A few years ago I was on the subway in Glasgow and spotted a young teenager on her way to school. She must have been about 14 but looked years older. Full face of make-up, hair straightened with extensions in, false eyelashes and perfect nails. This seems to be the norm but that was the first time I’d really thought about how much effort had gone in to getting ready for school.
A few months ago I overheard a conversation where a girl, aged 13, was planning her next eyebrow wax appointment. This seemingly simple task had been complicated with a swimming block at school PE. You can’t go in chlorine the day after a wax… but fear not, a solution was at hand. Her appointment would time perfectly with a party in three week’s time. She was getting her hair done so her mum was writing a note to excuse her from class. She wouldn’t be swimming the next day anyway. Problem solved.
How on Earth did this happen? Why at 13 years old is it more important to have your hair done than to learn to swim? When did this become acceptable to parents? I often think that there’s no way I would survive school now. Not with that kind of pressure to look good every morning. I barely started wearing make-up in secondary and didn’t have straighteners. As for hair extensions? They’re for weddings and Christmas party nights… no?
And then there are selfies. And not selfies as I think of them. Not “look where we are, aren’t you jealous” holiday snap selfies. Children, girls especially, at 10 years old (and younger) feeling the pressure to spend their time putting on make-up and taking pouting pictures of themselves in attempt to get as many social media likes as they can. Some are even so instasavvy that they know what time of day is best for posting said photos to get the biggest response.
The peer pressure is enormous. And it seems to be amplifying the feelings of self-hatred and low self-esteem in children and teenagers. From a very young age they are aware of body image and body shaming to a degree that none of us had to think about. The images we had on TV and in magazines were bad enough, they have the constant barrage of the internet and all the joys that social media brings with very little time to switch off and get away from it all.
Last month, I was given the opportunity to work with a family member who, at 12 years old, often feels the pressure to take selfies like the ones mentioned earlier. We were keen to show her a different way to see beauty and find the beauty within herself so we planned a shoot that involved her talents and strengths. She’s funny, intelligent, caring, thoughtful and her wonderfully curious mind means she asks a lot of great questions. She’s also a talented musician, playing both violin and piano and working towards her exams.
We had a great afternoon. She was asked to wear something simple and comfortable and to have her favourite items ready as props. Things that were important to her like her instruments, favourite books and childhood toy. We did some posed shots and some natural ones, candid captures of her enjoying her hobbies and interests. I showed her some images where the subjects weren’t trying to look beautiful but simply were beautiful because they were happy and doing the things they loved.
During the shoot we spoke a little about what she thought about the pressure and how it made her feel unsure of herself. About how she saw being different as both a good and a bad thing. About how she felt like boys were far more confident than any of the girls she knew.
It’s so important for us to think carefully about the messages and lessons we are teaching young people. Girls in particular struggle with self image and we often forget that by telling them they’re pretty and beautiful before telling them they’re clever or hard working or kind that we’re reinforcing the idea that the former are more important than the latter. Add to that things like the “thigh gap challenge” or the “bellybutton challenge” taking over social media, both designed to shame people in to starving themselves in attempt to be thinner and somehow more socially acceptable, and you’ve got a recipe for even more generations of girls who see their self-worth in what they look like instead of who they are. And it seems to be starting at a much younger age.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and as a photographer, I’m keenly aware of how people tend to look for their flaws and seek out what’s wrong with any photograph they are in. It’s never sat well with me. I’ve felt uncomfortable with the concept of dictating what is beautiful and being asked to pose people accordingly or edit out apparent imperfections. Of course, it’s my job to make people feel beautiful but instead of using makeovers and photoshop, I find myself looking for ways to make my clients feel more comfortable and happy so they would feel more confident with their natural shots.
And so the Real Girls, Real Beauty project has been born. It’s in an embryonic stage at the moment but I’m working with girls and women to help them see the real beauty in themselves and to celebrate it. Showing that a photograph which captures their loves, strengths and talents is more beautiful than any photograph purely based on poses and make-up. That we should encourage people, both women and men to have more confidence in who they are instead of purely what they look like.
Watch this space for more exciting updates as I meet and photograph the wonderful people involved in the project.