A recent survey of girls in the U.K. has revealed girls are generally unhappier now than they were 20 years ago, largely because of how concerned many of them have become about their looks.
Apparently, most girls now think their appearance is, and is considered by others to be to be, the most important aspect about them. For many, their assessment of their appearance, and hence, their worth as individuals, falls short of what they would like. This has tragic consequences in terms of their mental well-being, performance at school and in their confidence, which follows their dreams and ambitions.
What has this got to do with me as a man?
Well for one thing, I have two daughters, and it’s important to me that they live as happy and fulfilled lives as possible. So, I’d like to understand, why, after 40 years of feminism encouraging girls to believe their worth as a person is about a lot more than how they are seen (e.g., by boys), girls are still feeling boxed in by anxieties about whether they conform to conventional ideas about what is “attractive.”
This concern echoes my personal mission to escape from, and to help other men escape from, the “man box” of conforming to narrow norms of masculinity. And a belief in the right of everyone to live in the way that feels right to them and to feel at ease, irrespective of gender stereotypes, even if some other people may be too restricted in their own thinking to appreciate or accept it. For me it’s a basic issue of human rights.
One explanation for so many girls’ excessive concern with appearance that rings true for me is that the online worlds in which teenagers now spend so much of their time, are dominated by images of physical perfection. These images are often created with the specific intent to create a feeling of inadequacy amongst girls and to encourage them to buy more products which promise to address the shortfalls which advertising has convinced them they have. Boys are not targeted in the quite same way, but that might only be a matter of time.
The situation is compounded by the easy access boys have to porn on their smart phones and other devices, and the amount of time they spend watching it. While females are represented as body parts to be enjoyed, or rejected, by boys. The underlying message to girls again is that they have no value other than their bodies and the extent to which its appearance, and what they do with it, meets male approval. To me, this is marketing at it’s morally indifferent worst; sacrificing the well being of our children on the altar of profits for companies that promote and feed their insecurities.
It’s ironic that another main type of product which generates huge profits from being consumed by children, to the detriment of their health, is junk food of all kinds. As a result of increasing consumption levels of sugary snacks and a fatty diet, we have epidemic levels of child obesity in the West—and this, at the same time that ideals of thinness are being promoted. No wonder our children apparently have higher levels of anxiety and depression than has ever been recorded at any other time in history
I’m wary of relying on the state to change social behavior.
However, sometimes we need the government to know and promote what is good for us, and to protect us from products which may do us harm. In the UK, first steps have been taken to reduce advertising of junk food, and to impose a tax geared to discourage young people from buying sugary drinks.
I’d like to see some kind of campaign now to promote to girls (and boys) the idea that there are many different kinds of human beauty, and the value of any human rests much more on who they are and what they achieve, than on their image. And that well-being comes mainly from feeling free to express, and to be recognized for, the rounded human beings they are.
Maybe some form of “health warning” could be attached to digitally enhanced images, or pictures of unhealthily thin models, with words to the effect that: “This is not a real person; and trying to look this way could be dangerous to your health,” along with imparting a limit on advertising that will promote unattainable levels of beauty to young people, and the ideals they are aiming for.
This might seem far-fetched in today’s world, but probably no one in the fifties could have imagined cigarette advertising would one day be banned. In the meantime, I’ll continue trying to “nudge” my son and daughters to eat healthily, and to challenge the outmoded attitudes that deter girls from achieving their potential, because they feel inhibited by something as superficial as their appearance, or the boys who are encouraged to judge them that way.
Photo credit: Getty Images