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Meaghan Ramsey: Why thinking you're ugly is bad for you

September 17, 2014

About 10,000 people a month Google the phrase, “Am I ugly?” Meaghan Ramsey of the Dove Self-Esteem Project has a feeling that many of them are young girls. In a deeply unsettling talk, she walks us through the surprising impacts of low body and image confidence—from lower grade point averages to greater risk-taking with drugs and alcohol. And then shares the key things all of us can do to disrupt this reality.

Meaghan Ramsey - Self-esteem advocate
The Global Director of the Dove Self-Esteem Project, Meaghan Ramsey believes in business growth that stems from real social change. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
This is my niece, Stella.
00:11
She's just turned one and started to walk.
00:15
And she's walking in that really cool way that
one-year-olds do,
00:18
a kind of teetering, my-body's-moving-
too-fast-for-my-legs kind of way.
00:21
It is absolutely gorgeous.
00:26
And one of her favorite
things to do at the moment
00:28
is to stare at herself in the mirror.
00:31
She absolutely loves her reflection.
00:33
She giggles and squeals, and gives
herself these big, wet kisses.
00:36
It is beautiful.
00:43
Apparently, all of her friends do this and my mom
tells me that I used to do this,
00:45
and it got me thinking:
00:50
When did I stop doing this?
00:52
When is it suddenly not okay to love
the way that we look?
00:55
Because apparently we don't.
01:00
Ten thousand people every month google,
01:03
"Am I ugly?"
01:07
This is Faye. Faye is 13 and she
lives in Denver.
01:09
And like any teenager, she just wants to
be liked and to fit in.
01:13
It's Sunday night.
01:17
She's getting ready for the week ahead at school.
01:19
And she's slightly dreading it, and
she's a bit confused because
01:22
despite her mom telling her all the time
01:24
that she's beautiful,
01:27
every day at school, someone tells her
that she's ugly.
01:29
Because of the difference between what her mom
tells her and what her friends
01:35
at school, or her peers at school are telling her,
01:38
she doesn't know who to believe.
01:41
So, she takes a video of herself.
She posts it to YouTube
01:43
and she asks people to please leave
a comment:
01:47
"Am I pretty or am I ugly?"
01:50
Well, so far, Faye has received
over 13,000 comments.
01:52
Some of them are so nasty, they don't
bear thinking about.
01:57
This is an average, healthy-looking
teenage girl receiving this feedback
02:00
at one of the most emotionally vulnerable
times in her life.
02:06
Thousands of people are posting videos like this,
02:11
mostly teenage girls, reaching out in this way.
02:15
But what's leading them to do this?
02:18
Well, today's teenagers are rarely alone.
02:20
They're under pressure to be online
and available at all times,
02:24
talking, messaging, liking, commenting,
sharing, posting —
02:29
it never ends.
02:34
Never before have we been so connected,
02:36
so continuously, so instantaneously, so young.
02:38
And as one mom told me, it's like there's a party
in their bedroom every night.
02:43
There's simply no privacy.
02:48
And the social pressures that go along
with that are relentless.
02:52
This always-on environment is training
our kids to value themselves
02:56
based on the number of likes they get
03:01
and the types of comments that they receive.
03:02
There's no separation between online and offline life.
03:05
What's real or what isn't is really
hard to tell the difference between.
03:10
And it's also really hard to tell the difference
between what's authentic
03:16
and what's digitally manipulated.
03:19
What's a highlight in someone's life versus
what's normal in the context of everyday.
03:22
And where are they looking to for inspiration?
03:27
Well, you can see the kinds of images
that are covering the newsfeeds
03:30
of girls today.
03:34
Size zero models still dominate our catwalks.
03:36
Airbrushing is now routine.
03:39
And trends like #thinspiration, #thighgap,
03:42
#bikinibridge and #proana.
03:44
For those who don't know, #proana means pro-anorexia.
03:46
These trends are teamed with the
stereotyping and flagrant objectification
03:50
of women in today's popular culture.
03:55
It is not hard to see what girls are
benchmarking themselves against.
