‘I felt angry…everyone said, you look disgusting’
For a few seconds, there was a stunned silence. There had been the occasional gasp and giggle during the video, but when it ended the classroom fell quiet. Then, the pupils were asked how they felt watching the film. It wasn’t long before the floodgates opened.
“I felt very angry,” said one pupil. “At first, without make-up, everyone said ‘You look disgusting’, but after she put make-up on they still said ‘You look disgusting’. It makes me really angry.”
“When she was posting pictures of herself without make-up, people should respect the fact that she had the courage to do that,” her neighbour added.
“She couldn’t really win, because whatever she did, people put her down,” said a third.
The video – which included a series of selfies taken by a young woman both with and without make-up, along with the online comments the pictures received – was being shown to Year 7 pupils taking part in Happy Being Me (see box, top right), a programme developed in Australia to address body image issues.
The session was the last for Year 7 at Newstead Wood School, a girls’ grammar in Bromley. The school is one of several in south-east London piloting the programme, which is run by the South London and Maudsley (Slam) NHS Trust.
A total of 24 girls had volunteered to take part in the programme, which ran for three two-hour sessions.
“There is an awful lot of pressure to conform and although they’re very bright girls, they often have fragile self-esteem,” said Jill Benson, director of learning for the lower school at Newstead Wood. “They might not come to me saying they feel fat or short or spotty, but it will manifest itself in different ways. It can make them socially less confident, or anxious. Sometimes it is part of a series of symptoms that will lead to self-harm.”
Not just friends but strangers
Social media plays a prominent part in the course, its role in the girls’ lives means that they are not trying to impress just their friends but also complete strangers.
“Social media is good in some ways,” said Ray, one of the girls taking part in the session. “It is good to share your photos with friends but there is a lot of pressure as well. I have mixed feelings about it.”
“I don’t really post much because I’m scared what people will say to me,” added Hannah. “Most girls take about 100 photos until they find one they really like.”
Pupils at the independent James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich completed the programme earlier this term. A session looking at how images were Photoshopped made a particularly strong impression, according to Ann Massey, head of Years 7 to 9.
“Although they know that you can Photoshop models, to actually see it done for real was really enlightening,” she said. “It has changed the way they look at images in the media.” Even though it is a tall order to overturn attitudes that, by 11, are already deeply embedded, the programme has made a difference to the way the girls think about appearances, Ms Massey said.
“I don’t think it has stopped them being unkind to each other but I hope it has made them reflect on the way they comment on appearance and made them more sensitive.
“It got them to think that it’s not just the way they look that matters. So much of their day-to-day life is shaped by images, and to make them realise that there is much more to friends than image is really important,” she added.
The programme is aimed at Year 7 children, rather than older students, and so can help start a dialogue that can be built upon through a school’s own pastoral work.
“It is not a magic wand, but it is having conversations with young children and it gives them a structure to talk about these issues,” Ms Massey said. “Often, when girls present with eating disorders, that behaviour is so ingrained it is very difficult to break. This is preventative work, with a view to changing young people’s habits.”
At Newstead Wood, Ms Benson sees the programme as an opportunity to kick-start a discussion and supplement PSHE work.
“It is too optimistic to assume it is going to change the world for them, but I hope it will strike a chord,” she said. “If it saves one student from cutting themselves, it is worth it.”
What the Happy Being Me programme involves
Happy Being Me uses videos, role play, discussions and written exercises to explore body image. Sessions look at appearance ideals, teasing and prejudice, “fat talk” and media images.
The girls are encouraged to become “body-image buddies” and “comparison comrades” to help boost their friends’ self-esteem. That might be reminding a friend of their good qualities if they are comparing themselves unfavourably to a supermodel, for example.
These girls will be immersed in debate about body image as they grow up, and one of the aims of Happy Being Me is to equip them with strategies to deal with it, says Gill Allen, clinical lead for school-based services at South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, who ran the Newstead Wood sessions alongside clinical nurse specialist Charlotte Peacock.
“We are not working with people who have got issues here: this is preventative work,” said Ms Allen. “We’re hoping the message will stay with them and will be one they carry into Years 8, 9, 10 and 11.”
Research into the pilot has shown that participation can lead to improved body satisfaction and eating behaviour, with girls having fewer conversations about appearance, among other outcomes. As a result, Slam has been funded to be introduced into seven boroughs in south London. The programme is not aimed at pupils with particular problems but is designed to be delivered to full mainstream classes. The first schools involved in the pilot have been girls’ schools but the scheme is aimed at both genders and can be taught to mixed classes, too.
The issues tackled by Happy Being Me are increasingly being experienced by boys as well as girls.