One of the most difficult things about saying goodbye to Year 6 at the end of the year is the knowledge that, regardless of which school they are off to next, they are about to enter a really difficult few years. Being a teenager is bloody horrible. You can be the most well-adjusted child, from the most stable and loving home and still have days, weeks, months where you hate yourself. Not just hate your arms, your nose or your thighs but genuinely hate yourself.
So it was depressing, but not surprising, to read that young girls in Britain are increasingly unhappy. Research carried out by the Children’s Society found that 14% of 10 to 15-year-old girls are unhappy with their life as a whole and a third of them are unhappy with their appearance. Apparently the researchers who interviewed the girls heard them describe themselves as “ugly” and “worthless.” If I’m really honest, I was surprised that it wasn’t a higher percentage. To me the fact that 66% of the young people interviewed DIDN’T feel unhappy about their appearance is very encouraging. The worry is that the number of young girls who are unhappy has risen by 10% in the last 5 years (interestingly boys percentages haven’t budged.) Are teenage girls getting more unhappy? Isn’t being unhappy and hating your body almost par for the course in your teenage years? Isn’t teenage melancholy the reason entire genres of music were created and why people listened to the Smiths. Or is that just one of those horribly insensitive “didn’t worry about that in my day” comments? In a letter to his 16 year-old self Stephen Fry wrote:
“I am perhaps happier now than I have ever been and yet I cannot but recognise that I would trade all that I am to be you, the eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering and despairing 16-year-old Stephen: angry, angst-ridden and awkward but alive. Because you know how to feel, and knowing how to feel is more important than how you feel.”
I am not trying to dismiss mental health issues or play them down in any way I just don’t know anyone that at some point in their teenage years wasn’t filled with insecurities about their appearance. Obviously just because “that’s how it’s always been” is no reason to allow anything to continue and our hope is that quality of life would improve with each generation. I’ve only read two short articles on this piece of research. I’m currently on a train trundling through the Gobi desert and downloading articles on my phone is a bit like like trying to download music with dial-up internet. I’ve only managed to find articles sharing the percentages and suggesting we increase support for teen mental health – so far so good. What I haven’t found is any analysis as to WHY these girls are unhappier, particularly with their appearance, compared to girls in previous years. So I thought I’d do my own.
I think every generation believes that when they were younger “kids were allowed to be kids” for a lot longer – I’m not sure this is true. A 10-year-old living on London in the 1940s for example would have faced traumas that are incomprehensible to a 10 -year-old growing up in London today. Still each generation sees the world their children are growing up in as more cynical than their own childhoods. When my parents were 10 they could play out in the street until it was dark, front doors could be kept unlocked and everybody knew their name. Similarly, when I was 10 if I wanted to phone a friend I used the phone in the lounge, after 6 o’clock (and for no longer than 10 minutes because we’re not made of money.) I didn’t have my own mobile until I was 14 (Nokia 3210 – obvs) and there was no internet access at home until I 15. There was no WhatsApp or Facebook even MySpace was still an idea waiting to be developed
It was the 90s and the height of Britpop, arguably a time that was less image obsessed than the X-Factor world young people grow up in today. The women I saw on TV and in the newspapers were Denise Van Outen, Zoe Ball and Sarah Cox – smart, confident and funny women who were as comfortable at Glastonbury as they were on the sofa of the children’s programmes I loved. They wore baggy clothes, hung out with Oasis and drank lager; I thought they were cool as anything. Like most young girls in 1997 my idols were the Spice Girls. Say what you want about them but they were five normal looking girls without a fake tan or a size 0 between them (at least in the early days.) They had frizzy hair, mad clothes and were all proud to be different. When I compare them to the role models the current generation of children have from Cheryl Cole to any one of the Kardashians, perfectly groomed within an inch of their lives, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that these women are more damaging role models for young girls than the women I admired 20 years ago… right? Not quite.
