We need to do better if we are to protect girls

two girls with arms around each others waists
alex mulhare

22nd July 2021

 

There’s no simple way to put this: I fear for the current generation of girls, teenagers, and young women who are growing up in an always-online world.  

 

As I scroll through social media, advertisements for cosmetic surgery pop up on my feed, and a heavily-edited selfie is posted with a casual caption; at first glance, I don’t even recognise it as someone whom I have known for years. When did this become normal?  

 

The era of uploading unflattering albums to our Facebook accounts feels very distant these days, even though it was only ten years ago. Backcombed hair and questionable fashion choices ruled the roost – the idea of lip fillers and contouring your face would likely be laughed at. There was no pressure to be picture-perfect – because let’s be honest, digital cameras in the hands of teenagers take terrible pictures. 

 

The real conversation lies in asking ourselves why altering our appearance has become so normalised and readily-available as a cosmetic service.”

I think that, in most cases, it’s counterproductive to shame anyone who has decided to undergo cosmetic treatments or who enjoys using Facetune. It’s their body, and their choice to do what they like with it. The real conversation lies in asking ourselves why altering our appearance has become so normalised and readily-available as a cosmetic service. When and why did our natural faces with textured skin and varied features become undesirable and “ugly”? Our Patriarchal society is probably the fastest and most simple answer (even though it isn’t simple at all, really). Essentially, a patriarchy is a system in which men are the dominant figures in all areas of power within society.  

 

Already, within the short period of time from 2008 to 2021, our online landscape has changed rapidly. Social media used to mean booting up your family’s personal computer and checking your Facebook notifications – a far cry from tapping an application on your phone and receiving instant validation from friends and strangers alike at any and all stages throughout the day. The Myspace and early Facebook era of the internet may not have been an inherently better place, but it was certainly more innocent.  

 

As many researchers have pointed out, the “always-on” mentality is where the current danger of being online lies, and this is especially true for young people. Let’s say you have Instagram notifications turned on and each time you open the app, there’s a good chance that you’ll have a quick look through your timeline. There’s another good chance that altered photos will appear on your newsfeed, either from friends or as suggested posts. It is inevitable that regular consumption of edited photographs will result in a detachment from what real people look like, eventually taking a toll upon how you view yourself and others. This process is so subtle though, that teenagers in particular may not even notice their own perception of beauty standards shifting.  

 

The reality-television series, Love Island, provided food (or rather, a large meal) for thought in this vein during an episode of the seventh season which aired last week. The show’s contestants were challenged to answer sensitive questions about each other, and one particular question asked the men to guess which types of cosmetic surgery that all of the women on the show had undergone. This immediately provoked an online discussion about how commonplace surgically altering your appearance has become, if it can just be assumed that each female contestant has opted for at least one cosmetic treatment. Nonetheless, almost all of the men guessed correctly, with each one writing down some variation of “lips, boobs, botox.” All except one woman on the show could admit to having gone under the knife for some reason or another. Interestingly though, in another round of the same challenge, the contestants were asked to list their turn-offs. Most of the male contestants listed personality traits but one said that “hairy arms” were his biggest turn-off. Unlike bad manners or being too loud, hairy arms are a completely natural trait that many girls and women have no control over. Not to mention the fact that women are naturally hairy; we’re just told that hair is dirty or unhygienic because it’s a convenient excuse for the patriarchy to get the hairless women that it desires (let’s not forget that a core aim of a patriarchal society is to exert control over women as much as is possible).  

 

As the show cut to an ad break, it was difficult to think about anything other than how a girl or teenager might have consumed this content. Would she feel pressured to look in the mirror and re-evaluate her own appearance? Would she question the fullness of her natural lips, or the natural movement of a forehead wrinkle when she raises her eyebrows? Would she feel self-conscious about the hair on her arms, and find a new insecurity to wax away on a regular basis? I left the television that night with a sense of dread and frankly, fear, about how a person younger than myself might fall victim to the ever-expanding trap of surgeries to fix each “‘insecurity”’ that the beauty industry and patriarchy both profit from.  

 

TikTok trends have begun to evoke the same anxiety from me in recent months – why do they so often focus upon creating imagined flaws in the predominantly young female audience who partake in these challenges? The trend which struck me the most was a filter that mirrors each side of your face to create two new faces. The idea was that one side of your face would be “ugly” and the other one “pretty” – unless of course, you were so symmetrical that both faces looked very similar. Showing off your symmetrical face or laughing at the expense of others who looked “ugly” with this filter was the primary goal of this challenge. Immature as it was, I can’t help but wonder how many girls tried the challenge for themselves and were too afraid to even upload the end result because they felt that they looked “ugly.” Many of us can attest to the fact that if our teenage peers perceive us as bad looking in any way, shape, or form, it has a long-lasting effect upon our self-esteem and overall confidence. 

