Altering images

Maggie JonesMaggie Jones on the need to help young women love their bodies again

When Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington admitted recently on I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here that she was worried about her body image, the UK media feigned concern before using the photo opportunity to compare her body to the show’s more scantily clad contestants. It’s a great illustration of the contradictions increasingly felt by young women and the subject of a debate, led by Crossbencher Tanni Grey Thompson in the Lords today. 

Sadly, at the same time as we celebrate the likes of Jessica Ennis, Nicola Adams and Sarah Storey in their Olympic and ParaOlympic medal successes, young women are taking less and less exercise. A project by University College London revealed only 38% of girls had an hour of exercise a day compared with 68% of boys. 

There is no doubt that the media has a lot to answer for, and we have all been guilty of absorbing their messages to a greater or lesser extent. Cultural pressure and airbrushed superstars are creating unachievable ideals of body perfection. As a result, more than half of the public have a negative body image and children as young as five now worry about how they look. 

The crisis is particularly apparent in teenage girls. Often embarrassed about their bodies, they refuse to wear sports clothes or exert themselves for fear of ridicule. One study has found that 41% of women avoid exercise altogether because they are worried about their appearance; and a survey by Dove’s campaign for real beauty suggested 22% of girls would never go on a beach or pool for similar reasons.

The result of young women’s alienation from exercise and sport is also reflected in both a growing epidemic of obesity and rising levels of eating disorder. Teenage girls have an increasingly unhealthy relationship with food, frequently oscillating between skipping meals and gorging on empty calories at fast food outlets. A combination of a lack of exercise and poor nutrition are having a devastating effect on their health.

To have any chance of reversing these problems we have to start with the school experience. It is now widely accepted that the Coalition’s decision to scrap the School Sports Partnerships was a disaster which has set school sport development back by years. No wonder the Lords Committee on the Olympic Legacy has been so critical of this decision.

Meanwhile, Michael Gove’s decision to focus on competitive team sports has been a complete turn off for many girls; something compounded by the Prime Minister’s disparaging comments about Indian dance. Both examples sadly illustrate why this government does not really understand the psychology of teenage girls.

What is needed is a sport for all policy which makes it fun and keeps young people moving so that they can feel the natural high that exercise brings. Sport in schools should establish healthy lifestyles leading to a healthy body weight in adulthood. A body confidence campaign could be rolled out in all schools as part of a comprehensive PSHE curriculum, and schools should address body image as part of their anti-bullying campaigns.

Increased media coverage of women’s sports and the portrayal of women enjoying exercise could also do a great deal more to spark interest and participation. Ultimately though, we won’t break the cycles of self-hatred and lack of exercise unless we educate young women to rise above the advertising and media hype, and love their bodies for what they are.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of Labour’s Education & DCMS teams in the Lords

Published 26th November 2013

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