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Bodies, boobs and taboos: How is Instagram impacting pubescent girls?

The slip of a finger and whoosh, an unedited picture of Khloe Kardashian took to the internet without her permission. Within minutes, trolls leapt into action as though hounds finally being fed.  Are we surprised she looks that bad? I’d ask my surgeon for a refund! She’ll always be the ugliest sister. The Kardashian clan worked hard to have the image removed, but duplicates continued to pop up across Instagram, Twitter and Reddit. After 14 years in the spotlight, Khloe Kardashian adds criticism over this accidental upload to her body-shaming saga. 

Even for us non-celebrities, social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have built an arena around our lives. Offering our biggest critics front row seats, complimentary binoculars and ammunition to hurt us. Criticism that once only occurred face-to-face is now omnipresent. Across Instagram, people hide behind the guise of perfection. An image, lifestyle and persona they maintain through carefully curated shots and editing apps. But, this act of self-defence is having a catastrophic impact on young pubescent girls. 

Hertfordshire-based Wellbeing and Lifestyle Writer, Hannah Louise Murray, 23, is one such woman whose adolescence was dictated by the unrealistic standards pushed upon women. Before graduating, she dedicated her dissertation to analysing the effects of social media on body image for young women. She says: “My mental health suffered tremendously from poor self-image and distorted perceptions surrounding my identity. I have fought long and hard to rid myself of the associated shame. 

“From my physical appearance and my sexual endeavours to my interests, hobbies and mannerisms. I always felt like I was an outsider and that I should feel ashamed of who I was.”  Instagram has opened the female puberty process to a plethora of new critiquing observers. Parroting through comments and direct messages the idea that puberty is a one-size-fits-all process, with a standardised result. Upon entering the app, girls scroll through a never-ending stream of developed, often edited and supposedly happy women. Hannah explains: “We are endlessly bombarded with seemingly perfect people with seemingly perfect lives, so comparison is at our fingertips from the moment we wake up.

“This aspect of social media combined with the media’s relentless torture of anyone in the spotlight is a breeding ground for fear and shame to build. Each of us questioning our own essence in fear of not being enough.” Hannah’s youth consisted of excessively avoiding activities like having sex and leaving her body hair unshaved to spare herself potential ridicule. Nevertheless, the stomach-churning, sweat-inducing feeling of shame crept its way into her life. She says: “Feeling like I wasn’t enough in some areas and too much in others resulted in prolonged anxiety and debilitating depression.” In the absence of social media, Hannah describes her childhood as vibrant and uninhibited. However, these pangs of anxiety began to coincide with the natural changes of her body and presence on social media. 

The female body has always been subjected to stringent, yet increasingly subtle rules. From adorning suffocating corsets and hoop skirts in Victorian England to the notion of respectability politics. This is the idea that conforming to mainstream beauty and behavioural standards will protect someone in a marginalised group from prejudice and injustice. Although decades and centuries pass, failure to comply with societal expectations of the female body still results in condemnation, even for young girls. Feminist Writer and Journalist Sian Norris explains: “Silvia Federici wrote that patriarchal capitalism had to break women’s power in order to assert control.”

Hannah’s slim, lanky body and small breasts appeared in stark comparison to her peers. Body image concerns arose, as she felt both developmentally behind her friends and that the changes occurring weren’t happening correctly. She says: “My girlfriends were becoming more and more womanly and voluptuous. I felt like I was remaining a child, whilst they were turning into ‘real’ women.”

The tendency to compare body developments is not limited to the parameters of Hannah’s youth or Instagram’s creation in 2010. As a digital native, Hannah grew up with the digital world at the swipe of a finger and flick of a button. Whereas Writer and Ex-Regional Digitisation Manager for Art UK, Hazel Cameron, 61, spent her adolescence playing outside with other children on her council estate. Hazel recalls: “I always wanted bigger boobs, as most of my friends were shapely and my aunt used to say mine were too friend eggs, then jokingly add – with burst yolks.”

Female puberty has always been overshadowed by confusion and comparison. However, Instagram has increased the number of people young girls can now compare themselves to. The comparison pool has widened from those around them to celebrities and people that live thousands of miles away. The image-sharing platform allows the upload of edited and filtered images, enabling girls to compare themselves  and attempt to emulate a version of someone that doesn’t exist. 

Typically beginning at 11 for girls, puberty is a time of experimentation. Young girls start to define themselves outside of the family unit and explore alternative identities. Naturally, throughout this process errors in judgement are made. The creation of social media has placed teenage debacles on a pedestal for examination. Hazel says: “Before it was just your family and close friends who shared your shame moments but now you can be shamed by millions. What I find worse is that the shame is never erased, it can always be found.”

