Natasha Devon, Nadia Mendoza and Grace Barnett are the Self Esteem Team (www.selfesteemteam.org). They’re a dream team tackling Body Confidence, Mental Health and Self Esteem head on! They each have struggled with issues growing up and know first hand of the possible long-lasting negative impact. Together, they have delivered their multi award winning Self Esteem presentations and classes to 40,000 young people in the UK (and counting)! This year, they were given an award by the government for their work.
In addition to delivering classes with the self-esteem team, they each have jobs within media and showbiz, giving them a unique insight from both sides of the media divide. Natasha is an author – she writes books as well as articles for a number of publications (including the Independent, the Telegraph and the Sun) and is columnist for Cosmopolitan Magazine. Nadia is a Digital Showbiz Editor for a tabloid newspaper (so gets to hang out with One Direction – nice work if you can get it). Grace is a musician who has toured the world as a backing vocalist for some of Britain’s most popular indie bands.
Last month, the Self Esteem Team were recognised by the government for their work, winning a parliamentary Body Confidence Award presented by Radio 1 DJ Jameela Jamil. We at Those London Chicks were lucky enough to catch up with these inspiring, not to mention busy women to talk all things Self Esteem Team.
How did you guys meet? And was it an instant bond?
I started teaching self-esteem classes back in 2008. It started with just a few classes every term, more of a hobby than anything else, but demand soon began to grow. In 2010 I gave up my job to deliver the classes full time. By 2011 I had a dilemma – I was getting more bookings than I could deal with alone, yet I was incredibly precious about who I would allow to represent my brand. I have always believed that the actual content of the lessons is less important than the competence and personality of the person who delivers them and to this day that is key to our project’s success. I needed to find people who knew what it was like to battle demons but had overcome and, crucially, weren’t defined by them.
They needed to understand the importance of presenting the information in a way that leaves students feeling inspired and galvanised, not confused and depressed. They needed to be able to use humour and sensitivity appropriately and be flexible enough to deal with difficult questions. Most importantly, they needed to be people teenagers would respect and instantly relate to. So when I was lucky enough to find not one, but TWO people who fitted the bill, I snapped them up. I couldn’t be happier with my team and what they represent. We’re all very different, but have our individuality in common.
I met Grace back in 2009. I was working for a music magazine at the time and was sent to review an open mic night she was performing at. We always joke that I basically stalked her until she was my friend – but that isn’t a million miles away from the truth! The very first time I saw her, I felt strongly I needed to have this woman in my life. I kept inviting her to things where my press pass had a plus one. Then one day it occurred to me that I didn’t have anything left to invite her to and simply said “can we just be mates?”. She replied “yeah, go on then” in that distinctive Northern twang of hers and the rest is history!
Nadia and I met at Big Brother star Nikki Graham’s 30th birthday party. I was helping Nikki with the re-write of her autobiography at the time and Nadia and Nikki go way back from various press dalliances. Immediately, I not only thought Nadia was completely brilliant but also identified her as someone teenagers would relate to. She told me she was really passionate about raising awareness of self-harm and I was aware that was a rapidly growing problem in the schools I was visiting. I asked her to accompany me on some of my own classes and then come up with her own lesson plan and present it to me. She did and it was awesome.
Today, the three of us are like best mates, business colleagues and family all rolled into one. People ask us if it’s hard balancing business and friendship but we are all very much on the same page when it comes to what constitutes fairness and know each other well enough to raise any issues straight away. Plus, we’re doing something we’re incredibly passionate about, so it doesn’t feel like work!
What made you decide to get together to create The Self Esteem Team?
I had created and was delivering classes under the brand of a charity called ‘Body Gossip’. Whilst the issue of body image is incredibly important and close to my heart, I felt it was too restrictive. I wanted to branch out into tackling the more general mental health and self-esteem issues I was seeing impact a huge percentage of teenagers, which is why I went on to re-brand as the Self-Esteem Team.
When I was growing up, I found it cripplingly difficult to speak out. Self-harm was an ugly subject that made people very uncomfortable and it was just one of those subjects which never got discussed. The taboo nature of it added chronic shame to the secret I was already keeping. Joining The Self-Esteem Team was my way of reaching out to any other young person that might be going through what I did, shining a glimmer of hope for those struggling as well as educating the younger generation (and teachers) about it. And bringing it to the forefront helps end stigmas. Also, with the power of three, we hope our students can relate to one of us as we all bring something different to the classroom in terms of personality and expertise.
