Internalizing Body Image Issues

When I was 14, I gave up playing hockey and was quickly given a hula hoop so that I could “stay in shape” and avoid gaining weight. Throughout my teenage years, I have been told by numerous people to “pull in” my stomach. When I was 17, a male classmate asked me directly whether or not I had had a boob job. (I hadn’t, but that’s beside the point.)

In my 19 years of living, I can honestly say that I have never internalized any body image issues. But I now realize that these comments had the potential to seriously harm my body image and self-esteem. Young women and girls are subjected to comments like these on regular basis from childhood.

Now when people comment on my weight – and it’s mostly other women who do so – I feel annoyed. I have never been what is considered overweight, nor have I have ever been what is considered overly skinny.

Why do we focus so much attention on how much someone’s body weighs? Why don’t we tell someone that they look good or healthy instead of commenting on their body size?

Similarly, when people stare at my body I feel uncomfortable. I enjoy wearing shorts in the summer, but since attending university, I’ve noticed a number of men staring at my thighs when I wear them. It is truly bothering sometimes.

I am sure many other women and girls have stories similar to mine. And it leads me to my question: who do we look good for?

If your daily diet is not a threat to your health, why should you change it because of what other people say? If you feel good in that dress you want to wear, then wear it. Unfortunately, we live in an age of impressing and comparing but I urge you to try to resist it.

I feel lucky that I have always been a person who is not easily influenced by anything. I know that not everyone feels the same way, so I write this to whoever needs to read it:

The weight of being a woman is heavy enough already. If you are healthy and breathing, be grateful for that. Your inner beauty should weigh on your mind more than your physical appearance does. Like your body, it will always be a work in progress and will never be ‘perfect’, but that’s ok.

The Impact of HIV on Adolescent Girls & Young Women

World AIDS Day celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with the theme of ‘Know Your Status’.

Great progress has been made since the first World AIDS Day in 1988 – 3 in 4 people living with HIV today know their status.

However, the work is not yet done – especially for women. Women account for more than half of the people living with HIV worldwide. In particular, adolescent girls (10-19 years) and young women (15-24 years) are significantly affected by HIV and have high prevalence rates.

In Eastern and Southern Africa, women make up 26% of new HIV infections despite making up only 10% of the population. Statistically, young women will acquire HIV five to seven years earlier than their male counterparts.

Why are women and girls at high risk of infection?

HIV disproportionately affects young women and girls because of their unequal social, cultural and economic status in society. These challenges include gender based violence, laws and policies that undermine women, and harmful cultural and traditional practices that reinforce stigma and the dynamic of male dominance.

Here some other reasons why gender inequality leaves women vulnerable to HIV:

  1. Lack of access to healthcare services – women encounter barriers to health services on individual, interpersonal, community and societal levels.
  2. Lack of access to education – studies show that educated girls and women are more likely to make safer decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health and have lower risk of partner violence.
  3. Poverty – an existing and overarching factor that increases the impact of HIV.
  4. Gender-based violence & intimate partner violence – these types of violence prevent young women from protecting themselves from HIV.
  5. ‘Blesser/Sugar Daddy’ culture and transactional sex – sex with older men for monetary or material benefits, exposes young women and girls to low condom use, unsafe sexual practices and increased rates of STIs.
  6. Child marriage – girls who marry as children are likely to be abused by their husbands and forced into sexual practices.
  7. Biological factors – adolescent girls are susceptible to higher rates of genital inflammation, which may increase the risk of HIV infection through vaginal intercourse.

Importance of HIV testing

HIV testing in young women and girls is essential. Many receive access to treatment and care services after testing. Some important determinants of testing are:

  • Going through antenatal care
  • Being married
  • Having primary and secondary education

We need to aim for more young women and girls to being tested so that they know their status, and can access adequate care and treatment services. HIV testing is necessary for expanding on treatment and ensuring that people with HIV have healthy, productive lives.

Addressing the Impact

To address the impact of HIV on young women and girls we need to have approaches and interventions that incorporate the diverse perspectives of women and girls. This is needed on all platforms from campaigning and policy-making to program design. As the World Health Organization recommends, a woman-centred approach that includes women as participants is required, so that our needs, rights and preferences are considered.

