LibLink… Jo Swinson: Our children shouldn’t grow up thinking looks are the most important thing in life

I remember the genuine distress suffered by a teenage friend of ours. Her hair straighteners had broken and we don’t possess such implements. She was actually frightened and anxious at the thought of leaving the house and being seen by her peers with unstraightened, but perfectly tidy, hair. I had to source another set of straighteners before I could get her to school.

That, sadly, is the tip of the iceberg. The pressure on particularly girls to conform to a very narrow standard of beauty, dictated by the likes of Heat magazine and the pornography industry, is excruciating and can lead to eating disorders, depression and anxiety. It was bad enough when I was growing up. I was never going to meet these standards and I felt completely excluded. It only added to the nightmare of my teenage years.

The thing is, really, when it comes down to it, looks don’t matter. When was the world ever saved by depilation and cosmetic surgery? Following fashion should be about being who you are and who you want to be, not conformity. Surely that’s something every liberal can agree on?

Jo Swinson has returned to the theme she started earlier this year – that we need to emphasise to our children that beauty is not the most important thing in life – over at the Huffington Post.

She outlines the problem:

Parents can despair when they hear their seven-year old daughter complaining about feeling fat, or see their teenager struggle with insecurity about her looks. Young girls in particular are constantly bombarded with unrealistic images of beauty – images they can never live up to. This can affect their confidence and self-esteem. There is nothing wrong with appreciating beauty – but our children shouldn’t grow up thinking that’s the most important thing in life.

The images of beauty we see in the media are all pretty much the same – it’s as if there’s only one way of being beautiful. I’d like to see a much broader mix of people in magazines and on TV, to help young people of every size, body shape and skin tone feel that there is a place for them.

She had praise for Beyonce, who had asked for recent pictures not to be retouched:

Bizarrely, beautiful models and celebrities are somehow deemed not quite gorgeous enough and are subject to extreme airbrushing. So three cheers for Beyonce, who asked H&M not to retouch the pictures of her in their latest swimwear campaign, and the others who have taken a stand against this futile practice. Excessively retouched adverts mislead consumers. In 2009 the Advertising Standards Authority banned adverts for an anti-wrinkle cream showing an image of Twiggy with her wrinkles airbrushed away.

And she took a swipe at Page 3, too:

 I was pleased to hear that The Sun‘s new editor, David Dinsmore, has asked a group of female executives to “reinvent” Page 3 to make it more relevant to the 21st Century. About time too. I do hope it results in a step in the right direction, though it would be an even stronger message if they realised that the whole concept of semi-naked women being paraded for men’s titillation was stuck in the past.

Challenging these artificial perceptions of what constitutes beauty is the key:

And we need to do more to improve young peoples’ resilience to the images they are subjected to in the media. We need more role models for them to look up to and inspire them to achieve and to challenge their perception of what the world should look like.

You can read the whole post here and have a look at the tools the Government has developed to help us all challenge those perceptions at the Mediasmart site.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Hard to improve on what was posted in the comments by a user on Huffington Post

    “The problem is one of values: not the values of advertising executives, retailers or media moguls, who have imperatives that have nothing to do with social good, but those of the shallow people who actually raise children, i.e., us!

    Politicians have their own imperatives, the main one being not to tell people what they don’t want to hear. Like all the other individuals trying to sell us stuff, their business is to soft-soap the public and offer enticing solutions far beyond their scope to deliver. They offer what they have to sell, convincing us it will fit the purpose whether it will or won’t.

    Kids gets their values and understanding of the world and themselves from the adults in their lives. They are a mirror, but stripped of the hypocrisy. Jo Swinson is not going to tell the public, “If there is a problem with your kids, there is likely a problem with you”. That would be too much truth for most people. Instead, she exempts us from personal responsibility and encourages our already well-developed tendency to look for someone else to blame. Of course she does! When something is going wrong, the first impulse of the cowardly is to deflect attention away from themselves, and Jo Swinson is happy to assist us in this act of self-deception. She is the problem, not the solution.”

