Children who Hate their Bodies

Argus title : Our girls deserve to be safe in the city

A few weeks ago the Argus published a story about a 16 year old Brighton teenager who is trying to raise £6,500 for breast reduction. She reported being abused, bullied and assaulted because of the size of her breasts.

The article shocked me. It seemed wrong that, having said how tired she is of people “always gawping at my breasts” she should have to publicise her figure in her local newspaper in order to raise the money for an operation to reduce their size – an operation which, if needed on health grounds, should be available on the NHS.

It seemed exploitative to look too closely at the photograph. However, I read the article with care. I wondered to what extent this young girl, because of insults and bullying, might have felt forced into surgery.

I glanced at the sad little face in the photograph which seemed vaguely familiar. Suddenly I recognized her. This was “little Sherri” who years ago, when she was only 3 or 4, lived down the road from us. Her family moved away years ago and so did we, but we have many happy memories of that time.

Vere Road, in the early 1990s was the sort of street in which you could sit out on your front step, enjoy the afternoon sun, read or talk with the neighbours. We had a tiny garden without sunlight, so more often than not we’d take our small daughter out and play ball games in the street. On many occasions, Sherri and her sisters and brothers would come and join us and fuss around our daughter who was just able to walk.

Sherri was a lovely little girl, with light brown hair and a sweet smile. I have a photograph of her at my daughter’s second birthday party. The eyes are unmistakeable.

I looked at her image in the newspaper and felt intense anger on her behalf. I also felt terribly sad. It is years since I saw her, but at 16 she is still a child. Under the terms of British law she will remain so until she reaches the age of majority at 18.

Yet child as she is, it seems she cannot walk freely in the streets of her home town without men commenting on and attempting to touch her body. She told the Argus “On the bus a drunk man came up to me and tried to touch me. Blokes shout stuff at me in the street.” She did not say how long she had had to endure such conduct, but it is likely to have been years.

At the very least, such actions breach the law. They constitute Indecent Assault and “behaviour likely to alarm and distress”. She should have been protected, but she was not.

It is demeaning and humiliating for an adult to be sexually insulted and abused, but for a child or young person it is far worse. Such victimization has a cumulative effect, stripping young people of self-respect and fostering self-loathing.
Men who subject children and young girls to sexual bullying are cowardly. They know their victims have no means to protect themselves, for typically such victims lack self-confidence and are relatively weak. Sherri is only 5’2’’, hardly able to defend herself or risk an angry confrontation.

Just days after the Argus reported Sherri’s plight, UNICEF published a report revealing British children to be among the worst cared for in the industrialized world. Overall out of 21 wealthy nations, the report placed the USA and Britain 20th and 21st.
UNICEF ranked the countries in six categories: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risks, and young people’s own subjective sense of well-being. Britain was last in the family and peer relationships ranking and also in behaviors and risks.
The British government did not express concern or promise action, claiming the report-writers had used out of date information. A Government official said “In many cases the data used is several years old and does not reflect more recent improvements…”
The authors, in contrast, said they had used the most up-to-date information to assess “whether children feel loved, cherished, special and supported, within the family and community, and whether the family and community are being supported in this task by public policy and resources”.
Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, of York University one of the report’s authors, put the UK’s poor ratings down to long term under-investment and a “dog-eat-dog” society, saying “In a society which is very unequal, with high levels of poverty, it leads on to what children think about themselves and their lives.”
Nowhere is this “dog eat dog” culture more in evidence than in relations between the sexes. As they grow up, young girls swiftly discover that despite record educational achievements and numbers in work, the gap between male and female wages is increasing not decreasing. They learn that it is women and their children who form the majority of Britain’s poor and that, in the main, it is they who care for the young and the old. Domestic violence is widespread and rape a commonplace without penalty.
This week the Argus has published a series of articles about crime in Sussex. Amongst other things it’s highlighted the continuing high incidence of sexual assault upon female victims. What is clear from the police figures is that though throughout Sussex reports of sexual assault have reduced significantly, they have remained more or less static across Brighton & Hove, at 394 in 2004/05 and 388 in 2005/06.
Of the 20 wards across Sussex in which sexual offences are most likely to be reported, 7 are in Brighton and 1 in Hove. In these 8 wards in 2005/06 there were 257 assaults, significantly more than the 236 reported the year before.
Old attitudes to rape and sexual assault are remarkably persistent. Women are deemed to be “asking for it” on the basis of how they look or dress and there is an assumption that the men who attack them are unable to help themselves. In Sherri’s case, a man, presumably imbued with such attitudes, felt at liberty to indecently assault her for no other reason than that she was young, female and physically vulnerable. He thought he could get away with it and, like most sexual predators, he did.

In 2005 I met with Supt Russell Whitfield and Sgt Phillip Wright of Sussex Police who spoke with enthusiasm about improvements police have made in responding to rape. They expressed deep serious concern that the drink-fuelled club culture of Brighton & Hove is putting young women at particular risk. They reported that by far the majority of rape victims were female and a disproportionate number (around 70%) were aged between the ages of 16 and 25.

I wrote then “The current situation is a terrifying one. Sex education in schools provides little or no advice to girls about avoiding sexual assault, nor any preventative work with young people to challenge the sexist attitudes to women which give rise to rape.”

Since I wrote those lines, the situation for young girls has worsened. Sexualisation of very young girls by the music and fashion industries continues unabated. Older girls are promised breast enhancements for their 16th birthdays and offered pole dancing as a legitimate form of exercise.

Teenage male consumption of pornography via ‘lads’ mags’ and the internet is ever- increasing. Sexual bullying in schools is rife. And in Brighton & Hove, magistrates have licensed the first fully nude lap-dancing club in Brighton & Hove, with many more to follow. The likelihood of securing a conviction for sexual assault is now less than 5%.

Small wonder that consumption of alcohol, depression and self-harm have dramatically increased amongst young women. In the absence of any effective strategy to deal with either the failure of adults to properly protect the young or the distortion of relations between the sexes, it is hardly surprising that young girls starve and damage their bodies, or resort to surgery in the hope that this will buy them safety or win them respect.

We are at a cross-roads in our city and in our nation. We can continue to be the sort of city and society in which “dog eats dog”, or we can call a halt.

Young people like Sherri deserve to be safe in our city, in their homes, in public transport, in schools and colleges and in public places. As we approach Council elections in May we need to ask all candidates what they intend to do to achieve this.

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