Better strategies are needed across all health system to improve accessibility, acceptability, affordability, uptake, equitable coverage, quality, effectiveness and efficiency of services, particularly for adolescent girls worldwide.

Creating Equal Workplaces: My Recruitment Experience

In the past few years, many companies have implemented a 50/50 recruitment policy – 50% women and 50% men. This is an amazing improvement, since it shows that companies want to become equal employers and help women excel in industries where they have been historically underrepresented.  Even so, I ask myself whether there are ways we could make this policy more effective. Is there a better way of promoting gender equality in recruitment?

When I started applying for internships last year, I was impressed by all that was being done to ensure equality. Companies in male-dominated industries such as tech and finance had several programmes in place to inspire women to apply for their jobs. Actually, there were often more opportunities for me than for my male counterparts at university.

During my applications, companies hailed diversity and emphasised how much better they would perform if their workforce was not so streamlined. Many firms published yearly reports on gender diversity and pay differences, and some even boasted a 50/50 policy that had finally been fulfilled during that recruitment year.

However, people started asking questions. If you recruit 50% men and 50% women – will you really be hiring the best people? Is diversity more important than meritocracy? And I see where they come from. This top-down approach doesn’t deal with the root of the problem – why do women and men apply to different jobs in the first place? How can a company help solve this problem?

I have attended several recruitment sessions, some of them tailored for women. All of them displayed charts and numbers of how equal they had become. The workplace is now full of women, they said. But I asked myself, why is it only men giving the presentations? If there are plenty of qualified women at this company, surely they should be the ones attending university events for female graduates?

I believe that gender roles live on because we keep enforcing them. If I never see my mom fixing the car or my dad cooking when I am young, I am more likely to enforce the same roles in my home when I grow up. Likewise, if I never see women represent a tech company, investment bank or a political party, I am far less likely to see myself doing so in the future.

I once attended a women’s recruitment event where all of the speakers were women. There were about 50 students attending, all female, and most of the day was spent discussing women in the workplace. At one point, one of the attendees raised her hand and asked about meritocracy. “It is amazing that you do these events,” she said, “but how do you ensure that you still hire the best, most qualified people?” The speaker replied that meritocracy was very important to them – a principle they would never abandon.

But when I looked around the room, I saw only women. And I knew that the company did not plan to host a ‘men’s recruitment event’ – imagine the questions they would be asked if they did! So how can they claim to be hiring the very best people, when clearly women had a much better chance of securing an interview?

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of women out there who are equally qualified, and many times even more qualified, than their male competitors, and often women shy away from applying while men tend to exaggerate their competencies and achievements.

But women deserve to be offered jobs based on their merit, not just their gender. That’s why we need to know that we were actually the best candidate for the position we’re offered, and that we are not just there because of a diversity programme. Our male colleagues will never respect us if they don’t think we deserve to be there in the first place, we won’t feel confident, and the situation will become even worse. It is incredibly important to find a balance between diversity and meritocracy in recruitment processes.

There are several ways of achieving a more equal workplace. One of the solutions might be 50/50 recruitment policies – after all, more women are entering the tech and finance industries than ever before and we will hopefully soon see a more equal gender division across company hierarchies.

But until then, I believe that there are several other ways we can encourage women to apply for the jobs where they will thrive the most. One is showcasing female role models – mentors, presentations and workshops are very effective in reaching out to students and establishing professional connections between talented women. Another is adopting gender-blind recruitment processes. Many companies have started using video interviews without a human interviewer – algorithms help determine who the best candidates are without a gender-biased lens.

There is, of course, the problem of men and women demonstrating different personality traits that are deemed suitable for different kinds of jobs, but that’s something to be dealt with much earlier in life than in graduate interviews. By screening CVs and conducting initial interviews without knowing applicants’ gender, we might end up with completely different recruits than through the traditional process.

And lastly, us women need to know that we are able. We need to show how qualified we are and dare to brag a little. The workspace is competitive, and in order to succeed, we need to be that way too.

