The Self-Love Generation

explores the wave of young people breaking down the social barriers surrounding body image and self-acceptance

Image: YMCA’s Be Real Campaign

Never more than the Halloween season does the issue of body positivity come to the forefront of everyone’s mind. With women’s costumes apparently ranging from cute to sexy, and men forced into hypermasculine roles, we often see self-doubt about personal appearance rearing its head, particularly among young people.

A lack of self-esteem is something we can all relate to, myself included: the things we dislike about ourselves highlighted painfully whenever we look in the mirror, comparing ourselves to others, and constantly wishing for something — anything — to be different. But many are working tirelessly towards changing the way we view ourselves and our bodies.

Body positivity and self-love campaigns have become more and more prevalent in recent years. In 2017 alone we have seen self-love promoted in Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, the ‘Be Real’ movement and the ‘This Girl Can’ series of advertisements. Not to mention the masses of high profile figures and social media moguls who are demonstrating how self-confidence is a journey — a journey worth embarking upon.

Yet the lingering questions still remain in our image-conscious society: ‘am I man enough?’ ‘am I beautiful enough?’ ‘should I be dressed more attractively?’ ‘should I be doing something differently?’. An army of self-love troops are aiming to eliminate these questions, and empower a generation.

A recent Girlguiding survey found that 26 per cent of girls aged 11-21 said that the way they view their body stops them from socialising with their friends, and 63 per cent said that it would prevent them from wearing clothes they like.

It’s exhausting to constantly hold yourself up to an unattainable ideal of the perfect woman

A similar trend can be seen among males, with almost half of boys at secondary school admitting to going to the gym in order to build up muscle in an attempt to appear attractive. Also the age of people experiencing these concerns is only getting younger. Ten years ago studies showed that young people began to understand body image at around aged 13; today it is as young as eight.

For some, enough is enough. A recent BBC Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 tackled the topics of “self-love, self-importance and self-esteem”, inviting women to discuss how they are fighting the social expectations of body image and why it is such an important battle for young people.

One such guest was University of York Biology student and Girlguiding advocate, Evelyn Greeves, who believes that the new generation should be passionately fighting for a more accepting and body confident society Evelyn spoke to me about the epidemic of low self-esteem among the younger generation, and how society can often amplify concerns that young people have about themselves and their appearance: “Self-esteem can be a huge issue for all genders, but society’s tendency to objectify and commodify the female body means that for many girls and young women, self-esteem is very closely intertwined with body confidence. I think that Halloween can be a particularly difficult time for body confidence, at a time when girls are experiencing changes to their body which may make them feel self-conscious anyway, our constant sexualisation can make girls even more aware of how their bodies match up to impossible beauty standards.”

While concerns have been raised by critics about the apparent ‘self-love generation’ creating a youth made up of narcissists, campaigners such as Evelyn argue that the purpose of their movement is to encourage people to recognise their own strength, and to view themselves in a healthy and positive light. A lack of self-esteem is something which often stops individuals from thriving in all aspects of life, an issue which campaigners hope to eradicate by working within schools and colleges. Low self-esteem has been proven to have an impact upon an individual’s school life, with a lack of confidence preventing engagement with peers in both academic and social circumstances. The issue of body image is, in fact, a matter of education.

The research done by the “Be Real” campaign has revealed that instead of breeding self-obsessed youths, body positivity camp a i g n s are teaching young people the importance of prioritising self-care over self-image. Although only 48 per cent of young people surveyed had learnt about body positivity in school, over three quarters of these said such education had made them feel better about their bodies.

These findings came as part of their ‘Somebody Like Me’ campaign, launched this year, which aims to un-cover what can be done to improve the way young people view their bodies. Their ‘body confidence toolkits’ are provided in secondary schools across the country, intended to sup-port teachers in their pursuit of body positivity in the classroom.

Evelyn herself recognises the difficulties of growing up in an image-conscious society, reflecting upon her own experiences as an adolescent: “I know that as I entered my teenage years I felt a pressure to conform that I was oblivious to as a child. My changing, but still firmly adolescent, body was a source of much worry, as I learnt to navigate a world that now scrutinised me harder than ever before.”

She went on to describe the mental im-pact such scrutiny leaves upon young women; “It’s exhausting to constantly hold yourself up to an unattainable ideal of the perfect woman – but that’s what we expect women to do every day.” And she is not alone in this observation, with an overwhelming number of young people attempting to achieve ‘perfection’ through cosmetic surgery, and a strict diet and exercise regime.

The example of social media and reality TV stars is plastered across the internet and media, demonstrating what society has accepted as the ‘ideal’ way to look. Perfection has become the order of the day, with many unable to settle for anything less.

In this day and age we focus so much on body image…and our generation is feeling the pressure.

Evelyn, undoubtedly, has become a role model for her peers and others within the community, allowing young people to address mental health issues such as low self-esteem in a way that was previously seen as taboo. She aims to nurture a generation who are not only confident in themselves but accepting of other people’s bodies and appearance s, goals shared by a band of self-love advocates.

The positivity surrounding body im-age at York doesn’t end with Evelyn. Speak-ing with Becky, president of the University’s Body Positivity Society, she explains how “at BoPo Soc we think we should love our bod-ies for the amazing things they do for us each and every day, and stop trying to shape and change them”.

With millennials growing up in a culture which many claim to be obsessed with social media, selfies and perfection, ‘BoPoSoc’ (as the society is affectionately known) offers a safe place for people to discuss their body issues within a community of positivity and support.

Becky highlights how “in this day and age we focus so much on body image and trying to create the ‘perfect’ body through fad diets/exercise regimes, and our generation is feel-ing the pressure”. Those who do suffer with low self-esteem are more likely to experi-ence mental health concerns such as anxiety and stress, so the supportive environment of BoPoSoc has proven to be invaluable to many.

Throughout the year they intend to hold mindfulness sessions and host guest speakers on body positivity, as well as raising awareness and support for both local and global body confidence campaigns. The society is committed to continuing to work towards giving support and guidance to those with issues concerning body image.

So as the University gets into the swing of Halloween, and the students begin to slip into their costumes, remember that, regardless of what you wear or what you think of your body, you look fantastic.

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