Dani Garavelli: A quarter of girls drowning in a sea of self-loathing

COUNSELLING and policing social media alone cannot rescue teenage girls from depression. We need to nurture a whole new mindset, writes Dani Garavelli
Too often the message girls receive on their smartphones is that they will be judged on their looks. Picture: Getty/iStockphotoToo often the message girls receive on their smartphones is that they will be judged on their looks. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto
Too often the message girls receive on their smartphones is that they will be judged on their looks. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto

Another week, another body-shaming controversy. This one came courtesy of South African Twitter troll Leyton Mokgerepi, who tweeted photos of two models in swimsuits – one thin, one plus-size – with the caption: Girls I Like v Girls Who Like Me (and no prizes for guessing which was which).

The backlash was swift and damning; hundreds of people replied with images of African plains and tundras and tumbleweed drifting across desert towns to indicate just how many women would fancy him now. And then – Lesego Legobane – the plus-size model whose image he had hijacked, took her own revenge, posting an image of herself and the words: “I don’t like you.”

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So Mokgerepi was burned; Legobane was applauded (and bagged herself a bit of publicity in the process), and no harm done. Except yes there was, because, backlash or no backlash, the message being sent out to young girls, always and forever, is: “You will be judged on your looks.”

Maybe it was ever thus; certainly, I remember crying as a teenager because I was a size 10 (and my friends insisted they were 8s), because my hair was frizzy and unmanageable (no ghds back then) and because the only make-up I possessed was glitter dust Sellotaped to the front of Blue Jeans magazine. But those moments of self-doubt were scudding clouds, easily dispersed by bopping round the house to the Kids from Fame, not serious and protracted periods of depression.

Today, teenage girls have it so much harder. Life for the Instagram generation appears to be a never-ending parade of pouting selfies, with judgment heaped upon those who fail to live up to, or choose to reject, conventional ideas of female beauty.

Living life online means instant comparisons – Am I as pretty/fashionable/popular as she is? – and a constant craving for approval in the form of likes. Everyone projects an idealised image, with photographs cropped and filtered to create a false reality, and those who fall short edited out of the narrative at the tap of a finger.

From the earliest age, girls are bombarded with propaganda that tells them to smile, wear pretty shoes, play with Barbies and choose arts over science. A recent poll conducted by the Girl Guides found more than half of those aged seven to 21 felt hemmed in by gender stereotyping.

Meanwhile, there is little hope of things improving as they move into adulthood. Last week, Nicola Sturgeon talked of double standards that meant behaviour celebrated in men was deemed inappropriate in women. “The way you are judged is very, very different to the way a man is judged and that can often lead to bias, unconscious or otherwise, of women in the workplace and what they are capable of,” she said.

We know all this; headlines heralding a crisis in adolescent mental health have been doing the rounds for a couple of years. Yet last week’s news that a government-funded study had found almost 25 per cent of 14-year-old girls were clinically depressed (compared to just 9 per cent of boys) still came as a shock.

The results were based on the number answering “yes” or “sometimes” to a series of questions, including whether, in the past fortnight, they had: cried a lot, hated themselves, felt lonely or miserable, or thought they could never be as good as other kids. Imagine that,: a quarter of girls drowning in a sea of self-loathing.

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The pressures they identified as impinging on their happiness included stress at school, body image issues, bullying and the worry created by social media. And the scariest thing is, our mental health services are woefully ill- equipped to support them.

Earlier this year, it emerged 3,666 children had waited longer than the Scottish Government’s target of 18 weeks for treatment, while thousands more had their request for specialist help rejected.

In many parts of the country, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) appear to be buckling under the weight of referrals and there is an inconsistency in the provision of school-based counsellors who could catch problems such as depression, self-harm and eating disorders early.

At the last count, 14 local authorities had no on-site school counsellors, while several more had them in some schools but not others. Overall, on-site services were present in only 40 per cent of Scottish secondary schools – despite the fact that the benefits of school counsellors were recognised in the Scottish Government’s new mental health strategy.

Some working within CAMHS have spoken of unsustainable workloads and a shortage of qualified staff, while others have questioned the wisdom of targets which incentivise staff to move patients through the system as quickly as possible (only for them to return later on with more entrenched problems).

Clearly, aspects of the service need to be improved; in Wales school-based counselling is enshrined in law and 86 per cent do not need to be referred to CAMHS after five school sessions. The Scottish Government is currently reviewing the service, but there is no timetable or commitment to universal access.

On the other hand, throwing money into a black hole to meet never-ending demand is neither sustainable nor helpful to those girls (and boys) who are struggling to cope. Far better in the long run to fight the problem at its source. That means tackling gender stereotypes. It means calling out shops that market shoes for girls as “Dolly Babe” and shoes for boys as “Leader”, cracking down on trolls who body-shame and abuse girls prepared to raise their heads above the parapet and providing mentors to foster self- confidence.

With social media now a cultural fixture, we need to find ways to build resilience, so girls can navigate their way through the minefield of Snapchat and Instagram without losing their sense of self-worth.

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While our mental health services ought to be fit for purpose, the end-game should be the creation of a society where teenage girls are comfortable in their own skin; not forever striving to live up to a spurious sense of perfection.