At Seven, Girls Are Already Feeling the Pressure to Lose Weight and 'Be Perfect'

New research shows that young girls are more embarrassed and insecure about their looks than ever before.

Oct 4 2016, 1:00pm

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Young girls are under more pressure to feel pretty than ever before, according to disturbing research from British youth charity Girlguiding.

The survey of 1,600 girls and young women aged seven to 21 found that that body image issues, social media use, street based harassment, and fears over their appearance were overwhelming daily concerns. Today's girls are unhappier, more insecure about their appearance, and worried about their future than ever before. From the age of just seven, around a fifth of girls report wanting to lose weight, and almost a quarter feel that they "need to be perfect." Between the ages of 11 to 16, 42 percent are ashamed of how they look. Forty-seven percent of 11 to 21 year olds believe the way they look holds them back, and 66 percent of 17 to 21 year olds say they aren't pretty enough.

This crisis of self-confidence is entrenched across girls and young women: one heartbreaking statistic read that 69 percent of girls and women aged seven to 21 describe themselves as "not good enough."

Aside from the crippling pressure to conform to certain beauty standards, the girls surveyed singled out one-dimensional or sexist media coverage as a particular concern. Seventy percent of all surveyed said sexism affected most areas of their lives, and 88 percent wished that publications would stop criticizing women's bodies. Aside from media pressures, street harassment is a daily problem: 32 percent of girls feel unsafe most of the time when out alone, and 67 percent change their behavior accordingly.

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"The pressure is coming from all sides," argues Sharon Lushiku, a peer educator for young girls. "From their peers at school, from TV, from advertising, from the internet. It's all around them and they're constantly being bombarded by pressure to look a certain way in particular."

Lushiku believes the situation has deteriorated in the three years she's been working with young girls. "I feel like at a younger age girls are more concerned about their appearance. They'll see a new trend online and think it will make them look prettier. Often they'll come to our sessions and be talking about makeup or clothes or beauty products they want to try."

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The Girlguiding survey is not the only research that suggests we are raising a generation of women crippled by anxiety. Another poll from the organization found that young girls report feel less confident as they age, and there are reports of an increasing number of teens seeking surgical procedures to change the appearance of even their genitalia. It's difficult to pinpoint what's driving this trend, but social media, the corrosive effects of online porn, and fears about their future have all been offered as potential explanations.

"Too often the first thing people say to a girl is 'you look pretty,' compare her to a princess, or comment on her 'cuteness,'" argues Girlguiding director Becky Hewitt. "We want girls to know they are valued for who they are—for their bravery, opinions, kindness, and talents."

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In Lushiku's experience, issues of body confidence prevent girls from realizing their full potential. "They may not want to get involved in sport or exercise or even put their hands up in class," she says. "It really affects them." In part, girls can reinforce the behavior amongst their peer groups. "Whatever's going on in their environments, they're going to reflect that together, amongst themselves."

The solution? "The public need to be challenged to think twice about the ways they praise the girls in their lives," Hewitt argues.

"We need to tell them they are amazing for the amazing things they achieve or for the amazing people they are, over how they look."