There is legislation, guidelines and codes of practice we can work towards to tackle blatant gender discrimination.
In my work – namely the field of economic and social integration and equality – I meet women from all walks of life, from those who are socially excluded right through to women who are CEOs of FTSE 100 companies.
But there’s one issue that is a stealth bomb under all women’s feet. One that can’t always be guarded against.
It’s an issue few of us escape. It’s an issue we internalise, and even judge others by, even when we think we’re kind, caring, and thoughtful. We are all vulnerable to it, whatever age, ethnicity or economic background.
I’m talking about looks.
How girls and women look impacts on almost all of the female population in this country. And, in 2017, thanks to social media, I believe it’s an issue that threatens equality, opportunity, happiness and hope.
I’m not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I don’t want to reduce who I am to 140 characters. I choose to invest in the real world and real friends. I don’t feel the need to be validated online.
A few months ago, researchers warned of ‘unhealthy behaviours’ around selfies, with more than 1.2 billion self-portraits snapped each year on smartphones. They noted being obsessed with taking selfies is a sign our personal lives and psychological well-being are damaged, and could lead to impaired relationships.
I’m not evangelical about it – I can see the value of online communities too, the connections made. I don’t shoot the messenger. It’s not social media’s fault per sae, but it has become a multiplying, all-consuming, frenzied world where image, and how we present ourselves on these public platforms can get ugly.
NHS Digital reported soaring numbers of young women are suffering mental health problems and self-harm as selfie culture increases pressure on them. This major NHS report stated a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds suffer anxiety and depression, with young women three times as likely as men to report such symptoms. Young women were flagged ‘high risk’ in a culture built on social media.
Body image, peer bullying, and insecurities – many reported their lives simple didn’t compete with those images of others on social media.
Beauty as a value, a virtue, a currency, is as old as Eve.
In childhood, beautiful princesses are rescued in fairy tales, and so it goes…the narrative pervades. In celebrity magazines, we gawk and judge a film star’s cellulite, botched lip fillers, brazen boob job or yo-yo weight. The schadenfreude! They could be speaking at a UN event on women’s rights, or winning awards for their acting skills, or caring for ill relatives – any number of things – but what sells? Oh, and the cosmetic industry is valued at a whopping £17bn to the UK economy.
The Kim Kardashian effect means you can be famous just for taking selfies. You can reduce yourself to a brand. You can edit reality. Filters! And our culture is such that you can be more financially rewarded for it than by becoming a nurse, doctor, teacher, scientist or brain surgeon.
This isn’t superficial, or skin deep. The NHS report also showed a steep increase in the number of adults who had contemplated suicide. I’ve seen articles in the news on selfies that end with the number for the Samaritans.
My 13-year-old niece will know of no other way of being before social media.
One of the most revolutionary things women can do on International Women’s Day, is reclaim real beauty. We need to internalise new ways of valuing ourselves.
Take pride in how you look, as our grandmothers did – own your looks. Don’t be a victim of them.
We need to teach girls to be their authentic selves, to value their skills and talents, to know confidence is power. That real confidence doesn’t come from fake looks, selfies, or peer pressure. And that confidence in yourself, not idealised images of how you think you should be, leads to happiness; a life well-lived, with courage and grace. Confidence can, and does, knock down walls. No filters.
Adeeba Malik CBE is Deputy CEO of Bradford-based QED Foundation which is working to improve the social and economic position of disadvantaged communities.