Strictly's Maisie Smith: Why do we have a problem with confident young women?

After Maisie Smith has been in the Strictly dance-off two weeks running, Lizzy Dening wonders if the nation has an issue with self-assured girls…

Maisie Smith

After Maisie Smith has been in the Strictly dance-off two weeks running, Lizzy Dening wonders if the nation has an issue with self-assured girls…

‘The most alluring thing a woman can have is confidence.’ ‘Keep your heels, head and standards high.’ ‘Confidence is sexy, wear it daily.’ As soon as we’re old enough to read a fridge magnet, women are told to be confident. But is confidence only attractive when we’ve been through the school of hard knocks? Or only if we’re average looking? Older? Perhaps it’s not actually attractive at all? It’s certainly hard to judge from the public reaction to Maisie Smith.

She’s best know for playing Tiffany Butcher on EastEnders, and – aged just 19 – entered this year’s Strictly with a samba (a notoriously tricky dance) to knock your socks off. But while young pop star HRVY, two years her senior and equally talented/attractive, has been received by the public with open arms, Maisie Smith has had a tougher time of it.

Maisie Smith (BBC Pictures)

Maisie and Gorka dancing on the show

For one thing, the tabloids have gone rabid over her body, highlighting her ‘flaunting’ of any and every body part (seemingly ‘flaunting’ involves stepping out in leggings.) I can’t help but feel this language has been part of the problem. Let’s look again at HRVY, who is never accused of flaunting anything when pictured going in and out of the studio. He’s just a boy going about his day-to-day business, while Maisie is some kind of legging-flaunting super minx. I also suspect that some of HRVY’s fans are particularly unhappy (read: jealous) over rumours of flirting between the two.

It’s not the first time that Maisie’s attitude towards her body has come under public scrutiny. Over the summer, she posted a video response on Instagram after being trolled for ‘loving herself’ too much (the horror!) Yes, she replied, she did love herself. “It’s taken me a while to feel this way, so I’m so sorry if my happiness offends anyone.” She added: “I’m just living comfortably in my skin and I think that should be celebrated, not discouraged.” Too bloody right.

Maisie Smith

Maisie Smith, Patsy Palmer And James Forde Arriving For The 2009 British Soap Awards (Getty Images)

Now she’s been interviewed in tears over the pressures of being under a ‘magnifying glass’ since the age of six (when she debuted on EastEnders) and questioning why people don’t like her. She’s also doubled down – in the interview and more widely – on emphasising that her confidence is a front, and she’s really very shy. “People have said they can’t warm to me on Strictly, but I’m so nervous and that can be misinterpreted as arrogance because I’ll either go quiet, or I’ll go over the top to put on a confident front,” she said.

Whether or not that’s actually the case, it’s sad that the way to win over the British public is to deny any semblance of self-assurance. After all, as a stunning teenager with a successful career (and an enviable ability to shake a tail feather) – why shouldn’t she feel on top of the world?

Meanwhile, frustratingly, there are still some unpolished and inconsistent dancers in the show who I’m surprised to see escaping the dance off. Is it that they have more complex backstories or that viewers envy them less? Strictly has always been more of a popularity contest than a talent one (although in the best years the champion has won both). Ashley Roberts was consistently in the dance off, despite being arguably the best dancer of season 16 – it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but perhaps she was too polished. While unjust, that somehow felt less cruel. For one thing, that wasn’t until week 10, by which time most of the weaker dancers had packed up and headed home. And for another, she was in her late-30s, giving her much more time to have developed a thick skin than a 19-year-old who’s still growing up.

Maisie Smith

Maisie on her way to Strictly rehearsals (Getty Images)

From her comments over the summer about loving herself, to a girl who looks on the edge of tears every Saturday night, and says it’s ‘hard not to let it affect you,’ it’s dispiriting to see what public apathy has done to Maisie. Strictly is usually heralded as a path to confidence – of relighting your inner flame and encouraging participants to really let loose. It’s sad that this hasn’t been her experience. We all remember being 19 and how deeply our egos could be bruised by a harsh word or perceived criticism. I hope that more of the viewing public keep that feeling in mind when it comes to Saturday night. I know who I’ll be voting for.

Lizzy Dening

Lizzy Dening is a freelance journalist and editor, specialising in writing about sexual violence, women’s rights, opinion pieces and health. Also, when in need of a break from the bleaker stuff, the odd travel piece or film and book review.

She’s the founder of Survivor Stories, a website featuring interviews with survivors of sexual violence in their own words, and is co-vice chair of Peterborough Rape Crisis Care Group. She’s passionate about listening to survivors, helping them share their stories and shutting down victim blaming. As you might imagine, she’s a right laugh at dinner parties.

She’s been previously published by titles including The Guardian, Grazia, Elle, The Independent, iPaper, the Telegraph, Huffington Post and Women’s Health, and has been digital editor at two national titles. Now self-employed, she considers her cat Moomin her closest colleague, although he’s unreliable when it comes to the tea-round.

Originally from Cambridge, she now lives in Peterborough where she regularly organises events including an annual Reclaim the Night march, feminist film screenings and fundraisers for Peterborough Rape Crisis. She’s also a volunteer at a local food bank (bag packing rate: ninja level) and does occasional PR and comms work for charities and causes. There’s rarely a petition she hasn’t signed.

Avid reader and book club botherer; champion of niche feminist icons; currently learning to play football; wears too much leopard print; sometime poet; Kinder Egg enthusiast; spends a lot of time thinking about going for a run. Favourite places include Sheringham beach, New York, Vienna, Hawaii, obscure museums, the local park, and bookshops.

Currently in the process of launching her first podcast with her (award-winning) podcast producer husband, Ross Sutherland – watch this space…