Besides growing breasts, female puberty witnesses the start of periods, growth of pubic hair and release of hormones that can lead to growth spurts and sexual arousal. Unsurprisingly these changes remain a shameful episode in the lives of young girls due to the minimal conversations surrounding them. ”When my boobs started developing, I thought something was wrong with me and told my mum I had a lump, her laugh and telling me otherwise was very embarrassing,” says Hazel.

In 2015, Instagram repeatedly removed a photo from Poet Rupi Kaur’s account for ‘breaking community guidelines’. The image depicted a fully-dressed woman in bed with bloodstains on her trousers and bedding. Instagram’s censorship of projects like Kaur’s, that aim to set healthy body standards and destigmatise menstruation contributes to the lack of educational discussions on women’s health. As a result, girls grow into women like Hannah and Hazel that live with the stigmas surrounding their bodies. 

For Hannah, this meant she was fearful of getting tampons out in her all girls’ school and learning to understand her vagina through a pornified lens. “In porn, I only saw neat, tucked away vulvas, but my inner labia protrudes from my outer lips and they aren’t quite even in length,” says Hannah. “I never discussed it with my friends or family, and it became a growing source of shame for me, I even researched into labiaplasty at an awfully young age.” Hazel’s family struggled to buy basic sanitary products. Elaborating on her puberty experience, she says: “The worst was not being able to afford sanitary products, often having to cover up blood marks on my clothes or bed sheets or skipping off school.”  

Over 50 years later, ongoing ignorance surrounding menstruation means that period products are not readily available to young girls and women. Plan International UK found that three in ten, 14 to 21-year-olds struggled to afford or access these products during lockdown. In the 1970s lack of understanding and open dialogue, led to the production of unsafe tampons that sparked Staphylococcus infections. Subsequently, menstruating girls and women experienced Toxic Shock Syndrome. And, with self-adhesive towels not yet invented, many that opted to wear them wore sanitary belts to keep them in place.

Today, girls are predicted to start puberty a year before Hazel and her peers did in the 70s’. We’ve undergone a culture shift, with the Women’s Health Market commodifying the puberty process and female body. Pumping out unending ‘solutions’ to any and all bodily conundrums with the help of social media influencers. “We are constantly told that we are not enough, that our faces are too blemished, our tummies too big, our legs too hairy,” says Hannah. “These companies use advertising to make us questions ourselves, and then in turn convince us that all we need to be perfect and happy are their products.” The covert nature of influencer marketing leads young girls to believe these products will make them as desirable and happy as those promoting them. They don’t see the editing and money that go into achieving the images on their feeds. 

As Hannah’s body continued to develop, it brought with it a want for sexual exploration. Alas, this discovery was shrouded in shame. She recollects: “When I was at school there a constant undercurrent of slut-shaming which gripped every girl around the neck throughout our uniform-wearing days. Is she a virgin? Who has slept with who? Does she masturbate?”. As a result of socialisation that encourages ‘sexual reserve’, The Handbook of Child and Adolescent Sexuality found girls reported more sexual guilt and shame. 

Slut-shaming culture prevents young girls and women from openly talking about sexual harassment, assault and rape. Due to the fear of not being believed, being blamed or viewing their discomfort as a natural feature of sex. The distorted relationship society has constructed between females and sex has resulted in young girls exiting puberty with low self-worth and poor ideas of healthy sexual relations. Hannah says: “Sex is one of the most natural parts of life, yet the patriarchy wants girls to remain ‘pure’ for the gratification of men, which in and of itself is absurd.”

Historically female sexuality has been pinned to reproduction, family honour and male pleasure. Sian explains: “Women who stepped outside this model – particularly women who were seen as sexually voracious or who had sex with multiple men were shamed, treated as freaks or killed as witches.” Sian believes that whilst we think we’ve progressed since the “angel of the house” model of womanhood, we haven’t. Women that exercise their sexuality or deviate from gender stereotypes are met with judgement, exclusion, sexual violence and death. In 2007, a Saudi woman was gang-raped by seven men and imprisoned for being in a car with an unrelated man. Only four of the seven men went to prison. Describing the Madonna-Whore dichotomy Sian says: “Women are either Madonna’s – modest, mother, virginal as in not sexually knowledgeable, quiet and serving. 

