How do British women see themselves? Concern about young women’s self-image has now found its way from glossy magazines into mainstream policy discussions. Earlier this year, David Cameron called for an end to ‘inappropriate sexualisation’ of children. Across the political spectrum, unease is growing about the implications of a perceived decline in confidence and well-being amongst young women and girls.
The consequences of poor self-esteem are increasingly well documented - namely binge drinking, violence, drug abuse, eating disorders and educational disengagement. The self-esteem of women and girls is known to have far-reaching implications for families, society, policymakers and business. But the complex interplay between all the factors which influence self-worth is more poorly understood.
This research will enable Demos to paint an up to date picture of the lives of young women in Britain today, the various pressures and influences – social, economic, commercial, media, cultural, familial and institutional – which impact on women’s self-image. It will generate credible evidence about their levels of self-esteem, placing the data in a global context so that we might better understand the problems that are distinct to British culture.
Multiple explanations abound for the apparent increase in these problem outcomes. Politicians speak of moral decline; psychologists of a lack of appropriate role models and poor parenting. Sociologists point to the pervasive influence of the media, the music industry and advertisers, all of which have been shown to have the power to set behavioural norms amongst young people. Economists have claimed that increased consumerism has made us insecure and unhappy.
Research has also highlighted the increasing importance of behavioural and emotional skills – sometimes called capabilities – such as agency, motivation and self-esteem to outcomes. These skills are associated with increased resilience both in childhood and later in life, and with lower prevalence of risky behaviours. But we are yet to develop an understanding of how these skills might develop differently in boys and girls – and whether there are differences in how families, communities, schools and services should seek to help young women acquire these skills.
Demos proposes to bring a gendered analysis to the multi-faceted question of well-being amongst young women. This project would represent a major audit of young women’s self-image and sense of self-worth. New attitudinal data would be supplemented by in-depth qualitative research with young women, international and longitudinal comparisons to establish the extent of the problem and where it is concentrated.
For more information on our work in this area, please contact Julia Margo.
This pamphlet investigates the emotional wellbeing of teenage girls in the UK.
Beatrice Karol Burks discusses the unhappiness levels of teenage girls on Woman's Hour (starts at 10.03am).