Jo Swinson responds to Liberal Democrat Voice commenters about telling children they are beautiful

A small storm erupted yesterday on our article reporting Jo Swinson’s comments in a Telegraph interview about the importance of making sure that children were praised for a wide range of things and not just their looks. Commenters raised a number of concerns, including whether it was appropriate for a Government Minister to give this sort of advice on what should essentially be a private matter.  As the mother of a teenage daughter, if I’m looking for advice on anything, I tend to look to people who know something about the subject, to  a credible, expert source of information I can trust. Given the work that Jo has done on body confidence over a number of years, she ticks both boxes.

Anyway, Jo herself responded to some of these comments late last night. She said:

Thanks for the comments folks. For the record, this headline was not an accurate representation of my remarks. I spoke to the Telegraph journalist in a 20 minute interview to discuss today’s publication of the progress report on the government’s work on body confidence.

The point I was making, which many of you have gathered, is that if praise is generally given about appearance, then the message that sends is that appearance is what is important – which reinforces the problems with self-confidence around body image that the evidence is showing. Of course there is no problem telling children they are beautiful, as I said in the interview. The more nuanced point makes for a rather less sensationalist story however…

Jo’s comments were about being specific in your praise for all sorts of things, not just looks, and about being careful about not passing on your body issues to your children. She also mentioned the role of fathers in encouraging a positive body image. And she even spoke about encouraging healthy eating and exercise. Can anyone seriously disagree with that?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Eddie Sammon 29th May '13 - 9:54am

    Yes I seriously disagree with it. It would be OK if it was a private conversation, but it was an interview with the Telegraph.

    Regardless if they misrepresented what she said, she shouldn’t even be entering this area.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th May '13 - 10:18am

    The report is also highly sexist, banging on about young girls and not mentioning boys once. It mentions fathers, but only in relation to the body confidence of their daughters!?

    Are young boys not bothered about their bodies?

  • Perhaps avoiding giving interviews to the Torygraph would avoid the final cut being unrepresentative?? I would also say that LDV didn’t do her any favours with either the selections used or the headline….

  • I suspected it would be something like this but good to have it clarified. Can’t see an issue with an MP commenting on this in principle; certainly not an area to legislate in to tell parents what to do but as the article says she has a lot of expertise in this area and was asked to comment on a government report. I don’t feel like she’s telling me what to do, but I know that as a parent it’s damn hard and I need all the help I can get; any credible and knowledgable source of advice is appreciated.

  • If you dance with the Devilgraph, your toes will get burned as well as trodden on!

    SILLY girl! (is that praiseworthy enough? 🙂 )

  • Paul Reynolds 29th May '13 - 11:48am

    As a party we should be democratic and accept that it is the public who advise us what they want us to do in government not appear to be finger-wagging the general public for their behaviour. Ministets should either make it clear that they are expressing a personal view, which they have every right to do, or if they wish to comment using their ministerial hats they need to stick to the evidence and indeed let the experts take the lead in such matters. We do have a serious medical problem of obesity in the UK amongst men and women to the extent that the increases in life expectancy we have all got used to are under threat. The causes are complex and we need much more objective analysis of the problem and how to address it. The evidence concerning young women and the pressure to be thin needs to be seen in the context of the key . obseity problem and needs more research too. The evidence connecting the causes of the bizzarre display of unhealthy looking and unattractive skinny models in magazines to obesity is hard to locate but maybe an LDV reader can elighten me. (I trust I am permitted to use the word unattractive in this context)

  • Paul Reynolds 29th May '13 - 11:55am

    I might add that parts of W Africa come to mind, where women who are very obsese (and sometimes overfed for the purpose, appallingly) are presented in magazines and websites as attractive. Meanwhile much of the population is slim with many malnourished. Is this ‘mirror image’ illuminating in any way ? That may be for debate.

  • @Paul Reynolds. We are often told that Africans prefer larger women, but is that really true? Certainly google image searches for Miss Cameroon, Miss Ivory Coast, Miss Nigeria, Miss Ghana etc. suggest that it is not true, or no longer true. I imagine that for reasons related to evolutionary biology, most African men, just like most European men, would prefer partners who are at a healthy weight, (just as most women prefer them) .

    It may have been the case in the past in Africa, if most people there were underweight that there could have been a fetishisation of overweight women among some people; perhaps the equivalent in Western Europe is that now we have a problem with an overweight population, so there are people who fetishise underweight women.