“Or they’re whores and deserving of punishment. The idea that women can even inhabit a role somewhere in the middle is denied.” Beginning as young girls, female sexuality is promoted as conditional. They’re encouraged to be sexual for the enjoyment of others, but not for themselves. Sexualised images of girls and women regularly achieve large-scale engagement on platforms like Instagram. Influencer marketing furthers the commodification of the female body and adds to the performative narrative young girls absorb surrounding their sexuality.  In the attention economy, people that achieve notable levels of engagement are rewarded with opportunities and finance for retaining users on the platform. Highlighting for young girls the prospects available from adopting rigid standards of female appearance and femininity. Whilst, Instagram benefits from the upload of sexualised images, they excuse themselves from safeguarding the girls and women in them. 

Beyond puberty, the female body continues to be held to unrealistic standards. But the expectations change and you grow to care less. Sian says: “People will shame you for having children, not having children, breastfeeding, not breastfeeding, staying at home, going back to work – “a woman’s place is in the wrong” as one friend put it to me.” Instagram has opened young girls up to more critics and sources of comparison than ever. Choosing to not care appears the only way to make it through. As Khloe Kardashian shows, you’re ridiculed regardless of the version of you the world sees.

Hannah says: “The society we live in is flawed in its values and I commend anyone who manages to scrape through unscathed. A ‘fuck it, I’m me!’ attitude is an essential part of any modern woman’s survival guide.”

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How To Survive Thirteen Years Of Friendship

We’ve always thought of ourselves as Yin and Yang type people, you with your unbreakable patience, willingness to see the good in others and well me a tad more on the cynical side. 

Your skort to my jeans, your cocktail to my pint.

Alas like puzzle pieces, we just fit. 

Laughing till we’re crying, crying till we’re laughing. 

From dancing and dress up at eight, to bevs and boogying at eighteen; I often wonder if we’ll be busting moves at 80 – hip replacements and all. 

Whilst not much has changed in thirteen years, we’ve swapped our commute from a fifteen minute walk to a two hour drive and £3 Aldi wine for a cheeky gin and lemonade.

I’d trade a lot to be sat in your garden, watching you unconsciously chain smoke, whilst claiming tipsy status from a single glass of vino. 

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COVID-19: The Virus That Paused The World

2020 was the year the entire world stood still. 

Parents would become teachers, once nameless neighbours would become friends and society would learn that the most neglected workers were, in fact, the most vital.

But, what will the history books recollect? The streets lined with clapping families, the able fetching shopping for the elderly or windows filled with messages of hope – pictures of rainbows that promised this shit shall pass. I hope it’s all remembered, but with the good came the bad. Society will never forget those that lost their lives and the thousands that tirelessly treated people, with no hesitation or thought for their own safety. 

For those of us that stayed at home, that was the year that we found pleasure in the small things. We went on walks and actually enjoyed them, smiled at strangers because for the first time since World War Two; this was something we were all in together. And, whilst many of us had it easier than others, we were all united in our uncertainty at what the future would hold. 

On the contrary to what many journalists initially said, Covid-19 did discriminate; it had a bank balance bias. It picked on the already ill, the elderly and those that had no feasible choice but to work. This was the year the poor would get poorer. Students would pay for tuition they would never receive and rent for a house they would not set foot in. Countless international students would be forced to stay put, far away from family and all alone. 

Many third-year students would never get their end of year shows, exams and graduation ceremonies. Never getting to spend one last Summer in their student houses, abruptly saying goodbye to a city or town they had come to know as home.

Countless people would lose their sources of income, no furlough, no way to pay their bills. Domestic abuse would rise, suicide rates would soar. 2020 was the year we realised the businesses and people that cared. Not the Waterstones, or Wetherspoons of the world, but the Joe Wicks and Captain Toms.

Holidays would be cancelled, weddings postponed, and funerals attended by none. Those that died in care homes would never be forgotten but, the politicians that massaged the death statistics would be held to account. 

It was the year we took as a lesson, to seek out connection in a world that can feel so disconnected. We learnt the members of society we need, the ones that work without flaunting their efforts. Not the billionaires or pointlessly famous celebrities, but the doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, retail workers, delivery people and everyone in-between that just did something to help in their own way.

How will this moment be illustrated in the countless films that will no doubt retell it? With rainbows and window waves, with facetime chats to loved ones – or by the sprouting seeds planted during hours spent in the garden. 

Upon leaving our homes some returned back to their old ways but for the masses, everything changed. Individuals continued to cook and bake they persisted with reading and writing and finally, society saw the value of the things they had ignored. 

And, we would all walk, everywhere. 

2020 was the year we waited out the rain, in the end, a rainbow would appear. 

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What Ticks Your Boxes?

Time and time again, people have created photo projects of people being told they’re beautiful. Truthfully, I’m bored to death of this.

What if instead of placing emphasis on appearance we thought about people’s quirky mannerisms, dirty laughs and other odd attributes . That is exactly what we did, revealing to a group of strangers messages from their loved ones; explaining just why it is that they appreciate them.

