Selfie esteem: Body image in a digital age

With young adults constantly facing the camera, schools and parents need to find creative ways to instill the value of self-worth to the selfie generation.
Our Faith

On a recent Monday morning, Clare Harper’s cousin sent her a picture of herself for “Selfie Monday” via Snapchat, a texting and image-sharing service that deletes pictures soon after they are sent. Harper, 18, responded with a selfie of her own, except instead of posing to capture her best angle as her cousin had done, she contorted her face into something between silly and scary. With the photo she texted, “This is what I think of selfies.”

Still in her pajamas and not yet out of bed, Harper was already receiving images from friends. She was also being given the opportunity to take and share photos of herself. Selfies, pictures taken of oneself usually with a smartphone and then shared over a social media app, are just what she and her peers do, she says. They generally don’t give it a second thought.

“If you want to have a normal Facebook page, you’re going to have pictures of yourself on it,” she says. Anything otherwise would be weird. She’s nonchalant, unassuming. It’s not that there’s much pressure to post pictures, she assures. It’s just the norm.

On the one hand, having a profile picture helps friends to know they’re connecting to the right person on social networking sites. On the other hand, especially if you’re female, that picture had better look good. “What you look like is what’s defining you. It’s like you’re defined by how pretty you are. This is me because this is what I look like,” Harper says.


In the New York Times parenting column Motherlode, Randye Hoder writes about the effects Facebook has on a teenager’s body image: “Girls, in particular, seemed to be always posing—in some cases vamping—for the camera: hair swept back, hand on hip, dressed just so. In at least a few instances, they looked as if they were auditioning for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, clad in bikinis that left little to the imagination.”

This obsession with image is a phenomenon not unknown to boys and young men (see sidebar), but it affects girls and young women in a particular way. Harper says that her male friends don’t share selfies quite as often as her female friends.

Harper, a sophomore at Beloit College in Wisconsin, has been using Facebook since seventh grade. Back then, her parents were extremely careful to not allow her to post personal information and were reluctant to allow photos. But by the time she’d joined, there were pictures of her all over the social network thanks to friends who’d tagged her in their own photos. “There’s no way to escape having your picture all over the place,” she says.

While young women have long faced social pressure to look their best, the fact that “the glare of the camera is never far away,” as Hoder puts it, sets the experience of today’s teenagers and young adults
apart from that of previous generations. The message is loud and clear: You must be beautiful.


Education and empowerment

Harper confirms that if young adults want to be taken seriously, their appearance matters. “If you’re not naturally beautiful by normal standards, [the expectation is that] you have a lot of work to do,” she says. In other words, it’s important to invest time, energy, and money in makeup and clothes to compensate.

Not only are young adults and teenagers (and even younger girls, according to most studies) receiving such messages with a previously unheard-of frequency thanks to unprecedented access to media, they’re expected to put their own images in front of as many eyes as they can. And it’s not just photos. A recent ad campaign by YouTube has been promoting Michelle Phan, who tells her million-plus followers to “think of me as your beauty bestie.” Phan appears to look flawless in her videos and teaches viewers how to apply makeup in short videos.

The Catholic Church has a counterpoint to this seemingly superficial approach to image: Humans are the imago Dei, created in the image of God. This alone is the source of a person’s value, not how well she applies eyeshadow or whether her selfies show a glowing girl with a great smile.

But are teenagers and young adult Catholics getting that message? If they spend their day in a Catholic school, the chances are good that they are, particularly if the school offers single-sex education. “Catholic students are blessed to spend the majority of their day in a building that supports the tenets of social justice,” says principal Amy Elstone of her school, Mercy Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Louisville, Kentucky.

Last year Mercy worked with Doe-Anderson, a high-profile ad agency that created a campaign to get the message out about what kind of environment young women could expect at the school. They called it “You Are Not a Princess.”

“Our message was that we teach our girls to look beyond themselves to share with others the love, spirit, kindness, and grace of God. We want them to be leaders who stand up for those who do not have a voice in this world. We want them to be strong in their faith and love for God,” says Elstone.

