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Children today are subject to a huge deluge of confusing, contradictory messages, many of which are not remotely positive or progressive.
I’ve been in a few discussions recently where the assumption seems to be that the move towards gender equality is going to increase because young people are all about equality. While I know a fair few teenagers who are definitely keen to challenge gender norms, I am not sure it is so straightforward. From what I can see young people are subject to all manner of competing, often contradictory messages and ideas and many of them are not in the slightest bit progressive. This may lead them to rebel against the more negative ones, of course, but what it definitely does do is leave them confused and, in many cases, miserable.
Take girls. On the one hand we tell them about girl power, that girls can do anything, that girls should stand up against sexism and everything related to it, which is great. On the other hand, they are prey to a massive consumer wave which has pushed pink froth at them since birth and which quickly merges into an absolute deluge of cosmetics and a vast array of products aimed at making them look ‘perfect’.
While make-up is increasingly pushed at primary age kids, it is at secondary school that they almost overnight are inundated with messages about how they look, picking apart everything they are just at the time that they are trying to find out who that might be. “Every part of my body is being judged,” said daughter three when she was in year eight. She spends most of her time listening to ‘beauty influencers’ and looking in the mirror, terrified to leave the house without make-up on – at 13.
When I question this, which I do often, she tells me that the ‘beauty influencers’ are about much more than make-up tips. They also talk about their mental health. All of them, it turns out, suffer from anxiety attacks. But surely they are only perpetuating the whole anxiety thing by making girls feel they cannot leave the house without a mask? Who wouldn’t be anxious if they were told all the time that they are simply not good enough just as they are? It’s no good saying that while selling them some other miracle product to fix their supposed imperfections.
The number of teenage girls I know who have mental health problems is utterly shocking. I speak as someone who suffered mental health problems when I was younger. At the time, I don’t recall anyone else in my friendship group having similar issues. Now not having mental health problems – and severe ones – seems to be the oddity. We expect so many different, contradictory things from girls. The bar is incredibly high. I sometimes wonder if even the so-called positive messages about career success contribute to the confusion. There is surely not only one way to be successful or happy.
Meanwhile, what are the boys being fed? A lot of Fortnite and porn. I’ve been told on several occasions by 14-15 year old girls that all the boys in their class are regularly watching porn, often involving the ritual humiliation of girls, ‘and they expect us to deliver’, said one teenage girl. Almost every teenage boy I know is regularly playing computer games which involve blowing people’s heads off and the like. Only son complains mightily that I don’t let him do the same. “Go build something, do something positive,” I tell him, but we are all so busy and exhausted that the temptation is to give in. Computer games are, in a way, the equivalent of make-up for girls – they are a mask to hide social insecurities behind, but one that can easily become a prison.
I was speaking to daughter three the other day. She said the boys in her class all speak very loudly about porn and girls’ bodies all the time. “All of them?” I asked. “I bet there are a sizeable number who are just going along with it to fit in.” She agreed. The pressures on both genders to conform are enormous and divisive.
Meanwhile, all around the young are messages of imminent destruction, from political breakdown to climate change disaster. That some are rising up to demand better, to take over even, must be a good thing and I know many parents who would join forces with them. I’ve been telling my kids to go on the climate change strike next week. God knows we all need some sort of a positive vision of the future.
But to think that everything on the gender front is somehow going to progress because gender equality is moving forwards inexorably surely flies in the face of all we know. Gender equality is something that has to be fought for every step of the way and people of all ages have to be involved in the conversation. Even if you make progress you have to keep interrogating and challenging all that would seek to drag us backwards – and there is a lot of reverse suction going on at the moment. The case has to be made again and again that gender equality is for everyone. It’s about removing the masks and enabling genuine communication.