In todayâ€™s Daily Mail, Janet Street-Porter has written a great article outlining her â€˜manifesto for young womenâ€™, which ends by saying that young women need to believe in themselves. She has some excellent advice, including â€˜work like hell at schoolâ€™, â€˜hold your head highâ€™, â€˜set your goalsâ€™, â€˜swap telly trash and internet twaddle for books, exhibitions and live eventsâ€™. And she reminds us of the evidence from a recent survey that young people today have similar values to those of their parents, valuing marriage and children above wealth and possessions. This is all tremendously encouraging, and I agree with her â€“ our young people are full of natural good sense and have immense potential to lead good lives and to make a hugely positive impact on the world.
I do wish, though, that she wouldnâ€™t dismiss so readily the pervasive influence of the two aspects of modern society about which I have spoken out this week â€“ our focus on a celebrity culture, and the prevalence of sexualised images which effectively objectify women. These aspects form, overwhelmingly, the backdrop to the lives of young people; they linger at every corner, on practically every magazine cover, and young people are bombarded by them online. Celebrities make the news, and images of semi-naked women, posing provocatively, have become so commonplace that we take them completely for granted. They have entered the mainstream, and we are surprised â€“ and not a little put out and critical â€“ when women in the public eye do not conform. (Witness the furore when Hillary Clinton, on a recent visit to Bangladesh, led meetings without make-up, and with her hair simply scraped back.)
The effect of this backdrop is pernicious, and mitigates against the very messages that Miss Street-Porter is communicating. She is quite right â€“ young people do need to believe in themselves now more than ever. But this is hard to do when you are being asked to measure yourself constantly – consciously and subconsciously – against images of female â€˜perfectionâ€™. Jo Swinsonâ€™s Parliamentary Report on Body Confidence, published at the end of May, and which regrettably did not achieve nearly as much media coverage as my comments last week on that one symbolic photo of Kim Kardashian on the front of Zoo magazine, revealed that half of the public suffer from negative body image. The Report pointed out that girls as young as five now worry about their size and appearance, half of girls and one quarter of boys believe their peers have body image problems, and appearance is the largest cause of bullying in schools. It reported that media (43.5%), advertising (16.8%) and celebrity culture (12.5%) together account for almost three quarters of the influence on body image in society, yet the â€˜ideal bodyâ€™ that they typically present is estimated to not be physically achievable by nearly 95% of the population.
It is commonsense that girls â€“ and boys â€“ who worry about their body image, who feel inadequate, and who lack self-confidence as a result, are not in a position to believe in themselves as they could be. They have a major psychological hurdle to overcome, and this is a hurdle which as a society we are not tackling sufficiently strongly, despite the clear and unequivocal messages of last yearâ€™s Bailey Report and a growing unease amongst parents and educators about the effect of our laissez-faire approach to the images that our young people encounter. People in the public eye â€“ â€˜celebritiesâ€™ of every ilk â€“ have a responsibility to make sure that they are helping young people become truly themselves, and it is not good enough simply to point to their admirable financial astuteness to excuse the overall effect of their actions.
We have an opportunity to do something about the oppressive weight of this culture on our young people. We all need to step up to the mark.