As new empty nesters, our children have just gone off to university, or perhaps they have just moved out to start a new job or to start a new life! Whatever the circumstances, these are very anxious times for us and we worry about their wellbeing.
Are they going to be okay?
Are they happy?
These are very difficult times for them and for us too. For the first time, they have to make decisions which can determine their future. At the same time, they are trying to work out who they are , who they want to become and how to negotiate the twist and turns of life. All this at a time when they have more questions than answers!!
Am I clever enough?
Am I thin enough?
Am I too fat?
Am I beautiful?
Am I attractive?
Will I make new friends?
Will my peers like me?
Will I be successful in my career?
Will I meet somebody special?
They are trying to work out how they fit into their new environment.
However, how do they interpret the images, meanings,representations and different discourses around them?
Our cultural value systems play a very important role in their informed decisions but the media, the advertising industry, their peers and social media also play a significant role in validating and informing their decisions about who they want to become.
Thus, as I was watching a celebrity reality programme and listening to the the various conversations about their personal lives, I found myself asking whether this is really pure entertainment. These programmes are primarily produced for cheap entertainment value and do not challenge the intellect in anyway!! However, is this form of discourse really as simplistic as this? Or do these representations, images and meanings have significant impact on our cultural norms and values?If so, are we now seeing a shift in the status quo?
This kind of entertainment has now become a part of our modern consumer society!! Why do we need to know about these celebrities lives? Why are their lives being upheld as normal and desirable?
Reality television has now become the new normal and a good period drama, a good mystery, a good documentary or just a good programme that challenges the intellect is becoming something of a rarity.
Who decides what we should or should not watch on television?
Who decides what is the norm?
The images and representations that are being celebrated as normal and beautiful in the media are adversely affecting our children’s self image and ultimately their sense of identity. The media is saturated with thin, tall, beautiful and predominantly white men and women. The images are always perfectly airbrushed and many of our children think that they have to aspire to these images of beauty!!!
This media culture that parades this airbrushed perfection and body images as normal is actually changing the very fabric of our society.
Our sons and daughters want to look like the celebrities and the models they read about in the fashion magazines or those they see in the media. This new consumer culture is shaping young people’s perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order because they have come to see it as normal.
This is happening at a time when our children are already struggling with their identity and how they fit into the wider globalised consumer environment. They have to make life changing decisions and all this at a time when they are missing their families and friends and the security of their homes. Many of these young people will look to their peers, the media for validation and interpretation of the status quo. So, beauty is about being tall and thin like a model and for men, masculinity is about looking like their movie star idol or like a footballer, basketball player or rugby player. These people seem to live a charmed life because they are wealthy and have lots of celebrity friends and are always in the media.
However, these representations and images of celebrities in the media are almost impossible to achieve because they are enhanced by technology. Thus , when our children cannot replicate the desired body images, this often have a very adverse effect on their ideas of self. Eating disorders and body building may be seen as extreme forms of this attempt at self regulation of the body in order to construct an identity. Since eating disorder is a modern occurrence, this phenomenon is most certainly linked to our modern consumer society. The advertising industry feeds this consumerism and our children are at their mercy!!
We need to challenge these ideas and images which are accompanying these discourses surrounding the ideology of beauty and masculinity. The men and women in position of power within the media and the advertising industry have a responsibility to society. Too many young people are suffering from eating disorders, depression and substance abuse because they are trying to achieve the impossible!! Impossible, because these perfectly airbrushed models, movie stars and celebrities look different in real life.
Meanings are constructed by the use of representational systems of concepts and signs. These meanings are produced within a community who share the same codes and classify things in the same way. We need to change the meanings assigned to certain things. We need to change the current ideology associated with beauty that is being paraded by the media as normal.
We need to teach our children to love themselves. Beauty is more than a physical representation. Beauty is in everything and it is all around us. We are all beautiful in our own way. Labels are not important and they are certainly not helpful at this stage of their lives.
The whole repertoire, imagery and visualise effects through which this current concept of beauty is being represented, need to be challenged. W cannot sit idly by while our sons and daughters struggle with their body image, struggle with their identity and how they fit into a consumer society that does not really celebrate difference.
Difference matters because it is essential to meaning and meaning is relational. Beauty comes in all shapes , sizes and colours. Differences should be celebrated and perpetuated in the media and should also be a normal part of the discourse used by the advertising industry and the media to inform our cultural norms.