Young people don’t hate their bodies because they are weak – but because capitalism demands it

Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

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Telling young women not to worry about their body shape is like telling them not to worry about being liked.

When research was released last week showing the level of body image distress among young people, its focal point was social media: what was driving 75% of 12-year-olds to “dislike their bodies” and feel “embarrassed by the way they look”? Why was this rising to an astounding 80% of young people by the time they reached 18? Is Instagram wrecking mental health, or is it TikTok?

youngOthers argued that social media may be the gravity, but something more immediate had caused the crash. The rise in acute psychological distress – far higher in girls than boys – is observed in a study comparing 2021 with 2007: suicidal ideation among one in 10 girls aged 16, self-harm at almost a quarter. Lockdowns and long Covid were hypothetical factors.

We could say with relative confidence that social media and more general turmoil are acting as accelerants, and also that going from childhood to adulthood has never been easy. But we won’t get to the root of the particular body disgust that girls experience until we admit the conditions they’re swimming in.

The over-riding message to young girls from the mainstream – advertising, agony aunts, teachers, parents, the acceptable face of their peers as represented in culture – is a set of platitudes about body positivity: come as you are, love your body, love yourself, don’t fixate “unhealthily” but don’t eat unhealthily either.

It has actually been the theme for as long as I can remember, though it has shape-shifted over time through various hero foods (fibre in the 80s, protein in the 90s, seeds and husks in the 00s etc), acceptable body shapes (zaftig to curvaceous to strong) and buzzwords (“body positivity” to the current term, “body neutrality’”: see your body as a vehicle for your own wellbeing and joy). There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these ideas, except that they’re a lie.

So you have this tripod effect: the explicit message to girls is “don’t try to be thin, try to be healthy”; the implicit message is “thin is actually better than beautiful, thin is beauty, femininity and discipline combined”; and finally the high-pitched screaming of our collective lizard brain: “Fat is disgusting and undignified.” Telling girls not to worry about their body shape is like telling them not to worry about being liked.

For the reason it focuses on girls more than boys (though boys are by no means immune), you probably have to go back to 80s feminist analysis: the world likes us better when we take up less space. It’s a mistake, made constantly, to characterise girls and young women as “vulnerable”.

Young women don’t struggle with their body image and mental health because they’re fragile or weak. It’s an absolutely rational response to a world that hysterically, ceaselessly bombards them with contradictory demands. I don’t have a better answer to all this than “anarcho-feminism”.

Courtesy: Guardian News & Media Ltd. To read full text of this edited version, click here.


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Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

Writer is a Guardian columnist.

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