03:57
But boys are not immune to this either.
04:03
Aspiring to the chiseled jaw lines and ripped six packs
of superhero-like sports stars
04:06
and playboy music artists.
04:11
But, what's the problem with all of this?
04:13
Well, surely we want our kids to grow up as healthy,
well balanced individuals.
04:16
But in an image-obsessed culture, we are
training our kids
04:23
to spend more time and mental effort on
their appearance
04:26
at the expense of all of the other aspects
of their identities.
04:31
So, things like their relationships, the development
of their physical abilities,
04:36
and their studies and so on begin to suffer.
04:40
Six out of 10 girls are now choosing not to do
something because they don't
04:44
think they look good enough.
04:49
These are not trivial activities.
04:51
These are fundamental activities to their
development as humans
04:54
and as contributors to society and to
the workforce.
04:57
Thirty-one percent, nearly one in
three teenagers, are withdrawing
05:03
from classroom debate. They're failing
05:09
to engage in classroom debate because
05:10
they don't want to draw attention to the
way that they look.
05:12
One in five are not showing up to class at all
05:16
on days when they don't feel good about it.
05:19
And when it comes to exams,
05:21
if you don't think you look good enough,
05:22
specifically if you don't think you are thin enough,
05:25
you will score a lower grade point average
05:28
than your peers who are not concerned with this.
05:31
And this is consistent across Finland, the U.S.
05:34
and China, and is true regardless of how much
you actually weigh.
05:37
So to be super clear, we're talking about the
05:43
way you think you look, not how
you actually look.
05:46
Low body confidence is undermining
academic achievement.
05:51
But it's also damaging health.
05:56
Teenagers with low body confidence
do less physical activity,
05:58
eat less fruits and vegetables,
06:02
partake in more unhealthy weight control
practices
06:04
that can lead to eating disorders.
06:07
They have lower self-esteem.
06:10
They're more easily influenced by people around them
06:12
and they're at greater risk of depression.
06:14
And we think it's for all of these reasons
that they take more risks
06:17
with things like alcohol and drug use;
06:21
crash dieting; cosmetic surgery;
unprotected, earlier sex;
06:25
and self-harm.
06:30
The pursuit of the perfect body is putting
pressure on our healthcare systems
06:32
and costing our governments billions of
dollars every year.
06:36
And we don't grow out of it.
06:41
Women who think they're overweight — again,
06:43
regardless of whether they are or are not —
06:46
have higher rates of absenteeism.
06:49
Seventeen percent of women would
06:52
not show up to a job interview on
06:54
a day when they weren't feeling confident
about the way that they look.
06:57
Have a think about what this is doing
07:02
to our economy.
07:04
If we could overcome this, what that
07:06
opportunity looks like.
07:08
Unlocking this potential is in the interest
07:10
of every single one of us.
07:13
But how do we do that?
07:16
Well, talking, on its own, only gets you so far.
07:18
It's not enough by itself.
07:22
If you actually want to make a difference,
07:23
you have to do something.
07:25
And we've learned there are three key ways:
07:27
The first is we have to educate for body confidence.
07:30
We have to help our teenagers develop
07:33
strategies to overcome image-related pressures
07:35
and build their self-esteem.
07:38
Now, the good news is that there are
07:40
many programs out there available
to do this.
07:42
The bad news is that most of them don't work.
07:46
I was shocked to learn that many well-meaning
07:49
programs are inadvertently actually
07:54
making the situation worse.
07:57
So we need to make damn sure that
08:01
the programs that our kids are receiving
08:02
are not only having a positive impact,
08:05
but having a lasting impact as well.
08:07
And the research shows
that the best programs
08:10
address six key areas:
08:13
The first is the influence of family,
friends and relationships.
08:15
The second is media and celebrity culture,
08:19
then how to handle teasing and bullying,
08:23
the way we compete and compare with
one another
08:25
based on looks,
08:27
talking about appearance — some people
