Picture perfect? Rejecting fake perfection

Written by: Karen Sulivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Social media and in particular Instagram has led to an obsession with perfection that Karen Sullivan fears is damaging our young people. She looks at how we might tackle this in the classroom

In my last SecEd article (February 2019), we looked at the impact of social media – Instagram, in particular – on the self-esteem, self-image and overall health of young people.

At a time when child poverty and emotional health problems are at an all-time high, the emphasis on and obsession with perfection is having a catastrophic effect on the lives of our students.

And even if legislation does encourage the multitude of social media platforms to remove potentially damaging (and even life-threatening) material from their sites, there is no doubt that the trend towards showcasing and sharing perfect bodies, faces and lifestyles is here to stay.

So how can we help to maintain a balance, and enable young people to adopt a more balanced understanding of what they see on the sites and the prestidigitation behind it? How can we encourage them to set realistic goals, to believe in themselves, to adopt healthy values and to find happiness in a life that is not perfect?

First of all, creating a supportive community within the school is integral. Ensure that there is an ethos in place that calls out body-shaming, stereotyping, racism, elitism and actively celebrate achievements that do not involve having perceived beauty or money.

Make time to talk about these issues in class, and encourage students to set some positive goals, and consider what “success” really means. If Instagram and our celebrity culture did not exist, what job would students love to do in the future? What lifestyle would make them happy?

Use this as a springboard to discuss values. What price would they be willing to pay to “have it all”, to have the Instagram lifestyle? What is more important? Money and fame, or family and love? Discuss.

Consider a creative writing exercise – a story about the negative side of fame and the toll that maintaining perfection can take. Encouraging students to think about the fact that living an illusion, effectively a lie, can be damaging, exhausting and probably very negative, can help to erase some of the glamour associated with the looks and the lifestyle.

Bring in some local heroes, who have achieved success and contentment without picture-perfect looks, a privileged background or a big bank account – working-class role models who have done something positive and useful with their lives. Ultimately, this type of personal interaction will be much more inspiring than a never-ending series of doctored images.

Head over to Instagram as a class, and have some fun. There are hundreds of instragram spoof accounts, which will not only highlight the absurdity of the images we buy into, but also encourage laughter, which immediately reduces the perceived importance of perfect posts.

Look at some of the fakes (see below) and the lengths to which people will go to create an illusion. Download one or more of the apps that can airbrush and/or photoshop images. Encourage students to try some before and after shots, to see the extraordinary difference that can be achieved. If nothing else, it will cement in their minds the idea that the images we see are the product of manipulation, and not a representation of reality.

And use this as another point of discussion. It is easy to feel miserable and envious when we swipe through the beautiful lives that other people lead, and it is worth assessing these feelings. Why do we feel this way when we know that it is a mirage? Discuss the fact that Instagram (and other platforms) are all about presenting a false impression, with carefully curated photographs of everyone and everything looking happy, attractive and successful.

People who post choose what they want us to see. With a little time and effort, and some photographic trickery, most of us could create a similar impression by airbrushing our faces and bodies, super-imposing them into exotic or sought-after locations or homes, and choosing to portray happiness that is unlikely to be real.

Poke some fun at perfection. How long does it really take to create the “right” image, and is it really worth it? Is this really “having it all”? What better, healthier and more satisfying ways are there to achieve happiness?

Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1990) is full of valuable insights that can help to reset priorities and mindset. She challenges our thinking, and deconstructs the whole notion of beauty objectification. It is worth pulling some key messages from the book, and opening up a debate.

Ultimately, it is extremely important to work on self and body-image with students, celebrating the differences, unique characteristics, individual beauty that can be found in any number of places.

Give students opportunities to boost their self-esteem by offering areas in which they can shine in the most appropriate spotlight – music, drama, sport, debate, academics, humour. Anything goes. There are some fabulous worksheets and activities available online to make young people feel great in their own skin.

The Status of Mind study (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017) found that there are some benefits associated with social networking, and all of the sites considered in the research received positive scores for self-identity, self-expression, community building and emotional support.

YouTube received very high marks for bringing awareness of other people’s health experiences, for providing access to trustworthy health information and for decreasing respondents’ levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. So perhaps we can encourage students to seek out something meaningful and life-enhancing on that site to share with others.

Instagram is here to stay, but with a healthy dose of cynicism, a strong understanding of the machinations behind the veneer of perfection, and a little self-belief, self-love, and tolerance, our students will come out stronger, with sustainable goals, healthy values and the possibility of vibrant, happy futures.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com. To read her previous articles for SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/1SNgg00

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