Sometimes we will be faced with a gender-biased recruiter, and when that happens, we just need to prove why they are wrong. Hopefully, we can create a more equal workplace for our daughters, where they don’t need to attend all-female events to stand the same chance as their brothers of securing their dream job. And at that point, we will know we have succeeded.

What Does an Abusive Relationship Look Like?

Recent research by Cosmopolitan and Women’s Aid has revealed disturbing new statistics on young women’s experiences of domestic violence in the UK.

In a survey of more than 122,000 people, more than a third of women (34.5%) revealed that they had been in an abusive relationship.

More shocking, though, is that many of the women surveyed didn’t actually recognise the signs of an abusive relationship in the first place. Almost two thirds (63.8%) of the women who answered that they had not been in an abusive relationship revealed elsewhere in the survey that they had in fact experienced behaviour or treatment from a partner that could be classed as abusive.

When it comes to domestic violence, the first image that comes to my mind is a frail, bloodied woman with black eyes and scratched arms, curled up in the corner of a dark room. She’s straight out of the anti-violence awareness campaigns I saw around me growing up in the UK.

In reality, abuse comes in many forms other than physical and doesn’t always leave easily-identifiable marks on bodies. Abuse includes a vast range of actions and behaviours, from emotional damage, financial manipulation, sexual intimidation, coercive control, social media invasion and much more. Of course, physical violence can and does occur, but a relationship can be abusive without it, or for a long time before it happens.

The frightening thing is that this survey suggests that young women in the UK today are unaware of what counts as abuse. Without being aware of what counts as abuse, and without being able to name certain behaviours as violent, it’s difficult to protect yourself or your friends and family from relationships that are toxic, damaging or even life-threatening. 

During an interview for BBC Woman’s Hour, 3 young women who had experienced abuse in their first ever relationships described some of the characteristics that made those relationships so unhealthy. Each of their experiences were different, but some of the things they spoke of included extreme jealousy, forced isolation, being forbidden from talking to other people, a constant undermining of self-esteem, excessive anger, sexual shaming – sometimes through social media, financial exploitation and derogatory language.

A common reflection among these young women, as well as others who have shared their experiences through Cosmopolitan, is that it’s difficult to know when something is wrong if you don’t know what’s ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ in the first place. Each of them described experiencing a large volume of small actions or behaviours that on their own might seem insignificant, but when added together created a toxic and frightening environment to find themselves in.

Speaking on the release of these new statistics, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said:

“Our culture often portrays controlling behaviour as a sign of being desired or loved when in fact coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic abuse. As the shocking findings from our research show, many younger women may not recognise that their partner is abusive if there isn’t physical violence and may even think that threatening, controlling and intimidating behaviour is normal in relationships. We know that younger women are most likely to experience domestic abuse but least likely to access vital support services. We want to change this.”

Surely we are failing young people if we aren’t teaching them what a healthy relationship looks like before they embark on one for themselves for the first time. Surely to recognise red flags for yourself or for the people you care about you need to have first been given some examples of what those red flags might look like. Relationship education needs to be prioritised in all schools, and it needs to encompass much more than the basics of sex and contraception. No young person should have to experience an abusive relationship – or watch a friend experience one – as a way to figure out what is and isn’t an acceptable way to be treated by another person.

If you’re in the UK, you can help shape the government’s approach to the issue by giving feedback on the consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Click here to add your voice – it’s open until May 31 and doesn’t take very long!

For more information and support, visit Women’s Aid’s website or call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.

Yes, I’m Young but Hear Me Out!

‘Young people are the future’ is a phrase used so often it has become a cliché. Personally, I cringe when I hear it, because I like to believe that young people can create change in real-time. However, during the past year, I’ve noticed that not everyone sees young people as valuable change-makers in the same way that I do.

Until September of last year, I held the position of the Dutch Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. A long title, which essentially meant that I worked with youth organizations and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to amplify youth voices in the Netherlands and globally. I addressed anything related to sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, human rights and international development.

