’t feel you- I’m just feeling this padding.” He said it softly, almost delicately, and it suddenly dawned on me that I might have been totally misjudging the whole thing for years. I have always been going on looks, big equalling good, because that’s what I’ve been taught. But just as important, perhaps, is feel. I had barely even considered this from the man’s perspective like that, assuming that seeing massive boobs and lots of cleavage was the one and only important thing.

This reminded me of a moment in Sex and the City, when the topic of the episode is whether honesty is the best policy. A guy says: “My wife’s recently had a boob job. They look fantastic – they feel like shit. I keep that information to myself.” And of course it’s not just feel for your partner – it’s feel for you too. One of the reasons I never got beyond fretful worrying about having a breast enhancement was because you lose the sensitivity in your breasts and nipples. I was deeply saddened to hear recently that many girls not yet out of their teens are having breast surgery: their breasts haven’t even stopped growing, and they’ll never get a chance to fully appreciate how sexually sensitive their breasts might be. Another reason this is so sad is because a study I read about recently showed that women with low self-esteem who have boob jobs generally do not feel an increase in their self-esteem afterwards. They have had serious surgery, and will need more in years to come so that the implants don’t cause serious issues as the plastic starts to decay, and they still have the same mental issues that they had before. This all goes to prove for me: it’s all in my head. Especially as another study said that self-esteem is lower in women with big breasts than small ones. I was absolutely astonished when I read that. Here was I assuming that if I had some other size boobs then everything would be glorious, and there are these women wishing to god they didn’t have what I thought I wanted. What I’d never really thought about were the cultural perceptions there are of women with large breasts – that they’re easy, or stupid, or something else equally ridiculous.

I hear every day from somewhere that you need to accept the way you look if you ever want to be happy.  For a long time I thought I felt better about my breasts because I realised that never wanting to take your top off because you’re too shy is definitely not sexy. I tried to fake confidence to get over the problem, and quite often it works. But it’s still not quite the same as genuine confidence. Blimey, if they sold that stuff by the bottle, I’d set up a subscription. But the problem can only really be solved by less faking. Less fake bras, fake boobs, faked pictures. Stop making everyone assume that they have to make whatever they have bigger. And that’s just for my particular bugbear, I’m sure other people have different ones: thighs, stomach, legs, whatever it is. It’s exhausting constantly comparing yourself to other people, real or elsewhere, and finding yourself wanting. It’s every day, so many times a day, and all the time I have to remind myself that I have a set of deeply ingrained standards in my head that are not real. I’m quite sure I have a body dysmorphia issue where most of the time I look in the mirror I don’t see what’s really there. Maybe I still see myself as I was when I was a teenager, and my brain hasn’t refreshed the image properly.

We need help not getting into these mental traps to begin with, by not being given the same repeated message over and over again about what is and isn’t attractive. Websites like Beauty Redefined are doing amazing work in this area, challenging full stop the notion that women should be judged first and foremost on how they look – which is, sadly, still the case a large proportion of the time. It needs to change as soon as can be, as so many girls and young women these days are going on diets, or considering surgery, and generally building up a bank of negative self-esteem to make them feel shit about themselves well into their twenties, and beyond. There is a great quote from Tina Fey on body image, showing how utterly impossible it is for anyone to ever achieve “perfection”: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.” As Jennifer Aniston said all those years ago: it’s impossible to please everyone. We need to stop trying, and stop being told to try.

I’ve focussed on female body image in this post, because that’s what I know best, but it should be noted that men can really struggle with this too. The media push the idea that men need to be incredibly muscular to be attractive to women, which is patently untrue. Although it is easier for men in some ways in that there are plenty of examples in the news and popular culture of less attractive males being with beautiful women, it is still a big issue that prompts many men to develop eating disorders or take ridiculous numbers of protein shakes. It’s odd that although I was well aware of this when I was growing up, and whenever a male friend mentioned it to me I assured him that women wanting men to look like an Action Man was a myth, I never turned it around to think that the standards women were aspiring to were possibly false too. It goes to show how internalised these messages are, that we apply these standards to ourselves when we don’t push them on to other people.


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