The campaign garnered national recognition. “We found that our message was one that young women needed to hear, and more importantly, wanted to hear,” Elstone says. “They are not the traditional princesses who are helpless, dependent on their beauty and bodies, and waiting for princes to save them. Young girls need to be the authors of their own stories.”

Some called the campaign “refreshing” simply because the female empowerment was coming from a Catholic school. Others, such as’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, herself a graduate of an all-girls Catholic school, reminded readers that when it comes to education, the Catholic Church has a remarkable history of empowering young women. “Sometimes one of the best places to cultivate strong female leaders is right in the heart of the Catholic school system,” Williams wrote in her Salon column, “The feminist case for Catholic school.”

All-girls advantage

The fact that Mercy is an all-girls school helps to convey the message. According to the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), evidence strongly suggests that single-sex education, especially for young women, allows students to focus on academic achievement. A report conducted in 2009 by the University of California in Los Angeles and commissioned by NCGS found that young women who attended all-girls schools scored higher on their SATs, were more interested in graduate school, and were more interested in typically male-dominated fields such as engineering and mathematics. The same study found that while still significant, there was less of a difference between attendees of single-sex schools and their coed counterparts in Catholic schools versus independent schools.

Harper attended an all-girls Catholic high school. She says it was crucial in helping her develop self-confidence, which she lacked when she first started. “[Going to an all-girls school] changed the focus of high school life from social life to academic life,” she says.

The uniforms helped, Harper admits. She could go to school without paying too much attention to her appearance. “Any girl in my class you could talk to would say the same thing,” Harper says, adding that when her school, St. Scholastica in Chicago, closed and younger students were forced to transfer to schools with both sexes, that all changed. “I know someone who spends an hour getting ready every morning, and that’s not even counting eating breakfast.”

Her brother attends a public high school and she thinks he’s too distracted by the girls in his class. It’s affecting his studies, Harper says. He’s reticent to turn in projects and assignments other students might see, as there is added peer pressure in an environment where you are worried about how you look in front of the opposite sex. “If you don’t have the pressure of having that other gender present at your school, nothing seems stupid anymore,” she says.

Xanthoula Melachrinidis teaches sixth- through eighth-graders at the coed St. Thomas the Apostle School in Chicago. “We have a uniform policy, and when uniforms are worn, it makes a huge difference,” she says. “When we have dress-up days, when students don’t need to wear uniforms, I see that many times boys and girls are not as focused on academics. They are more focused on what they are doing, how they look, and how they stand, even though students are not allowed to wear anything that is too revealing.”

Don’t fix me

Harper says that attending an all-girls high school was possibly even more important to her than the fact that it was Catholic. However, it was a unit in her sophomore theology class that got her thinking about body image and the negative impact that messages perpetuated by advertisements and entertainment could have.

Her teacher showed the class a video of an average woman who is styled and made-up in order to become camera ready. After the photos are shot, they’re digitally enhanced: Her skin is airbrushed, her cheekbones are emphasized, even her eyebrows are shaped to appear more “perfect.”

“I really remember watching that video because it’s basically telling you that you can’t be yourself, or that you have to ‘fix’ what you look like,” Harper says. “The way you are isn’t ‘correct,’ and you need to fix it with products, curling irons, etc. Even to be portrayed in the media, you have to go beyond that and use technology to fix the image of an already beautiful person.” The pressure to feel like you have to “fix” yourself is even more problematic when young people are given completely unrealistic beauty ideals to live up to.

Articles and campaigns criticizing practices of the advertising industry to digitally “fix” women’s faces and bodies aren’t hard to come by these days. Earlier this year, Target was the subject of some ridicule after a clumsy Photoshop job to create what’s known as a “thigh gap” (ample space between a woman’s legs that indicates a slender physique) appeared on some of its product pictures. It wasn’t the first time a company has come under fire for using digital tools to make already thin women appear even thinner. And it probably won’t be the last.

Now those enhancement tools are available to almost anyone. You don’t even need a computer to make your teeth whiter or your eyes more sparkly. There are even apps purported to help you look more slender in selfies, such as SkinneePix, which claims it can make you look five to 15 pounds lighter.

The cause for concern is that a distorted notion of perfection isn’t just proliferated by advertisers and the entertainment industry. It’s proliferated by everyone, especially teenagers and young adults, for whom, as Harper says, selfies are just a normal part of everyday life.

