Monday, 31 October 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

Have you ever read a poem where it feels like the poet has reached into your head and pulled something out, woven it into words you never could've come up with to express a feeling which you didn't quite understand? That's the feeling I get when I read this book. It must've become annoying by now to my closest female friends that every time we stay up until the small hours of the morning talking about life and broken hearts, I find a poem by Rupi to read aloud. One of us will stumble upon a feeling and I'll get up, reach for her on my bookshelf, reaching for the writing which will render that feeling universal, make us feel less alone. She takes your pain and makes it tangible, then makes it bearable, then teaches you to allow yourself to move on from it. She is the voice I need to hear when I am feeling low, feeling like I can't fathom how to let go of anger, or hurt. "It's okay" her poems whisper. "You are allowed to feel this way, I have too. You are allowed to feel broken. But you are also allowed to rise up from it, stronger than you were before." Rupi's poetry helped me to find an inner strength that I didn't now was there, and taught me to support and love the other women in my life. I want to give her book to every woman I've ever met who's had a hard time, or even those who haven't, just in case they ever do. Buy it, read it, keep it forever, pass it on to generation after generation of women. Just get a copy of this book - I promise you won't regret it.

(a taste of Rupi's poetry)

Friday, 14 October 2016

I've finally stopped worrying about what I eat (and I feel great about it)

When I was 16, my BMI matched my age. I know this because one morning my mum asked me to work it out - the night before my sister had seen me getting changed into my pyjamas from her room across the hall and seen the vertebrae of my spine sticking out. For her, that was it. She’d spent weeks and weeks watching me make excuses at mealtimes, eating a yoghurt for breakfast, skipping lunch at school for one piece of toast, and overexercising, and she’d kept trying to make me see that something was wrong, but I wouldn’t listen. Finally, desperately, she told my parents, and they stood and watched me weigh myself, worked out my BMI and were mildly horrified that I’d managed to become malnourished under their noses. 

I was taking my GCSEs at the time, and had taken them so seriously that I’d let my phone go out of charge for weeks, deactivated my Facebook and shut myself away to revise for 8 hours a day. I felt out of control - these exams were dictating my life. So I decided to reestablish control by restricting what I ate, by becoming as small as I felt that I was inside. I socially isolated myself, and flipped out at any one of my friends if they commented on how little food I was eating. I was obsessed. I’d go to the gym 4 times a week and not allow myself to leave until I’d burnt at least 500 calories on the cross trainer. I’d sit in the library at school and work out how much I’d had to eat that day, the amount of calories I’d consumed directly proportional to how guilty I should feel. And it worked. I was tiny. But it was never enough. I sometimes think that I wanted to be so small I could  disappear.

I’m not exactly sure when it started - there isn’t a single moment when I decided to stop eating - but rather it built up over time. Between the ages of 8 and 13 I was very overweight. I’d look at pictures of people in magazines and feel sad because I didn’t look like them. I found it difficult to feel like I mattered because I was overweight. The kids who bullied me at primary school, the adolescent crushes who I felt would never feel the same way about me, the films and tv I watched in which nobody looked like me all built up to the overwhelming feeling that I just didn’t fit in, didn’t matter. I was reading a section of ‘girl up’ by Laura Bates recently in which she asked children at a primary school to draw a picture of themselves as they were, and a picture of themselves with anything they’d like to change if they could. She showed a selection of pictures, from both male and female children. In the boys pictures there was no real discernible pattern - larger biceps here, an attractive girlfriend there. One boy drew himself as a magician. But in picture after picture the girls had drawn themselves as smaller, thinner. Reading that made me want to cry. The overwhelming impression is that even at a young, formative age, girls want to shrink themselves. And that’s what I felt.

After that pivotal conversation with my parents I had a decision to make - I either had to do what they asked and try to eat more, to (to my horror) gain weight, or carry on as I was, listening to the voice in my head telling me to eat less, to get smaller, so I might finally feel like I was good enough. I had to choose the first option. I knew that if I didn’t I would ruin my relationship with my parents, and in that moment, looking at the concern on their faces, I couldn’t do it to them. I couldn’t continue hurting them. So my mum and I worked out a regime (which at first mostly involved eating pop tarts and mars bars at various points of the day) and slowly I started to put on weight. It took a long time for me to break out of my rigid regime, but by the age of 17/18 I was back to a healthy weight, and my parents were satisfied.