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th May '13 - 3:57pm

    Paul Reynolds: “The evidence connecting the causes of the bizzarre display of unhealthy looking and unattractive skinny models in magazines to obesity is hard to locate but maybe an LDV reader can elighten me. (I trust I am permitted to use the word unattractive in this context)”

    Yes, you are permitted to use the word “unattractive” when describing thin women. Even some of the leading lights in the Body Confidence campaign are perfectly happy to make derogatory remarks about thin women, while at the same time claiming that all women should be helped to feel good about themselves – go figure! – so you might as well join in.

    Previous Body Confidence reports have at least made some attempt to acknowledge that low body confidence can affect people of all genders and body types, but this new one has dispensed with all that. It’s now solely about girls who are plus-size; by implication, all boys, and all slim girls, are walking around feeling absolutely fantastic about their bodies. Well actually, they’re not.

    I agree with Eddie. The obsessive focus of this campaign on women is in itself sexist and wholly counterproductive. Virtually every advert you see is manipulated, be it images of women, men, objects, places, whatever. Yet it is only the airbrushed images of women that are subject to endless debate – even to the extent that government ministers (e.g. Jo Swinson) have gone so far as to publicly humiliate well-known actresses and models by raising complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority. No such scrutiny is applied to images of men. This double standard reinforces the idea that women’s appearance should be subject to far more analysis than men’s – which is the exact opposite of what these people claim they want to achieve.

  • Richard S,
    there are many reasons why traditional societies support a cultural perception that favour larger women.

    Besides the obvious contrast with skinny malnourishment where actual survival is more precarious, since this had direct implications on female fertility it translated in many places to a culture where dowries were paid according to the weight of the bride – such as in Sudan, where the practise is still common. And these practises gradually pushed a familial, or tribal sense of conformism.

    When you talk about google images and television pageants this relates not to the traditional mindset, but the modern. It is a media-driven conformism.

    What we need to understand is not whether it is acceptable to say either form of unhealthy pressure is currently true in any particular community, but how the mental and psychological processes which go into formation of those pressures result in unhealthy behavioural responses (such as eating disorders, desire for cosmetic surgery etc).

    So in the sense that this is a fight against prescibed conformity, Jo stands up for a truly liberal and worthwhile cause.

    But in the sense that it is a fight against the idealised artifice of imagery as presented by popular media for commercial reasons it is a massive tactical blunder to make a full-frontal attack, rather than seek to outflank them.

    Jo ticks one box out of two. And I’m trying to be generous.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th May '13 - 5:51pm

    “Suicide is now the biggest killer of young men across the UK, a charity has warned.

    The latest figures show that the suicide rate rose significantly in 2011 with a total of 6,045 people taking their own life – 4,552 of them were men.”

    Ahh yes what was that Dave, what about the MEN!?

    Sorry, let’s get back to talking about fathers calling their children beautiful.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th May '13 - 6:19pm

    Dave, the link to the body confidence report in the blog post focuses on the body confidence of young girls. Highlighting the problem of ignoring young boys is not derailing the discussion.

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th May '13 - 6:46pm

    The question “what about the men?” is a valid one given that earlier reports from the body confidence campaign tried to make out that this was about all young people, not just girls. Now that appears to not be the case.

  • AlanPlatypus 29th May '13 - 7:17pm

    Patriarchy eh Dave?

  • I’m still astonished by some Lib Dem’s anger and hostility to Jo’s very sensible and positive contribution to making young people’s lives a little bit easier. It’s not wrong for the Government to give advice or to campaign to change society for the better. There may well be pressures, albeit a different spectrum of pressures on young boys, but focusing on one for a while isn’t wrong. Jo has been very consistent and brave on a similar range of issues. The weight of child psychological studies and others are behind her on this. She simply is talking about being more aware of our praising of young children should be a little more thoughtful. That’s all. It shouldn’t be controversial or difficult to understand. It’s not lecturing or being illiberal. It’s a minister leading a campaign of education. I thought Liberal Democrats were in favour of education and freeing people from psychological chains?

  • Charles Beaumont 30th May '13 - 11:42am

    Caron bravely defends Jo, but do we really live in a world where a junior govt minister pursuing a campaign (no doubt with the best of intentions) is now an expert? Might the mother of a teenage daughter know a bit more on the subject of bringing up teenagers than an MP who isn’t a parent and who, I suspect, has a very demanding set of responsibilities?