08:28
call this "body talk" or "fat talk" —
08:30
and finally, the foundations of respecting
08:33
and looking after yourself.
08:35
These six things are crucial starting points
08:37
for anyone serious about delivering
08:39
body-confidence education that works.
08:42
An education is critical,
08:45
but tackling this problem is going
08:48
to require each and everyone of us
08:49
to step up and be better role models
08:52
for the women and girls in our own lives.
08:55
Challenging the status quo of how
08:58
women are seen and talked about in
our own circles.
09:00
It is not okay that we judge the contribution
09:03
of our politicians by their haircuts
09:07
or the size of their breasts,
09:10
or to infer that the determination or the success
09:12
of an Olympian is down
to her not being a looker.
09:15
We need to start judging people by what they do,
09:18
not what they look like.
09:21
We can all start by taking responsibility
for the types of pictures
09:24
and comments that we post
09:28
on our own social networks.
09:30
We can compliment people based on
their effort
09:32
and their actions
09:36
and not on their appearance.
09:38
And let me ask you,
09:40
when was the last time that you
09:42
kissed a mirror?
09:43
Ultimately, we need to work together
09:45
as communities, as governments
09:47
and as businesses to really change
this culture of ours
09:50
so that our kids grow up valuing their
whole selves,
09:54
valuing individuality, diversity, inclusion.
09:59
We need to put the people that are
making a real difference
10:03
on our pedestals, making a difference
10:06
in the real world.
10:10
Giving them the airtime, because only then
10:12
will we create a different world.
10:14
A world where our kids are free to become
10:16
the best versions of themselves,
10:20
where the way they think they look
10:23
never holds them back from being
who they are
10:25
or achieving what they want in life.
10:27
Think about what this might mean
for someone in your life.
10:30
Who have you got in mind?
10:35
Is it your wife?
10:36
Your sister?
10:37
Your daughter?
10:39
Your niece?
10:40
Your friend? It could just be the woman
a couple of seats away
10:42
from you today.
10:45
What would it mean for her
10:46
if she were freed from that voice
10:49
of her inner critic, nagging her to have
10:53
longer legs, thinner thighs, smaller stomach,
10:56
shorter feet?
10:58
What could it mean for her if we overcame this
11:00
and unlocked her potential in that way?
11:03
Right now, our culture's obsession
11:08
with image is holding us all back.
11:11
But let's show our kids the truth.
11:15
Let's show them that the way you look
11:17
is just one part of your identity
11:19
and that the truth is we love them
11:23
for who they are
11:26
and what they do
11:27
and how they make us feel.
11:29
Let's build self-esteem into our school curriculums.
11:32
Let's each and every one of us change the way
11:36
we talk and compare ourselves to other people.
11:39
And let's work together as communities,
11:42
from grassroots to governments,
11:45
so that the happy little one-year-olds
11:48
of today become the confident
11:50
changemakers of tomorrow.
11:53
Let's do this.
11:55
(Applause)
11:57

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Meaghan Ramsey - Self-esteem advocate
The Global Director of the Dove Self-Esteem Project, Meaghan Ramsey believes in business growth that stems from real social change.

Why you should listen

Meaghan Ramsey gets giddy watching her 1-year-old niece admire herself in the mirror. Because she knows that, for too many girls, this admiration stops as they move into adolescence and self-doubt about their appearance creeps in. As the Global Director of the Dove Self-Esteem Project at Unilever, Ramsey and her colleagues aim to improve the self-esteem of more than 15 million girls and young women by 2015. She is a strong ambassador for helping girls and women develop resilience in the face of a culture that assaults with unattainable images of beauty and thinness.

Both a brand developer and strategist, Ramsey has long worked to fuel business growth spurred on by social change. Prior to the Dove Self-Esteem Project, she worked with the World Heart Federation and the Dietitians Association of Australia.

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