But the disordered eating didn’t stop there. The voice was much quieter, but it was still there. When I first arrived at university I would still feel bad about eating beans on toast the morning after a night out, ridden with guilt because of all the calories I’d consumed the night before in alcohol. I would watch people eating chocolate bars at lunch with fascination, because it was something I’d never allow myself to eat. I described my eating habits - no carbs, no meat, mostly protein and vegetables and very little else - to a friend once and he looked at me and said, half joking, ‘how do you live?’. Being vegetarian gave me a ready excuse - there was a whole food group that I could avoid - and I also often hid behind the statement ‘I’m just trying to be healthy’. But, even though I wasn’t depriving myself of nourishment (I was eating around 1800 calories a day), I was still obsessed. I was still following rules, restricting myself, always thinking about the next meal and how I could make it healthier. I still wanted to be thin. I still didn’t feel good enough.

Over the summer I spent a lot of time watching videos from the StylelikeU youtube channel, in which women are interviewed about their lives, their passions, their sense of self. The message they send is that women are not just their bodies, or what they wear. They are not defined by how attractive they are. It showed me that there are so many other ways to feel like you matter which don’t involve shrinking yourself, which seems like a self evident truth, but was something I’d struggled with for all of my teenage years. All these women were so beautiful, despite many of them not fitting into the idealised standard of what is considered to be attractive.

Watching these videos, and educating myself about body positivity, had a huge effect on me which at first I didn’t even notice. It was as simple as having a meal without once thinking about the amount of calories in it, or not caring when someone commented that I’d put on a bit of weight, or just deciding to buy a new pair of jeans when my old ones didn’t fit me anymore, rather than holding onto them to torture myself into losing weight and shrinking back into them. Now my eating habits aren’t exactly 3 meals a day normal - I’m at university, so some days I’ll forget to eat lunch because I’ll be writing an essay, or I’ll eat half a packet of biscuits while sitting at my desk. But the important thing is that I’ve stopped worrying about what I eat. I’ve stopped criticising my body and started to accept it for what it is. I’ve put on weight and I don’t give a flying fuck (excuse my French). I am not my body. I am the books that I read, the people that I spend time with, the values I uphold. I am my interests and passions. I am myself. And I feel pretty great about that.

I want every girl who’s ever felt like she needed to lose weight to fit in, or to feel like she mattered, to feel this way too, but I know it’ll take time. Just know, please, if you’ve ever struggled with body image issues, that you are not your body. You are not the standards which media and society set for you. You are so much more than that. You are, as my friend said to me recently, a precious gem that should be cherished.

Monday, 12 September 2016

I went to Paris with no wisdom teeth

Earlier this year I visited Paris with one of my best friends. It was my first trip; he'd been before. Immediately before we went I'd had my wisdom teeth removed and developed a horrible, painful condition called dry socket. I kid you not, the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I called Alex from the train platform on my way to London to meet him (we were getting the coach) and said "I'm in a huge amount of pain, and will probably be grumpy as hell for this whole trip, but I'm really looking forward to it". Or something along those lines. Luckily with the help of French pharmacists (who really know their shit) I managed to get hold of some clove oil, so I spent the 5 days relatively pain-free, smelling of clove, with everything I ate faintly tasting of clove. Although I would warn anyone taking French paracetamol that you should NOT TAKE TWO DOSES AT ONCE of 1000mg of paracetamol. I made that mistake, went completely loopy, and sat in a park staring at paper boats in a pond, completely mesmerised, for about an hour. Although I guess at least I was distracted from the pain.

