It’s no great secret that, during times of economic difficulty, society turns on itself.
Anthropologists have speculated that when our existence and comfort are threatened our instincts become both insular and partisan, in order to protect and ensure the furthering of our own genes. In real terms that means that when we’re stressed we begin to dislike anyone who isn’t exactly like us.
Historically, this has resulted in scapegoating on an epic scale, with one ethnic or cultural group being blamed for an entire country’s shortcomings. In Britain in 2013 ‘immigrants’ have become our fixation, resulting in endless headlines concerning alleged ‘benefit scrounging’ and a Tory-delighting red-herring for the masses.
Other social groups have also recently borne the brunt of our collective loathing. The ‘obese’ and the unemployed have both been torn to shreds by our tabloids, resulting in random insult-hurling and spectacular failures to comprehend political and economic complexities, particularly if what is written in our social media is an indication of anything.
Most upsetting, though, is the way we have managed to ostracise our youth. ‘teenagers’ are invariably tarred with an almighty and bigoted brush, branded ‘lazy’, ‘work shy’, ‘stupid’ and ‘troubled’. There’s a not inconsiderable demographic of adults who have developed a fear of the knife wielding, behooded stereotype they believe to be lurking on every street corner. The perceived gap between the generations has never been more cavernous.
Worse still, we belittle the achievements of the young. Record breaking exam results? Well, that must be because exams are getting easier. Rising youth unemployment? Let’s not even contemplate the notion that the government isn’t doing its job properly, but instead assume that today’s young people aren’t prepared to graft.
As teenagers receive a clear message from older Britons –‘We Don’t Like You’ – online marketers, advertisers and pornographers cash in, scooping up a disenfranchised generation in the dubious comfort of their cash-hungry arms. Multi million pound corporations prey on the vulnerable, promising them the sense of belonging and fulfilment they aren’t finding as part of our society.
Young people seek solace in the promised wealth, glamour, success and popularity they will find if only they are thinner, more tanned, more botoxed, less hairy and more hair-extension-ed. If only they are more buffed, more six-packed and clad in designer-labels. If only everyone fancied them, then they’d get the attention they craved. After all, what’s the point of working towards a qualification in a country where there’s little promise of a job at the end of it? The rewards are much greater if you’re beautiful and ridiculous enough to join the cast of TOWIE, or patient enough to join the queue of thousands outside the audition rooms of Britain’s Got Talent.
And this is the situation I deal with every day. Absent parents who, through no fault of their own, are forced to work crazy hours to make ends meet, overstressed teachers with classrooms stuffed to capacity whose tick-off ‘target’ sheets are the only thing which is used as an indication of their ability to actually teach, an omnipresent internet churning out more and more unrealistic images of perfection, every advert in a billboard, television programme, website and glossy magazine specifically designed to exacerbate an already blossoming insecurity in order to extort money that didn’t exist in the first place. We subject our children to abandonment, pressure to both perform and conform and the illusion that nothing they do will ever be good enough from a younger and younger age.
The upshot of all this? In any average British classroom three children aged 13-16 will be self-harming. One in ten UK young people will develop an eating disorder before they are 25. Alcohol and drug abuse, depression and body dysmorphia are at record levels amongst the under 30s. Suicide is the number one killer of young men aged 14-21 in this country.
I have one hour of the academic year to reverse this terrifying trend. And what we at Body Gossip and others like us are doing - It works. As a team effort with the heart-warmingly huge number of genuinely caring teachers and proactive parents we have in the UK, low self-esteem CAN and is being tackled.
So imagine my surprise when, after speaking about my job on BBC Breakfast at the weekend, amidst the barrage of overwhelming support, I read tweets which said that self-esteem classes are “nonsense” a “waste of time”, that they “distract from real academia” and that “teenagers have always looked up to film stars since the 1940s”.
To hold these views is firstly to have no understanding of the way modern culture has transformed common-or-garden teenage angst into something far more sinister, but also to underestimate the impact that this issue is having on academic performance. A study by Dove revealed that body insecurity is preventing up to 70% of students from raising their hand in class or venturing an opinion, 50% from taking part in physical education lessons and a smaller but still significant proportion from even turning up to school altogether.
If you are consumed with self-loathing, or expending all your energy willing a recalcitrant body you’ve been told you must shape to whims dictated by a beauty paradigm no one will ever reach to STOP being so pitifully inadequate, then the last thing on your mind is whether or not you’ll pass your maths GCSE. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs told us that in 1954, and yet for some reason we don’t remember that as clearly as we apparently remember how no one tried to emulate Marylin Monroe in the way that they do Nikki Minaj.
Having worked with almost 20,000 people aged 13 to 21 since 2007, I remain optimistic. I work in state and independent schools, colleges and universities throughout the UK and Ireland and have yet to meet a hopeless student. We are making a difference. Our Body Gossip students tell us they leave our lessons inspired and energised. It isn’t all doom and gloom. I know that our young people are bright, hilarious, talented and insightful. I also know they’re gorgeous, each in their own unique way and should be allowed to rock their very own brand of attractiveness and experiment with their look freely and without fear. I know because I have met them and I have talked to them. It’s a vantage point which allows me to ignore the headlines.