Costing the Invisible: A report on Body Image

In 2014, three researchers at UWE Birmingham, including 'Fat is a Feminist Issue' author Dr Susie Orbach, published a piece of research commissioned by the Campaign for Body Confidence, entitled 'Costing the invisible: A review of the evidence examining the links between body image, aspirations, education and workplace confidence'.

I read the report for the first time today.

The conclusions of the research are, for me, simultaneously reassuring and devastating.

Reassuring, because the report backs up with clinical, empirical research, what I have always felt, always known through my own experience growing up female; namely, that negative body image is a hugely feminist issue, visa viz, the following:

International studies confirm the disturbing trend that body dissatisfaction and the perception that one is too large (even if this is not the case) undermine adolescent girls’ academic achievement. It doesn’t lead to failure, but to a diminishing in confidence and hence in performance.


Concern about looks, size, weight, shape and attractiveness filch girls’ and women’s minds, passions and bodies.

If you know how to read English, you will understand why these findings are devastating to me. Basically because in the world we live in, young women are not reaching their true potential, because their time, attention, energy, and health is being stealthily stolen from them. And this is NOT OK.

A 2004 study, cited in the report, concluded that

31% of adolescents in the UK do not engage in classroom debate for fear of drawing attention to their appearance, and 20% say they stay away from class on days where they lack confidence about their appearance

That's a third of our young people being silenced and one fifth being denied the education that is rightfully theirs- all because of body dissatisfaction. And that's not OK, either.

Those of you who know me, know that I love fashion. I love experimenting with style and I love dressing up in clothing. I love fashion as a means of creative expression- and I fundamentally believe in the power of fashion as a communicative tool; a voice. Notably for women, at times in our history where we haven't had much of a social or political voice, fashion has been, and can still be, a subtle, subversive storytelling tool. Ironic, then, that it's mainly women who are oppressed by the fashion and beauty industry.

Exploitative and often downright dangerous working conditions in the fashion industry affect mostly women- for example, when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed in April 2013, killing over 1000 people, 80 % of the workers in the factory that day were female.

Simultaneously, and notably with regards to this report, the tyranny of elitist beauty ideals affects, most severely, women.

At a time when professional and academic doors are open to us like never before, the studies detailed in Costing the Invisible confirm that female academic achievement is negatively impacted by body dissatisfaction. I would assert that this dissatisfaction is a direct result of the very specific beauty ideals being held up by the fashion and beauty industries for all to see- images of very thin, white, youthful-looking women with flawless skin and unlikely proportions are emblazoned across television screens, Pinterest, billboards, Facebook, Instagram, magazines and the movies, to name but a few media examples. 

So here's what we know. As the report puts it:

'...body dissatisfaction and the perception of being too large undermine[s] adolescent girls’ academic achievement. It doesn’t lead to failure, but to a diminishing in confidence and hence in performance and a great deal of mental energy being expended to overcome felt disability.'

In other words, we are sending our young women out into the world with one hand tied behind their backs. We are seemingly offering them the same academic opportunities as their male counterparts, but they must take these opportunities while simultaneously expending mental and emotional energy by being constantly dissatisfied with their own appearance, which, I know from experience, is quite distracting. Disabling, even. It's like the bit in Gladiator where Joachin Phoenix secretly stabs Russell Crowe to wound, and thus weaken him before the two fight in the film's denouement. From the perspective of the outside observer, it's a fair fight, but our Russell has the odds stacked against him before he even starts. Similarly, our young women, going through life hating their own bodies, are walking wounded, and it has to stop.

(Just to point out, Russell still wins the fight, though. Although the Gladiator analogy ends there. I'd take it further if I could- what a film! #weepfest)

The report mentions lots of concerning points that I could regurgitate here, but really, it's a short read so I'd urge you to check it out, which you can do here.

One thing that really resonated with me, though, was that according to a survey undertaken on behalf of Dove in 2012, 'Self/body esteem has a stronger impact on girls’ expectations about job competence amongst high achieving girls... So low self/body esteem has a much more negative impact... amongst high achievers.' The survey goes on to posit, speculatively, future economic cost to society on this basis. However, I don't need to hear any more to get angry about this. I am already fuming. It's not enough to attempt to dim the brightness of our young people's futures, but those who shine the brightest, those who are best positioned to be change-makers in our world, they are the ones hit the hardest. Low blow, patriarchy. Low. Bloody. Blow.

I was, once upon a time, a teenage girl myself. A 'high-achieving', hugely perfectionist and entirely vulnerable one, come to that. Having hated myself and my body for the best part of half my life, today I think about that young girl who was me and I wish I could protect her. I wish I could make her understand.

Today, I'm angry. Not at that girl, she doesn't deserve that. I am angry that I was allowed to think that my body was not ok. I am angry I was told such lies, and I am angry that I believed them. I am angry that I thought that being thin was more important than my health, my future, anything. I'm angry that I, even now, unplugged from the Matrix, have days where I cry because I don't want my boyfriend to look at my face, because I think it's not pretty enough. I am angry that I now obsess over the beginnings of wrinkles around my eyes (I am 30 now, you know, in case anyone missed that) and spend valuable hours of my life reading about products to 'fix' them. I am angry that I have days where I berate myself because I feel like I should earn more, I should have achieved more, I should BE more. This. is. all. bullshit.

But even though I know this, and I'm super angry about it (did I mention that?) it still affects me. How could it not? I don't want to become a hermit on an island somewhere with no internet access. I like people. So I'm going to ingest this junk, and occasionally, as it builds up, it's going to make me feel a bit ill. Like the chemicals in our food, our water, our air, these messages to hate our bodies are insidious and pervasive. We can't ignore them, they won't just go away.

So... we have to make them stop. We have to fight. This isn't just about teaching girls to stick an 'I'm beautiful' post-it on their bathroom mirror then all going home for tea. That's not enough. We need to arm our children, male and female. Aside from the huge environmental and social costs of production which must also be addressed, radical, systemic change is needed in the fashion and beauty industry. We need diverse faces and bodies represented equally in the media. We need a new vocabulary when it comes to our bodies and we must teach it to children. We need to revolutionise sex education so that pornography is no longer a go-to learning resource for young people. We need to do all this and more.

Today my motivation to fight to my last breath for change is this:

I picture a young girl, engaged in a vigorous fencing match with negative self-talk whilst simultaneously struggling to forge a bright future for herself in what was formerly and is still arguably a man's world. She is, to me, the self I wish I could have saved. She's the sister I always wanted but never had. She's my best friend. She's my future daughter. She's every young woman because this shit is real, for all of us. And I'm angry.



All citations taken from Halliwell, E., Diedrichs, P. C. and Orbach, S. (2014) Costing the invisible: A review of the evidence examining the links between body image, aspirations, education and workplace confidence