Milly Dowler"s secret self-hatred shows little we know of our children"s inner lives
The secret self-hatred of confident Milly shows how little we know of our children”s inner lives
10:22 AM on 26th May 2011
As she poses for the camera, confidently showing off her first attempt at ironing, Milly Dowler appears as the sort of confident, carefree girl we’d like all our daughters to become.
But these precious images of happy family life captured on a home video are not only hard to bear because they are Sally Dowler’s last keepsake of her child before her abduction.
They are poignant for another reason. They remind us parents of how little we know of our daughters’ complex and secret emotional lives — and the growing pains they so often face without us.
Emotional turmoil: A seemingly carefree Milly Dowler in the now familiar home video of her ironing
Even a mother as loving and attentive as Sally was forced to admit she had no idea of what has been described in Milly’s murder trial as her ‘double life’.
Unbeknown to her, her apparently happy-go-lucky daughter suffered such low self-esteem that hidden away in a box in her bedroom was a farewell letter saying it would have been better if she’d been aborted or adopted.
In notes and poems that revealed flashes of her self-loathing, Milly told of a life where the thought of school every morning filled her with dread and how she felt both ‘helpless’ and ‘pathetic’.
Two years earlier, at the tender age of 11, it now transpires Milly had already had a go at slicing into her wrists with a dinner knife because she’d been teased at school.
Of course, every teenage girl riding the roller-coaster of hormones during adolescence has written melodramatic, self-pitying rants she later regrets. Thankfully, few get a public airing.
Unbreakable bond: Milly”s mother, Sally was clueless about what the court dubbed as her daughter”s “double life”
A mother”s love: Sally Dowler with the “Milly” sweet pea at Chelsea Flower Show that has been created in memory of her daughter
Yet it’s still a painful reminder of how our girls go to war with themselves — and how fiercely they fight that battle every day of their fragile youth.
At the age of just 13, Milly was already counting herself a loser in the popularity and beauty contests of life. For girls today, the two are inextricably linked.
When we look at our daughters, all we see is how lovely they are. When they look in the mirror, all they see are flaws.
Even for effortlessly pretty girls like Milly, who have nothing immediately obvious to obsess about, she still found something — the size of her nose and nostrils.
When I interviewed teenagers for my latest parenting book, I discovered how profound that self-loathing can be. Lovely girls, just like Milly, said they were already saving up for nose jobs and liposuction.
One girl, who would be considered flawless to the naked eye, was still tormented by the fact that one front tooth was marginally longer than the other.
Depressing discovery: Tanith Carey, pictured with her daughter Lily, became aware of just how profound young girls” self-hatred can be when interviewing teenagers
But then this is more than a contest to be pretty. In our schools, looks also determine whether or not you belong.
Even in these days of anti-bulling awareness, much of this interaction is so subtle, it’s imperceptible to the adult eye. Most of it is in coded language of heavy sighs, raised eyebrows and shared looks.
For a sensitive girl like Milly, who like most children her age ‘just wanted to be liked’, even the merest hint that others were whispering about her would have been enough to send her world crashing down around her.
Who knows for certain the real reason why Milly felt left out. When girls start secondary school, there’s always a scramble to redefine the social hierarchies, and she probably fell between the cracks.
But then it doesn’t matter how popular or pretty your daughter is, or how well she seems to fit in; eventually, like Milly, she will face problems with friendships. As parents, we need to warn our girls, so it doesn’t seem like the world is ending.
Eventually, she will learn how to navigate this stormy sea. But, in the short-term, those experiences will shape how she dresses, how she speaks, her hobbies, who she spends time with — and ultimately how she feels about herself.
When I spoke to girls as part of my research, I was shocked by how rigid and uncompromising the boundaries are around teenage social groups — and how brutally they are enforced.
As one girl, Amelia, 14, told me: ‘I have a spots, so I could never be in the popular group. If I went up to them, they’d walk off and laugh.’
Julia, 13, said it made her week when a member of the Ace Gang — the self-styled ‘in crowd’ in her class — suggested they go jogging together out of school.
