Body Politics: Nicola Roberts recalls being bullied as a child by her dance teacher

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In Stylist’s Body Politics series, award-winning body confidence coach and @ScarredNotScared founder Michelle Elman sits down with women we love to discuss their journey to feeling comfortable in their own skin. Here, singer and activist Nicola Roberts explains how comments about your body from childhood can leave a lasting impact.

Nicola Roberts has been an active voice in campaigning in anti-bullying campaigns and was one of the activists who fought to change the laws around minors and tanning beds. Growing up, though, her insecurity around her skin colour was something she internalised. 

“I used to be hugely insecure about being pale,” she tells me. “Having red hair was never an issue, I’m so happy I have red hair. I truly love my hair but my skin colour was something I couldn’t get my head around” She tells Stylist, “I always felt that people found women more attractive if they were tanned and there are some parts where I’m so pale, I’m blue and see-through.”

The Girls Aloud star explains that her earliest memories from school are of a time when she would look forward to the weather being overcast. Why? Because it meant she could wear tights instead of ankle socks. 

“I used to do a lot of dancing when I was younger,” she tells me. “I was about eight years old and all the other girls had really tanned legs. I remember the dancing teacher saying ‘Look at all their little tanned legs, except for Nicola’.”

It is yet further proof that body-shaming comments can have a lasting impact on children, shaping their thoughts about themselves as adults. 

“I’m quite a sensitive person so I pick up on things and notice things and it would be healthier if I didn’t,” says Roberts. She believes that everything we think about ourselves is taught and, particularly as a child, you can quickly become a sponge to any kind of negative comment. 

“Everything is a learned behaviour and learned mentality,” she says, “so when we talk about prejudice, racism or general hate… no one is born with a brain like that”.

So how did Roberts work to combat her internalised self-hatred? 

 “It all stems from the love you have for yourself,” she says. “If you have an ultimate love and respect for yourself, it can’t dent you. It can only bounce off.”

This is particularly admirable, especially when you consider the fact that, during her time in Girls Aloud, she was called every name under the sun.

“You build up a resilience,” says Roberts. “It really isn’t about you, it’s about the other person. What are they angry at? Is there a jealousy? Or it is simply that they haven’t come across someone who looks a different way?”

Surprisingly, Roberts is incredibly grateful for the positive community she has found on Instagram.

“Instagram has allowed us to see different models and different artists, we are more introduced of all different shapes and sizes and colours,” she says. “We see images that we wouldn’t have necessarily been so privy to.” 

In terms of traditional media, Roberts admits that “it’s not where it needs to be by any means”. However, things are improving “in terms of inclusivity”. “Whether the magazines want to themselves or they feel a pressure to do so, they are having to use more diverse models within their brands,” she tells me.

Of course, Roberts is conscious of the fact that this could be due to monetary reasons or to help their business. “You can be skeptical and think these brands are doing this because it’s a talking point and it gets them a lot of press,” she says, but she remains hopeful that the media is moving in the right direction. 

“We need to get to a point where it’s not a talking point anymore because it’s so normal and everyone can see themselves in an ad campaign”.

In terms of how the media pitches women against each other, Roberts admits that this is something she is well-accustomed to thanks to her time in Girls Aloud.

“If you have a voice, whether you are a journalist or broadcaster or a politician, then you have a responsibility to project good into the world,” she says, “and if you aren’t of that mind, then you shouldn’t be doing that job because you are an influence to other people. The world won’t get any better when there is this narrow mindedness. I want to see people who speak for the greater good for all humans and not just for a small segment of the world.” 

As for now, Roberts is in a wonderful place in her life.

“I’m in a very body confident place in my life,” she says. “I’ve been able to put weight on for the first time in my life and for such a long time, I wasn’t as curvy as I wanted to be. I feel great”. 

For far too long, the representation of women by both mainstream and social media has failed to reflect who we see in the mirror, and its impact on our mental health is worrying. Stylist’s Love Women initiative promises to change that. As well as the launch of our Body Politics series, we’ve partnered with Dove, whose latest project (in conjunction with photo library Getty Images) aims to increase the supply of diverse pictures of women which we will be using going forward. 

Our editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski has also made five pledges to Stylist readers:

  1. We will ensure the women you see on our pages represent all women – inclusive of ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, age and disability. When we create content and ideas, we will ensure that all women are represented at the table. We commit to featuring one fashion or beauty photoshoot a month that uses real, diverse women.
  2. We will ensure that we never sell an impossible dream. We believe in aspiration, but not in selling a lie. We will work with influencers, celebrities and other partners to encourage them to reveal their truths, too.
  3. We will celebrate the so-called flaws of women to prove the normality in all of our bodies. We will run videos, photoshoots and honest accounts of our bodies and how they behave.
  4. We will hold regular huddles with our advertisers and brand partners to challenge the way they portray and reflect women in their branding and advertising. We will call out and challenge brands, media and people who refuse to represent women with respect and truth. We will call on the government to support our goals.
  5. Through insight and anecdote, we will teach everyone about the issues facing women, what needs to be done and how we can all work together to resolve this self-esteem crisis.

Find out more about Stylist’s Love Women initiative here.

Image: Getty

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Michelle Elman

Michelle Elman is a five-board accredited body confidence coach and an award-winning body positive activist. Best known for her campaign @ScarredNotScared, she has over 190k followers across Instagram accounts and released her debut memoir "Am I Ugly?" in 2018.