Mal Fletcher
Airbrushing Away the Self-Esteem of Young Girls

Judy Garland, something of a celebrity magazine favourite in her time, said: ‘Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.’

Sadly, Ms Garland fought a life-long battle against low self-esteem and in the end lost the fight. Her advice, though, is as timely today as in her own era – especially, it seems, for young girls.

This week the Girl Guide movement in the UK presented a petition calling on the Prime Minister to set in motion legislation forcing magazines to identify airbrushed images.

Their goal is to protect young girls from having their self-esteem eroded, by pictures that depict the ideal young woman as either super-thin or blemish-free.

More than 20,000 girls signed the petition. It followed research by the Girlguiding UK website, which showed that 42 percent of girls aged 11 to 16 admitted dieting or cutting down on certain foods to improve their figures.

Half of girls aged 16 to 21 admitted that they would have surgery to improve their looks.

These figures, if an accurate representation of the national mood among girls, ought to be a concern to every parent, educator and youth worker, and to government.

Opinion is divided on whether Mr Cameron’s much touted Big Society will become anything more than a Bright Idea. Yet one thing is certain: society cannot be ‘big’ in any meaningful sense of the word, unless it is first big-hearted – particularly toward its most vulnerable members.

Recently, I wrote about the challenges facing Britain’s elderly. Just as voiceless, in many ways, are the young. Yes, they get more attention in the planning of media schedules and marketing pitches - though there remains much to be done in these areas - but are they given the kind of attention they need, where it really counts?

If Britain is to have a big future it must pay more attention to the needs of those who will carry that future on their shoulders.

Airbrushing of photos is, of course, a by-product of the great celebrity culture rip-off. We call it a ‘culture’ but it is actually an industry; one that manipulates the hopes and dreams of impressionable youngsters with the singular aim of making money.

There’s nothing altruistic about so-called reality TV programmes, which unabashedly promise young people the possibility of overnight fame, at very little personal cost.

All you need do, the producers seem to suggest, is to turn up for auditions, perform your heart out. Then, if you’re featured on the TV programme itself and make it through to the finals, win or lose you’re probably en route to a recording contract and fame.

Sadly, nobody seems willing to tell the truth about what that brand of fame entails. ‘Instant’ fame comes at a heavy price. Young rookie celebrities will sacrifice most of their privacy, and will often, over a short time, lose some of their most valued friendships.

They find themselves drifting apart from the people who ‘knew them when’ and could help them navigate the storms ahead. Celebrity image feeds on a perception of invulnerability, or at least unusual durability and strength.

Close and strong friendships require vulnerability as well as strength. Many young celebrities find it hard to be vulnerable, except on their own terms.

Paradoxically, many young celebrities – or even wannabes – also sacrifice a large part of their self-esteem, the very thing they thought fame would boost.

If celebrity is sought as an end in itself, this is often a reflection of inner angst and sometimes even self-loathing. In many ways, offering very insecure people a dose of fame is akin to offering the mild drug abuser lashings of heroin. Fame only exacerbates the problem.

Airbrushing is closely linked with celebrity culture. It reinforces the perceived invulnerability of the celebrity ideal. The practice itself ought to be ‘outed’ for what it really is - a cheap stunt to sell young women products they don’t need, while encouraging them to deny themselves what they do need, such as a healthy diet and realistic self-esteem.

A tagging system may work but one wonders how many girls, flicking through a magazine, will be paying any attention to small logos on the glossy images.

‘A picture paints a thousand words’ is not just a truism. Psychologists know that we tend to attend more readily to pictures than we do to text. That’s especially true for Millennial generation young people who’ve been raised on a steady diet of visual imagery.

The point is, if the image is bold and eye-catching, will anyone of the target age even notice a label attached to it?

We know already that this emerging generation has a problem with shortened attention spans - partly a consequence of digital media that encourage mulsti-tasking. It’s the result of flicking quickly from one webpage to another, or from one screen to another.

Even if young girls see a label, will they register what it means before flicking to the next page, or the next image? In the end, it’s the image that will make the mark – and potentially do the damage.

At root, this is an issue of self-esteem and that is best dealt with in the home. Labels on images will never do what positive and involved parenting can do.

Airbrushed imagery is about the objectifying of girls. Martin Buber the Jewish theologian taught that there are two kinds of relationship in the world: the "I-It" and the "I-You".

In the first instance, he said, I will treat people as if they are things, entities which exist simply for my gratification. In the latter case, I will recognize that other people are born with the same dignity and rights that I possess and I'll treat them accordingly.

Learning the difference between these two types of relationships begins with seeing ourselves as persons rather than objects. This education begins not in the pages of a magazine but in the home, through parental empathy, interest and affirmation.

Parents can’t – and most wouldn’t want to – watch over their children 24 hours a day. In fact, there’s some evidence that Millennial children have been over-nurtured in some areas. Some employer surveys, for example, have suggested that they’re emotionally brittle and unable to take even slight criticism at work.

Yet parents are best placed to spot signs of unusual behaviour, such as missing meals or skimping on food. And, more than that, they’re the best agents of change in terms of self-esteem.

Even when our teenage children seem not to be listening, or shrugging off our advice, some of it gets through. The mere fact that we persist in giving it is a powerful communicator of the value we place upon them.

In terms of shaping self-image, we shouldn’t forget the role that local youth clubs can play, by shaping peer group cultures that share positive values. Perhaps the government should label airbrushed images; but wouldn’t some of that money be better spent sustaining youth clubs that do good work with kids?

Neither should we overlook the potential role of the media. The ageism that is endemic in parts of Britain’s media culture is now being exposed. But at the risk of inventing yet another politically correct byword, what about ‘size-ism’ on TV?

Why are so many young stars on TV – and in movies – so thin; not necessarily anorectic, just unusually finely proportioned? And where are the acne-challenged key characters in drama and soaps?

At the end of the day, the issue of young people’s body image, and the impact it has on their self-esteem, is too important to be dumped at the door of government alone.

Government can’t do everything and it shouldn't think that it can. Yes, it could label magazine images, but that won’t solve the wider problem: how do we get young women to believe in themselves, despite the pop-cultural pressure to do otherwise?

How can we help young women to want to be, as Garland put it, a first-rate version of themselves?

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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