Sowing the Seeds of Self-Esteem: Resources

By Devon, Natasha | Times Educational Supplement, April 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sowing the Seeds of Self-Esteem: Resources


Devon, Natasha, Times Educational Supplement


Teenagers need our help to become confident in their own skin, argues body image expert and recovered bulimic Natasha Devon.

I survey the sea of faces before me - an average-sized, co- educational Year 10, comprised of 160 teenagers. Some students are leaning forward eagerly in their seats, while a handful are attempting to look totally unbothered and a few are trying to plug in iPod headphones without me noticing. Then their head of year says the magic words: "Natasha has been on the telly. With Gok Wan." Suddenly every student is alert, all attempts at indifference abandoned.

I have one hour to convey the message that inspired my business, Gossip School; just one hour to emphasise the importance of self-esteem, to give these young people the tools to recognise negative messages from the media and to convince them that it is OK to be themselves, however they look.

Statistically, 15 of them will have self-harmed at some point during the past week, 16 are either suffering from or will develop an eating disorder before they are 25, and 55 will have been verbally or physically bullied by their peers.

It is impossible to tell who among my audience is enduring the issues described above. I cannot assume that they will be female (according to the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too, with which I work closely, diagnoses of male eating disorders have increased by 66 per cent in the past decade). All the social mores have changed. Low self-esteem knows no barriers: it is now the remit not only of the class clown and the nerd, but also the sports captain and the most popular girl in school.

Statistics tell me that 70 per cent of the young women before me, and almost half of the young men, are dissatisfied with their appearance. But what was once common-or-garden teenage angst now has a new and terrifying face, exacerbated by the internet, airbrushing, aggressive marketing campaigns, cheap diet drugs, cosmetic surgery, broken homes and exam stress. Teenagers often seek solutions to these pressures in the imagined control they feel when they develop an eating disorder or self-harm, and their unhappiness can spiral out of control.

I began teaching self-esteem classes in 2008, speaking to hundreds of teenagers to develop my lesson. Self-esteem education is now my full-time job. I have worked with almost 10,000 teenagers aged 13-18 in schools, colleges and universities throughout the UK. This year, I am bringing in other presenters to reach an even wider audience and am developing a lesson for younger pupils, aged 11 and over.

My lesson begins with my own story. Aged 17, I was a straight-A student, deputy head girl and a champion Oxford Union debater, excited by the prospect of university and utterly convinced that one day I would be prime minister. I wore a uniform of Marks and Spencer navy bootleg trousers and did not wear make-up or have any interest in fashion.

Eight years later, having embarked on an ill-fated modelling career, I was bulimic, unemployed, Pounds 10,000 in debt and suffering from depression. I had 24-inch hair extensions and a fake tan, and would pore endlessly over glossy magazines. I also had a hole in the roof of my mouth (eroded by vomit), had been hospitalised twice with dehydration and had been rendered a shadow of my former self by bulimia, which was robbing me of my potential.

I have now been in recovery for four years. My experience seems to make me somebody teenagers can relate to. I retain some fondness for fashion and glamour, but it is not all-encompassing. My lesson's core message is that, however you look or are, you can only be the best version of yourself, which is so much better than chasing some arbitrary beauty paradigm.

I encourage students to identify and question their negative beliefs about themselves. The commonest of these are "I'm ugly", "I'll never pass my exams" and "I'm not liked". By the end of the class, I hope I have been able to give them a fresh perspective - one that will put them on the road to self-acceptance and to knowing they can do anything they set their minds to. …

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