Beauty and the beast

At Razor Kids, we regularly explore emerging trends, behaviours and attitudes. Recently we turned our attention towards self-image amongst girls aged 8-14 years. For the first time, we heard them starting to voice resentment towards the unattainable benchmarks (driven mainly by social media and selfie culture) on how they should look and present themselves.

As young girls become more active consumers of media – particularly on YouTube and Instagram – they’re increasingly exposed to unrealistic expectations of self-imagery. This is creating a generation that views everything in ‘real’ life as ugly – including themselves.

Whilst there’s now substantial evidence to show that too much social media can lead to poor mental health, it seems that the government and DCMS are powerless to create a regulated system to protect the young and vulnerable. It’s time to act.

If you listen to girls talk about what it’s like growing up in 2018, it sounds like a positive story on the surface. They have greater aspirations and opportunities for their careers, along with an array of positive female role models to emulate. Many cite their mums as someone they aspire to be like.

So, why do young girls still suffer with low self-esteem and poor body image? We believe it’s rooted in how they’re being exposed to unrealistic ideals on how they should look and act and in the current media environment. The ‘beauty gap’ is prolific and harmful.

‘Because people use filters and Photoshop over their pictures, it makes me think my own image isn’t good enough to please society.’
Age 12 (year 7), Brighton

Children’s media independence – and access to adult content – is accelerating them into adult worlds and norms. Previous studies we’ve worked on revealed that kids tend to get their own social media accounts as soon as they have a smartphone. This happens by year 6 for most kids in the UK, but it can also be from a younger age.

Where traditional media was once censored by responsible guardians, the present-day ownership of personal devices means very little safeguarding. In fact, when we chat to kids about this, they are acutely aware of their loss of childhood and feel slightly sad that they aren’t truly able to enjoy what they know is supposed to be a ‘special’ and carefree period in their life.

‘It’s difficult being told so many things and still not knowing who you are.
I sometimes want to be a baby again and not have to care about any of it.’

Age 13 (year 8), London

Transitioning into a teenager always comes with angst, self-doubt, and a need for peer acceptance – but this has been exacerbated for teens who are active on social media, sharing and living their lives under public scrutiny. They feel compelled to post selfies that will increase their ‘likes’, take photos to keep their ‘streaks’ up, and tell the world what they are up to and how they are feeling. Given their tender age, it isn’t surprising that they don’t all have the emotional resilience to cope with being judged so openly and harshly.

Our study found that regardless of location/family set-up/age, as soon as girls become active on social media (especially Instagram) they tend to experience feelings of insecurity and ugliness. When scrolling through posts from peers, vloggers and celebrities, they feel pressurised to be as good at everything. This relates to the way they look and dress – as well as needing to showcase cues that suggest their talent and popularity.

‘I do feel like I pressure myself. If I see someone who looks really pretty in all their photos, I look at my photos and think, why do I not look like that?’. Why am I not as pretty?’
Age 11 (year 6), Crewe

The current rhetoric preached at schools focuses on inclusion and diversity. When it comes to beauty definitions, we heard that tweens and teens have a greater regard for intrinsic values, compared to external looks and traditional norms around beauty. But media content, advertising imagery and brand messaging is out of kilter, still presenting the world with a very narrowly defined view of what is regarded as socially acceptable with idealised norms.

‘In adverts it’s always the tall, skinny and pretty people being shown. They aren’t exactly showing equality. People speak about diversity but then don’t act on it.’
Age 14 (year 9), Scunthorpe

Today’s media platforms should be used as a tool to celebrate diversity around self-image. Instead, they re-affirm a confined perspective of what is aspirational. Teens mimic beauty imagery with selfies and poses and apply ‘pretty’ filters to enhance their looks. As app technology innovates, the benchmark for how one presents themselves in public rises substantially. Sadly, girls talk about feeling ugly when they are looking at themselves in the real world. Quite worrying when you think about their identities being formed at this crucial time in their lives. We see a schizophrenic split emerge of real versus virtual identities that they are struggling to work out. It’s social media that forces them to focus on their public self, rather than their private world where they can feel comfortable and safe.

‘The way that the media describes fitting in is that you have to be ‘pretty’. You have to have the right clothes, the right body and the right face. I can definitely say that I’ve felt insecure about myself from pictures I’ve seen all over Instagram and other social media sites.’
Age 14 (year 10), London 

Some of the 12-14 year-olds we spoke to are angry. They criticise brands and posts for not presenting beauty authentically. They are confused about who are models, who are their peers, and whether the beauty they see is real or has been manipulated. The benchmarks on how they should present themselves are being pushed to unattainable limits. They lament that social media relentlessly feeds them imagery that all looks the same.

‘I think there is pressure on how I look. I think this comes from social media and magazines where models are all perfect but fake looking. They make me feel that this is how society thinks people should look and how I should look.’
Age 12 (year 7)

Currently, the icons they look up to are respected for their inner qualities, such as their positivity or supporting causes that they affiliate with. When they talk about beauty, they choose people who are brave (such as Nikki Lilly), or bold and unique (ike transgender vloggers James Charles and Patrick Starr). However, we wonder how long it will be before they drop them and move towards more ‘conventional’ models of beauty?

As sub-cultures become homogenised, it is having a devastating impact on the girls who don’t feel like they fit in. The result is a generation of girls who feel squeezed and marginalized in how they want to express themselves or develop their identity. Whilst various beauty and personal care brands have begun to challenge the status quo, the message isn’t filtering down to tweens and teens.

We have a responsibility to protect our future generation of women. For the first time, we are hearing from them that they don’t like the impact of social media and the way it creates insecurities around acceptance and belonging (a fundamental human need). This cannot be ignored. We are living in a social experiment where it’s hard to predict the future – but early signs of the impact on social media are alarming. It’s time to regulate social media and become more stringent in what children have access to.

Our full report – The Beauty Project – is now available to share.

Contact Lesley Salem, head of Razor Kids, for further details.