What does the next generation think of today’s issues? In our TBS Next Gen program, we publish content by Australian students mentored by TBS writers. This week, Charlotte, 15, explains the body image that is expected of her.
Student: Charlotte Everingham
Mentor: Valerie Buhajiar
Topic: The “perfect” body image
10.5 by 6cm doesn’t sound like much, but for some an iPhone screen is controlling their lives. I can’t go 5 minutes online without an article popping up telling me that “so and so lost another 10 kilos!” or “<insert celebrity here> had an embarrassing swimsuit malfunction!!”. As a 15-year-old I am constantly subjected to perfect looking people doing perfect looking things with their perfect looking friends online. As I’m growing up there is more and more pressure for me to conform to the idealistic standards that are set for women. And we do. We as teenagers pursue this. We love it and want to be seen as this “perfect” person. So we put ourselves, specifically our bodies, out there in that way. So many of my peers’ Instagram feeds have photo after photo of bikini pics aiming to be provocative and get praise for their bodies. This is such an unhealthy mindset, and it does so much damage to the way we view ourselves and determines what kind of women we want to be. Social media for young people very much objectifies women and tells us what we should be. But how do we, as avid social media users, get around this issue and encourage young people to not give into the global e-peer pressure.
Some would say “but no – I follow the feel good accounts that promote wellbeing and living my life close to nature”. In reality this lifestyle is often just as fake as the glamour of the celebrity world. Many teens follow these really healthy #feel-good accounts. In my experiences online we look at these sites, that are often run by people who are all about “#GOALS”, who are posting the same sort of content as those in bikinis, just in fitness gear. These accounts set the same sort of expectations for people who don’t look a certain way, and puts pressure on them to be that person and live that particular lifestyle. And I’m definitely not saying that if you have a slim body you should be ashamed of it, as everyone knows bodies come in all shapes and sizes and you have to feel good in your own skin. But what isn’t okay is that social media is setting a very particular example of what you should be and what is considered ugly or unacceptable.
Why should our sole purpose online be to look good? Are we putting this pressure on ourselves because we don’t feel good enough? Is this an issue only teens are facing? I wanted to find out. So I called up a number of women from a range of different ages who are relatively connected to social media. I asked them “How do the Internet and social media make you feel about yourself? Does it effect the way you look at your body, the way you see yourself as a woman in society?”. The answers I got back were fairly varied and while some people felt that they were inadequate, others were very comfortable with their body shape and the way that they perceive themselves as women in society.
“The images online definitely highlight what society wants, and we don’t feel good enough because we can’t live up to that,” 15-year-old Jackie* says.
“Models are the ideal, and boys see that and expect us to look like that.”
Others thought there were two sides to the story.
17-year-old Caitlyn* said, “There’s the side that is showcasing ‘BODY GOALS’ that makes you feel that you are obliged to look like that. And then there is the other side that is like ‘everyone is beautiful, full stop.’”
In contrast to this, 60 year old Judy* and 74 year old Helen*, both Internet savvy older women, felt confident in their bodies and were not at all ashamed.
“I don’t take any notice, I’m not really effected by it.”
“It makes me feel like a lot of people aren’t looking at the right things, they are looking at the outside stuff and not the important inside stuff”.
I found that young people in their mid to late teens were saying more negative things about the Internet, which is interesting because they are the ones that actually use it most.
On the other hand, there are a number of campaigns and celebrities who advocate for women empowerment. This is not a one sided issue and there is lots of support for young people online. Some notable celebrities who are all for feminism include Emma Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michelle Obama. Emma is probably most well known for her amazing work with the UN alongside her acting career. She advocates for women’s right and is outwardly a feminist. She began #heforshe, an equality program encouraging men to back up women. Benedict Cumberbatch is also an outward feminist and promotes the fact that men can and should be feminists as well. Michelle Obama is another public figure often overlooked by young people, but she is a massive driving force behind feminism globally. On top of this, there are so many campaigns endorsing women empowerment, such as Dove’s self-esteem project encouraging the acceptance of all different body types. We know that there are positive, supportive figures are out there, though unfortunately these are not driving the content we see every time we open up our devices. And we are not being surrounded this positive content, rather we are being inflicted with damaging messages.
So what!? So what if young people feel bad about their bodies? Teenagers have always at some stage of growing up had bad self esteem, what is the issue here? Well, actually if we are looking at the amount of time young people are connected to the Internet, and the amount of content that is shoved in their faces, we can make the connection between what they see online and their lowered opinion about themselves. But what can we do about this? We can’t stop people going online and seeing these “perfect” people and stop them wanting to be that. We can’t take down the content, it will always be there. However, there are a number of programs that have been set up that are promoting positive body image in schools. Centacare, Kidsmatter, NEDC (National Eating Disorder Collaboration) and REbeL are just a few of the many organisations that have been set up to resolve the issue of negative body image amongst young people. These programs are unique, because they position the issues in a way that allows young people to identify with them. They aim to recognise the unrealistic standards of beauty in the media and develop confidence and self belief within students.
I also think that we need to make young women feel empowered, teach them that they have a voice. Tell the teenagers who stand in front of the mirror hating their bodies, to embrace their imperfections and value what is on the inside. We need to stand together as imperfect people and know that having flaws is okay and that no one – not women, not men, not teenagers, not 5-year-olds or 75-year-olds – should be ashamed of what they look like or feel inadequate. Because no matter who you are, I believe we are all very extraordinarily adequate and the Internet can not and will not define us.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons
This article is part of a series for The Big Smoke Next Gen.
The Big Smoke Next Gen is a program which matches professional and experienced writers, academics and journalists with students who wish to write non-fiction articles and voice their opinions on what is shaping the nation.
For more information about our program at The Big Smoke, or to become a mentor, please contact us.