Identity. Self-esteem. Self-confidence. Individuality. Each are words we hear every day. But when I speak to women and young people and listen to how they feel about how they fit into society and the media, I wonder how much of our sense of individual confidence is generated from within. How much of it depends on what is in fashion?
One of my girlfriends recently admitted that part of her confidence in her own body shape is because it’s become societally desirable. When Alek Wek was on the front of all the magazines with her gorgeous Dinka features, the media constantly reminded us that she was very far from the conventional beauty ideals at the time. Whose beauty ideals? For me, Alek is a stunning woman full-stop. As much as I was thrilled to see her ‘breaking barriers’ and records, I feel strongly that we didn’t need the media to tell us what beauty looks like.
From disability to color and everything in between, it seems like not a week goes by that a new identity trend is on the front page. Only where it was once a new seasonal color or skirt style; it is now people’s actual real identities.
As a PR expert, I know how the media machine works. The media uses representation to convey (or push!) specific ideas and values related to culture and identity in society. Blackness, disability, culture, and class have all become ‘fashionable’ at different times but why? And according to who? As a diversity marketing pioneer, I’m always happy to see new frontiers being forged. But as a psychologist, my concern is that these representations aren’t an authentic celebration of our differences. I’m concerned that they are more and more a temporary act of ‘permission’ for minorities to feel at ease with their individuality.
The problem is that fashion isn’t timeless, it’s what is hot right now today. Once the season is over, today’s hottest trend becomes ‘out’ overnight. So what happens when the trend is over?
Last year Kylie Jenner caused a backlash when she posed for a photo shoot in a wheelchair. She appeared as a ‘disabled’ fetish sex doll all in the name of ‘fashion.’
The media touted it as an ‘empowering representation’ of disability.
Historically, people with disabilities have been denied fundamental human and civil rights. Modern societies still attach a huge stigma to both physical and mental disability. As it stands, the representation of models with disabilities is particularly bad in the UK. To me, an able-bodied reality TV star posing in a wheelchair isn’t a route to the disabled community feeling relevant. Kylie Jenner sitting in a wheelchair doesn’t promote diversity, it portrays disability as a fad.
The Paralympics sparked similar conversations with Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson pointing out,
“When we see next year’s hate crime figures then we’ll have a better view of whether there’s been a real change or whether it’s been a moment in time.”
Whether we like to admit it or not, it feels good to be ‘en vogue’ and particularly for those of us in minority communities, the feeling of acceptance from seeing your culture, race, disability or ‘look’ on the front of Vogue is reassuring. Still, this shouldn’t be viewed as validation.
Our teenagers are totally consumed by this feeling. In their world social currency is the amount of “likes” or
“retweets” they get. With their self-esteem at a low (7 in 10 girls believe they are not good enough), social media has become a safe haven as they instantly get the attention or the validation they are craving for. When this stops or changes, the effect on a young person’s self-esteem is catastrophic, in some cases resulting in suicide.
For adults, social media might not have the same appeal or importance but mainstream media affects us all. Some time ago Dove performed a study that revealed women are suffering poor self-esteem because of advertising campaigns which use airbrushing techniques to portray ”unattainable perfection” with 80% of us unhappy with our appearance. We might feel that our days of trying to fit in with the ‘popular’ crowd are over but with statistics like those, we’re more susceptible than we realize.
When self-esteem is harvested from within, our confidence is more likely to be centered on who we are as unique individuals. So, regardless of the latest trend or fad and whether it reflects us, our sense of identity and self-esteem stays intact.
Few would argue that exchanging cultural ideas is a negative thing. But what happens when the influence and origins of a culture or community go unacknowledged and ignored? How are we meant to feel accepted as individuals if we need celebrity fashion to validate our uniqueness?
I was a model in the 80’s and I can tell you now that a big butt was not in fashion. I weighed every week to maintain a tiny 8 stone figure and part of my success was down to my lean figure. Today, I’m no longer a size zero. But black body shapes are suddenly being accepted because of the ‘Kim Kardashian curves’ fashion. Am I supposed to feel better about myself because of that? Will we remember how to love our shapes and sizes and big butts once the trend is over? Or will we go straight back to asking ‘does my bum look big in this?’
My standards for my body no longer depends on what I’m told is ‘O.K.’ I understand now more than ever that when self-esteem is dependent on a person, trend, or campaign, anything external, it will crumble the moment that thing is taken away.
I grew up as a minority and the last thing me and my peers received when my mum put my hair in cornrows was praise from my non-black peers. So much so that girls of my generation desperately wanted their hair chemically straightened so that they could ‘fit in’. Fast forward to 2017 and Selfridges. One of London’s oldest and best-loved department stores opened Braid Bar. Celebrity models Lila Grace Moss and Stella Jones (the daughters of supermodel Kate Moss and Clash guitarist Mick Jones) helped launch the campaign. The problem is, whilst Selfridges might say this is a ‘step forward’ I don’t see how a pair of white privileged teens can ‘endorse’ a protective Afro hairstyle that has history and meaning. This isn’t an example of progress to me, it’s another fad.
I would rather my daughters love their hair and feel confident wearing their braids for themselves regardless of the latest campaign because I feel it has a deeper, more enduring impact.
We grow and harvest self-belief from inside. It’s the power base of energy that we were born with. The first step to achieving any kind of ‘wholeness’ is to develop the strengths within our character; to celebrate and accept our own quirks and uniqueness. When you spend your time wishing you were somebody else, comparing yourself to someone else, regretting what you have or have not done, analysing your every flaw, wishing you were more ‘normal’ and only feeling confident when someone like you is on the screen, you are driving yourself further and further away from your life’s happiness. The solution? Your identity, history, and body are as unique as your DNA. So look yourself in the eye, appreciate yourself for everything that you are and celebrate the uniqueness of YOU.
A strong sense of self-worth will never be out of fashion.
About Dr. Diahanne Rhiney
Dr. Rhiney is a leading-edge Domestic Violence interventionist. Her passion lies in providing guidance, support, education and giving voice to marginalized groups. Further, she is a recognized award-winning commentator using her multiple platforms and enterprises to raise awareness, educate and empower. She has developed groups, presented workshops and spoken extensively on self-esteem, body issues, children in care, abuse, emotional wellbeing and healthy relationships (including peer pressure and intimate relationship abuse). Also, she is a long time ambassador for children’s women’s rights, safety, and wellbeing.
Diahanne has provided training for foster carers on the challenges of online grooming. She has also worked across borders in Washington, Ghana and Malta focusing on concepts of ‘wholeness’. She is a qualified psychologist. Her pioneering Domestic Violence charity, Strength With In Me Foundation (S.W.I.M) is a trailblazing method for change. The Foundation equips the next generation with the tools to avoid negative relationships and make empowered life choices.