“Accept your body or go to the gym”. This is the comment that someone claiming to be a “fan” of Mariah Carey left under an Instagram picture she shared from a Paper magazine shoot. Various outlets have commented extensively on the fact that Carey’s body looks different in real life from the way it does in pictures, and in my opinion, the response has bordered on bullying. We don’t know whether the pictures were altered by an editor, or by Carey herself, but I think there is something strangely inspiring about the discrepancy – the difference shows how ridiculous and pernicious the gap is between the bodies women actually have, and the bodies society thinks they ought to have.
For Carey, a woman who has been in the public eye for nearly three decades, “accept your body” is not a useful instruction. So how can we expect young women to respond to it? A new study from GirlGuiding UK reveals that 35 per cent of girls aged between 11-21 say their biggest worry, when online, is comparing themselves with others. Only 12 per cent of girls surveyed said their parents were also concerned about this. To put it into perspective, comparison, and the obligation to showcase a "perfect life" online worries more young women than grooming, trolling and threats from strangers.
I think we all know there’s a serious, growing problem, but we haven’t worked out how to address it. Parents are offered tips about limiting screen time, closely monitoring their children’s social media use and telling their daughters to “ignore” hurtful comments. None of this advice addresses the fact that social media is a powerful tool, and trying to limit its presence in the life of a teenager is like trying to hold back the tide.
We tell young women to stop comparing themselves with others, but we don’t tell them how, or make them feel better by acknowledging that comparison is normal and natural. We don’t admit to our own nosiness, and tell these girls that we’re all curious about other people’s lives – and that if someone shares a picture of their bathroom shelf, it doesn’t matter if they’re the Head Girl or a Kardashian, we’re going to want to peek. We tell young women that wishing they had someone else’s hair or legs or holiday is bad and wrong, without acknowledging that we’re encouraging this toxic comparison culture from every “Who wore it best?” headline to “Legsit.”
We don’t tell young women that ultimately, having an online profile is about agency. While it’s easy to go online and find reasons to feel like you’re less than everyone else, it’s also possible to be empowered by it
Most importantly, we don’t tell young women that ultimately, having an online profile is about agency. While it’s easy to go online and find reasons to feel like you’re less than everyone else, it’s also possible to be empowered by it, and present the truest, happiest, most confident version of yourself to the world. Labour MP Karen Buck responded to the findings by talking about building a “culture of resilience in young people”. What if, instead of demonising the platforms that young people use the most, we looked at ways of repurposing those platforms in order to build resilience?
Much of the discussion centres around beauty standards and body image. There’s no doubt that these factors have a huge impact on the online lives of young women, and their self esteem. However, the study reveals the problem centres around the pressure to build a “perfect life”. Many of the images we see on social media suggest that it’s not enough to look a certain way, but that it’s important to be doing exciting activities while constantly surrounded by friends, in an impressive location. I think of Don Draper saying “Happiness is a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK” and how Instagram can feel like the very opposite – unless I’m on a pizza slice pool float, part of a pie of photogenic, aquatic pals, I can’t possibly be living my best life.
Numerous reports show that loneliness is increasing among teenagers and young adults. We assume that young women are obsessed with looking good, and that this is causing them the most unhappiness. Yet, the Girlguiding study points at a wider wellbeing problem. Social media isn’t making them feel good, yet the negative emotions don’t make them want to switch off. We urgently need to harness the power of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and talk to teenage girls about how we can help to turn them into positive mental health tools. After all, the mainstream media is full of spaces that tear women apart and focus on their flaws. I don’t think you can blame Instagram for propagating images of unattainable perfection without addressing the fact that so many outlets make it brutally clear that, for women, being less than perfect comes with painful consequences.
Throughout history, women have been denied the opportunity to be the authors of their own stories. For all of its faults, social media allows us to do that. Whatever you feel about Mariah Carey’s photo editing, she’s sharing the story that she’s chosen to tell about herself. Maybe that’s what we need to explain to our girls. Social media makes authors of us all, and gives us the space to share what we choose, on our own terms. It’s a place where we can be imaginative, expressive and inspired. Much of what we see there might not be "real". Yet if we’re constructing our own reality and being seen as we choose to be seen, we might start to realise that comparisons are redundant. Social media might exacerbate the pressure to be perfect, but perhaps we can use it to give young women the chance to define "perfect" on their own terms, and turn it into a tool that allows them to navigate a difficult world.