In 1996 a magazine published a photograph of Emma Bunton and her mum walking along a beach in their swimming costumes. The headline read, “Which One Is The Spice Girl?” The implication being that Emma Bunton’s figure was indistinguishable from that of woman over double her age. I remember looking at the picture and admiring Emma’s lovely figure (thankfully I was completely unaware of the magazines attempt to body shame a 21-year-old) I thought to myself, “My legs look a bit like Emma Bunton’s” At 10 years-old I was proud – I looked like a Spice Girl! For the next couple of years I would look at photos of Emma and try and judge if I was still as thin as her. I’d replicate her poses and judge whether my thighs spread out more than hers when I crossed my legs or if I had more rolls of fat on my stomach when I sat down. I didn’t ever tell anyone about my Bunton Body Barometer and by the time I was 14 my obsession with the Spice Girls had been replaced by an obsession with Robbie Williams – and my thighs were definitely much narrower than his so that was fine.
The photographs I have from my early teenage years are generally awful. There were no GHDs so if you were blessed with unruly, frizzy hair then that is what you had. Limited income and a lack of affordable brands meant most of my make-up came from the bargain bin in Superdrug: orange eye shadow and foundation two shades too dark. It didn’t matter that we had shit hair, hand me down clothes or crap make up – it was what we didn’t have that made a difference. There was no, what my husband refers to as, “Personal PR” social media accounts to present our lives as glossier, happier and sexier than they really are. I read in an article that teenagers are guilty of “checking in” on Facebook to places they haven’t actually been in an attempt to make their lives seem more interesting. The 90s equivalent was just bullshitting about what you did at the weekend and, more often than not, you got called out on it.
We couldn’t edit photos to make them more attractive and we knew nothing about the hand on the hip/leg forward pose I now rely on to hide all manner of sins in photographs. We didn’t have to deal with Instagram: hundreds of thousands of images, carefully prepped and posed for, cropped and filtered to make everyone look thin, beautiful and blemish free. We didn’t have social media promoting “The A4 Waist Challenge” or “The Thigh Gap Challenge” – in fact the phrase “thigh gap” wasn’t in the shared lexicon of the time.
Adam Edwards in Year 9 may have fantasised about seeing pictures of us in our underwear (because that’s what teenage boys do) but he would have never have had the nerve to have the conversation to ask for one. Even if he had we would never have agreed mainly because it would have meant buying a disposable camera, waiting for our parents to be out, getting the bus to Boots, hoping the person that developed the film didn’t know our parents. Then finally, upon receiving the photos, we’d have had to have prayed there was at least one that was taken without our finger over the lens. Today all Adam Edwards has to do is send a text, Snapchat or WhatsApp to the phone that also has the camera on. He may even be chivalrous enough to send a picture of his genitals to get us in the mood. The pressure is huge.
I am not for a second suggesting that the current generation of teenagers are in anyway more naïve or foolish – in fact the opposite is probably the case. Teenagers have enough on their plates without women in their late twenties sticking the knife in from behind the the safety of a computer screen. There are plenty of teenagers who have a perfectly healthy relationship with social media. Those that are struggling need nothing other than our support and reassurance. After all, they are dealing with pressures and challenges that those before them never had to. Worse than that – a lot of those challenges are ones we did not know we had to prepare them for.
So what do we do? Social media continues to grow at an exponential rate; we can’t hold it back. Some might suggest that young people should spend less time on their phones but it would be astonishingly hypocritical for me to argue for that. We need to accept that social media and the challenges that come with it are here to stay and we need to educate. We need to teach that who they are is more important than how they look. That being smart, loyal and kind is as important as looking good in skinny jeans. It’s taken me 29 years to learn this lesson and I still have days where I fail completely, where I delete photographs taken from an angle that doesn’t flatter my thighs.
More than anything we need to be loud. The positive messages that these young people hear from us have to be so loud that we drown out the doubts put in their mind every time they log on.