In my position there were no typical days – some days I was at the Ministry working on proposals, and other days I was on an international visit to partner countries or at the United Nations speaking up for young people. The role is unique and it is the only one in the world as no other country has a similar position. Naturally, many youth advocates and youth organizations envy the investment the Dutch Ministry has made by putting this position in place, because it offers a direct way of providing input on your government – a privilege most young advocates can only dream of. So why don’t other governments jump on board?

Based on my experience, meaningfully engaging young people is not welcomed for many reasons, but here are 3 I hear most often:

1. People in positions of power are afraid to let go of the reigns, especially when it concerns someone with fewer years of ‘professional experience’. This is often the case when governments and institutions are hierarchical and involve a high level of bureaucracy – in other words, when the only young people in offices are interns needed for administrative tasks. In these settings, older generations struggle to view young people as professionals. Additionally, personal experiences and life lessons are not valued as much as ‘hard-earned’ experience from working hours, which is troubling as a young person’s background can be what makes them a strong advocate and key contributor.

2. Meaningful youth engagement needs investment, which many governments aren’t willing to consider. It is true that young people need support so that they can actively participate (support with understanding regulations or jargon, for example). Therefore, more time, resources and money need to be set aside for creating youth-friendly spaces. Many governments and organizations view this as too large a barrier, and are instantly put off because they believe that the costs of meaningfully engaging young people outweigh the benefits.

3. The added value of engaging young people is overlooked. Officials and senior employees I have spoken with have often highlighted this point – what’s in it for us? My response is always the same: as the world continues to change, young people provide unique insights, creativity, and perspectives from a large section of the world population. This last point is particularly relevant, as there have never been as many young people in the world as there are today.

So, what can young people do to push for meaningful engagement?

If you’re a young person trying to convince your local government, or any other organization for that matter, to take action,  preparing counterarguments to objections like the ones mentioned above can be useful to improve your discussions. If you want to go further and lead an organization to call for attention to your cause, I would recommend this youth guide developed by CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality (it is written primarily for the field of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights but is applicable for advocacy in all fields).

Keep in mind: one argument you make could resonate with one person and shift everything. Stay passionate and keep reaching out to other young advocates. Young people can shape the present!

Female Role Models

The female role model has become a powerful actor in the digital age we live in. By the female role model, I mean the bloggers, actresses, Instagrammers and artists who are young women and have other young women and girls as followers. Through social media, it is now incredibly easy stay up to date with people who interest you and see their every move and thought.

A discussion has begun based on this phenomenon: does great responsibility come with great power? In Sweden alone, there have been multiple occasions where young women have been questioned and told they are not behaving like good role models for young girls. It might be because they pose in pictures with a cigarette in their hand, or say inappropriate words in podcasts. Some have even faced criticism for taking baths, because it’s bad for the environment.

This way of thinking can also be found in criticism about TV-series that are close to reality, like the Norwegian series SKAM and Lena Dunham’s Girls. The well-liked feminist character Noora in SKAM has been blamed for falling in love with an alleged ‘bad boy’, because as a feminist, of course, she shouldn’t fall for someone like that.

These demands on ‘role models’ puts young women in a position where they can no longer be regular human beings who make mistakes and misjudgements, and who don’t always have everything figured out. A female role model is expected to be perfect in every way, and if perfection is not upheld it’s argued that it negatively affects young girls. Young women are also expected to be and act like role models, even if they did not choose this position themselves or ever claim to be ‘perfect’. When young women become famous they are automatically viewed as role models and subsequently have certain standards to uphold.

So the question we must ask ourselves is this – is it better for young girls to have perfect role models to look up to, or role models that show them reality? When trying to create an equal society, I personally believe that it is more important that young women can live their lives without being judged than it is for girls to grow up with the idea that women have to be perfect in order to be accepted by society. For example, I think that the idea of females being flawless is more harmful for young girls then seeing a picture of Alicia Vikander smoking a cigarette.

It’s clear that this is an issue of equality when we consider that these kinds of demands are not thrust upon men in the same way. I think it’s always important to keep in mind whether the same criticism would be given to a man in the same situation. We need to let women choose for themselves whether they want to be role models, and if so what type of role models they want to become.