What constitutes beautiful? Who are our role models in life? Who do we want to look and act like? These are difficult questions to answer, especially for young adults trying to find their feet in an uncertain and ever-changing world. There are many high-profile celebrities to aspire to, many people who have accomplished impressive feats, but who are the truly positive role models we should be encouraging our kids to emulate?
With the emergence of social media over the past couple of decades, it’s easy to see why a vast percentage of Britain’s youth are struggling to make sense of the constant bombardment of stimuli they receive every time they unlock their iPhones. It’s not surprising that kids are finding it difficult to untangle the real world from the virtual world, to create an identity based on concrete values and moral standards, instead of Facebook/Instagram likes and Twitter retweets.
On the one hand, this ‘New Age’ technological boom is presenting young people with unparalleled opportunities—worldwide connectivity, progressive corporate development, and information accessibility have risen exponentially over the last twenty years. But it is also contributing to unprecedented numbers of mental health issues in our youngsters, with social peer pressure, cyber bullying, body shaming and eating disorders at an all-time high—a heavy price to pay, perhaps, for the instant feedback at our fingertips.
Most of us are guilty of being easily distracted by the internet’s boundless offerings. But what are the consequences on a generation who, during their most vulnerable developmental years, are basing their self-worth on pseudo-perfect images and false representations from social media?
One of the most prominent and worrying issues stemming from social media exposure is body perception. Any casual scroll through the ‘recommended’ pages of Instagram will present hundreds of images of airbrushed models, breathing in after a breakfast of ‘detox’ vitamin juice, and a lunch of not much more than thin air. Toned and lithe, they pose effortlessly on a Santorini balcony, or recline over a rocky outcrop on a sun-drenched beach. The idyllic backdrop barely draws the eye from their flawless features, undoubtedly enhanced with a little help from an ‘X-Pro II’ filter, and maybe the odd visit to a plastic surgeon. The Insta-sham is real…
It’s easy to become submerged in the aesthetics of the beauty world, repeatedly refreshing the ‘pages’ for the next fix of exquisiteness. Of course, we conveniently forget that the model in question has had an entourage of minions styling her to perfection, arranging her over the rocks at just the right angle, and then editing the image to create magic contours and flawless dimensions. And we also forget that she may not be healthy, or happy (despite the smiling emojis and flirtatious wink), and that we certainly shouldn’t automatically aspire to her proportions or lifestyle.
But young girls across the country do aspire to this level of ‘perfection’, with devastating consequences on their perceived self-worth when they continually fall short of the unrealistic standards set by themselves and others. Never has it been so easy to judge and be judged, to be body-shamed for lumps and bumps, for legs that meet together at the top, for breasts that are too big, or too small, or different sizes. Never has it been so hard to celebrate individuality, when everyone seems to be striving for the same superficial version of enhanced idealism. Girls grow up hating their ‘flaws’, constantly comparing themselves to people they don’t even know, aspiring to fit the mould of what our society has deemed desirable.
And it’s not just girls that are being influenced. Young boys too, grow up feeding on other people’s lives through their phones, turning to obsessive gym use and internet-bought steroids, desperately trying to achieve the ab definition of a ‘Men’s Health’ magazine model for their Snapchat story. Is it any surprise that many young people feel inadequate, as if they can’t live up to the expectations of the world they live in?
So how do we introduce adolescents to positive role models, role models with values that are more realistic, more tangible, and ultimately more respectable than having an optimal hip to waist ratio? Maybe sport holds part of the answer. Every year, youngsters across Britain are exposed to a whole new array of potential role models to be inspired by. During our major sporting competitions—the Olympic and Paralympic Games, European and World Championships, Tennis tournaments and Football and Rugby leagues and cups—male and female athletes of all shapes and sizes are thrust into the spotlight as they compete for victory against the rest of the world. The nation unites behind them with patriotic fervour, and, for a few short weeks, our GB athletes become the heroes of the day.
The athlete demographic is a unique one, and it presents an interesting deviation from the norm when it comes to body perception. It doesn’t matter if a gymnast is shorter than average if they can out balance the competition on a four-inch wide beam, or perform a killer routine on the pommel horse. It’s irrelevant if a shot putter has a slightly higher BMI, if she can launch a shot put further than the other girls. It’s perfectly ok that a Paralympic runner only has one leg, because he sprints like a bionic superhuman, and we, the public, scream at our TV sets encouraging him every step of the way.
In fact, in many sports ‘perfect’ proportions would be detrimental to performance—you won’t find many female athletes with tiny waists or matchstick pins, and plastic surgery to artificially alter bums, boobs and noses would serve no purpose to most athlete’s sporting ambitions. The irony is that athletes are some of the most body-aware people in the world, but their body objectives are usually a paradigm shift from the ‘beauty’ aspirations that plague much of today’s youth.
An elite athlete’s purpose isn’t about aesthetics. It isn’t to be pleasing to the eye or to induce jealousy in teenagers. Their purpose is to dedicate themselves to a goal, to challenge themselves beyond what is perceived possible, to bounce back from failure and succeed when it matters the most. Young people watching aren’t inspired by muscle tone or thigh circumference. They are inspired by the courage, the tenacity, the stories behind the medals. They’re inspired as much by an individual’s display of mental strength as they are by physical prowess, aesthetics and contouring.
Of course, many athletes still have enviably rippling six packs and bulging biceps, and I also recognise that a percentage of sportsmen and women also struggle with their own unhealthy image perceptions—body dysmorphia and eating disorders are not uncommon in the sporting world. My assertion here isn’t that sport is immune from obsession, rather that sport holds the potential to offer a vast array of different and positive role models for our youngsters—a favourable alternative to the social media ‘celebrities’ who have made their fortune from exploiting their looks. I also realise that not all athletes act in a way that young people should emulate, but most sports people are true to themselves and honest in their commitment to excellence—qualities which are hard to come by in a world of pre-determined expectation.
When major games or tournaments are televised, the young (and maybe even the not so young), have the opportunity to replace judgement with respect and admiration. Inspired by what they are watching, they set better and more tangible goals for themselves: to be fit and healthy, to achieve their ambitions, in sport and in other pursuits. To overcome adversity and to have the courage to strive to be better versions of themselves. Sport can bring a new definition to how society defines success: value does not lie in how someone looks, but in how they apply themselves to the challenges that life brings, and the impact they have on the world along the way. Physical differences should be celebrated; without them we would be unremarkable and boring, incapable of standing out from the crowd.
Unfortunately, sporting seasons are cyclical, and so the ‘fever’ soon dies down and the media once again becomes infatuated with the latest member of the Kardashian/Trump/ Love Island family. But if there’s one thing to learn from sport, it’s surely the power of positive role models. You can guarantee that every one of those athletes on the TV was once a youngster, sitting on their family sofa, watching wide-eyed as the National Anthem played out for a Great Britain victory. Behind every successful person is the story of how they were inspired by another successful person. Who we choose as role models can have a huge impact on the journey we take in life, so let’s encourage our young people to choose wisely.