When I met Tash at 20 back in 2009 I was still growing into the person I am today, who inevitably, is still growing. I had evolved passed, but was still very well connected to the girl I was back in the midlands, having only left for London two years previous. I had something to prove, a desire to leave my hometown for as long as I could remember and a desperation to carve out a life for myself, but at that time not many of the tools with which to do it. Through knowing Tash as a friend I found her to offer incredible advice that genuinely helped me move closer to the person and life I was searching for. The more I learnt about her and the work she did the more I wanted to be a part of it. I figured that giving teenagers the chance to learn about themselves, their feelings and where they come from – things I had learnt through trial and error in my late teens and early twenties, was invaluable for them and for society. SET formed quite organically really once the three of us were delivering classes. Tash, Nadia and myself have a natural rapport, like three sides of the same shape, we’re totally different people with incredibly similar outlooks and passions. We want to help educate, challenge and boost confidence and we have different skills to bring to the table in order to do that, in that sense the Self Esteem Team was a no brainer for me.
Your reach and reputation across the country is spreading, but for those who may not know, what is the Self Esteem Team all about?
We tour the UK working in schools and colleges, not only with teenagers but also with their parents and teachers. We’re also very active on social media, sharing inspiring thoughts and quotes designed to invade our followers’ timelines with a constant stream of positivity!
In addition to the above, we work alongside the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Body Image, advising politicians on how they can improve education services to make young people more body confident. We’re petitioning the government to give more priority and funding to mental health and social education in state schools, too.
We’re part of a network of charities and organisations known as the Be Real Campaign, which is a national initiative to improve British attitudes towards health, physical activity and body image and to encourage diversity in the media. Other organisations within the campaign include Young Minds, who help young people battling mental health issues as well as their parents and carers, All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, who are a campaign group working with retailers and advertisers to have a more responsible attitude in the fashion industry and Dove who are…well… Dove.
We also use our influence within the media to try and encourage progress and responsible mental health and body image reporting. Sometimes the progress happens in baby steps but we’re delighted that we have found so many like-minded people in the industry who are willing to talk about and implement change.
You have all battled with your individual demons in the past, can you tell us about them, and how you overcame them?
When I was 17 I was a straight A student enjoying sixth form and looking forward to University. I was confident, healthy and had ambitions to be prime minister. Aged 25 I was a part time model with an eating disorder, no proper job, no money, no friends and no prospects (that I could see that the time). I realised that the best academic grades in the world can’t fully prepare you for life and that good mental health and a harmonious relationship with your body is actually at the centre of everything we do as human beings. I had therapy, embarked on a massive quest to create a healthy balance in both my attitude and behaviours, found my unique sense of style and, over the course of about a year, came to accept and like the person that I am. I studied psychology, too, at first because I found it therapeutic but afterwards to give me the foundation of knowledge I needed to teach our classes.
Due to childhood difficulties, I struggled to communicate from a young age. This made me an easy target for bullies, as by the time I hit secondary school I never bit back. It wasn’t long before I discovered self-harm. It became my voice, the pathway to express myself. And for 20 years, it stayed that way. It wasn’t until I went to uni and discovered my love of writing, that I began to see I could not only excel at something but have an outlet to vent. I threw everything into it, getting a philosophy degree, journalism post-grad and later a job in national press. I had therapy and began to use my body in a positive way, telling my stories with clothes, tattoos and even my hair. While I am in recovery, it’s important to me that students know I still have to work at it daily – not to scare them, but to encourage them that feeling low at times is totally normal, it’s about managing it and not allowing it to swamp you.
As a kid I was shy, but you never would have known it. To me shyness meant weakness. And as I believed there was already plenty to laugh at over my appearance in the playground; my flaky skin, my unflickable ‘hair’ and general mixed-raceness; I wasn’t going to offer up any other signs that could portray me as weak. So whilst being outwardly bubbly, talkative and bold, inside I was cripplingly aware of my differences and felt entirely alien because of them. The one thing I certainly wasn’t going to do was talk about my low self-esteem, so my tactics included burying my head in the sand while consciously not noticing what anyone looked like, which worked perfectly until I started to gain work in my chosen profession.
