We are sleepwalking into a student self-esteem crisis

Moaning about (or making fun of) Instagram is not the answer, says Haili Hughes - we need to be proactive in protecting young people from obsessing about appearance

Wellbeing: worried looking girl holding drawing of a girl

Earlier this month, thousands of educators on Twitter were horrified that a “retouching” service is being offered for school photographs. 

This seems, unfortunately, like the next step in a long march of systematically eroding young people’s self-esteem.

It is easy to make fun of social media, with its endless parade of coiffured celebrities, showcasing their perfectly manicured nails and expensive clothes and lifestyle to an audience of impressionable young people. 


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But there’s no doubt that this constant stream of “perfection” rubs off on students.

Young people have always tried to emulate their idols, of course, buying similar clothes or getting their hair styled like their favourite pop stars.

But in recent times, I have witnessed a much greater worry around appearance.

Pressure from peers and images online have the girls constantly applying fake tan, getting nail extensions attached and even having semi-permanent eyelashes – just for a normal day at school. 

My colleagues and I joke that some of them have better make-up than us - when I was their age, I was happy with a blue eyeliner from the bargain bin at Superdrug.

But in all honesty, I can’t help but think that my teen years were much less pressured due to these lower expectations.

Non-uniform days can be like red carpet events at my school; I’ve even heard of some kids nagging their parents to buy them new clothes to debut them for the occasion.

It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that pupil absence often spikes on this day.

Botox at 16

A few weeks ago, a girl in my Year 11 class was speaking to another pupil about her plans to have fillers in her lips and Botox around her eyes. 

Botox? At 16? When I asked her why she wanted it, she told me that she needed it to help her self-esteem. I found this really upsetting. 

But it isn’t just girls who are feeling the pressure. I often hear my male students talking about what they will be doing at the gym that evening.

We should celebrate teens getting healthier, of course, but this isn’t their aim. They want to get “ripped”.

How have we become a society that values what others look like over personality or what we can offer to the world, to make it a better place?

It certainly isn’t for a lack of role models. Young people like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are blazing a trail, spreading their messages across the world, without feeling that each photo needs to be carefully edited.

Opening up

So what can we do? Teaching self-esteem in PSHE lessons, or having the odd assembly is not enough.

As educators, we need to encourage teens to open up to us about the pressures they may be feeling and admit that we sometimes feel them too – after all, I am sure most of us have used a cheeky filter once or twice or untagged ourselves in a dodgy, unflattering photo.

As an English teacher, I am lucky to be able to explore self-esteem issues through the texts we read for literature, and there is also an opportunity to analyse some great magazine and newspaper articles which address these issues as preparation for the language exams.

Mostly, it’s about teachers and school staff having empathy and understanding. For many of us, our teenage years were not documented and recorded in minute detail.

We were free to make fashion faux pas and look ridiculous without the potential of online judgement. 

Having a dodgy school photograph, minus airbrushing, was just a rite of passage. 

We need to realise that our students today live in a very different world. We need to let them know we are there for them and to listen to their fears, worries and aspirations, with understanding and without judgement. 

We need to tell them that they will get through the other side. That all of the worries about whether they fit in or look as good as everybody else will disappear as they find their own style, and themselves.

Haili Hughes is an English teacher at Saddleworth School in Oldham, Greater Manchester. She tweets @HughesHaili 

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