Female empowerment: why we need to be kinder to ourselves

From period shaming to getting dissed for ageing, we put up with a lot. So hurrah for female empowerment! Here's some inspiring mantras to help us all overturn those taboos holding us back
Lucky If Sharp, Getty Images

If 2018 was the year of female empowerment (hurrah!), then we want 2019 to shine the girl-power spotlight on women’s health and wellbeing, too. So, from no longer treating your vulva as if it’s vulgar, to not allowing those numbers on the bathroom scales to define you, we’ve come up with a ‘Womanifesto’ full of empowering mantras that will make this The Year We Became Enlightened. Repeat after us…

My weight doesn’t signify my worth

You are so much more than just kilos or stones. Which is why former TV presenter Jameela Jamil, who is now an actor and campaigner, started her @i_weigh campaign on Instagram. The idea came to her after seeing a photo of the female Kardashian ‘Klan’, which inexplicably listed how much each of them weighed, as though that was the single most important thing about them.

Appalled that this is how women are taught to value themselves, she decided to do her bit to quash that reductive way of thinking. How? By getting people to post selfies listing their ‘weight’ as positives about themselves instead of numbers on the scales. For instance, ‘I’m kind’, ‘I’m a loving mother’, ‘I’m funny’. Step away from the scales and check it out. It’s inspiring stuff.

I can help shatter the period taboo

The year before I got my first period, I watched in horror as some boys from my year plucked sanitary pads from a classmate’s school bag and took turns sticking them on each other’s foreheads, while laughing about her ‘being on the rag’. When my ‘Aunt Flo’ finally arrived, I spent years terrified the boys would get hold of my tampons and hurl them around the playground like cotton missiles.

So I was appalled to discover that, all this time later, we haven’t moved on: 56% of 14-year-old girls still feel embarrassed about their periods, according to research by Plan International (which works to advance children’s rights and equality for girls). Lucy Russell, head of girls’ rights and youth at the organisation’s UK operation, believes that both boys and girls need to be properly educated about what will happen to their bodies.

And, of course, talking openly about periods is crucial, while public figures and celebrities speaking out is another key to kick-starting the conversation. ‘It was great that the MP Danielle Rowley told Parliament she was on her period. And various sportswomen have spoken out about it – this normalises it,’ says Lucy.

Plan International has also campaigned for The Emoji Company to create a period symbol – a simple blood droplet – which will be available from early spring. ‘There’s a poo one, so why not a period one?’ Lucy asks. ‘It’s the language of young people, and menstrual health is something we should all feel comfortable talking about.’

My ‘imperfections’ make me perfect

Hands up who’s fed up to the scrolling finger with the insecurity-inducing perfection on social media? (And with the recent trend for artificial intelligence influencers, we’re quite possibly comparing ourselves unfavourably to digitally generated women these days.) No wonder 69% of women say the pressure to reach those impossible standards makes them feel anxious about their appearance.

Thank goodness for what I call ‘digi-thenticity’: women – and brands – giving us an authentic, unretouched alternative to the homogenous perfection available at the swipe of a filter or the click of a retouching app. We love #sideprofileselfie, which was  set up by writer Radhika Sanghani, who spent years hating her larger nose and now wants to help other women accept theirs. Meanwhile, #ImNoAngel, which features, among others, plus-size model Ashley Graham and Orange Is The New Black’s Danielle Brooks, encourages women to share snaps showing cellulite, stretch marks, love handles – the lot.


"I can categorically state that vulvas come in all shapes, sizes, colours and are not symmetrical: they’re sisters, not twins"

Then, of course, there are brands such as Dove, which always champion real beauty. They’ve introduced a ‘no digital distortion’ watermark on all their imagery – another step in their commitment to always show women as they are in real life. Not to mention this very magazine – we never retouch anyone we photograph.

I must not dis my vulva

Please rest assured that yours is as unique and individual as you are. Yet, horrifyingly, labiaplasty (surgery to reduce the size of the labia) is the fastest-growing cosmetic surgery worldwide, with demand rising by an astonishing 45% in recent years. So it’s ironic that a 2018 Swiss study to determine what a ‘normal’ vulva looks like (for use as a guideline for surgery) inadvertently uncovered that our lady bits all look different.

Leading gynaecologist Anne Henderson says: ‘I can categorically state that they come in all shapes, sizes and colours. And as far as worries about labia not being symmetrical are concerned, the saying about your eyebrows holds true for your labia, too – they’re sisters, not twins.’

She also says that surgery for purely cosmetic reasons is a no-go. ‘It should always be a gynaecological procedure that’s done purely for a physical reason, such as discomfort.’ If you’re still concerned about how yours looks, she recommends checking out greatwallofvagina.co.uk – an art installation featuring plaster moulds of 400 women’s bits: ‘It’ll show you just how diverse women’s vulvas are!’

I’ll own getting older

Because, trust us, there are so many positives. Scientists have found that a negative view of ageing can decrease life expectancy by 7.5 years, and elderly people who feel younger than their age show less evidence of brain ageing. Plus, a recent study reveals that we feel better about ourselves in the second half of life (the oldest participant in the study had mental health scores significantly better than the youngest). Yet the Royal Society for Public Health has found ageism is the most commonly experienced form of discrimination in the UK and Europe. All the more galling when you think we’re living longer than we were years ago.

But it seems that women in particular are damned if we defy age and damned if we don’t. Take Madonna, for example. She’s judged for showing off her gym-honed bod yet, in the same breath, she’s picked apart for visibly ageing (remember ‘hand gate’?). We shouldn’t forget that she’s an icon who’s been defying convention for three decades. In her so-called ‘menopause years’, she’s styled out an on-stage fall at the Brit Awards like a queen; called out misogyny at the 2016 Billboard Awards (Google it, it’s phenomenal); and become the top-grossing touring female artist in history. Conversely, esteemed historian Mary Beard faces regular vitriol for daring to appear on TV looking *gasp* her age, without doing so much as dyeing her grey hair. So let’s say #TimesUp to age-bashing and allow women – and men – to grow older in the way they’re happiest. And, hopefully, we’ll all add more years to our lives in the process.