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26 September 2013

Why it’s hard to see yourself in the mirror

The What I See project is highlighting women's false perceptions of themselves. But it needs to go further.

By Rhiannon

What do you see when you look in the mirror? According to the What I See project, a lot more than a bleary-eyed 25 year old with unbrushed hair and a reindeer onesie. The self-styled global ‘online platform for women’s voices’ has spent the last few months asking the question of women across the world, who have come up with a vast array of answers on placards and in video format. These span from the fairly straightforward (‘I see me’) to the heartrending (‘I see flaws that need covering up’; ‘An ordinary girl putting on a clever facade’), to the encouraging (‘I see all the inspirational women in my life and how they’ve shaped who I am’; ‘Someone who has overcome difficulties in her life and embraced happiness and positivity’), to the wide-ranging and culturally critical (‘I see a society obsessed with appearance.’)

As a project that highlights the depressing way in which women view themselves, What I See is hardly unique. Many aspects of it call to mind the Dove ‘Real Beauty Sketches’, which famously asked women to describe themselves to a forensic artist and then showed them the resultant sketch. Unsurprisingly, the sketches were usually much uglier than the women sitting in front of the person with a pencil – which is a relief for Dove, really, considering how incredibly awkward it would have been if they were better looking.

Even The Daily Mail has waded in on this issue in the past, most recently with a ‘silhouette test’ designed to assess how happy – or unhappy, as the case may be – a woman is with her figure. Four brave souls willing to be profiled on the infernal catalogue of hate that is the Mail Online were given representations of various body types, and asked to choose which one most accurately matched their own. Spoiler alert: they all did the expected thing and chose larger figures. Comments from the Mail readership subsequently tore them apart for crimes as varied as supporting feminism (‘if women have such bad judgment, why should we let them become board directors?’) and existing in the first place.

One of the reasons that such studies are solid advertising ploys – or the Daily Mail equivalent, clickbait – is because we always know how they’ll turn out. Stick a woman in front of a few silhouettes, and she’ll pick one larger than herself. Ask her to describe herself, and she’ll downplay her attractive characteristics and self-deprecatingly focus on the bump in her nose or the weak chin or the fat on her thighs. One of the reasons that female participants do this is because they have, from a young age, been aggressively taught about the perceived inadequacies of their faces and bodies, and the products they need to allay these, by people with a vested interest. Another is that, when asked in a media situation what they look like, they know the consequences of being too positive.

To be passive and modest are traditionally feminine attributes. Do a Samantha Brick and declare your own beauty, and prepare for a predictable torrent of abuse. In the wake of Brick-gate, Eva Wiseman pointed out that the rare women who do call themselves pretty manage to make such a journalistic splash because of their relative rarity. ‘We are expected to hate ourselves,’ she said. ‘We are encouraged to improve ourselves… we are prohibited from getting comfortable.’ Undoubtedly, Dove and The Mail knew what their participants were going to say before they said it.

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How does the What I See project differentiate itself from the campaigns before it? First of all, it’s a not-for-profit venture, which immediately makes its intentions far nobler than those of Dove, their anti-cellulite cream and their overpriced moisturising shower gel. But it does benefit from the business acumen of entrepreneur Edwina Dunn, who pioneered a slew of successful worldwide loyalty programmes such as Tesco’s Clubcard in the past. The fact that she has lent herself to such an altruistic platform is heartening. Like Arianna Huffington’s conferences on women in business and ‘the Third Metric’, Dunn seems to be reaching a hand down from above the glass ceiling and using it to haul others up.

It’s important for women at the top to join and found and share these projects because we’ve been fed for too long the dangerous idea that only ‘women who aren’t like women’ – or ‘women who don’t like women’ – succeed. When Edwina Dunn and some of her prestigious ambassadors – Eileen Cooper, the first female keeper of the Royal Academy of the Arts, Professor Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental Physics at The University of Cambridge, Baronesses from the House of Lords and journalist and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, to name a few – pour their money and expertise into uniting women worldwide on a global platform, they make a powerful point about how each is just as much a ‘typical woman’ as any other. There is nothing in ‘being a woman’ that precludes success, they suggest – it’s just the social conditions surrounding womanliness that might. So let’s do something about that.

Hopefully, once we watch the videos of demonstrably normal women admitting that they can’t stand what they see in the mirror, we’ll start to realise that we’re not so hideous ourselves. But we’ve been down this road before and we know that it only goes so far before the deluge of insecurity marketing sweeps it away. The only way to definitively change society is to hold advertisers and the magazines and newspapers that carry their commercials to account at the same time as supporting worthwhile ventures like What I See. It’s an arduous job, but it’s well worth doing.

Undoubtedly, the What I See project is a step in the right direction, even with its obvious focus on appearance. One of our favourite images from their compilation is the woman holding up a sign on the project’s Twitter page stating that what she sees when she looks in the mirror is ‘only me, no comparisons.’ Rather than needing to declare our own beauty to a camera crew sponsored by Dove, wouldn’t it be amazing to just be able to deaden the media noise which asks every teenage girl to compare herself unfavourably to Megan Fox? Wouldn’t it be brilliant if every woman could see herself in the mirror, mentally unobstructed by a million and one comparisons which make her ugly?

We don’t need a miracle to make that happen – we just need to continue talking about it.