As you can imagine, their friends weren’t going crazy for their fantastic faces or sets of steel abs. Alternatively, appreciating characteristics like their zest for life or their fascination to learn.

Moving away from home to University is odd. In my experience, I went from a small town where everyone looks like they’re photocopied straight from a Topshop Catalogue to a huge City. In Bristol, people more closely resemble the Tweenies. Since swapping Joni Jeans for Dickies, I’ve been questioning more than ever my own ideas of attractiveness, and what being beautiful really means.

Whether we do so consciously or not, the varying height on which we place beauty ideals in respect to our own lives is interesting. What are your ideas of standardised beauty? What ticks your boxes?

The origin story of the word beautiful is extensive, transcending all geographical and linguistic barriers. However, in almost all cultures it is a term solely reserved for women.

Why is this? Is it because our existence is valued more on the basis of our exterior?

The definition of standardised beauty ideals has changed through time, from the unibrowed women of ancient Greece to the porcelain coloured skin and accentuated foreheads of the Georgian era.

The digital era presents its own handful of new expectations. A recognisable theme throughout all these periods, is the lengths in which a lot of women feel they need to go to in order to visually appease and satisfy.

We’ve moved from scrawling charcoal across our eyes and putting leeches on our cheeks to achieve the perfect rouge to putting jelly tot looking blobs into our bodies so we’ve got the perfect boobs.

Who are the people you choose to have in your life? The ones that make you laugh till you’re in pain, the ones that remember how you like your coffee or the ones that you just look good in photos with.

Appreciating appearance isn’t worth nothing, it’s just not everything.

In the end, looks fade and what are we left with? I’m trying to place higher value on the things that take a little digging to find, in others and especially in myself.

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Twenty Twenty Pending

How is it that this year has simultaneously flown by and moved at a sloth’s pace?

Adhering to the massive cliché that I am and it being only a few days into 2020, I’ve been trying to figure out what the f**k this year was. Honestly, I don’t think I’m the only person that’s been feeling a little baffled. If years of our lives were given titles like books or films, I think the past 12 months of my life would be named ‘heavy’.

It feels like something’s been sat on my chest. And it wasn’t until I gave myself a week at home to gather my thoughts that it dawned on me that I’d been operating in autopilot. Until you leave a big city, you often don’t realise you’ve been holding your breath the entire time.

We are a generation of extremes, especially as students. Obviously, the odd individual falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. However, the majority either neglect their studies and focus on their social lives; or stay in the library till the early hours downing a litre of coffee.

Before finishing for Christmas, the people around me, made it so evident why we are called the burnout generation. A friend jokingly said he’d scheduled his breakdown in for just after his deadlines, explaining he didn’t have the time. Why do we feel guilty and wrong for trying to take care of ourselves?

Taking into account that we spend a vast amount of our time looking at screens or plugged into some sort of tech, why do we never think to recharge our batteries when we’re running low. We wouldn’t wait till our laptop’s battery died to do something. 2020 won’t see me creating crazy resolutions that I will have abandoned by the end of January, instead I’m just going to try and do more of what makes me laugh with the people that make me laugh most.

Plenty of people aren’t bothered by the beginning of a new year but, the transition of the 31st to the 1st is my favourite time of year. It’s another book in the saga of our lives, with all the best characters rolled over.
This year is going to be my year but I reckon we can share;)

Happy New Year!

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19 things 2019 taught me

From such a chaotic Year surely I must have learnt something? hmm….

  1. Some people are arses and that my friend is their problem, not yours.
  2. You can completely disagree with someone’s opinion & beliefs but still love/like them
  3. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a breather from people & places
  4. Being/doing things alone is great – having an identity independent of anyone else is really important
  5. Don’t take criticism from people that you wouldn’t ask for advice
  6. Planning is important, but you can’t plan everything – some of the best things (especially nights out) occur when you don’t expect them
  7. Always carry a coat – being ill without your mum is not great
  8. Blue hair is a nightmare to get rid of – I recommend red food colouring in conditioner
  9. My dad was right, walking is low-key kind of fun
  10. Some people will go their entire Uni lives without cleaning or tidying up after themselves
  11. Don’t have just one type of friend – have the hard-workers, the laughers, the kind, the sarcastic.
  12. Fake tan with a kitchen sponge if mitts are in short supply
  13. Be realistic – is it actually an issue or am I blowing it out of proportion?
  14. Your parents can learn things from you too
  15. Within reason, do things that scare you
  16. Let yourself not be okay
  17. There is power in silence
  18. Don’t drink on an empty stomach
  19. Second Year is a motivation vacuum