Imagine that! It took me all of 15 minutes, including a shower, to get ready and climb into the car to be dropped off in town by my father.
That was the routine a few Saturday nights a month when I was 14, 15 and 16. (At barely 17, believe it or not, but those were the times that were in it, I’d already started my first year of college in a different city.)
When I was 10, 11, 12 and 13, I ran around outside a lot with friends and siblings, played catch, bickered, climbed trees and read books. My body shape and looks were not remotely important to me or anyone else. I don’t recall any awareness of whether I was “attractive” or not, or whether bits of me may not have matched someone’s ideal of perfection. That kind of stuff didn’t even occur.
As I moved into my mid-teens, my school-friends and I would meet in town at the bus stop or right outside the disco on a Saturday night. We’d tell each other that we looked nice and then we’d join the queue, pay our money and head in for a night of dancing to the music of the late seventies.
Personally, I wasn’t aware that there was an ideal shape for the nose, let alone consider the possibility that my nose did not meet it. My nose was something I merely breathed through unless there was a spot on it. I didn’t think about my chin either, unless there’d been an eruption, and the line of my eyebrows was a foreign country altogether. In fact, to be truthful, as I recall it, the only time I looked at myself in a mirror in my early to mid-teens was to worry about my spots and make them worse by picking at them. The idea of changing a photograph because I didn’t look nice enough for other people, simply did not exist.
I don’t, in fact, recall even putting on make-up until my early 20s, and only after I’d started working and my summer tan had faded. I was so bad at it that I just clogged my pores, gave myself more spots and got makeup all over my hands and clothes.
But that was before smart-phones. Before the internet. Before social media. Before photo-editing apps. Long before parents captured and posted and commented on every move their child made. Back before the concept of even thinking about how you looked could potentially be a bad thing.
I always thought ordinary families had it tough in the seventies, eighties and nineties; families were big and there wasn’t much money around, Cork city was dilapidated, unemployment caused difficulties for many and if you were lucky enough to land paid employment there was no MeToo outrage to help you deal with the creeps at work.
But, it seems, the 2020s are hell on earth for young girls, given this new research by Dove into how they view themselves. The findings show that most girls between 10 and 17 don’t feel good about how they look and experience negative body image issues. The research revealed that digital distortion on social media plays a large part in this and that it’s having a direct impact on their confidence and body image.
I’ve no doubt that if I had spent much of my childhood and teenage years on a screen I’d have had similar worries. By age 12 these days, about 40% of young girls have used a photo editing app to change how they look. Nearly 80% of girls between 10 and 17 years spend more than an hour a day on social media. They compare themselves with others on social media and seek validation from others via likes and comments - always a bad idea, because the world is chock-a-block with people who love having the power to make you feel bad. What a feeding ground for all emotional vampires who thrive on our daughters’ sense of inferiority about how they look.
But yet, what do parents do? They buy girls ever-smarter phones at an ever earlier age, they often don’t supervise them, and often either don’t know or don’t care what they’re doing online. So shoot me but it’s time to fight back - and this fight has to be fought by parents and by the State itself in terms of both regulating the use of tech devices by children and establishing an effective complaints system. Please let’s not offload this responsibility on the usual easy scapegoats; school-teachers and the HSE.
Meanwhile, think about this. If you, as a parent, allow your young child to spend unsupervised time online while you yourself spend much of your free time on social media looking at images of yourself and others, posting images and commenting about the way people look, what do you think your daughter will perceive to be important?
Dove has launched its Self-Esteem Project designed to help give children the tools they need to grow up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look. They have workshops, online articles, digital games and more, all aimed at increasing children’s self esteem and help them navigate social media in a healthier way. Education is a lot. Real information is important. But role modelling is crucial too. There’s no point trying to talk an image-obsessed teenager into spending less time on social media, if you’ve spent their childhoods on your own phone posting pictures of yourself and them on social media.
Fifteen years after the iconic ‘Evolution’ film which addressed the manipulation of images in advertising, Dove is again tackling the issue of digital distortion with a film called the ‘Reverse Selfie’ which reveals the extent to which young girls are distorting their appearance for social media.
Personally I’m not a great believer in corporates trying to selflessly help anyone but the Dove Self-Esteem Project genuinely seems to be trying. They’re offering a free programme of resources for everyone – just check out the online learning hub at https://www.dove.com/uk/dove-self-esteem-project.html.
Might be worth a shot, guys. And in the meantime start watching how much time your daughter spends online and what she’s doing there.