Status of Young Women in Scotland 2019: What Contributes to Negative Body Image and What Needs to Change?
YWCA Scotland is a feminist organisation and part of a worldwide movement of women leading change. Our vision is a world where every woman can shape her own life journey and fulfil her potential, where the voices of women are heard, respected and celebrated. YWCA Scotland has a track record spanning a century and a half. It has done so through constantly re-inventing itself whilst sustaining its core values and purpose. We have used this experience as an opportunity to review how we fit into the context of 21st century Scotland. Our work supports the well-being, development and achievement of women and girls in a society that still does not afford an equal place to us alongside men.
We deliver 3 core programmes from our Edinburgh and Glasgow centres, through outreach, and via digital platforms, in partnership with other organisations, the Scottish parliament, and Glasgow colleges. Our programmes – Empowering Pathways for Women, YGirls and Young Women Lead – are built to inspire and empower women and girls across Scotland, reinforcing confidence in their skills and value as members of society. The women and girls are also welcomed into a network where they build relationships based on shared experiences and celebrations of diversity, co-creating a community and lasting bonds.
Status of Young Women in Scotland
Starting in 2015, Status of Young Women in Scotland (SYWS) is a recurring report we publish mapping the views and concerns of young women across the country, presenting them with the opportunity to reflect on the ways gender affected their lives. Hidden Conversations and barriers to activism, representation and politics have been the focus in previous years.
2019-2020 saw our SYWS research take shape in its fourth edition and the theme of body image was identified as an important factor – and often debilitating barrier – across many areas in young women’s lives. This research is a response to the chancing context in which we present, share and discuss our lives, and particularly our bodies, in person and online.
In partnership with social research agency The Lines Between, we set out to better understand the intersections of body image in young women’s experiences across Scotland. Interviewing and surveying 380 participants, our report detailed a range of views and concerns relating to body image.
We interviewed and surveyed 380 women around Scotland to understand exactly what they thought about body image – especially their relationships with their own bodies and the influencing factors on that.
The results were, in places, heartbreaking; with 80% of respondents stating that their body image was a perceived barrier to participating socially, negatively impacted their confidence and limited their life choices. 1 in 10 respondents told us they hated their bodies, while only 4% responded that they loved their bodies. That’s a huge imbalance – and something we need to address urgently. Social media was repeatedly highlighted as a problematic influence with social pressure and a lack of diverse representation contributing to young women’s negative body image, with Instagram being identified as the top factor influencing body image and 64% of respondents saying the social media platform influenced the way they felt about their body.
- “Social media needs to change. There needs to be greater awareness of following people who make you feel good, rather than people who make you feel envy and trigger you to try to change yourself.”
Family, friends and social circles were noted as being hugely influential on the young women’s body image. 47% noted that their body image had had negative social implications, 38% said it has a negative influence on their romantic relationships and 37% noted an impact on their confidence in professional situations. Furthermore, 74% of respondents agreed that their body image affected their sports and physical activities.
- “Being overweight for most of my life has held me back a fair bit in social situations. My weight has fluctuated quite a bit in the last five years, and I notice a direct correlation between how big I am and how outgoing and open I am/how often I go out.”
- “It’s put me off going to the gym, there are so many slim beautiful gym bunnies in there, I just feel so terrible at the gym.”
- “My body image is what gives me anxiety, that’s the only reason I’ve got anxiety. I don’t like myself so I don’t want anyone else to look at me.”
- “I remember the toxic culture in high school, we were all on diets… now I’m a bit older, everyone’s bodies are different, you think your friends are beautiful even if they are all different, you think they are all beautiful, that makes sense to me now.”
The research also looked at actions young women were taking to shape their body image, for example getting tattoos (1/3), using sunbeds (1/5), and having minor cosmetic surgery such as botox and lip fillers (1/10).
- “Tattoos and piercings gave me more ownership over my body and body image. So that was positive. It was personal and not dependent on societal norms.”
- “I’m so excited [to get cosmetic treatments], I want a nose filler, I want my chin shaved, I was looking at photos on my Instagram last night and was like ‘my chin actually used to look like that, what’s happened?’ I want like that bit taken away, cos that runs in the family and it’s not a good look… I want a bit of liposuction on my legs.”
- “I love a sun-bed cos a sun-bed gets you all tanned and gets rid of spots. Like you risk getting skin cancer so you can look tanned with no spots, if I’m being totally honest.”
The majority of young women surveyed said they had either dieted or exercised in order to change their bodies and 31% stated they had also used weight loss pills or crash diets. Around 1 in 10 also said they would consider getting major cosmetic surgery.
- “I would consider weight loss surgery of some description, I’ve been trying [to lose weight] properly for a while and it is happening but it is slow, what if it stops, is it an option further down the line. Because I do feel like my weight is having an effect on my health as well as my mental health. But as much as I don’t really want to go down that line, it is something I’ve considered because while my health is taking a risk is it better to go for one procedure and potentially cancel out a load of other risks further down the line.”
The evidence from these young women’s testimonials paints a bleak picture of body image affecting their personal and professional lives, their employment opportunities and their wellbeing.
That’s not to say there’s no hope – in fact, encouragingly we found that young women were already engaging in finding solutions to the issue of negative body image. They led the way in areas they believe society must focus on to change the conversation around body image; namely challenging the patriarchy, increasing representation, regulation of social media and education, addressing diet culture and creating inclusive spaces. From there, our report concluded with five recommendations; a manifesto, if you will. Mostly, these reflected on the work our organisation can engage with to improve this state of negativity around body image for young women across the country.
With Scotland in lockdown throughout May due to the COVID-19 health crisis, our usual launch activities had to change to a digital format. We hosted a panel talk with body positivity activists and educators, a Q&A with The Lines Between’s Research Officer Rhianna Mallia, an evening of live poetry performances and a burlesque workshop to encapsulate the embodiment of the topic at hand.
These digital events amassed an audience of nearly 400 people throughout the month of the SYWS19 report launch celebrations and we a brilliantly positive discussion starting online around body image and the report’s contents. It was especially encouraging to witness the creation of community on our social media channels around a topic that can feel alienating and intensely personal. The digital nature of the events also allowed us to reach more people across a longer period of time, and opened access to our network more widely. You can find out about all our upcoming digital events on our blog and recordings of previous events and more exclusive content on our YouTube channel.
One of the conclusions drawn from SYWS19 was that social narratives around bodies and body image must change. To flip the script, encourage new visions and platform young women’s voices in this evolving conversation, we invited women across Scotland to engage in our digital campaign #EatYourWords. Harnessing our digital networks, we published a call for proposals on our website and advertised on social media.
The 20 commissioned works to date have been hard-hitting, provocative, beautiful impactful, and, most encouragingly of all, hopeful. Illustrations, poetry, comic strips, blog posts, zines, a photo essay and a diet culture jar workshop have sparked reflection and enabled conversation around the myriad ways we all engage with body image in our language and the ways we speak of ourselves. The influence our language has on others is immense and by changing the ways we speak about our own and others’ bodies, we leave a lasting impact on those around us. You can find all our Eat Your Words content on our blog.
#EatYourWords, and our organisational values more generally, aims to rebalance the scales in young women’s favour when it comes to the societal weight put on their external image, particularly their bodies. The shift is already happening – these young women are leading the way to flipping the script on body image for generations to come and we’re excited to see where they take their narrative next.
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