If I’m honest, there aren’t many bits of my life I look back and and absolutely think “I wish I could go back to then” and relive it all over and one stage I shrugged off with delight was my teenage years. Being chubby, plain, short and socially awkward teen in a school full of slim, rich, accomplished and confident girls was an utter slog. Everywhere I turned there were the girls in flippy Next skirts and slim fitting tops that I dreamed of looking good in. (And occasionally I tried – in an effort to fit in – with what I know must have been humiliating fashion tragedy results). They had better hair, nicer shoes, a graceful body, more money, more holidays but more than ANYTHING else, they knew how to BE. They put make up on well, laughed and joked and messed about and I just never could. How I envied them.
Facebook can be a wonderful thing. In recently months I’ve talked more to some of my former year mates and discovered something unexpected. While I fought my demons, convinced the populars looked down on me and laughed, they were fighting their own demons, their own internal enemies shouting too loudly for them to notice me and my inhibitions. It has really changed how I view those years.
I say Facebook can be a wonderful thing… but I’m deeply grateful it didn’t exist when I was a teenage girl. Yesterday I took part in a challenge organised by the Dove Self Esteem Project to live life online for a day in a way that teenagers report as normal. Generation Girl is is part of the Women in the World event that has been taking place this week and during the conference they’ve been highlighting research that shows that 50% of young girls report using a social media channel “all the time”.
Challenged to keep 4 social media channels open all day I found I simply couldn’t do it – I set the notifications pinging and tried to follow the hashtags but with work, home educating and mothering all calling on my attention, I did all of my jobs badly. I tried to follow conversations and knowing that by using the #NoLikesNeeded tag I was putting myself on show, I felt immediately under pressure to be profound or funny. I used WhatsApp to chat to my family but even that made me feel confused – I don’t want to look like I ‘do nothing but surf’ all day and my inner guilt kicked in, making me feel I was ignoring everything else to try and stay visible. Doing everything badly made me feel a failure – and ironically it is knowing that there is more to life than a social media profile that proves I’m not.
My looks are not something I’m comfortable and this photo was my ‘just take it’ photo, trying not to worry how I looked or how acceptable to me or the outside world the photo would be. I’d previously tried to engage the teens in a ‘just got out of bed’ shot and they all refused to do it, which surprised me. Once I tried to take my own though, I struggled – even this photo is a compromise, with unwashed hair and bags under my eyes but I chopped off half my face, as I often do, because I hate my cheeks and profile.
The photo got 23 likes on Instagram and some nice comments, ones that surprised me. Later on, when I tried fluffing up my hair and putting on make up and ‘improving’ the selfie, I found I HATED those – I’d rather kid myself that I only look shabby because I haven’t tried. Make up and hair effort made me FAR MORE self conscious than the real me. I didn’t post it, because I don’t like looking like a frog online and I certainly didn’t want to have to tag it in a way that meant people would obligingly NOT like it. I took far more than 9 attempts (the average, according to data) and all of them re-enforced a sense of ugliness in me. Brutal.
If a social media day for a 13-23 year old involves using 4 different channels, I’m amazed they get anything done at all. I kept Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter going but I just didn’t have the time to enjoy it. It was a pressure I didn’t want or enjoy, overlaid by feeling immediately invaded and on show. While I probably do use Instagram as often as 35 times a week when I’m feeling creative, I rarely make them of me; the average teen girl posts 7 photos of herself a week. Now, I’m all for having the confidence to do that and our family photos have a marked lack of me in them because I’d rather hide behind the camera, but I have to wonder how many of them feel real joy and pride in their photos and how many are to try and garner respect or confidence or compliments?
Fortunately I would not rather receive 50 likes than have a hug from a member of my family though, another startling fact and a frankly damning indictment on what we are forming for our futures. 🙁
I never want to be a teenager again. Watching my own girls going through it is hard enough and they are relatively sensible about such things, and not particularly hooked on social media either, with the added bonus of being slim, pretty and well liked by their peers. But what am I teaching them if I edit out the pieces of me, my home or my life that I don’t want to be judged on (like my unwashed mugs, in this kitchen shot!) What am I teaching them if I measure myself in a successful blog post, or a popular picture, or retweets or shares?
A a mum and a gymnastics coach I spend a lot of time reassuring girls about their bodies and observing how self doubt and outside judgement affect them; watching how one of my daughters did get sucked into flirty pouty photo taking and how girls who are getting out there and learning to do new and impressive sport moves with their bodies cover up and feel degraded by perceived bodily imperfection. There are, as the inspirational quotes often say, worse things than being fat or plain – and being horrible to someone because of their looks or shape says far more about the person dishing out the hate than it does about the recipient.
The point of the Dove Self Esteem campaign is to break the cycle of girls feeling prettier on line and measuring self worth in ‘likes’. We need to take ownership of that as adults too and stop modelling these divisive behaviours down to the children we are bringing up. It’s important that we challenge this before children lose the ability to see human and imperfect as normal; a process that started with the clever airbrushing of magazine shots is filtering down to everyday use. Do we want a generation who live life solely online and never go out lest someone takes an unflattering snap of them. Do we want pouty poses and hashtags to grab attention for being thin or provocative to be our legacy? Do we want girls to be crushed because how someone else views them is more important than what they are proud of?
If not, there is more information at Dove Self Esteem, including educational packs and tools.
The only like that matters is your own.
In association with Dove.