Susie Rushton: Don't young women realise that outdoorsy is also sexy?

Notebook: Why aren't more women rebelling against the authorised version of beauty?

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Young women worry about how they look. This isn't news to anyone who remembers their own adolescent anxiety over spots, fat thighs and why Sally Perkins has better-developed breasts even though she's a year younger – but the extent to which girls are obsessed by "physical perfection" has become alarming.

According to new research, one in four girls aged between 11 and 17 has low self-esteem; unhappiness with physical appearance is one of the most debilitating factors, say the Future Foundation think-tank, which carried out the survey. This miserable lack of self-worth damages career prospects later in life, argues the Future Foundation, which projects that this means the chances of another female prime minister being elected by 2050 have shrunk further.

When the current cohort of teen girls hit their professional peak, there'll be fewer female FTSE 100 CEOs (despite UK and EU regulation forcing the issue) and fewer female Olympic medallists than we might otherwise have had – all because, as adolescents, they were too busy ringing their eyes with Kate-Middleton black eyeliner and calculating how to eat fewer than 1,000 calories a day.

How much credence we should give a study based on interviews with 500 respondents – let alone one commissioned for Dove soap, which has a long-running ad campaign for "real beauty" – may be debatable, but the conclusions sound too true, and too bothersome, to immediately dismiss.

What really strikes me as most regressive is that the female role models who teens – and the rest of us – see in magazines and on TV are almost always so uniformly boring: the same fake tans, the same skinny legs in cut-off shorts, the same platform stilettos and heavily pencilled eyebrows.

My question is: why aren't more young women rebelling against the authorised version of beauty? Teenagers are familiar with the idea of defiance, yet ideas of what's beautiful and stylish and "perfect" seem strangely beyond question. There's nothing wrong with being interested in one's appearance, but why not get creative? Where are today's true style rule-breakers?

This occurred to me when a new book called Tomboy Style, published by Rizzoli, landed on my desk. The insolent younger sister to all those retro-glamour coffee-table tomes that dribble over wasp waists and cantilevered busts from the 1950s, it looks back at the best betrousered women of all time. Katharine Hepburn, Suzi Quatro, Ali McGraw, the 1920s adventuress Osa Johnson and Diane Keaton are here, alongside modern tomboys Janelle Monáe and Tilda Swinton – none of them girls you could imagine lacking in self-esteem.

Outdoorsy spirit and freedom from the received expectations of femininity are profoundly attractive (even to boys) when worn with confidence, and are actually celebrated in fashion media if you look hard enough: American Vogue this month dedicates two spreads to an interview with a rather gorgeous female champion motocross rider, 21-year-old Ashley Fiolek, probably the coolest women it has featured in its pages for years.

The tomboy look doesn't work for, or appeal to, everybody. Yet could it be that a solution to our growing beauty crisis isn't to persuade young women to abandon the looking glass altogether, but to try on a wider variety of styles for size?

Physical appearance isn't just about flesh and bone structure, but attitude and the clothes you choose to wear. It's one aspect of a woman's life, not a precast mask that one wears to fit in.

s.rushton@independent.co.uk

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