(the park where I got high on paracetamol)

(me looking 'jaunty', as Alex put it, in a French bakery, with a swollen face)

We decided to stay in a small hostel in Belleville to escape the higher prices of more central hostels. It turned out to be a great decision - Belleville is charming, cheap and full of indie bars and vegan restaurants. Alex and I had a deal that I would accompany him to galleries if he would accompany me to vegan restaurants, and generally this worked pretty well. A particular favourite of mine was a thai restaurant we found just 2 streets away from our hostel - pretty much always empty, but so cheap and the food was amazing. There were 2 bars we went to whose names I can remember - Aux Folies and Cafe Cheri(e). Both had a similar grungy, posters-all-over-the-walls, lots of people with piercings and tattoos kind of vibe, both were very cheap. One bar in particular sticks in my head, though, even though I've forgotten it's name, because we stopped off for a drink there one night (it was just up the street from our hostel) and stumbled upon a slam poetry night. Neither of us can speak fluent French, but both of us were pretty sure that the poetry standard was quite low. That night, drinking too much beer and trying really hard not to laugh at the awful poetry, was one of my favourite memories of the trip.

During the day we'd alternate between wandering the streets (Alex has a weirdly good sense of direction) and finding galleries to browse. Neither of us were particularly fussed with doing the basic touristy things in Paris, Alex because he'd been before, me because I'd been warned off Paris by all my friends who'd stuck to the tourist areas. So my experience of Paris was atypical but wonderful: by day we'd look at art and eat vegan food, and by night we'd buy a cheap bottle of wine, find a park, and watch the sun set before heading to a nearby bar. One of my favourite days was when we went to the Picasso gallery in the morning, then had lunch at a restaurant called Neo Bento, then walked back to the metro along the Seine in the sunshine.

(sunshine on the Seine)

(Alex ft a Picasso sculpture)

(post-Picasso bento)

On one day, after I saw an advert for it in the Metro, we decided to go to a photography exhibit at the Museum of Jewish History. Alex has commented often since on the level of security on the way into that museum - it was unlike anything I've experienced before. The general feeling in Paris that week in March was of a city on edge, for obvious reasons, and you might see men with guns, in army uniforms, outside a building or a children's park. But this museum locked you in a glass room while they scanned you, and your bag went along a conveyor belt to be scanned also. I can only imagine that if they found anything untoward in your bag or on your person, you wouldn't leave that glass room anytime soon. But luckily for us we got through, and it was worth it. 

The photographer, Lore KrΓΌger, spent much of her life either fleeing or fighting the Nazi occupation. She lived in Paris for a while, and studied there. The section which depicted her life prior to her photography was heartbreaking - it included a letter from her parents telling her that they'd decided to pre-empt being forced out of their homes in Majorca by committing suicide. Much of her work consisted of portraits, many of them colleagues from the anti-Nazi newspaper which she was actively involved in when in New York, and also a series of photographs depicting the lives of gypsies on their pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.  It was an incredibly moving exhibit.

(the heartbreaking letters from Lore's mother and father)

Alex is a great person to walk around a gallery with. Imagine you're strolling along the streets of Oxford with him, and comment on a building nearby. He will likely be able to tell you the architect of it, the year it was built, and an interesting piece of trivia about it. So for someone like me, who has but a tenuous grasp of what impressionism is, walking around the impressionism exhibit with him in the Musee d'Orsay was enlightening. He'd point at a painting and be like "so the interesting thing about this painting is...." and I'd listen to him for about 10 minutes, learning more about the painting than I imagine even a tour guide would be able to tell me. 

He's a great travel companion in other ways, too. When I was in the most pain between paracetamol doses, he'd be there with a witty comment to distract me and make me feel better. He always seemed to have a radar for good coffee. His sense of direction was amazing. And he let me drag him to Shakespeare and Company (one tourist trap that I was not willing to forgo), and even a cat cafe (although he kind of hates cats). And, you know, if you're going to sit next to someone in a park and talk about life and drink wine as the sun sets (even though the wine tasted like clove), I can think of worse company.

(Dancers in Blue by Edgar Degas - my fav painting at the Musee d'Orsay)

(I call this his cocaine face)

(Alex's coffee radar led us to this little cafe in Belleville every morning)

I love Paris. I couldn't tell you what the Eiffel tower looks like up close, I haven't been inside the Louvre (although I have been in the park next to it and petted a large group of dogs, which in my opinion is better), and I haven't done pretty much any of the main tourist attractions of the city. But if you want small gallery recommendations, or vegan restaurants, or cheap hole-in-the-wall indie bars, hit me up. If, like me, you are a fan of the occasional vegan instagram, head to Bob's kitchen for an acai bowl. They are not only amazing but also aesthetically pleasing.

