Thursday 27 April 2017

Sinead Kissane: Is it not better to place importance on what girls think and what they have to say rather than how they look?

'Without realising it at the time, athletics showed us we didn't need to depend on others to give us confidence. How we trained and performed gave a sense of worth which image could never deliver' (stock photo)
'Without realising it at the time, athletics showed us we didn't need to depend on others to give us confidence. How we trained and performed gave a sense of worth which image could never deliver' (stock photo)
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

While the internet was chewing up and spitting out my opinion piece last weekend, I was visiting my one-week-old god-daughter in Kerry. Her mother and I became friends well over 20 years ago.

We were country teenage girls who blindly went along with the trends of the time; shell tracksuits, over-sized grunge clothes, tie-dyed T-shirts. We went to secondary school in Tralee and tried to fit in with the popular girls, some of whom had an innate self-confidence which was fairly alien to us.

What saw us through those awkward teenage years was athletics. We were never going to compete with the popular set in school but athletics taught us the value of competing for our team-mates and for ourselves.

How we looked, and who was judging us, became irrelevant during training and competition because that wasn't going to get us a medal. Who cared if our faces were screwed-up in contorted pain running down the home straight as long as we got over those hurdles, as long as we hit the board at the right spot for the long jump, as long as we threw the shot-putt longer than the length of our Kurt Cobain-styled hair.

Without realising it at the time, athletics showed us we didn't need to depend on others to give us confidence. How we trained and performed gave a sense of worth which image could never deliver.

The world was a bit different back then. The only platform I had to share photos with friends was from a scrapbook. Now, you pick your preferred site to share photos with friends and 'friends'. When I was a teenage girl, photos were taken to remember athletics events. Too often now on social media, it's not the day the photo represents which is important but just the photo itself. For some teenage girls, a picture posted is only as good as the number of emojis with faces of the tongue hanging out gets.

Body image has never held as much power because of the players involved. It is in the interest of multi-billion dollar industries for body image to have an over-hyped status - industries like social networks, like cosmetic corporations, like marketing and sales companies, like media and like the Swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

These industries sell us the importance of image. But what they also do is feed off the insecurities and anxieties most of us feel about the way we look which mislead us into thinking that how we look is how we should validate ourselves. This, in turn, results in us buying their products in the hope we will look and become like someone else.

Some cosmetic companies and women's magazines want a star on their foreheads for using models who are not the unrealistic size one on their cover so they can preach that they're equal to all women. But it's just another way of constantly compounding the notion that image and body should mean everything to everyone (so go buy their product).

Of course, we all want to feel good about ourselves and having a fitter and healthier body to enable us live our lives the way we want is important. But seeing how influential these industries are, how come more of us women aren't happier and more content with the way we look? Some marketing slogans have entered our daily lexicon to such an extent that it's easy to forget it's marketing; 'because we're worth it' is a line sold to try and make us feel good.

Marketing blurbs infiltrate our way of thinking consciously and subconsciously to such a degree that sometimes we can't see the wood from the over-priced anti-ageing treatments. Equally, when publications like the Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit issue load such importance on the body and tell us that a topless photo of a woman should make other women feel flippin' fantastic, some of us go along with that idea without appreciating that we've just swallowed a sales pitch by an industry which wants us to believe this for their own vested interest. When it comes to having an opinion on body image and all it entails, whose tune are we dancing to exactly?

These industries are also aided by the kind of social conditioning some teenage girls receive through a completely innocent way of thinking. Recently I read a piece which raised the nature of some parents' loving compliments towards their young daughters. It seems completely natural to tell a girl how pretty she looks, most of us would do it without thinking. But why do we do this with girls more than boys?

From a young age, girls can subconsciously compute that the way they look is important and that it pleases others to innocently compliment them on how pretty they are. How can this manifest itself as they grow up? Recently my friend's daughter told her what happened at lunchtime in school - where the boys played a game of football and the girls played a game of who was the prettiest.

When girls and women depend on how they look to gain confidence how can that sustain them when beauty is subjective, it doesn't last and thrives on the judgement of others? Is it not better to encourage teenage girls to build confidence through sport or other pastimes?

Is it not better to place importance on what they think and what they have to say rather than how they look? But how can they when the hypocrisy is everywhere? It competes against the views of others who believe there's nothing wrong with a topless woman in a photo-shoot which is sold by an industry which wants you to think that the body beautiful should be celebrated in this kind of way.

Call me misguided, but I hope my god-daughter will grow up in a world which will learn not to place such suffocating value on the way she looks. I hope she finds something in a pastime, in a sport (like her mother, who was a brilliant long-jumper), in a career that will give her her own confidence rather than depend on others to give it to her.

I hope she learns she doesn't have to please people through her looks. I hope she will have the belief to form her own opinion. And to never, ever be afraid to voice it.

Irish Independent

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