Christine Jardine: Stop pressurising our children to be ‘perfect’

Kim Kardashian is one of the 'role models' confronting girls. Picture: AP
Kim Kardashian is one of the 'role models' confronting girls. Picture: AP
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ADVERTISING and magazine articles urging teenagers to achieve a certain ‘look’ are fraught with danger, writes Christine Jardine

There’s nothing quite like Christmas to bring home the pressures of being the parents of a teenage daughter and the subtle danger the festive season confronts them with.

By that, I don’t mean the annual party fest and temptation to sign up to our apparent national commitment to self-destruction by alcohol. No. That’s a well recognised phenomenon, and one we seem at least to be tackling. What I am worried about is a much subtler, less tangible, but equally dangerous challenge to our youngsters’ physical and mental wellbeing – especially our daughters’, and never more than over Christmas, and the post-New Year fall-out from it, when they are teenagers.

Just at the point when their bodies are changing, their hormones are running riot and they desire nothing more than to look right and fit in, they are presented everywhere with a fashion and make-up industry-created ideal of what they should aspire to.

In the run-up to Christmas, they faced a deluge of “must haves” to help them become the perfect reflection of that ideal. In the new year, another onslaught, this time with ways to undo the damage the festive season might have done to that perfect figure.

And it’s all about that word: perfect. The perfectly slim, perfectly presented, perfectly perfect image. It’s an uncompromising, often airbrushed, picture of what our daughters should aim for, and how they should see themselves.

And even though it’s a phenomenon I’ve spent years coping with – through dolls designed to encourage the all-American model look, pre-teen chick flicks with Hollywood’s favourite bad girl playing the super-cool, super-popular heroine, and endless CD-promoting pop princesses all looking, well, perfect – I came across a new example recently that stopped me in my tracks.

When my daughter came home from school and told me excitedly that some of her classmates had interviews for Saturday jobs with a major fashion chain I was impressed.

As the story progressed, I wasn’t. It seems they were shopping in a branch of this store, known for its “good-looking staff”, when they were approached, asked their age and invited along for an interview. What they then took part in actually sounds more like an X-Factor audition to find the right look and personality.

For the girls who were successful, there is probably no problem. But what about the ones who were not? What impact could that perceived rejection have on their self-image, and should we expect the retailers who depend on our children’s patronage to take more account of their wellbeing?

No doubt I’ll be accused of being some sort of grinch, fuddy-duddy or middle-aged spoilsport. I like to think I’m none of these. And the fears that examples such as that one provoke are based as much on evidence as instinct.

I know this generation is not the first to buy into the idea that the right make-up, clothes, hair and shoes are all vital to the real holy grail of Christmas: looking “cool”. I remember being convinced that my future street-cred depended on a now embarrassing collection of outfits that I set my heart on every Christmas and tormented my parents over. The hair-straighteners my teenage daughter coveted are not so different from the styling tongs I just had to have at her age.

And I accept that wanting to look like Kim Kardashian – or whoever might be the next big thing – is little different from the fashion tips I used to copy from Cindy Crawford or the Chrissie Hynde haircut I could hardly see through.

But what I don’t understand is why we don’t do more to protect this generation, even after we have seen the damage the pressure to conform to a perception of perfection can do through eating disorders, self harm and even the deaths of some vulnerable young people.

Earlier this year, a report by an all-party parliamentary group on body image, chaired by the now business minister Jo Swinson, MP, found more than half of the population was affected by a negative body image. Frighteningly, it found girls as young as five worried about their size and appearance. Then, in July of this year, a survey of more that 31,000 children across the UK found that half of 12- to 13-year-old girls would like to lose weight. The Campaign for Body Confidence, of which Ms Swinson is co-founder, points out that a main contributing factor in these figures is the message sent out to young girls that it’s how they look that is important, rather than what they are saying or doing. For some girls, that message becomes translated into the need to skip meals to lose weight, and evidence to Ms Swinson’s parliamentary committee showed extreme dieting could often be the trigger for eating disorders.

Now Ms Swinson, a Liberal Democrat, has written to magazine editors urging them not to feature “fad diets” at a time of year when they are traditionally prominent and pointing out they can have a negative impact on young people. She wants to see magazines promote body confidence rather than self-critical body talk and potentially unhealthy fast weight-loss schemes, such as “lose seven pound in seven days”.

For those of us with teenagers, that might also help us reduce our post- Christmas list of concerns. Personally, as a parent, I’ve been lucky, despite being as guilty as anyone of bowing to pressure to buy the right shoes, clothes, mobile phone, etc.

But even though I have a well-adjusted, healthy, sports-playing 16-year-old, there are still times when she says things that can provoke something akin to cold fear. A simple question such as: “Do you think I’ve put on weight?” or “Can you try to buy me some stuff to make up salads this week, Mum?” can spark hours of conversations and questions designed to subtly check there is not some sinister issue lurking somewhere in her self-conscious about her body image.

This year, I found myself taking more care than ever when talking about what to wear to parties or opening presents on Christmas Day to avoid even the smallest remark that could somehow be interpreted as a comment on weight, shape or general appearance. It shouldn’t have to be that way.