  • Geoffrey Payne 1st Aug '13 - 12:36pm

    I agree, although in the case of Beyonce she often looks flawless anyway and no doubt the make up helps as well. I am confused as to why Marilyn Monroe is considered to be a feminist icon. Her fame is almost entirely due to her beauty, I am not sure what that has to do with feminism. And whilst women are more on the receiving end when it comes to looks, it can also be a problem for men was well. So I agree with the article, I just have a few questions.

  • “The pressure on particularly girls to conform to a very narrow standard of beauty, dictated by the likes of Heat magazine and the pornography industry”

    Pressure to conform to particular fashion tastes has been widespread for much longer than Heat magazine and the modern porn industry. It’s a bit like blaming gun violence on video games and television. In fact, the porn industry is a terrible example to make your particular argument because it employs a wide and diverse spectrum of women of all shapes and sizes in order to cater to its customers’ tastes.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Aug '13 - 11:04pm

    I agree that while this sort of thing existed years ago, from many accounts I have heard it seems to have got much worse in recent years.

    I wonder if it is down to the strong emphasis on dog-eat-dog competition, which we are now told we must all engage in. We are constantly told we must compete against others, that this sort of competition makes things better, that we should strive to be entrepreneurs who stamp over others to get to the top. We are told the way to improve services is that everyone should be in fear of being a loser, that we must thrust ourselves forwards in market competition.

    It seems to me that this sort of attitude rubs off on the young in the crudest way, they are echoing the sort of dog-eat-dog competition they see so extolled by their elders by being personally competitive amongst themselves, feeling they must show strong hyper-sexual personalities, with the insecure in the middle bullying those at the bottom in order to maintain their ranking.

  • Stuart Mitchell 4th Aug '13 - 11:43am

    Actually Marilyn Monroe was an extremely skilful comic actress, so I think your comments unwittingly reveal a problem with your own attitudes. Would you make similar comments about a talented male actor who also happened to be considered good looking – Brad Pitt, say?

    Even if a woman does make a good living entirely from her looks – so what? Plenty of men do the same and are not criticised for it, yet apparently women should not be able to. This kind of campaign, far from being feminist, is actually anti-feminist, because it’s judging women in a way that men are not judged at all. If a man wants to be a model – no problem. If a woman wants to be a model – criticise her for making money from her looks, and try to burden her with the guilt of things like eating disorders. Men can do what they want, women can’t – that’s the overriding message, and it sure ain’t a feminist one.

    Most girls love fashion and beauty. What possible purpose could be served by trying to make them feel bad about it? Don’t girls have enough to worry about already without trying to make them feel guilty about something which, for most of them, is simply harmless fun? There is nothing wrong with celebrating beauty, and doing so does not amount to telling girls that “looks are the most important thing in life”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Aug '13 - 10:43pm

    Stuart Mitchell

    Most girls love fashion and beauty. What possible purpose could be served by trying to make them feel bad about it? Don’t girls have enough to worry about already without trying to make them feel guilty about something which, for most of them, is simply harmless fun?

    The problem is when it stops being simple harmless fun and instead becomes a source of fear and anxiety, which was the case in the example given.

    It does seem to me to be remarkable that having thrown away so much of the old restrictions on freedom, stemming from traditional culture and old-style religion, our young people seem to have bound themselves in ever tighter restrictions of their own devising. There is a valid point to question the extent to which this has been caused by big money pushing a narrow view on how life could and should be through the entertainment media it has dominance over. The person Richard S quotes tries to blame it all on parents, but unless parents cut their children off from the rest of the world, it’s hard for them not to get caught up in seeing the world as the entertainment media pushes it, and as other kids whose parents are less fastidious about giving their kids an alternative pass it on.

  • Stuart Mitchell 5th Aug '13 - 7:56pm

    I think that the fashion and beauty industry is completely harmless compared to some of the more typically male-dominated interests (e.g. violent video games, fast cars, and even football), which makes me feel that some of the demonization of the industry that goes on is bordering on misogyny. As a society, we don’t seem much interested in giving young lads who are into cars a guilt complex about their hobby, even though the road casualty figures are there in black and white for all to see; but girls who enjoy looking at pictures of fashion models are being made to feel that they are participating in something that is harmful to society.

    There is no logic in this, and there is certainly no logic in any of the mixed messages that come from the body confidence lobby.

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