Teach girls to be happy, confident and sassy -- not perfect

Girls are becoming more unhappy. Can we change the story?

As a young teen in the late 90s, I remember a relative saying to me, "Oi, you’re getting mataba". In Filipino this translates to, "Hey, you’re getting fat".

Now, it’s a peculiarity of some Asian cultures that fat-shaming is a ubiquitous and eye-rolling normality. With a deadpan voice I sassed him with a cutting remark, "You’d regret saying that if I develop an eating disorder. Don’t you dare say that again".

I was scolded for talking back, but for a snarky young girl, it was easy to devalue the opinion of one ageing relative. It’s quite another beast when it’s cast from your own peers and role models.

The desire for social acceptance and reaching unattainable ideals aren’t anything new. But back then exposure to the harmful effects of media was in a way limited. We had Myspace and chat apps but the juggernaut that is today’s selfie-obsessed social media culture was in its infancy.

The latest Good Childhood Report from charity Children’s Society show that young girls are more unhappy than they were five years ago. Among 10- to 15-year-old girls, 34% are unhappy with their appearance. For the most part this has remained unchanged for young boys, indicating that young girls are more vulnerable to these particular insecurities.

Among 10- to 15-year-old girls, 34% are unhappy with their appearance. 

I grew up in a simpler time. We were measured on how well you did in school, the friends you kept and extracurricular talents. Yes, being pretty always pushed you up higher on the social ladder. But so did weird things like having nice handwriting, especially if it was used to write really bad poetry.

Girls didn’t go on diets. This may have been a uniqueness of a particular time and place, but I don’t doubt that the recent phenomenon of being able to quantify popularity through the number of likes is creating a warped measure of self-worth.

Enter #DuckFace, the #ThighGap, apps that banish blemishes like Facetune and you have yourself a hyperreality whose effects on girls’ self-esteem are devastating.

It gets darker. Anonymity online makes bullying take on more potent forms. Since 2013, social network Ask.fm has been linked to at least 12 reported suicides from young teens, some of them British.

Brands haven’t been deaf to this predicament. Dove’s "Real beauty" and Always’ "#LikeAGirl" directly address the pressures on young girls. GoldieBlox’s Princess Machine scorned stereotypical "girl" toys and demanded to "see a range. Cause all our toys look just the same. And we would like to use our brains".

Now, Mattel’s Barbie is attuning to the wishes of the zeitgeist, expanding their dolls to include racial and body diversity, as well as releasing an ad that promotes ambition rather than looks.

But the truth is the average young teen probably wouldn’t have seen any of these ads, and even if they had, its influence would be diluted by a history of unrealistic advertising, the sheer glut of beauty bloggers, and a fashion and entertainment industry who – on the whole – still stubbornly presents a narrow definition of beauty.

Social media queen Kylie Jenner’s feed is all big lips, bling and Bentleys. Now, even friendships are a commodity, with Taylor Swift’s #SquadGoals showing that it’s no longer enough to be beautiful, your friends must be too.

Add to this a tech industry that is playing catch ups to work out how to limit cyberbullying, let alone resist the temptation to profit from these insecurities with beautifying apps.

Even friendships are a commodity, with Taylor Swift’s #SquadGoals showing that it’s no longer enough to be beautiful, your friends must be too.

And therein lies the limits of purpose-driven advertising. It’s still in the minority. Despite what the viral successes may have you believe, our positive influence as an industry isn’t as far reaching yet as we’d like to think.

We can push to change culture in positive ways through our messages, but the rise of peer-to-peer platforms, ad blocking and social media influencers means it’s increasingly harder for brands to connect with their audiences – let alone young teens who may not be watching TV but are most definitely Snapchatting.

There are pockets of revolt in social media and a demand for greater authenticity. Instagram has rightly blocked #ThighGap, and #EffYourBeautyStandards is a thing. Australian influencer Essena O’Neill famously quit Instagram last year, radically rewriting her posts to expose her perfect life as a complete lie.

Alternative voices are rising to the fore. 16-year-old Amanda Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games, is fast becoming the young voice for intersectional feminism, with her viral speeches and her comic Noibe: She Is Life, the tale of a mixed race heroine.

Beyonce, who herself is not immune from these pressures having been caught photoshopping some of her Instagram pictures, is at least badassery on another level. Her song Formation – an ode to black cultural pride and resilience against racial inequity and violence – shows young girls that one of the most compelling things about you is your political voice.

The impact on the wellbeing of young girls is decidedly complex. Reversing the trend is likely to need concerted effort between various industries, schools, parents and the government.

Some would say we got us into this mess. Maybe it’s only us that can get us out. Let’s rethink advertising as we know it. Promote bravery, not beauty. Diversify representation and narratives. Support alternative influencers and platforms like Gal-dem.com and Bustle. Spark a teenage rebellion against perfection. Give platforms for political voices.

Lastly, stoke their inner sass and help them believe they too can revolutionise how they’re defined.

Catherine Hope is associate creative director at Naked Communications

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