Across the UK, young people are being overwhelmed by the constant pressures of perfection. Whether that be in education, socially, or with regards to their body, the young people of today are under more pressure than ever. But, what is a ‘perfect body’? Is it the posing glamour models in the tabloids, is it the celebrities on the ubiquitous perfume and fashion advertising campaigns, or can your average Peter or Jane possess the ‘perfect body’? Exposure to these kind of images has been proven to have serious and long lasting consequences for today’s youth, and unless we do something about it, the problem is only going to get worse. On Wednesday 15th November, the British Youth Council Youth Select Committee took a stand by launching our report, A Body Confident Future, with 22 urgent recommendations for our Government.
Body image isn’t just about the way we look, it is also about the way we perceive our place in society. It isn’t just about the size of one’s lips or muscles, nor is it solely restricted to one’s sexual attractiveness. Body image can also encompass how we view our gender, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our disabilities and our socio-economic background. The models on our screen or plastered across cable walls, whether we like it or not, are highlighted as having the ideal body in our culture, and if they are continuing to reinforce a body image that is not only unrealistic and homogeneous, but is frankly unhealthy, then we must intervene to disrupt this misrepresentation of society. We need greater diversity in the advertising campaigns which bombard us daily, whether it is through including models with a disability, of different ethnicities or models who don’t align with what popular culture tells us is the ‘right’ way to look. Without this intervention, we could leave a generation of young people humiliated by their own bodies.
It is not just on the television or billboards where our young people are exposed to the images of a ‘perfect body’. With the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram come new challenges that young people aren’t always sufficiently equipped to overcome. A lack of regulation has left social media platforms with the autonomy to set their own standards when it comes to the often oversexualised and psychologically pervasive content available for hours on end to even the youngest of users. However, then claiming that social media is the bane of all evil is a far from too simplistic an attitude to take when it comes to forming a narrative about body confidence. Social media may be part of the problem, but as so often is the case, it needs to be an integral part of the solution. This is why the Youth Select Committee report includes recommendations that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, working with the Government Equalities Office, engages with social media companies to impose industry-wide minimum provisions for the regulation and removal of content from their platforms.
But real, meaningful change cannot be accomplished through simply changing a few models in advertising campaigns and understanding social media better. We don’t expect our young people to know that ‘the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell’, so why is it assumed that they will automatically realise that appearance bears no relevance on our future or our hopes and dreams? If we are to tackle body image problems correctly, education must play a vital part in doing so. We must implement into every child’s education an awareness of body image issues, as well as the acceptance of those who are different to us. The Government’s pending decision to make PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) and RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) compulsory is welcome, and would undoubtedly go some way to improving student understanding of body confidence. Shockingly, neither of these essential lessons are mandatory in NI, where we often leave the teaching of these sensitive subjects at the discretion of poorly equipped teachers or we effectively omit them from the curriculum all together. Criticism, in particular, has been made of 'Love for Life', an independent Christian charity which provides, in many cases, the only relationship and sexual education received by over 70% of post primary pupils in NI. Many have argued that only teaching this attitude of sexual abstinence is not only irresponsible in its failure to place equal emphasis on the full spectrum of sincerely held viewpoints on the topic, but also illogical in a country where fewer and fewer young people are defining themselves as 'Christian', or indeed as being religious at all. However, tackling this problem cannot be left to the already over-saturated PSHE and RSE curricula alone. The Government must demonstrate that they are taking the issue of body image seriously by providing extra funding for schools to take a more integrated and wider approach to solving body image problems. This cannot be simply a re-allocation of existing funds, as the well-being of our young people should be of paramount importance.
Throughout the sitting of the Youth Select Committee over the past year, we have found that the issue of body image is one that is scarcely tackled across Whitehall. We expect this to change. By giving body image issues more prominence through ring-fencing funding and providing resources and support for specific groups we feel the Government can create real change for my generation and the young people of tomorrow. Unfortunately, the consequences of poor body confidence can manifest themselves in serious health problems, and a proactive and comprehensive approach by the health service is necessary in helping to prevent this. Improvements to government-funded CAHMS resources and support as well as better channels of communication to reach parents and pupils are central in the recommendations of the Youth Select Committee.
Changing the way young people see their own physical appearance is no mean feat, and it will take an entire society to change in order to create a generation that doesn’t value themselves on how they look in the mirror. The report by the Youth Select Committee is one small part in the battle to ensure that poor body confidence is recognised as a danger far greater than a trivial preoccupation of the superficial and the vain. As the lives we lead change, so too must the way in which we mitigate against the negative consequences of these new obstacles. Government must take the lead by ensuring that the all-encompassing potential of our youngest generation isn’t destroyed by shame and fear.
Thomas is Chair of the British Youth Council Youth Select Committee and is a co-founder of Challenges NI. You can follow him on Twitter @ThomasDCopeland.
N.B. None of the views expressed here are endorsed by Challenges NI.