Last week, new research emerged from UCL establishing a link between social media use and depression in young people, particularly pronounced in girls. It may, of course, be that excessive time spent on social media represents a symptom as opposed to a cause (for example, people experiencing depression are more likely to use social media as a coping strategy). However, countless controlled studies have shown girls reporting higher levels of anxiety and dissatisfaction after spending time on social media than boys.
These findings tie in with a topic I’ve wanted to broach for a while, but I have been concerned that it’ll annoy everyone. Then I remembered annoying people is OK so long as it’s an unintended consequence and done in the pursuit of truth and progress: So here goes…
It has long been widely acknowledged that there is such a thing as "toxic masculinity". This refers to a societal blueprint for how to be a boy or man in the modern world, which in turn encourages belief systems and behaviours detrimental to the wellbeing of men and the people they interact with.
For example, traditional wisdom tells us "boys don’t cry", that stoicism is a cornerstone of masculinity and that anger and happiness are the only acceptable "manly" emotions. Men have been called upon in numerous campaigns to buck these trends and model alternative behaviour to their sons, brothers, nephews and pupils.
Keeping up with the Kardashians
Simultaneously, however, any criticism of the "choices" women make has been seen as "anti-feminist". Therefore, hardly anyone ever talks about "toxic femininity" and the responsibilities women might have to combat this. That is until last year, when actress and model Jameela Jamil went in on the Kardashians during a podcast interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, calling them "double agents" for the patriarchy.
Regardless of their individual opinions on the subject, there isn’t a young person in the Western World who isn’t at least peripherally aware of the Kardashians.
In fact, so embedded are they into our culture, and therefore our collective consciousness, that they have become a byword for a way of living that prizes physical appearance and attainment of wealth through male-gaze orientated expressions of sexuality above all else.
I should say, here, that Jamil is very far from the first person to have waded into the dangerous territory of identifying and criticising examples of toxic femininity. Indeed, some of my academic heroes – Dr Susie Orbach, Dr Jean Kilbourne and Naomi Wolf among others – have been expressing similar sentiments for decades.
But Jamil, who currently stars in hugely popular Netflix series The Good Place, is certainly the first to have done so in such a mainstream and high-profile way and, predictably, the responses have been mixed.
Lauded as a hero by some, others have pointed out that Jamil herself is remarkably conventionally beautiful and therefore hardly in a position to "call out" other people who use Photoshop and/or plastic surgery in an effort to look more like her.
Others have branded her "unfeminist" for questioning the Kardashians’ "right" to promote whatever beauty, fitness and fashion products they see fit, in pursuit of becoming "powerful" "business" women (these words are in inverted commas for a reason, reader).
Leading by example
Ultimately, none of that really matters to the central debate. When it comes to feminism, we’re slowly realising that it isn’t enough just to express the "right" sentiments – we must lead by example. It is, after all, futile to impress upon girls and young women how unnecessary their body image insecurities are if we demonstrate the exact same toxicity in our language and actions.
January, when our entire nation embarks on a gigantic compensatory purge following the perceived overindulgences of Christmas, is a perfect time to become more aware of the attitudes we are role-modelling.
Teachers and parents make hundreds of micro-decisions every single day that have the power to either contradict or reinforce toxic femininity. To acknowledge this isn’t "anti-feminist". It doesn’t curtail the freedom of women. Rather, it exposes the hopeful promise of a future generation with genuine freedom from the tyranny of patriarchal oppression.
Happy New Year!
Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner, and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here