Society surrounds us with images of perfection
and of people able to control their lives. Yet for many women, low
self-esteem and self-doubt can lead to self-harming, writes Melissa
Feminism is dead. Long live Cherie Blair! Last
month’s conference on domestic violence was addressed by the Prime
Minister’s wife in an Ascot-size hat with human sympathy to match.
She rightly pointed out that domestic violence remains a major
social problem. Two or three women – an astonishing figure, this –
are still killed by their partners every week. Blair, who is fast
becoming a strange cross between Princess Diana and the unofficial
minister for women, has also spoken out forcefully about the
injustices meted out to women under the Taleban.
The fight against domestic violence is a great
and just cause – even the macho right no longer has a jokey word to
say against it, at least not in public. But what do we do about the
harm done to women not by their husband’s fist or a religious
fanatic, but by the darker forces of the social and psychic world?
No one talks about oppression or patriarchy anymore. Instead, we
are all urged to consult a therapist or read Men are from Mars
and Women are from Venus – or is it the other way round?
Everyone, from the overweight to the underpaid, is urged to take
responsibility for their own situation.
But that still leaves millions of people,
particularly women, suffering from dangerous levels of self-doubt.
I’m not just talking about the more ordinary forms of low
self-esteem, the kind that keep women in poor, if not literally
abusive, relationships, or stop them applying for jobs they could
do on their heads or in their sleep. Some kinds of self-doubt
translate themselves into illnesses as serious as anorexia,
depression or even self-harm.
To most people, the idea of someone doing
deliberate physical injury to themselves, usually by frequent
cutting of their flesh until it bleeds, is beyond understanding.
But tens of thousands do it. According to one estimate, up to 1 per
cent of Americans are involved in some forms of self-injury. The
vast majority of self-harmers are female.
Here, we are peeping at a vast iceberg of
self-hatred, a submerged pyramid of anger and anxiety. According to
the experts, those who self-injure are usually young women from
upper or middle class families. They might have a history of
emotional or sexual abuse, but they are more likely to have been
brought up in an “invalidating environment”. Put simply, they could
never talk to anyone about their feelings and if they did, they
were likely to be met by an “erratic, inappropriate or extreme”
At one level, we can put this down to bad
parenting or unhappy families. But to a young girl growing up in
western culture, her own sense of private failure will be
intensified by the images and values of the public world that
She may not be denied the educational or
employment opportunities of a girl living under the Taleban, but
every morning as she goes to school or work she will be bombarded
with images of beautiful, slim, shapely and probably half-clothed
women. For the 99 per cent of women who are not conventionally
skinny, curvy, pretty or impossibly clear skinned, this, too, is an
It gets worse. Today’s woman is only truly
considered successful if she looks well put together, holds down a
good job and is a loving wife and mother.
Rather like Cherie Blair, in fact. But in some
ways today’s femininity is not very different from the 1950s
version; it still means putting someone else’s emotions, needs and
experiences before your own. There are just less hours in the day
in which to both successfully express and suppress yourself. Any
rational woman would get ratty about all these demands. The smart
ones do something energetic with their anger; those with less inner
certainty can easily explode with the contradictory pressures of it
Lionel Blue, a humourous and engaging rabbi
who regularly crops up on radio and television, has said that he
left the US because, in the end, he couldn’t be a failure there.
That was a joke, but his teasing makes perfect sense. We all have
terrible failings, frequent bouts of confusion and difficulties of
the most daily and often ignominous kind. But we live in a
literally fantastic culture that says we should not only cope,
sometimes with the most trying and tragic of events, but that we
should always and at all times try to be perfect – especially
Perfection is boring and unattainable, as any
mature adult knows. A lot of our problems are the result of things
and people beyond our control. Sadly, young women take a long time
to learn that simple fact. Some of them learn it too late, by which
time they are already scarred for life.
Melissa Benn is a journalist and