Parenting: ‘I always felt overweight and out of place’

With social media and cameraphones, girls are under more pressure than ever about how they look. But a ‘Free Being Me’ programme for Guides challenges myths

Model and basketball player, Emer Foley (left), with Katie Dennison and Megan Dempsey at the launch of a new programme “Free Being Me”, empowering girls through improving body confidence. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Model and basketball player, Emer Foley (left), with Katie Dennison and Megan Dempsey at the launch of a new programme “Free Being Me”, empowering girls through improving body confidence. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Emer Foley was in third class at primary school when she began to be conscious that she was bigger than her friends.

There was a weighing scales in the corner of the classroom, she recalls. “Every couple of weeks we would get on it and weigh ourselves. I remember being six stone, and everyone else was four stone and they were saying: ‘You’re six stone!’ I never looked at myself as being big but I was beginning to realise that obviously I am.”

So began a long struggle to accept the way she looked. Growing up in Bray, Co Wicklow, with an Irish mother and Nigerian father, she had different build, hair and facial features from most of the children around her. By first year in secondary school, she was 5ft 11 tall and had size nine feet.

“I always felt overweight and out of place,” she says. While excelling at basketball – playing for Ireland from the age of 13 – gave her a passion to follow, as well as self-discipline, it didn’t eliminate her self-doubts.

There was a lot of body-fat index testing, she says, “and I would have gotten higher than most again. That made me feel not great about myself as well, even in the athletic world.”

She thinks few people around her would have suspected her insecurity, yet it “always kind of travelled with me”. She left home on a basketball scholarship to the US at the age of 18 and, although her mother thought it would be great for her to be in a more culturally mixed society, Foley still felt out of place, being neither black nor white.


Huge turning point

It is only now, after returning to Ireland a year ago and giving birth to her son last June, that the 29-year-old basketball coach can say she has finally accepted who she is and how she looks. A “huge turning point” was winning a competition last October, televised on TV3, to be the cover girl for Simply Be, a plus-size clothing catalogue.


“To win that was great for my confidence and self-esteem. I have not really had anybody say to me, ‘Your body is unbelievable’, and ‘If I had a face like yours . . .’. The only other person I really heard that from is my mum; and I’d say, ‘You have to say that to me, you’re my mum’.”

With all those years of teenage angst behind her, Foley identifies strongly with a groundbreaking programme in body confidence and self-esteem that is being rolled out around Ireland for girls aged seven to 14 by the Council of Irish Guiding Associations, which includes the Irish Girl Guides (IGG) and the Catholic Guides of Ireland (CGI). It aims to show girls that idealised media images are not real, and to challenge unhealthy body talk.

The council decided to introduce the programme in the wake of a survey conducted in 2012 by members of the Dáil na nÓg Council and published by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. How we see it: Survey on Young People’s Body Image found that 26 per cent of females questioned were dissatisfied with their body image, as were 10 per cent of males.

More than half of the young people surveyed said that concerns about body image interfered with their participation in certain activities such as swimming, dating and putting photographs on Facebook. The results also showed that positive body image declines rapidly through the adolescent years and that 15-year-olds were least satisfied with their looks.

Foley, a former Brownie and Girl Guide, was “amazed” when she read the programme booklet, and she is helping to promote it.

“It actually made me feel more confident and empowered in myself, at 29, reading that. Why didn’t anybody ever say that to me when I was a kid?”


Five-session programme

CGI leader Hannah Ridgeway, who is 25, can vouch for the impact of the five-session programme, both on the guides in her Raheny unit and on leaders like herself who have been trained to deliver it.


There was “stunned silence” among the girls, she says, after she showed them a YouTube clip, Body Evolution – Model Before and After, in one of the early sessions. The time-lapse video ( shows a beauty team transforming a model to shoot an image, which then undergoes further artificial enhancement through Photoshop.

“The girls had no idea of the effect of the process. It brought home the message that the images we see in magazines aren’t real people, so we can’t be them.”

Ridegway believes there is a huge need for a programme such as this. Girls photograph each other all the time, and the pictures are shared through social media, but they can’t hope to emulate the stylised images portrayed in entertainment media.

“Free Being Me” encourages girls to stand up and say “no” to this sort of media pressure, Ridgeway says. “It gives a little voice against the image makers and body issues, and allows people to speak up.”

After doing her own training in the programme in the UK last year, Ridgeway also felt its impact. “I stopped wearing so much make-up. I didn’t feel the need to wear it any more. What’s the point? Who am I doing it for? It changed the view of myself.”

Two versions of “Free Being Me” have been devised by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and the Dove Self-Esteem Project – one for the seven to 10 age group and the other for those aged 10 to 14. Helen O’Reilly, a 26-year-old IGG leader, has delivered both programmes, to Brownies and Guides in Stillorgan, Dublin.

