Mrs Emma Lowry, Head of England House
“We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” (Williamson, 1992)
The last day of a school term is always filled with anticipation. This year, Year 11 students are particularly excited, as the last day coincides with the Combined Brisbane Grammar School and Brisbane Girls Grammar School Charity Social. There is a tangible buzz at this opportunity to socialise with the boys, to wear semi-formal dresses, and to don high heels and makeup. “I’m excited about wearing pretty new clothes and feeling special” said one student. It is an enjoyable night, on which girls readily compliment each another and they feel good about themselves.
The Social is a significant milestone for Year 11; the perfect opportunity to feel confident and special. Such feelings however, are far from universal amongst the girls, and may in some cases run only as deep as the makeup they wear. The compliments too, whilst lavishly exchanged on the evening, may not be as generously offered to each other on a daily basis.
Angst about body image and self confidence is not limited to female adolescents, but the focus of this article is. Last year, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) surveyed seventy-six young people from three independent Brisbane schools to gather information to help improve sexual health education (Watson & McKee, 2012). Students were asked about different topics, including ‘Feeling good about yourself, whatever people say’. The preliminary findings indicated that young people receive contradictory messages about self-esteem. Among these is the media’s simultaneous sexualisation of girls on the one hand, and platitudes about accepting who they are and being proud of what they look like, on the other. Findings also indicated that parents tell their children to be themselves, but by their actions then refuse to let them. Parents may make judgment and even joke about their children’s appearance. Schools too, tell students to be themselves, but then reprimand them for lack of self-respect if sexuality is demonstrated. If this is not perplexing enough for young people, their friends are often the key source of criticism and judgment (Watson et al, 2012). Girls may obsess over their own bodies, worry overly about what others think of them, and then project these anxieties onto others as criticism.
Mission Australia also conducts surveys every year, in which young Australians are asked their views on a variety of topics, such as what they value, their issues of concern and who provides the best source of advice and support. Each year respondents are asked to rank their top three issues and in 2011 the results showed that body image, coping with stress and school or study problems were causing the most distress. Body image was clearly number one for females, and has been ranked highly since 2006. Unfortunately the level of concern does not abate with age, but instead grows stronger (Mission Australia, 2011).
I used the Mission Australia surveys as a basis to ask some of our own Year 11 students what currently worries them and why. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their comments mirrored the results of the survey, and—with no prior knowledge of what the research indicated—they nominated body image, coping with stress and school or study problems as their major concerns (personal communication, May 21, 2012).
Those who are privy to female teenage conversation would be well aware that discussions of diet and eating habits are the norm: “I can’t eat that, I’ll get fat”; “I can’t eat bread, it will make me bloated”; “I can’t eat chocolate, I’m on a diet” may all sound familiar. Among the students I spoke to, there was confusion as to why diets dominate conversation, when in actual fact so many girls don’t need to lose weight at all. Girls suggested that it could be attention-seeking behaviour from girls looking for reassurance, but also because there is a need to feel accepted in the group, and that it’s a case of, in one student’s words: “I don’t care so much about what I myself look like, but I care what others think of me,” (personal communication, May 21, 2012).
This sentiment echoes the work of Michael Carr-Gregg (2006), who argues that teenage girls are very concerned about what others think and, in particular, what their peers think. Gaining and retaining social acceptance is of great importance, and when friends commonly judge each other, or even when they are ‘jokingly’ mean, a girl’s self-esteem and body image can be greatly affected. The QUT survey (Watson et al, 2012) also indicated that at this age, friendships can in fact be more destructive than supportive.
Why are teenagers and even close friends so judgmental? The students I spoke to were not able to pinpoint a reason. They understand the positive messages they receive at times from the media and more consistently from the School in the Ethics programme and Health Studies classes. They understand the need to be self-confident and to be themselves, and they realise the value of friendships and empathy. Yet they are not sure why there is a tendency to be critical of each other’s physical appearance.
There could be many reasons. Teenagers have excessive expectations of themselves and they can be their own harshest critics. Perhaps they are caught up in the notion of fear in regard to what others think of them. It may well be that they lack the experience and life skill to think more stoically. The Women’s Forum Australia (Ewing, 2007 p35) discussed the notion of women (and girls) across the globe displaying a jealousy toward each other, arising from a failure to recognise the true value and humanity of each person as an individual. This includes failing to recognise such values in ourselves.
In class we talk about self-esteem and body-image to students through the Ethics programme at each year level and through Health Studies classes. In everyday life in and outside the School, students are exposed to media—when it is behaving responsibly—promoting positive body image, yet they reject many of these messages as ‘corny’ or ‘clichéd’ and ‘not relevant’ to ‘real life’ (Watson et al, 2012). Have we lost the truth in the idiom that beauty is only skin deep? What can we do to help our girls have a better self image? We can tackle the bigger picture and teach them how to contribute to life confidently. We can encourage our girls not to have excessive expectations in all facets of their lives and not to be so self-judgmental about their looks, grades, music, or sporting prowess. Ultimately, though, the problem will not go away unless we can model for them how to recognise the true value in ourselves, and in others. This necessarily involves the courage not to be fearful of what other people think; the empathy to be judicious and ethical in engagement with others, and the openness to embrace challenges and develop experience and wisdom.
As for the Charity Social on Friday night, I hope all the girls feel confident in knowing that they will be radiantly beautiful, no matter their dress, their heels or their hair and makeup. The Social is a wonderful experience, but remember, “the dress has to fit you…you don’t have to fit the dress!” (K Cooke, 2007 p123)
Mrs E Lowry
Carr-Gregg, M. (2006). The Princess Bitchface Syndrome: Surviving adolescent girls. Camberwell, Vic: Penguin Group
Cooke, K. (2007). Girl Stuff: Your full-on guide to the teen years. Camberwell, Vic: Penguin Group
Ewing, S. (2007). Women vs Women. Faking It. Canberra: Women’s Forum Australia
Mission Australia (2011). National Survey of Young Australians 2011. Key and Emerging Issues. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from http://www.missionaustralia.com.au/downloads/national-survey-of-young-australians/2011
Watson, A.F., McKee, A. (2012). NIRAP Improved surveillance, treatment and control of chlamydial infections, Research Program 5: Education – Developing improved sexual health education strategies. Interim overview of findings: sources of sexuality information. Brisbane: QUT
Williamson, M. (1992). A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of ‘A Course in Miracles’ New York: HarperCollins Publishers