For teenagers social media is akin to a business transaction; self-esteem its currency. A few years ago I saw the status update of a twelve year old girl on Facebook. It read "Like for a line". Simple language for a simple concept: 'like' my status and I'll tell you what I think of you. The comments box quickly filled up with "I think you're really pretty and nice", "You're stunning and I wish I knew you better", "Gorgeous!! And so lovely!". Each compliment met with a "thank you" from the child who'd invested a 'like'. This vanity exercise is society in microcosm; one that values looks above everything else. We cannot blame these youngsters for being a product of their environment. We cannot blame them for the fact that social media now clings - burr-like - to daily interactions. We cannot blame them for believing their faces and bodies are hard earned achievements when women's looks are routinely rated - like carrots or parsnips, destined to either shine on the supermarket shelf or end up in the rejects bin.
A few weeks ago the Department of Education published research showing that the mental health of teenage girls in England is worsening. Around the same time The Children's Society released a study showing that almost three-quarters of a million girls are unhappy with their looks. A year ago Girlguiding UK conducted a survey which showed that almost half of British girls seek help for mental health problems. All of them cite social media, amongst other issues, as a source of great pressure and anxiety. Impressionable minds disintegrate when faced with the onslaught of manipulated "perfection" on apps such as Instagram, that much is clear. The question is what do we do now? Delete their apps? Take away their phones? They'd only need to watch a few television adverts, go to the movies, flick through a magazine or look up at a billboard to once again be swallowed - Pac-man like - by the fear of not matching up.
We can't sit around and wait for the advertising industry to grow a conscience and we certainly can't expect companies such as Instagram and Facebook to police people's posts. The responsibility lies with us. If there's a teenage girl in your life it's time to re-programme default settings and think a little bit harder about how to tackle the angst that may be consuming her thoughts. A 30 plus woman occupies a different physical, mental and spiritual space to a 13 year old girl. Grown women are being taught to celebrate body diversity; to view difference as a symbol of anarchy against homogenous beauty standards. But, young girls don't want to embrace that anti-establishment, I'm-a-strong-woman-I-do-me kind of attitude. Their #goals are firmly set within the boundaries their female keepers are being encouraged to break. So, let her indulge, fawn and idolise. There's nothing wrong with admiring someone's looks. But, present her with an alternative world view. Tell her about Alicia Keys' no make-up campaign and why she's doing it; explain the story of Reshma Bano Qureshi who was severely scarred in an acid attack and recently opened New York Fashion Week; show her how the online clothes store ASOS employ models of varied shapes and sizes and refuse to use photoshop. One day she may come to understand the cruel system that treasures a certain kind of look; she might peer in the mirror and see society's flaws instead of perceiving her own.
Complimenting a teen girl on her looks is important because body confidence is important because body confidence has been shattered by everything I've talked about above. Vicious circle much? Excuse my facetious tone, it masks genuine concern. May I direct your attention to all the figures and studies above? Something needs to change. Do we really only have time for "beautiful" these days? Are there no other words? Are we happy to perpetuate a deeply damaging value system in which looks take precedence over the content of someone's mind? Of course, there is more than enough room to tell a young girl she's pretty but wouldn't it be better to slot it in at the end of the conversation? Say something else first?
If a teenage girl lacks confidence in her appearance it can't be tackled by using the very thing that's causing the issue. You can't fix the psychological issues of a girl who doesn't think she's pretty enough by telling her she is pretty enough. The warped idea that beauty is everything is reaffirmed and her internal crisis deepens. You may fleetingly lift her spirits, but she'll log on to instagram again and get sucked back into a world where reality is filtered and tweaked. Instead try to mould and change her rules of engagement. If you can twist conversations away from looks, hair, clothes, body and focus instead on anything else, slowly but surely, she will start to realise that life doesn't revolve around whether the bridge of her nose slants "correctly", if her teeth sit "straight", if her boobs are the "right" size and her bum has the "necessary" curve.