 

There are many places to point an accusatory finger as the source of these problems: the make-up and beauty industries, social media apps, a general disregard for the safety of children online or the content that they consume – the list could truly be endless. The internet and its culture as a whole is a good place to begin looking for answers. Gone are the days of pre-teen girls watching actors their own age dressed like the kids that they are on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Now, this same age group has instant access to social media where they are encouraged to wear make-up and dress with sex appeal, despite the fact that they are literal children. If this is hard to believe, then why has Millie Bobby Brown, the star of Stranger Things, been rolled out onto red carpet events dressed like a fully-grown woman for years? Why was Billie Eilish harassed for refusing to wear revealing clothing as a teenager – why was she expected to show off her body, and why did it become offensive to grown men online when she didn’t play into this expectation?  

 

“They were guinea pigs. They are the first group of young people to grow up with the world at their fingertips, and the first to go through our school systems under the shadow of social media.”

The deeper you delve into this subject, the more it feels as though we have let the upcoming generation of girls down. To be frank, they were guinea pigs. They are the first group of young people to grow up with the world at their fingertips, and the first to go through our school systems under the shadow of social media. As someone who went to secondary school during the more innocent, pre-influencer age of social media, I still feel like having access to a smart phone at the age of sixteen fundamentally altered the school experience for me. It’s difficult to even imagine the vastly different adolescent landscape that would be created by handing a child a smartphone while they are still in primary school – their lives have never existed offline, or without Snapchat stories, or without YouTube celebrities.  

 

The internet itself is not to blame, however; the problem lies in the unrestricted access to online content that young people with malleable minds and opinions have been given. We, as adults, and especially Millennial adults with a deep understanding of social media and the darker facets of the internet, could have prevented the mentally-damaging rise of beauty filters and influencers who aggressively peddle dangerous, “weight-loss” teas. While society in the 1990s was actively telling girls who weren’t malnourished that they were ‘fat’, post-Noughties society revels in forcing girls to believe that their natural faces can be ‘fixed’ with plastic surgery, Botox, or filler injections. While Norway’s new law which will forbid influencers from posting photos without labelling the edits, filters, or alterations contained within is not a solution to this vast problem, it would appear to be a good start at tackling it.  

 

As a general takeaway from this surface-level discussion, it would appear that there exists a pattern that needs to be broken. Consistently, each generation of girls and young women have been led to believe that some aspect of their physical appearance is inherently flawed. Why are we, as a society, so obsessed with convincing girls that they are broken and that they must drastically alter their body in order to be considered beautiful, or even just pretty? Why do they even need to be objectified and considered good-looking in the first place? The short answer, of course, is patriarchy – there’s a reason why those with the most privilege in society (men) don’t feel the need to view themselves as objects and alter their personhood accordingly. There are always exceptions to rules though, such as men who endanger their health to achieve the perfect, toned body, but this doesn’t discount the fact that it is other men who make them feel pressured to physically appear a certain way. They are victims of the same system.  

 

From the onset of pre-teen years, we are teaching girls to objectify themselves, and social media appears to have intensified this process by flooding each app with ads and beauty filters. There is nothing wrong with filters as a concept but they quickly evolved from giving users cute dog ears into a more sinister feature that completely changes the shape of your face, usually granting the appearance of an altered jaw, blue eyes, and a smaller nose. For obvious reasons, this has sparked conversations about beauty filters and race. What if a girl of colour was playing with these filters on Snapchat or Instagram and in each one, saw her skin and eyes lightened, along with a new, Eurocentric nose. Research has already shown that when used consistently, beauty filters alter our perception of our own appearance over time.  

 

The question that I consistently walk away from this train of thought with is, why are some features seen as undesirable? Our features carry family history, ethnic history, and the beauty of individuality all in one package, but then society turns around and tells us that unless we all look uniform, we are flawed. Perhaps most sickeningly is that what is deemed to be “desirable” changes at the flick of a switch – think of beauty standards shifting from Marilyn Monroe, to Kate Moss, to Kim Kardashian. All of these women possess vastly different physical appearances but at one point or another, everyday women were told that these body types were the most desirable: “you should look like this too.”

 

Perhaps older women find these societal pressures easier to deal with, as they have watched uncontrollable body ‘trends’ come and go with the decades. Needless to say, the pressure for women to look perfect is not confined to any age group, although the youngest girls and women among us are inevitably the most fragile and at risk of being mentally-impacted by society’s harmful messaging. Rather than the fixation upon weight and being “fat” that was prevalent in the 1990s, the current generation are made to feel as though they must always be social media ready. What if you’re out with a friend who wants to post a story on Instagram or Snapchat, but you don’t look your best because your face is bare (see: “natural”) and filters are too obvious? This situation is a nightmare scenario for anyone who feels pressured into curating a perfect image of themselves online. The solution to this, apparently, is to ensure that your appearance is always ready to be posted online, usually by means of seeking cosmetic procedures or semi-permanent treatments.  

 

It may sound like there’s no real escape from the pressure to look a specific way and to have a “trendy” body feature or type. The truth is that women’s bodies are individual and unique, and for most of us, it’s entirely impossible to achieve the coveted “snatched waist.” Oh, and girls aren’t women, they are children. Children who are being institutionalised into viewing themselves as women so that adult beauty standards can be imposed upon them and enforced throughout their lifetime. In the words of Kate Winslet, referring to her own acclaimed role in Mare of Easttown, “There are clearly no filters. She’s a fully functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from. I think we’re starved of that a bit.”

 

 

Featured photo by Priscilla Du Preez

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex

 

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