The music industry is, like a lot of society, driven almost entirely by aesthetics and I was then forced to take a long, hard look at myself (in mind and mirror) as well as those around me. After ignoring the way I looked for so long, I was suddenly catapulted back to a place of insecurity and low self-worth. My bubbly character I had used as a mask quickly diminished and I began struggling to stay afloat with work. I’m overjoyed that after training I can now visit schools and help to kick off that conversation with our teens. I truly believe self-esteem is the key to a successful education, working life and positive social contribution and the more people our ‘Self Esteem Team’ can reach, the better.
Do you think the media and the rise of ‘celebrity culture’ play a part in how some teenagers can negatively view themselves?
We are asked this question all the time and of course the answer is ‘yes’. The way celebrity worship and an airbrushed version of reality is constantly pushed into our faces by advertisers and social media creates a baseline culture where it is normal to think you are substandard in some way.
However, I think that solely blaming the media or celebrity is over-simplistic. There are bigger factors at play, here. If we are feeling anxious, stress or dissatisfied in some way, the easiest thing to project these feelings on to is our body. Not only is it right there, we also live in a society which presents the body as something you can mould to your whims, so we see it as relatively easy to change. After all, it’s much easier to think “my life would be better if only I had a thigh gap” than to examine the idea that you might need to overhaul your job, or your relationship or friendships.
For young people today, social pressure is absolutely immense. There has never been so much expectation for them to succeed in exams and they are now tested rigorously from the age of four. Classroom sizes are huge and teachers are massively overstretched, meaning that school can be a stressful environment. Bullies can now access you 24/7 via the internet. Unemployment is high, meaning a lot of young people feel quite hopeless about the future. If you take all of this into consideration, is it any wonder so many young people crave the attention and success that would come with celebrity, or worry endlessly about or abuse their bodies as a coping mechanism?
I’d like to see politicians take their share of the blame for the crisis in self-esteem amongst the young. A lot of these pressures have been caused by decisions made by them and have little to do with the media, but it’s easier to point the finger at celebrities, fashion and beauty and claim they’re responsible for the whole thing, rather than attempt to untangle the complicated web.
It’s incredibly tricky, because the culprits are forever changing. For example, if we point the finger at mags, they say they have to write about celebs to secure sales. If we accuse celebs of perpetuating the beauty ideal, they say they don’t get booked if they don’t fit the cookie-cutter mould. Rather than play the blame game, we are striving for better education. Not just body image and mental health, but sex ed, demystifying advertising, actual life skills. If we can nurture our youth into believing in themselves, laughing in the face of the beauty industry and focusing on their skills, maybe they’ll want to be PM instead of gracing the pages of Heat when they’re older.
Working as a backing vocalist I think I see both sides of the coin. I know people in the limelight who worry a lot about the way they look and some go to excessive lengths to put themselves in a position where they feel there will never be a bad photo taken of them. These people are talented, smart and contribute to creating material that shapes our culture in a positive way, yet they feel the pressure of ‘celebrity’ on their self-esteem too. I think we’ve long since lived in a world where celebrity is admired and held as the benchmark for achievement, the difference is that today we have more visual media than ever before. We need to encourage a culture that values peoples actions, thoughts and creations whilst working to acknowledge that our brains are processing more images than they’ve ever had to before. Accepting that an understanding about how we can learn to deal with this new world better is only going to help us all.
You work with young people, are there any plans to bring your unique style of workshops/classes to Adults?
We already access parents and teachers through schools and it always goes down really well. In fact, even when a teacher just sits in and watches our class to teenagers they’ll often come up to us afterwards and say ‘you know what? I really needed to hear that!’. I also have a book coming out in January 2015, which I co-authored with mother and Counsellor Lynn Crilly, aimed at parents and teachers.
If you’re not a parent or teacher – do not fear! We are working with a venue in East London called The Canvas (just off Brick Lane) to deliver bi-monthly workshops for adults centred around a number of confidence-based themes.
What are your long term objectives for The Self Esteem Team?
It’s a very exciting time for us at the moment. We have a number of projects in the pipeline which should mean you’ll be seeing a lot more of us in the future but we couldn’t possibly reveal specifics