The two programmes have the same ethos and the same aim of improving body confidence but for the younger age group it is more about the “perfect princess” rather than the “perfect woman”, she explains. That programme also includes more drawing and activities and less discussion.

O’Reilly was surprised how aware even the younger girls are of body-image issues, being tuned into these ideas through TV programmes.


Eye-opener Even as a secondary-school teacher, she says it has been a real eye-opener for her to realise how much girls think about these things and how much it can control their lives. With social media portraying what people aspire to, “it can take over their lives to a certain extent, to the detriment of other things”, she remarks.

Lack of body confidence doesn’t just deter girls from taking part in sport, she says. It can also stop them putting up their hands in class and affects relationships at home, as well as have the potential to develop into eating disorders (see panel).

Fourteen-year-old Megan Dempsey was one of 37 girls to do the programme with St Anthony’s Guides, a CGI unit in Clonard, Co Wexford. When you’re with friends and everybody is “mad to take pictures”, there is pressure to look nice, she says.

Although among themselves they would make sure everybody was comfortable with a photo before sharing it on social media, there have been occasions when pictures of herself that she didn’t like have been posted.

“I just live with it,” says Megan, who was very surprised to learn how much airbrushing of images is done for magazines and the internet. They looked at before and after pictures and had to spot the differences.

Doing the programme “has made me more confident in myself. I don’t worry as much about how I look like or whatever”, she says. “We feel we have to wear make-up to look nice, and it’s not true.” She for one is “definitely” using less now.

Every unit that completes the programme has to come up with a plan to share some of what they have learned with people outside the guiding community. For Megan and her fellow guides, this will involve marching in the St Patrick’s Day parade in Wexford, wearing T-shirts sporting a yellow and black smiley face and proclaiming that they are confident in their bodies and “happy being me”.


Perfect -girl poser

Katie Dennison is 10 and is content with the way she looks and is “probably happier” after doing the programme with O’Reilly in Stillorgan.

“I don’t really mind as much if my hair is out of place. It doesn’t really matter,” she says.

When they were asked to list what makes a perfect girl, “some said like Barbie, white teeth, blonde hair, tall, skinny, sporty and kind and someone said you had to be dating Harry Styles”, Katie recalls. When the impossibly long list of suggested attributes were written up on the board, it was clear that nobody could be all of these things. (And Katie doesn’t even like Harry.)

Anyway, it was pointed out, “people don’t like you for what you look like, people like you for your personality”, she says.

An exercise Katie had to do at home was stand in front of the mirror and say out loud three things she liked about her body.

“I said: ‘I like my legs because they let me play hockey; I like my arms because they let me play tennis and I like my eyes because they let me see’.”

“Wow, exactly, let’s not be so superficial,” is Emer Foley’s response to hearing such comments. And, on the foot of winning the Simply Be competition, she admits to slightly mixed feelings about venturing into the fashion industry where image is everything. She has been signed up by Assets Models here, Models Plus in the UK and is in talks with a German agency.

“I love being made to look almost not myself; it is great fun. But at the end of the day I will be the one in my tracksuit bottoms and jumper, with my hair in a ponytail and whatever . . . There is so much more to me than that.”

Already she has heard talk of her nose being a bit wide and needing make-up so it appears slimmer, that her eyebrows aren’t a good shape and when she smiles, she loses her top lip. But, at age 29, she says she can let such comments go. “You have to learn – and I wish I had known this a long time back – that as long as you have self confidence in yourself, nobody can take that from you. And if somebody does take it from you,” she adds, “it is only because you have allowed them to.”

For more information, see To find out more about Guides in Ireland, see or


While the focus is on girls, eating is a boys’ issue too. 

The flip side of girls restricting what they eat is boys going on a no-carbohydrate, high-protein diet to bulk up muscle and achieve low body fat.

It is an issue that dietitian Aveen Bannon believes is not being highlighted enough. With social media issues, the focus is on girls and anorexia, but there is a different type of eating disorder happening in boys.

“It’s very recent for boys to feel such pressure,” she observes.

Some become obsessed with the gym, getting up at 6am to go before school, which can have an impact on their studies and social lives.

There is no need for protein supplements, she says, because they can get all they need from food. And if you take in more protein than you need, the body secretes it.

“If you take in way above your requirement, it can put pressure on your kidneys, your renal function,” she warns. And, because they are focusing on high-protein foods, they’re not eating the good fats and fibre.

“It has the knock-on effect of displacing the intake of good nutrients.”

“Teenagers are still growing and they need to let their bodies grow and not alter them too much,” Bannon adds. “They need those calories and they need sleep to reach their full potential.”

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