(The acai bowl at Bob's kitchen)

(the closest I got to the Eiffel Tower - if you squint you can see it)

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

My experience with anxiety

This is quite a scary entry for me to write, but I've been thinking about it for a while. Mental illness is often stigmatised and not talked about, so if talking about my experience could help even a tiny bit to destigmatise it, then it'll be worth it. And also I find it sometimes helps to write things down. So here goes. 

Towards the end of this (academic) year, I went through a difficult time. Some bad things happened, and I made some very difficult decisions, and I fell. Hard. I wasn't sure how to get back up. My self esteem was at an all time low. I couldn't see a way out of the pain I was experiencing, but I had to. Life at Oxford doesn't stop for mental illness. Over the course of a term, after I got up the courage to ask for help, with support from friends and understanding tutors I slowly managed to find my way through it. But at that time, for the first time in my life, I suffered from quite severe anxiety. 

Before my experience with anxiety this year, I had always had a tendency towards it - I found moving out of my comfort zone, specifically in social situations at school, really scary. In the process of coming out of my shell, and trying to overcome my shyness, in my last couple of years at school, I felt fear and discomfort and self doubt often, but I pushed through it. I learned to ignore the thoughts telling me I would fail. I learned to breathe through the anxiety I felt before entering into social situations with people I didn't know very well. 

But this year my comfort zone suddenly became extremely small (often the size of my room), and the thoughts harder to ignore, the anxiety harder to breathe through. The first time I realised I was having a panic attack I was in a library, trying to do an essay. Not exactly a terrifying social situation. But something in my brain short circuited, and suddenly I felt an overwhelming need to be outside. I could feel that my eyes were wide, and I was alert - my vision was heightened, I sensed my surroundings with a clarity beyond anything I'd felt before. My heart was racing - I could feel the adrenaline running through my veins - and my knees felt a bit wobbly. More than anything else I felt trapped inside my own head. My thoughts were swirling, incoherent, irrational, inescapable. I could not quiet them. I sat on the steps outside and called my friend, who also suffers from anxiety, and said 'I think I'm having a panic attack'. The words seemed not to belong to my voice. I never imagined I'd say them. After she came and found me I sat and held her hand until, slowly, it passed. My heart stopped racing, the knots in my stomach loosened, and I was able to look at my surroundings rationally. Where before I'd only seen threat after threat, now I saw people, grass, trees, the walls of my college. Everything was as it should be again. 

After this episode it began happening more frequently, sometimes triggered by things like social situations, sometimes triggered by a particularly difficult counselling session, sometimes triggered by nothing at all. I'd wake up some days and struggle to get out of bed, overwhelmed by the feeling that something awful would happen if I left my room. Something as simple as dinner with a few friends became absolutely terrifying. I'd often talk myself out of things by putting thoughts in other peoples' heads - 'she doesn't like me', 'he thinks I'm boring', 'they're only hanging out with me to be nice'. On days like that I'd be so frustrated with myself. I'd try desperately to rationalise, and I'd always force myself to leave my room eventually, but the feelings would not be rationalised, they would not go away. One such day I went out for coffee with a friend and tried to describe to him how I was feeling. 'Imagine a burning building' I said. 'Flames, smoke, chaos. That's what I think you'd see if you looked inside my head'. He took me to buy a cactus to make me feel better. I named it Patrick. 

