More girls are unhappy with their bodies than ever before

Over the past five years there has been a 30% increase in the number of girls feeling unhappy with their appearance.
2 September 2016

More than a third of young girls across the country are unhappy with how they look and it’s on the rise, according to a new report launched this week.

The ‘Good Childhood Report’ is The Children’s Society annual look at children’s wellbeing. It shows that over the past five years there has been a 21% increase in the number of girls who feel unhappy with their lives and a 30% increase in those feeling unhappy with their appearance.

But is this really because more girls are worrying about their looks? We spoke to Laura Walsh, Children & Young People Manager at YMCA Club, who works with young girls every day and asked whether she has noticed an increase in the obsession with body image.

“I think girls have always been interested in the way they look,” she said. “But what I would say is that it’s definitely happening earlier – as young as primary school – which is what changed,” she said.

Laura talked us through how she and her team are working to try to overcome this worrying trend amongst young girls.

“We see girls coming into the club as youth members and initially we take them through a gym induction and ask them what they want to achieve and what their fitness goals are.’

“At this point there’s a big focus on getting smaller in certain areas and getting more toned in certain areas. It takes a long time for us to get them to talk about their actual fitness goals and to think of how they look as secondary to that. They come with a focus on a certain body image, which I think says a lot about the airbrushed, unrealistic and unachievable images being portrayed in the media today.

“We really try to point out real people and how everyone comes in different shapes and sizes. We don’t always conform to this airbrushed look, we do have bigger bits, we do have body hair, we’re not perfect,” she said.

Girls come with a focus on a certain body image, which I think says a lot about the airbrushed, unrealistic and unachievable images being portrayed in the media today.
Laura Walsh, Children & Young People Manager at YMCA Club

So has the rise of social media played a part in these stark findings? It would certainly seem to be fuelling the fire. Negative body image has been a problem for some time now and as we discovered, the Be Real campaign found that girls are starting to diet from as young as eight years old.

Our World of Good report also showed that body image was one of the top three concerns for young people. It revealed the vulnerability of young people to such issues and suggests the very real, lasting damage caused by low self-esteem. 

Rosi Prescott, our Chief Executive, said: “It may be that today’s generation enjoys higher living standards than in the past, but the now well-established – and growing – critical issues facing young people around negative body image; increasing educational expectations and the impact of ‘always-on’ social networks are causing genuine harm, and to an ever-widening cross section of young people within our society.

"Our approach here at Central YMCA is to challenge the relentless focus on appearance and strongly promote the value of diversity in all its glory, recognising as we do the importance of health not just in body, but mind and spirit too. Body confidence doesn’t arise from your physical being alone, it’s primarily a state of mind.

"So how can we help to reform these mind-sets, particularly now that men are following women down this well-trodden path? Sensitive approaches to education, alongside positive role models, are key as is consistent and authentic messaging across all interactions with young people, whether virtual or in person.”

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