Photographs of glossy celebrities and airbrushed images peddling the notion of idealised bodies have conspired to make women feel insecure and lacking in confidence, says Judith Woods

Look out ladies, there’s a pejorative new ‘f’ word on the block guaranteed to erode your self esteem faster than standing next to Gigi Hadid on the red carpet. It’s not ‘fat’ or ‘fossilised’ or even ‘fugly’. It’s even harder to achieve than ‘on fleek’ eyebrows or a waist slimmer than an A4 sheet of paper.

May I present you with ‘flawless’? Too late. I said it, you read it. Like a legal document, it has been served on you and it is now incumbent on you to respond.
How? What do you mean, how? By feeling really, really bad about yourself, of course.

Flawlessness is the new benchmark by which all women shall henceforth be judged and found wanting. And social media, showbiz and glossy magazines are all largely to blame. Sad but no great surprise.

Several years ago a study revealed that 96 per cent of women felt guilty at least once a day. If you think that sounds quite manageable, almost half of those questioned owned up to feelings of out-and-out shame four times a day, which is much more like it. The causes ranged from general ‘not being good enough’ to ‘not spending enough time with the family’ and ‘not working harder at work’.

Whereas men typically outsource personal failure, à la ‘I couldn’t concentrate on the report/job interview/meeting because it was too hot or too noisy or too unreasonable’, women are all too ready to blame themselves: ‘I just wasn’t up to it’. While the downbeat female response might be the more accurate, it’s of little practical use in a world where male swagger and self delusion still dominate.

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It’s quite sweet and funny to witness in small boys, less so in politicians and statesmen. The roots, moreover, lie in nurture not nature. From the moment girls are born they are shaped by and susceptible to stereotypes. I don’t mean Barbies or pink trainers – eavesdrop on my seven-year-old’s games and it’s abundantly clear that her Barbie’s day jobs as international spy and celebrity vet leave vanishingly little time to play Ken’s arm candy.

My daughter can also climb, careen and kick footballs in her cerise footwear. She is at that gloriously gung-ho stage where she has no idea that boys are supposed to be better at anything, other than getting called to the headteacher’s office. But for how long? How long will it be before she is told once too often to ‘be nice’, to ‘speak quietly and remember to smile’, to ‘be good’ and ‘always think of others first’?

They are messages boys rarely receive. And while there are exceptions, it’s no coincidence that the world’s most powerful female leader, Angela Merkel, was raised in the socialist DDR, which, for all its myriad faults, was egalitarian in its attitudes towards all its citizens.

I do understand there’s a crucial role in this world for nurturers and carers and empathisers. And I certainly wouldn’t want to bring up emotionally illiterate, bullishly self-centred daughters. But I object to the idea that girls – women – should be guilt-tripped into reining in their entirely legitimate ambitions to be the best, win and, yes, thrash the opposition because it’s unladylike and might upset ‘people’.

Therein lies the root of female insecurity; boys are encouraged to focus on themselves and their competitive drive while girls are expected to take responsibility for the feelings of everyone in every room. Rather like cleansing the Augean stables, it’s demeaning and impossible, perpetuating a sense of failure and guilt and so the cycle continues.

I know this because I only stepped off the people-pleasing guilt trip around six years ago and jeez did it feel good.

I suspect it was a combination of both age and breaking my back in a riding accident, after which I didn’t have the interest, inclination or energy to give a monkey’s whether an incommunicado girlfriend was in a huff or my neighbour was miffed about my derelict front garden.

Finally I grasped why my husband has so much more room in his head for memorable highlights of the Thirty Years’ War. His brain isn’t clogged up with fretful social anxiety and hypervigilance about who was looking glum (was it my fault?) and who seemed grumpy – my fault too, huh? If only my hard-won resilience (I’m never inviting that moody cow and sadsack round here again) were easier to pass on to the next generation.

A leading teacher has expressed dismay that teenage girls are so worried about boys dismissing them as ‘swotty’ they are steering clear of subjects such as science and maths. Again, it’s the same old story. It’s also the main reason why my 13-year-old attends an all-girls’ academy, as I did before her. I want her to be free to make choices in an environment where girls can and do excel and physics is just another subject, not a battleground-cum- beauty pageant.

Somewhere along the line, the culture of texting, selfies and the gamification of dating apps, in which attractiveness is calibrated by a single swipe of a Tinder screen, has elevated appearance above achievement. And with it comes the dreadful, disempowering message that looks are more important than books. So why is it that gifted women flagellate themselves over their flaws and mediocre men don’t? Because regardless of the truth, most men genuinely believe they are good enough already.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s the message our daughters need to hear; good enough is perfect.

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Image: Getty