On those days when I woke up with it I'd at least know what I was dealing with, but sometimes it would come out of nowhere at the most inconvenient times. One particularly awful experience I had was at a dinner party. I play tennis at university, and was at dinner with most of the male tennis team, and a few of the girls. I was surrounded by boys laughing and joking and drinking, and was sat at the end of the table, by the window, opposite another girl on my team. Last year I would've been in my element - I love the social side of tennis, and I am friendly with most of the guys and girls. But suddenly, out of nowhere, I was gripped by an overwhelming fear that everyone there wanted to hurt me. I knew it was irrational, I desperately tried to make it go away, but my body had already gone into fight or flight mode. I felt trapped and unsafe. Luckily the meal was winding down by that point so I made my excuses and left, desperate not to let on how I was feeling. I made it as far as the tesco on the high street before I broke down sobbing and called my friend (the same one that took me cactus shopping). He cycled from the other side of town to meet me (Bonbon if you're reading this you're the best). I felt much better in his company, but at the same time I was devastated - the tennis socials were such a huge part of my life, and now I was terrified that if I went to another one it would happen again. Its situations like that - when having anxiety begins to take control of your life - which are the most demoralising. 

It started to affect my sport as well. Tennis is a game which happens mostly inside your head - tactics, technique, mental strength if you're losing or playing badly. If I ever went to a session feeling anxious, one bad forehand could send me into turmoil. I'd be unable to rationalise it or pick myself up from it, and my game would fall apart. Instead of trying to be positive, and applying the technique I knew I had, my head would fill with thoughts like: 'you can't do anything right' or 'you're going to get dropped from the team'. Tennis was something I loved, an activity to help keep me sane during the stressful Oxford terms, and I nearly quit the team because of my anxiety. It was so frustrating - I felt like I had two people inside my head: one telling me I was worthless, and making me afraid of everything, and the other desperately trying to shut the other one up. The captain of my tennis team was incredibly understanding, and over the course of a few weeks, as my mental health improved, so did my tennis. And other things improved, too. The days when I'd wake up feeling anxious became fewer and further between, and I managed to get through social situations without having a panic attack, and I started to feel my comfort zone widening again, slowly but surely. 

Before this experience, without meaning to, I'd sometimes been dismissive of anxiety. I had friends who suffered from it, but I'd never really understood it, or tried to. I didn't know what to do if someone had a panic attack, I found it difficult to comprehend if there wasn't a rational trigger for it (which, as I now know, there often isn't), and I generally thought of myself as removed from it - it was something that happened to other people, but not to me. I've been very lucky throughout this experience that I have wonderful friends who I could call whenever I was feeling low, who would help me out of my room with invitations to coffee dates, who would pick me up sobbing outside tesco or take me to buy a cactus, or be waiting outside my building when I got there because I'd just texted them to say I'd had a panic attack on my way home and would be late to meet them. I've learned what to do now for someone with anxiety - be there. Be constant. Be someone who cares. Hold their hand while they're having a panic attack, or listen on the other side of the phone, or give them a reason to leave their room if they're having a bad day. I've also been very lucky that my anxiety has subsided a lot over the summer, and while I'm cautious of assuming that it's gone, I know that I have it much better than people who have to deal with it every day. Although it has been at times demoralising, frustrating and generally awful, and I have wished more than anything that it would just go away, this experience has allowed me to have some understanding of what people with anxiety go through. And I am grateful for that.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

An open letter to the owners of Brandy Melville

An open letter to the owners of Brandy Melville.

To whom it may concern,

I don't know if you will see this (you probably won't), but I am so angered by my experience in your store that I had to do something about it.

I've been shopping at Brandy Melville for about 3 or 4 years now. My mum and I first discovered your shop when I was around 17 (and much skinnier than I am now) and I loved it. Your clothes were comfy, the fabric was soft, and pretty much everything was stylish. We'd take a trip to the King's road every time I went to London with my family and I'd come home with at least 3 or 4 items. My two sisters and I are constantly stealing each others' Brandy clothes (they have been the cause of some of our most explosive arguments). At that time your clothes mostly consisted of loose-fitting t shirts, or elasticated shorts, so it didn't really bother me that your shop didn't seem to have more than one size, because it fitted me anyway, and nothing seemed to be ridiculously small.

