Why the digital age is sending the wrong messages to our daughters about beauty and self-esteem
What is the future for our daughters if they're constantly reduced to an image — whether on apps such as Instagram or Tinder — and what does it mean for their collective self-esteem as they grow up in the digital age?
Kylie Jenner scares me. While I'm somewhat impressed with her ambition and entrepreneurial skills — building her cosmetics empire out of reality TV fluff — I'm worried about what her over-inflated pout and over-sexualised persona is saying to the teenage girls of today. What is scary about Jenner is not the surgeries before the age of 19 — in the medical world, women are often recommended to delay cosmetics procedures such as breast enlargements and rhinoplasty until after they've left their teens — but the influence that she wields over the minds and beauty standards of millions of young women, as she not-so-surreptitiously peddles her wares. (I'm talking about her liquid lipsticks and highlighters by the way.) Many young girls see her transformation as aspirational — if she can climb from the nadir of looking decidedly average to being so showstopping that she's literally become the face of beauty... so can I. In the battle of beauty over substance, Jenner stands as victor. In an ideal world, women like US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or novelist Zadie Smith might be the ones our daughters, nieces and sisters aspired to be. But they're not the ones with the 89.1 million Instagram followers.
As the mother of a three-year old, I worry what the future landscape of the digital world will look like, and the kinds of pressures our daughters (and sons) will face when it comes to the curation and presentation of their lives on social media. Will we no longer rely on devices to access information, and like a bad episode of Black Mirror, scan for information via lens implants, dismissing people (whether potential mates or even rivals) with a simple flick of our eyes? An image filling in for all the information we should be assessing people by; from the sound of their laughter to the beauty of their minds. My daughter is already displaying a predilection for pink things and princesses, despite our attempts to steer her towards more gender-neutral toys and books — she has trucks as well as tiaras. Just this morning, I caught her applying her plastic lipstick to her eyelids, staring at a mirrorless compact in near-perfect mimicry of a ritual she's no doubt seen in real life and on YouTube countless times. Not surprising, considering her mum's livelihood is beauty, but a stunning reminder of the subtle messages we send to our children each day by our actions, by the images they (unwittingly) consume and the subliminal reinforcements they pick up from their interactions. I am not privy to what tweens and teenagers are up to today, but reliable sources have told me that taking pictures of your butt (and posting them on tumblr on Instagram) is a trend among girls as young as 11 or 12. Again, I blame Kylie Jenner and perhaps Kim Kardashian. Well of course, it would be silly to hold one, or several, young women accountable for all that is wrong in the world today, but the message that appearance is the be-all and end-all is one that is heavily trafficked and bought.
While the internet can be a wonderful place to exchange ideas, build your knowledge base and to connect with the world around, the reality is that many of the most popular social media apps that are used every day are purely image-obsessed. It's not just the young ones who are guilty, as there are plenty of selfie-snapping adults, as well, who don't have the excuse of youthful folly to fall back on. But I do think there is a distinct difference between living in the digital age now as an adult, and being completely immersed in it from the time you were a tot. Unlike most parents today who grew up in a time, that straddled both the pre- and post-internet eras, our young ones don't have that sense of perspective. When I was a pre-teen we didn't have handphones and social media, and life (and the angst of teenagerhood) was tough enough without these platforms for judgment, instant feedback as well as emotional gratification. Back then, the number of followers we amassed on our Instagram accounts or matches we received on Tinder in the virtual popularity contest didn't measure our self-worth. Although I loved beauty from a young age, introduced to the powers of eyebrow shaping and concealer at the age of 14, I knew that there were so many things to aspire towards rather than being able to snap a pretty picture. I knew it was important to develop my knowledge, empathy and literacy, to build actual relationships with friends and family, hold a decent conversation and now, as I get older, to speak up and speak out against what I feel are injustices. But in a new world order where a woman's worth is often reduced to just an image, and the millions of virtual hearts she receives in affirmation, it is not difficult to see how that might tamper with the perspective of a young girl.
There's no easy solution to the problems posed, but perhaps making time for real contact and conversation is the only way forward. Fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, casual onlookers... affirm the young girls and women you see in your lives by valuing them beyond their appearances, and speaking to them about their dreams, ambitions and the issues that they are facing. Don't reduce them to princess stereotypes nor shy from intellectual topics. And finally, don't comment about their weight, their clothes and how much makeup they're wearing — young women have enough of that chatter to contend with in their everyday lives.