Can Brands Help Us Feel Better About Ourselves?

Female self-esteem is in crisis. Everywhere I look, I see a different conversation about the state of women’s relationship with themselves. How did it get into such a dreadful place, who is to blame, what can be done about it? In the UK, the recently published NHS Digital National Survey on Health and Wellbeing tells us that 1 in 4 young women aged 16-24 reported a common mental disorder such as anxiety, OCD or depression. That is an uncomfortable statistic. Further research comissioned by Dove tells us that British women have the lowest self-esteem in the world and it’s getting worse.

As a therapist, I can say that one of the most common issues for my clients, both male and female, is that they don’t like themselves very much. Seeking to assign blame to any single source for this is foolish. It is complicated and our early experiences in the family are very often a large part of the issue. However, overlay onto those childhood wounds, the experience of growing up girl in a culture that is relentless in its pursuit of women’s bodies. Whether too skinny, too fat, or 'just right' (the new 'curvy' catch all label), culture rarely lets a woman’s identity stray very far from the state of her body. Overlay onto that a collusive consumer culture that relentlessly invites us to be more than we are, better than we are. Overlay onto that a relentlessly competitive ‘sharing’ culture in which we curate and display the best version of ourselves and our lives. Recent research by Digital Awareness says that young children are waking up to 10 times in the night to check their phones for fear of missing out. We have more opportunities to present the life we think we ought to have, rather than the one that we are actually living. The reality gaps in all of this can hurt us.

Brands work by giving us something emotionally aspirational, something more to reach for. Ever nimble, ever responsive; brands have stepped forward to make self-esteem, strength and confidence the latest commodity they can sell. From fitness wear to cereal to sanitary products to shampoo to fashion, shoes and make-up, self-esteem is the new ‘skinny’ and ‘be yourself’ is an open commercial invitation.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand we are beginning to see a more diverse portfolio of women’s body shapes and sizes. On the other hand we are still in a conversation about women’s bodies and there is a danger that we are simply replacing one body ideal with another. A Psychologist I once spoke to pithily summed up the ‘strong is the new skinny' trend. ‘I can’t see how show me your six pack instead of show me your thigh gap moves us on very far’. On the one hand, there is a conversation about a woman’s interior world, her resilience, confidence and grit, rather than just the shape of her bum. On the other hand we are getting shouted at from 2 corners. In one corner we are hailed with just ‘be yourself’ and ‘love yourself’ , as if it were that easy! In the other corner, we are hailed with, 'while you get with loving yourself, buy this because you’ll look better/feel better’. At least before you knew what you were working with (you’re rubbish buy this lipstick), this is more slippery and two-faced. It attempts to make it all seem so shiny and easy, a magical flip into self- love enabled by the brand. In reality learning to like yourself can be a dirty and complicated business.

There are brands that are doing a better job. Why? Because they don’t assume that she needs to be doing the changing, it’s the culture, the adverts, the media and politics around her that need to change. They don’t assume their role to lie in transforming an assumed psychological deficit in her, but rather their role lies in challenging the cultural restrictions and taboos that surround and potentially limit her. The American brand Hello Flo is doing a really good job in its communication about periods to young girls. It is edgy, irreverent, grounded in real red blood and devoid of sentimentality. It’s clearly working off the research insight that adolescence is the time when a girl’s self-esteem can fall through the floor, but it doesn’t assume that as a brand it can psychologically do anything about that. What it can do is cut through some of the cultural crap that might bring her to that point in the first place.

What we all know is that learning to be yourself takes a lot more than a body wash, a pair of leggings or a sanitary towel. It also, probably, takes more than therapy, but it can be a good place to start.

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