Yesterday, however, was a different story. I've relaxed a bit this summer and put on some weight; I'll admit that. I've been working very hard on not caring about it, but I've had quite serious body image issues for most of my life so some days it's still quite hard, and I feel fat, and I feel low. So imagine how I felt when I entered your changing room with 5 pieces of clothing and not a single one fit me. My mum passed a dress through the curtain which she thought I might like and I couldn't even get the zip to move - it spread in an open, insulting V across my back, taunting me. I couldn't even get a pair of trousers half way up my leg. I tried on a playsuit and every lump, every part of my body which I deem to be unattractive, was suddenly visible underneath the straining fabric. At this point I was fighting back tears. I am not that big. I am a size 10, 12 at a push. And every time I had to discard a piece of clothing, I'd check the ticket, desperate to see if it was an S or an M or an L, or an 8 or 10 or 12. All I saw each time was ONE SIZE. Those two words smirked at me, a knife twist in my back. Do you know what that says to me, owners of Brandy Melville? Do you know what those two words say to every girl who enters the store who isn't a size 6? That says "There is only one acceptable size to be as a woman, and you should be that size if you want to wear our clothes". And it's not just me that got this message. My mum, witness to my little meltdown, waiting outside the changing rooms, said she saw girl after girl enter the cubicles laden with clothes, smiles on their faces, only to leave looking downcast and hand all their clothes back to the attendant. I watched a petite girl of about 12 struggling to do up the zip on a pair of shorts. Is that the way you want to make your customers feel? Is that the message about body image that you want to send to the young girls who religiously buy your clothes?

I am incredibly disappointed that in a society which places unrealistic standards upon the shoulders of young women, a brand which I used to love so much is enforcing these standards, lowering the self esteem of girls everywhere, myself included, and helping to make self-acceptance almost impossible. I implore you to do something about it. Either get rid of the ONE SIZE system or make that one size big enough to fit the average woman. Heads up, the average woman is probably not a size 6.

Kind regards,

Bianca Gillam

Monday, 18 July 2016

My thoughts on the stereotype of the 'bitchy girl': an opinion post

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the stereotype of the ‘bitchy girl’, and its origin. I’m guilty of perpetuating it myself - a number of times in the past I’ve made the observation that I have more male friends than female friends (which is for the most part still true, but I'm working on it), and said things like ‘I just get along better with guys’, ‘guys are just easier to be around’ or even ‘I just don’t like bitchy girl drama’.

But why is this something which I associate with my gender? I can’t deny that I have encountered women who seem to me to fit this stereotype throughout my life, or at least indulge in it every once in a while, myself included. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I had growing up in which I’d gossip about another girl’s love life, or call her a ‘slag’ (I hate my past self for feeling that it was acceptable to use that word), shaming her for being sexually liberated, or the way she dressed, or her new haircut, or the amount of weight she’d gained. I thought nothing of it. But where does this instinct to tear each other down come from?

If my little sister comes home from school upset about something another girl has said to her, my automatic response is to reassure her by telling her that the negative behaviour is probably coming from a place of low self esteem. I make the connection between a young woman having a low opinion of herself, and tearing another female down to make herself feel better. Obviously it doesn’t justify her behaviour, but, as someone who thinks about other peoples’ intentions a lot, I generally find it reassuring to understand that the negative behaviour is explainable. And so does my sister. But why do I make this connection? And why is making another female feel inferior an immediate and acceptable reaction to having low self esteem? And where does this low self esteem come from in the first place?

So far we have three factors to this equation - low self esteem leads to tearing other girls down leads to the stereotype of the ‘bitchy girl’ being formed. Obviously this is vastly simplified, but for the sake of forming my theory let it be so.

It is my opinion and theory that the media which young women are exposed to, including social media, as they are navigating puberty, carries a huge amount of responsibility for this problem. Now I am not claiming that the stereotype of women being gossipy or bitchy did not exist before social media, or films, or magazines, or television. I am merely connecting my observations of female behaviour in the modern world that I live in with the media which I, and girls younger than me, have been exposed to.

