I have a job that frequently shocks me, regularly inspires me, and usually ensures I keep a reasonable perspective about the things that bother me in my own life.
Yesterday I was working in a community that would casually be called the “poorest of the poor” by policy-makers, the media and charities alike. It’s on the outskirts of a bustling city and exists to collect and hand sort the rubbish the city and its growing middle class produces. As cars race past on a gleaming highway a few hundred metres away the rubbish arrives by horse and cart.
I spent the day at a community library that gives children who don’t go to school the chance to read, learn, and play. A group of friends were identified to feature in the short film I am making. Two interviews down we beckoned the third girl towards the camera. A cocky, confident, and funny nine-year-old, she’d been enjoying herself while we filmed the group activities, but as her moment in front of the camera arrived she shrunk back from us and her shoulders hunched.
“Are you ok?” my translator gently asked.
She shook her head.
“What’s the matter?”
The translator’s face fell.
“Because I am fat and I am not beautiful,” she’d whispered back.
There was a sharp intake of breath from the whole team. This week we’ve interviewed migrant workers who haven’t seen their children in 15 years, visited sweatshops where people sit at sewing machines for 18 hours a day, and filmed illegal night markets that provide some people with their only source of income. Somehow this little girl’s insecurities shocked all of us more than any of that. We’d been expecting the rest and knew it would be bad. We hadn’t expected this.
We would have been saddened to hear those words from a nine-year-old anywhere in the world, but somehow it seemed even more shocking to hear them in this community. But why? Just because she is poor and living a life we find hard to comprehend, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the same worries about how she looks or isn’t vulnerable to the same images as nine-year-olds at home are.
I can’t say I had previously assumed people in the communities like this one didn’t care about their body image because until yesterday I hadn’t actually given it any thought. But if asked I would probably have muttered something along the lines of ‘more important things to think about’. That seems patronising now.
But there are more important things to think about. A little girl born into poverty and unable to go to school shouldn’t be worrying about how she looks on camera. No more than a nine-year-old in a nice family home in a richer community should be taking pictures with a ‘slimming selfie app’. We live in a world where body image is a primary concern for little girls, whatever their circumstances.
The growing body positivity movement is heartening and thankfully it’s not just restricted to women. Projects like Kate Parker’s Strong is the New Pretty and the great A Mighty Girl initiative are helping adults think about how they support girls to think differently about themselves. I wonder if these responses will cut as deep as the images that make girls think poorly of themselves have?