  • Shirley Campbell 30th May '13 - 1:12pm

    As a female LibDem of a certain age, I am absolutely fed up with female LibDem MPs voicing opinions about that which is in the private domain whilst ignoring that which is in the public domain. As an individual, I am apt to praise children, male and female, for their exam successes; in fact, I skip and jump with pleasure when our children do well at our comprehensive schools. I also praise children for their athletic prowesses. Furthermore, children who WALK to school, as we did, and shun snacks between meals, as we did, are unlikely to have an unhealthy external appearance. Children are BEAUTIFUL, beautiful in their own way. Genetically, some people are naturally tall and slender and some people are more squat and thickset. Somehow people of my generation could, without collapsing by the wayside, take on board the likes of “Twiggy”, who was tiny and skinny, and “Jean Shrimpton”, who was very tall and slender; we could also chuckle at the monstrosity of depicting so-called upper class people as being tall, so-called middle class people as being of average height and so-called lower class people as being short. Actually, shame on Stephen Tall for using this depiction in his recent blog on “class”. It is the political class and its followers who seek to classify and crucify. I am classed as being old but, as always, I consider myself to be classless and free and I shall continue to tell all the little children that I meet that they are BEAUTIFUL.

  • Robert Wootton 30th May '13 - 1:34pm

    The media, including television as well as newspapers, nearly always remove comments from their context and edit what is actually said for their own purposes. Whether because of space, political bias or to sensationalise comments in order to sell more newspapers.
    However, I do not think it is the role of government ministers to pontificate on the the upbringing of children. I think it is the government’s role to create the conditions whereby children can be brought up in a caring, loving and supportive (family?) environment.

  • Robert Wootton 30th May '13 - 1:37pm

    For those adults who lack (body) confidence, here is a link to a TED talk.

  • Shirley Williams is beautiful, and so is Vince Cable.

    I hope this won’t affect their body confidence.

    As for Nick Clegg, I’m not sure what I ever saw in him 🙁

    What about people who tell their children, “no food tonight, but don’t worry because you look beautiful like Kate Moss?”
    Is this the actual problem

  • 1) If I tell my daughter she is intelligent, will this lead to her having a lack of confidence in her intelligence? If not then why is it different?

    2) It depends a bit on the age group but (hetero) girls and boys realise that they are more attracted to some members of the opposite sex than they are to others. They also know that the same people tend to be attractive to many others in their peer group. Nothing is going to stop teenagers working out that the converse is also true, that the opposite gender finds some members of their sex more attractive than others. They also know that attractive people have a wider choice of potential partners. Adults verbalising their fantasy that everyone is equally attractive in their own way with an equal chance to find a partner won’t change that. The bottom end of the 10-15 age group shouldn’t be playing the dating game anyway (and premature growing up in this age group is separate problem), but I suspect that the mid-teen girls and boys care about their appearance because opposite-sex mid-teen boys and girls care about it, not because their sad, ancient parents do. In that case, practical advice is the best way forward, the same as it would be the best way forward if someone felt they were falling behind the standards they had set for themselves with academic, work, general health or any other outcomes – dating/looks isn’t an exception,

    3) Everyone has different things going for them. I think it should be the best computer programmers who get the girls, a twice-world bodybuilding champion I know perhaps thinks it should be about big muscles regardless of height (he’s about 5’5″), rich guys think girls should go for guys who can look after them. Women who are go-getting doers think this should be what counts in terms of getting the boys, others think looks should be the be all and end all, others think that it should be about being a good mother or potential mother,

  • Jo has been a real credit to the lib dems when dealing with the media. Unfortunately in this instance MP hubris took over. A 3o – odd year old woman who is not a mother has neither the life experience nor any professional experience (LSE Economics) to bestow an opinion nor, as an experienced politician, to be lured into appearing to do so. Stick to your comfort zone Jo!

  • The thing is… there are things MPs can affect, like whether men and women doing the same job receive the same pay, and then there are areas that MPs have little or no influence over, like the dinner time chats we have with our kids. Swinson’s hands seem to be tied in the areas where she could if not bound by ministerial collective responsibility, make a difference, so she is reduced to this. Its a travesty that her ability is so wasted.

  • Astonished at the flak Jo is getting on this for making a very sensible point. Nothing wrong with telling a child they are beautiful but if all your praise is about looks don’t be surprised if they become looks obsessed. And it’s not just advice for parents !

  • Stuart Mitchell 31st May '13 - 7:18pm

    George C: “Nothing wrong with telling a child they are beautiful but if all your praise is about looks…”

    But George, what evidence is there that such parents exist? Can you name any? Unless it can be shown that parents genuinely behave in this way, then this whole debate is nonsense. All this kind of heated discussion actually achieves is to reinforce the idea that women’s appearance should be subject to endless scrutiny, debate, and judgement, while men can as usual just carry on sailing through life not worrying about their looks at all.

    If people genuinely want to help women stop being hung up about their looks, then a good way to start would be to drop this whole body confidence campaign and leave girls be, much as we do with boys. It’s completely counterproductive.

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