So let’s get back to my equation, starting with the low self esteem. One of my most vivid memories as a 13-year-old girl is of myself, alone in my room, looking at a picture of Miley Cyrus - who at that point was rail-thin - and crying because I did not look like her. I was on the large side as a young girl, and from about the age of 8 or 9 I was obsessed with magazines. I would leaf through page after page of pictures of models and celebrities who were half my size, staring at clothes I couldn’t wear because they wouldn’t fit me or suit me, wishing and hoping that I could just cut myself in half, that I could just look like the girls in these magazines. I thought that was all that mattered. And actually today I still have the same problem, it’s just been transferred to social media. My instagram feed is full of models in bikinis. I say that it’s for ‘inspiration’ for me to eat healthier and get fitter. But I already eat healthily. I am already (fairly) physically fit. Every time I see one of these pictures of a woman who is thinner, prettier, more tanned and toned than me, there is an element of myself at 13 years old, staring at that picture of Miley Cyrus.

And young girls go through this EVERY DAY. The media for the most part isn't telling them that they shouldn’t have to conform to what society thinks they should look like. It isn't telling them that following their passions, and finding self worth in areas other than their appearance, is more important. Or at least if we are, we aren’t doing it loud enough to drown out the thousands upon thousands of pictures they see of rail-thin models, and articles they read about how to lose weight, how to get ‘bikini ready’, how to change yourself to ‘be the best you’ when the ‘best you’ is actually not you at all, but what society thinks you should be. How can we expect these young girls to have a high opinion of themselves when they are constantly being told how to change themselves, how to be thinner, prettier, better dressed? The underlying implication is always ‘YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH’. And that’s certainly what I felt when I was growing up.

So here’s the first problem created my the media: an unrealistic ideal set for the appearance of women, which women, especially young women, feel unable to meet, which results in a loss of self-esteem. 

The second problem caused is the escape route to low self esteem that these magazines provide: you might not be as thin as these models, but let’s show you some pictures of celebrities who have gained weight because they are probably bigger than you, and further away from the ideal, and that will make you feel better. ‘OMG [inset name here] piles on the pounds’, ‘BIKINI BODY NIGHTMARES’, ‘Between 2006 and 2012 this female celebrity appears to have put on around a stone of weight, let’s overanalyse why that’s happened’ (okay that last one’s not real but it might as well be).  

Aside from the body shaming, we’re faced with feuds between female celebrities (usually about men), women being labelled as ‘crazy’ and ‘jealous’, and ‘struggling with heartbreak’. It has been normalised that the way to comfort yourself when your self esteem is low is to read about another woman who’s being shamed for being sad or for gaining weight or for having an argument, or for ending a relationship with a man (which is often described as them being DUMPED). Aside from giving us a warped view of our gender as a whole, these tabloids are literally teaching us to take comfort from participating in the shaming of other women. They take away our self esteem and give us the tools to build it back up by shaming others. 

And this extends further than the passive participation of reading tabloids, or articles on the internet. Because it's normal, and acceptable, for tabloids to criticise female celebrities for gaining weight, it follows that it's normal, and acceptable, for me to see a woman walking on the other side of the street from me and call her fat, right? Is it then normal, and acceptable, for me to whisper to my friend that another girl we know, who is in the same room, looks overweight in her crop top? Is it normal, and acceptable, for me to walk up to that girl and tell her I think she looks overweight? 

It damn well shouldn't be. It shouldn't be acceptable for me to criticise another woman's appearance, or clothes, or love life, or sex life in pursuit of boosting my own self esteem. But it does happen. In spite of my efforts not to, I still do it in my head sometimes - I'll see a woman who I think is unattractive or overweight, and my instinctive reaction is occasionally not very nice. 

Now I'm not saying all women participate in this behaviour. But I cannot ignore the fact that other girls criticised me both to my face and behind my back as a small, plump 13 year old. I cannot ignore the fact that my sister is criticised by her female peers at school, and her peers are criticised by other peers. I cannot ignore the fact that I hear women older than me talking about how much weight their friends have gained, or talking about how to lose weight, or laughing at someone's dress at a party, or gossiping that another woman brought her divorce upon herself. These kinds of instances are happening all the time, and it's partly because this critical behaviour is normalised by the media.

So there it is. That’s my hypothesis. The media’s influence on young women aids, abets and perpetuates this stereotype of the 'bitchy girl'. It might not be the only cause, but if women want to make progress towards gender equality, a part of which should be dissociating this negative stereotype from our gender, tackling the way in which the media presents us, and the negative effect its influence has on young women is, in my opinion, an important step.