“Catholics are not immune to this daily reminder of inadequacy, and our job as Catholic parents and educators must be to teach young people that their bodies are gifts from God and a daily reminder of God’s presence in our lives,” says Elstone of Mercy Academy.

The Catholic High School of Baltimore counselor Michelle Price takes that job seriously. In 2013, she worked with a student to organize the school’s first Body Image Awareness Week.

“The student approached me about spreading awareness on eating disorders, as she suffered with an eating disorder herself and was actively working to overcome it,” Price says. “We hoped the school community as a whole would encourage themselves and each other to feel beautiful and not identify themselves by the way their bodies looked.”

The student body heard about her struggles, as well as her mother’s experience of having a daughter with an eating disorder. They listened to speakers and participated in activities that, like the video Harper saw in her theology class, were meant to increase awareness about the distorted sense of beauty young people are bombarded with.

Price says that this year’s Body Image Awareness Week focused less on eating disorders and more generally on body image, though she thinks one week isn’t enough to talk about the issue.

According to the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty global study, more than 90 percent of girls ages 15 to 17 would change at least one of their physical attributes, with weight ranking as the highest priority. Almost 25 percent of girls would consider plastic surgery. Just as troublesome as the notion that girls are willing to consider seriously altering their bodies is the notion that insecurity about looks can interfere even with their ability to complete everyday tasks. The study showed that lacking confidence in physical appearance causes 70 percent of girls in that same age group to “avoid normal daily activities such as attending school, going to the doctor, or even giving their opinion.”

Mixed message

Price says that Catholics and other religious groups don’t talk enough about body image, and that faith can play an important role in that discussion. Kate Ott is an assistant professor of Christian social ethics at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey and the author of Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence (Westminster John Knox). She thinks the message coming from Catholic institutions is mixed.

“We were told to value our bodies and self-esteem and that you’re beautiful no matter who you are and you represent the image of God,” she says, referring to her experience at an all-girls Catholic high school. “I just think even when you say that, if what it is paired with is, ‘When it comes to sexuality, your body is going to be the thing that deceives you,’ that sexual desire is inherently somehow corrupt and if your sexuality is alluring boys for the most part, it’s such a mixed message that I don’t know how we really recover a positive body image, especially for females and people of color.”

Teenagers and young adults are hearing modern messages about beauty and sexuality while traditional church teachings about sex and chastity essentially ask them to ignore their bodies, says Ott. Unfortunately, for much of the church’s history, the body has been associated only with sin and sexuality, an ideology that—despite all that modern theology has to offer—still permeates the Catholic imagination. Even well-intentioned messages that encourage academic achievements over physical attributes can maintain that either/or mentality.

“I would also argue that I don’t think the church tells us very often that we are made in the image of God and our bodies are these amazing and wonderful things we should honor and take pleasure in,” Ott says. And when it does, “it totally melts away in a setting where we’re barraged with ‘too fat, too skinny, too tall, too dark . . . . ’ It’s impossible to compete with.”

What teenagers and young adults need is an approach that celebrates achievement while also realistically and honestly discussing their bodies. Ott says that the current media climate has made young adults and teenagers both hyper-aware of their bodies and also desensitized to them. That’s a combination that only perpetuates itself.

One way to overcome this is by focusing on health. Elstone of Mercy Academy says it’s the approach her school takes. “It seems simple, but the message is profound for our students. They appreciate seeing exercise as a source of making them feel better about the bodies God gave them and not an impossible source for the perfect body.”

Mercy’s Service Learning and Leadership Program also gives students an opportunity to talk about the importance of a healthy body without focusing on abnormal standards of beauty. Students learn how to lobby for legislative change at the state level. “We had a group of our juniors go to our state capitol and testify in front of the health and welfare committee of the House on the benefits of the Smarter Lunch Room Act (which allowed students healthier food choices at school),” Elstone says. “When we empower young people with the tools to be advocates for changes that impact body image and health, then we take an important step in building the self-esteem of future generations. Again, by putting our girls in the position of empowering other women to think more of themselves, we set the stage for their own strong body image.”

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 9, pages 16-21).

Image: Angela Cox