“I spent most of my teenage years worrying about the way that I looked”

Trigger Warning: mention of miscarriage

I spent most of my teenage years worrying about the way that I looked. I worried about my appearance more than I worried about school, hobbies and friends combined. I believed that if only I could be thinner and prettier I would have more friends, a boyfriend and success in my future. I also genuinely believed myself to be ugly, even though with retrospect I was probably one of the most attractive girls that I knew. I was an avid reader of fashion magazines and viewer of glossy American television, just like every other girl that I knew. The images I consumed convinced me that flawless airbrushed beauty was the norm and that I fell woefully short. I spent hours in front of mirrors trying to see what angles I looked most acceptable from, shopping for clothes that made me feel fat, and repeatedly starving myself to try and fit into them. I would go for days without eating and then binge on junk food.

Having such a low sense of my own worth meant that I was willing to put up with a very low standard of behaviour from the people close to me. I repeatedly stayed in relationships (romantic and otherwise) with people who did not treat me with respect because I did not believe I deserved such respect.

It is impossible for me to judge how much of my low self esteem was down to me being female, and how much was just down to me being a hormonal and confused teenager. But if I remember back to all the people I knew of my own age it was overwhelmingly the girls who were obsessed with their appearance and who hated their bodies. Standards are set for male beauty by society but they are not set so high, and not so much is at stake if you fall short. All research to date on body image shows that women are much more critical of their appearance than men – much less likely to admire what they see in the mirror. Up to 8 out of 10 women will be dissatisfied with their reflection, and more than half may see a distorted image.

 

I feel that my parents, school and society let me down spectacularly when it came to educating me about sex and relationships. I received no formal sex education whatsoever and my parents were too embarrassed to even raise the topic. At the same time I was feeling pressure on all sides to become sexually active as early as possible. I felt that if people wanted to have sex with me it would prove that I was physically attractive, something I valued above all else. I was incredibly lucky that my first sexual partners were good people who treated me well, this was purely by chance. At age 14 I started having penetrative sex, being under the impression that I could not access contraception because I was under the age of consent. I became pregnant a few months later. I had a miscarriage early in the pregnancy which saved me the heartbreaking decision between an abortion and becoming a teenage mother. The experience of losing a pregnancy affected me very deeply at the time and continues to be at the back of my mind to this day.

Bad or non-existent sex education harms us all but it harms girls (at least heterosexual girls) more than boys. We are left to find out how to have sex from mainstream porn, which teaches boys to be rough and dominating towards girls they are having sex with and teaches little about genuine female pleasure. Purely anatomical sex education focussing on reproduction is inherently sexist. It teaches about the male orgasm because this is necessary for procreation but does not teach about the female orgasm. Women are left to find out how to discover pleasure on their own. Or more likely not on their own as when I was growing up male masturbation was discussed as natural and female masturbation as abnormal and embarrassing. Girls also have to take the bulk of the responsibility for the countless unwanted pregnancies that occur because of bad sex education.

It has only been since leaving school and discovering the feminist and queer community that I have begun to gain a healthy and informed attitude towards my own body and sexuality. I am sad that I lost so my many hours and years obsessing about the way that I looked. There are a million things I would rather be doing than feeling inadequate compared to magazine adverts and planning unhealthy diets. I am sad that society managed to push these ideals onto me for so long.


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