Chatting to author Jessica Sanders about body image and her new book Love your Body

Throughout my career I have met lots of extraordinary women. One of these is new author Jessica Sanders (Love Your Body) who is on a mission to empower young girls and women to love their bodies. She is a 26-year-old self-love advocate and social worker and has studied gender at a postgraduate level. Reading a magazine article about girls undergoing labiaplasty surgery for purely superficial reasons triggered Jessica to reflect on the powerful influence that society’s narrow, manufactured idea of beauty had on women and girls.

Research for her work showed that it was around eight years old on average that young people become aware of, and begin to be critical of, their bodies and that when girls are worried about how their bodies look, 8 out of 10 of them will opt out of important life lessons such as engaging with friends and loved ones. ‘This is a feminist issue’. ‘What if every young girl loved her body?’ thought Jessica, and then, ‘Where were the resources that celebrated diverse bodies and promoted self-love?’

When Jessica could not find anything in print or online, she decided to create a book herself, right down to commissioning Brazilian artist Carol Rossetti whose ‘Women’ project went viral in 2014.

Initially a Kickstarter project before it was picked up by a traditional publisher, Love Your Body sold 25,000 copies in its first month of publication and gained massive support from the Body Positivity movement in its home market of Australia. Jessica did a raft of Australia media around launch in May 2019, including national television and radio.

Published in the UK on International Women’s Day, Love Your Body encourages girls, including those who identify as girls, to admire and celebrate their bodies for all the amazing things they can do. It was written for every girl, regardless of whether or not they are exhibiting signs of negative body image, designed to equip them with the tools to navigate an image-obsessed world. Love Your Body is the first children’s book to depict stretch marks and cellulite.

Jessica says, “This is the book I wish I’d had as a young girl. I desperately needed to hear that I was one of a kind, that I was allowed to take up space and that I was enough exactly as I was. Instead, I grew to develop a negative body image and in high school I subjected my body to every restrictive diet that there is. When I made the decision to write Love Your Body I was fuelled by a sense of injustice and hope for the future. It was time to normalise normal.”

Here’s the full interview. Enjoy! 

Jessica, why were you compelled to write the book and her search for resources to use in her work with young people (one indie bookshop in Australia searched their shelves and then said, ‘if you write it, we’ll stock it’!)

JS: It was a typical day when I decided I was going to write a book. My housemate and I were sitting at our kitchen table passionately discussing a news article we had recently seen published. According to the article, a recent study had found that the amount of unnecessary cosmetic surgery in girls under 18 was increasing. 

Earlier in the week, I’d had a conversation with someone where I’d remarked on how crazy it was that I couldn’t think of one woman who hadn’t suffered from a negative body as a child or teen. They had responded with something along the lines of, “Jess, that’s just what it is to be a girl.” This response really frustrated me; I knew it didn’t have to be that way, and I was determined to do something about it. So, when my housemate said, “You should write a book to change things”, I responded with “Yes, I should!”

At first, I went looking for similar books — I wanted to see what was out there and what I could do better. I’d failed to find anything remotely close to what I was thinking of writing on the internet, all I could find was a body image workbook for teens that had a thin white girl on the cover. So I visited my local independent bookstore here in Melbourne and trawled through the shelves. What I was looking for was a book that young Jess could have seen herself in, that depicted real bodies and true diversity. I asked the shop assistant if she could help me find a book that showed a diverse range of bodies and which covered topics such as self-love and self-kindness. After 10 minutes of searching with no success, she turned to me and said, “If you make this book, I’ll put it on these shelves.” And that was it, I was determined to write Love Your Body and see it sitting on those shelves.

Why Jessica views the narrow beauty ideal imposed upon girls and women as a feminist issue. The stats show that negative body image is stopping some girls from doing things which is worrying.

JS: My primary motivation behind creating Love Your Body has always been my desire to combat the dominant narrative — that a girl’s worth is derived from how she looks. This toxic message is sent to girls from an early age through all forms of media and through adult role models; and it would seem they are girls picking up on these messages earlier and earlier. A recent survey found that 97% of women have an ‘I hate my body’ moment every single day — this is appalling. In 2020, the issue of negative body image continues to plague girls and women and it doesn’t seem to be improving. 

Social media, in particular Instagram, has dramatically increased the pressure of perfection. The beauty ideal has always been unattainable, but now girls are feeling pressured to undergo expensive and dangerous procedures in the pursuit of it. Additionally, the sheer number of highly edited and curated photos they are exposed to on a daily basis in skewing how they see themselves and others. The invention of the ‘selfie’ means that children can self-objectify themselves anytime, anywhere. It’s an incredibly challenging time to be a girl in terms of body image and self-esteem. On top of all of this, negative body image in girls is normalised and treated as an almost ‘superficial issue’. However, the reality is that a negative body image shapes the course of a girl’s life, making this a feminist issue. 

When girls don’t feel good about the way they look: 

8 in 10 will avoid seeing friends or family, or trying out for a team or club.

7 in 10 will stop themselves from eating.

7 in 10 will not be assertive in their opinion or stick to their decision.

The 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report  

‘When girls are worried about how their bodies look…’

They perform worse in maths and reading and comprehension. 

This is simply, not good enough and it is a feminist issue. Body image issues affect girls and women differently because girls and women are taught that their appearance, their body, is the most important thing about them. Love Your Body sends girls a different message, that their bodies are remarkable for what they can do, and that they are so much more than their body. And once they know that to be true, nothing will be able to hold them back.

Here is a film with Jessica talking about the importance of loving our bodies.

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Love Your Body is out now in the UK in hardback from Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, £10.99. (Read alone 8-12 year-olds / Read together 6+).

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