The Secret Self-Hatred of Confident, Smiling Milly Shows How Little We Know of Our Children's Inner Lives

Daily Mail (London), May 26, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Secret Self-Hatred of Confident, Smiling Milly Shows How Little We Know of Our Children's Inner Lives


Byline: by Tanith Carey

AS SHE poses for the camera, confidently showing off her first attempt at ironing, Milly Dowler appears as the sort of confident, carefree girl we'd like all our daughters to become.

But these precious images of happy family life captured on a home video are not only hard to bear because they are Sally Dowler's last keepsake of her child before her abduction.

They are poignant for another reason. They remind us parents of how little we know of our daughters' complex and secret emotional lives -- and the growing pains they so often face without us. Even a mother as loving and attentive as Sally was forced to admit she had no idea of what has been described in Milly's murder trial as her 'double life'.

Unbeknown to her, her apparently happy-go-lucky daughter suffered such low self-esteem that hidden away in a box in her bedroom was a farewell letter saying it would have been better if she'd been aborted or adopted.

In notes and poems that revealed flashes of her self-loathing, Milly told of a life where the thought of school every morning filled her with dread and how she felt both 'helpless' and 'pathetic'.

Two years earlier, at the tender age of 11, it now transpires Milly had already had a go at slicing into her wrists with a dinner knife because she'd been teased at school.

Of course, every teenage girl riding the roller-coaster of hormones during adolescence has written melodramatic, self-pitying rants she later regrets. Thankfully, few get a public airing.

Yet it's still a painful reminder of how our girls go to war with themselves -- and how fiercely they fight that battle every day of their fragile youth.

At the age of just 13, Milly was already counting herself a loser in the popularity and beauty contests of life. For girls today, the two are inextricably linked.

When we look at our daughters, all we see is how lovely they are. When they look in the mirror, all they see are flaws.

Even for effortlessly pretty girls like Milly, who have nothing immediately obvious to obsess about, she still found something -- the size of her nose and nostrils.

When I interviewed teenagers for my latest parenting book, I discovered how profound that selfloathing can be. Lovely girls, just like Milly, said they were already saving up for nose jobs and liposuction.

ONE girl, who would be considered flawless to the naked eye, was still tormented by the fact that one front tooth was marginally longer than the other.

But then this is more than a contest to be pretty. In our schools, looks also determine whether or not you belong.

Even in these days of anti-bulling awareness, much of this interaction is so subtle, it's imperceptible to the adult eye. Most of it is in coded language of heavy sighs, raised eyebrows and shared looks.

For a sensitive girl like Milly, who like most children her age 'just wanted to be liked', even the merest hint that others were whispering about her would have been enough to send her world crashing down around her.

Who knows for certain the real reason why Milly felt left out. When girls start secondary school, there's always a scramble to redefine the social hierarchies, and she probably fell between the cracks.

But then it doesn't matter how popular or pretty your daughter is, or how well she seems to fit in; eventually, like Milly, she will face problems with friendships. As parents, we need to warn our girls, so it doesn't seem like the world is ending.

Eventually, she will learn how to navigate this stormy sea. But, in the short-term, those experiences will shape how she dresses, how she speaks, her hobbies, who she spends time with -- and ultimately how she feels about herself.

When I spoke to girls as part of my research, I was shocked by how rigid and uncompromising the boundaries are around teenage social groups -- and how brutally they are enforced. …

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