In school, however, this girl’s esteemed position in the clique of the most beautiful, and most thin, meant she wouldn’t have given Julia more than a passing hello.
Maybe Milly was too pretty. Maybe she was too clever. But most probably there was no good reason why she felt ostracised.
Secondary separation: When girls start high school there”s usually a scramble to redefine social hierarchies and establish roles within friendship groups
The tragedy is that Milly didn’t know it wasn’t her fault — and it happens to everyone in some shape or form. Instead, like so many young girls, she turned that insecurity inward on herself.
Yet as much we are there to help, it’s parents who are the last to know of these secret agonies.
Girls invest so much in making their families believe all is perfect that they find it too humiliating to admit when it’s not. They know how desperately we parents want them to belong, and how much it hurts us if they don’t.
Our ignorance of their parallel lives is also abetted by the fact that teenage girls are brilliant secret keepers. Most of the time, the truth only comes out when they have no choice. The last thing teen girls want to do is tell their mums and dads for fear they will wade in to try to fight their corner — and heap even more humiliation on them.
One teenage girl told me of her devastation at being labeled ‘stuck-up’ on Facebook. ‘I cried every night for a month. But I never told my parents. I felt like such a failure — and I didn’t want them to make it all blow up by making a fuss.’
A family affair: Milly, centre, with her parents, Bob and Sally Dowler and sister, Gemma
With all this happening in their lives, it’s not surprising that a time when looks and approval feel so important, girls project an idealised, perfect version of themselves into cyber space.
For Milly, that alter-ego was her screen name Sexmeslow, which she used in chat rooms. But just as she was testing her own sexual identity, Milly came across her father Bob’s porn collection hidden in a drawer.
Many girls go through a phase in early adolescence of looking for evidence of their parents’ sex lives. But when Milly found more than she bargained for, it’s easy to see how this would have been desperately confusing. That’s because all young girls believe that how a father views other women is how all men will judge her.
To see that her father Bob had an interest in these images would have shaken her in-built sense of what’s right and wrong — and knocked her trust in the most important male role model in her life.
But perhaps the most heart-rending detail of Milly’s inner feelings was her description of herself to her parents as ‘your little disappointment’.
It’s a reminder that, however much teenage girls sneer at what we say and pretend not to be listening, they still want our admiration and respect. For whatever reason — and even though they were no doubt loving parents — Milly felt she had failed Sally and Bob Dowler.
Somewhere along the way, she had come to believe that their love was conditional, that they loved her sister more than her because she was cleverer and prettier.
Even so, the chances are that Milly would have survived her teenage angst to grow into a well-adjusted young woman if she’d been allowed to live. But many others don’t.
New global research published in March found a girl’s harsh inner critic moves in by the time she is in her early teens, and continues to erode her self-esteem as she ages.
Sisterly support: In a farewell letter Milly, pictured with her sister, Gemma, said it would have been better if she”d been aborted or adopted
Statistics on depression, anxiety and self-harm show our girls are more unsure than ever before, and their fragile sense of self is too often based on where they come in the classroom catwalk.
But if there is anything we can learn from Milly, it’s that parents have to stay close, and that if we don’t make it a goal to help our children find their inner worth, then the trials of being a teen can quickly corrode it.
As a parenting author, I hear a lot of parents rush to say how ‘bright’ their children are, patting themselves on the back when their sons and daughters get a string of A-star GCSEs, A-levels and university offers. But while parents speak glowingly of their daughters’ ‘confidence’, I rarely hear them extolling what’s more important — a healthy sense of self-esteem.
Probably many of us with daughters who have seen the Milly Dowler case unfold have hugged our own girls a little tighter. You may have told her you loved her. Indeed, she probably expects you to say it.
But Milly’s legacy is a reminder to tell our girls we love them unconditionally — not by comparison to their siblings, or for how they look or how good they make us look.
She is a reminder that when we tell our girls we love them, we need to add just three crucial words: ‘Just the way you are.’
Tanith’s latest book: Where Has My Little Girl Gone How to Protect Your Girl From Growing Up Too Soon, 7.99, is available from the Mail bookshop. Call 0843 382 0000.