The complex landscape of beauty and self-image is challenging enough as a woman, but what about when you’re 16? Stylist’s Lucy Partington revisited her old school to find out.
The last time I stood at my school gates in Grimsby was in 2006 – and I never imagined I’d be back. But here I am, about to speak to five 16-year-olds to find out if their worries and outlook are the same as mine were at their age. I was always the tall, overweight teenager, lacking in self-confidence (I still am, if I’m honest), obsessing over the glossy world of beauty I read about in Company magazine, thinking I’d never fit into it.
I always wonder how I’d have coped in today’s Instagram-obsessed world. Would it have made me more pragmatic, or intensified my insecurities? As adults, we hear stories about how young people are affected by what they see in the media, but we never hear from them directly. This was my chance to pick their brains.
Meet the beauty panel
She loves Macbeth by William Shakespeare and is studying for a career in medicine.
Is passionate about science, and her favourite book is Noughts And Crosses by Malorie Blackman.
Proud to be a feminist and says that her grandmother is her all-time biggest hero.
Renalta wants to be a lawyer when she’s older. An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley is her favourite read.
Names Mary Queen of Scots as her biggest hero. She loves books by Cassandra Clare.
Where do you get your information about beauty?
Bethany: I watch YouTube and go on Snapchat and Facebook. You’ll see things like ‘The 10 best products this month’. On Facebook there are beauty groups with thousands of people. You put in questions and people give advice. There’s things like Mrs Gloss & The Goss, The Beauty Bible, The Beauty Group. I trust real people.
Renalta: Definitely from my mum. When I started wearing make-up at 13 I asked her what she liked.
How do you feel about the way you look?
Hannah: I’m really happy. In my house my parents are more academic so body image doesn’t cross my mind. A few years ago nobody appreciated curves, but then Kim Kardashian came out with her big butt and everybody started to love them. As a Nigerian girl, I’m naturally quite curvy. We have bigger bits, but we didn’t need a white woman to show that we are beautiful.
Jessica: My body changed recently and I didn’t feel comfortable in a bikini. My thighs are too big and so is my bum. But with some encouragement from my mum I was finally happy. It took about six months, though.
Do you compare yourself to anyone else?
Julia: I feel like girls will never be fully happy with their bodies, so we have to work with what we have and appreciate our good features. We can cover bad features with make-up or we can motivate ourselves to start going to the gym. I feel like it’s really important to accept yourself for what you are. A lot of girls don’t have body confidence.
Renalta: Everyone has low days. When I’m low I think that I have to live with myself for the rest of my life and that makes me realise that, yes, I do love myself, even though there are things I don’t like.
Jessica: I compared myself to a lot of the Instagram- famous people. They’re all skinny and I felt like my body should be like that.
Have you consciously noticed a rise in body positivity?
Bethany: You see it more now. But with brands like Victoria’s Secret you don’t see it at all. I went in [to Victoria’s Secret] the other day and the models were tiny.
Renalta: It’s like you have to look like that to be sexually attractive. Tall, skinny, small thighs, tiny waist.
Julia: Girls with curves are more in fashion and skinny girls are shamed – I’ve seen it on social media. Models are really skinny because they’re trying to fit an image that two years ago was seen as perfect and now they’re seen as flat. It works both ways.
Jessica: People are realising there’s many body shapes and that there’s nothing wrong with being different. Social media makes you realise not everybody is a model.
Do any of your peer group diet?
Renalta: I’m totally against it, especially crash diets where you lose 10lbs in 10 days. It’s much better to have a balanced diet. Companies that advertise them know deep down they don’t really work. Losing that much weight quickly isn’t sustainable or healthy.
Bethany: I did Slimming World and lost a lot of weight. I went to classes with my mum, but it’s quite expensive. It’s good because you can still eat things you like and lose weight. I tried shakes but they were disgusting.
Where do you find out about those diets?
Bethany: The shakes were on the internet but Slimming World was my mum. We agreed to do it together so it was motivational.
Have you ever felt any pressure to exercise?
Hannah: In my family I’m the biggest and sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh why do I have to work out?’ but I do it because I want to look better and feel healthy. I do it for myself. I do at least four workouts a week – abs one day, cardio, strength training and Pilates. I always feel good afterwards.
Jessica: Everyone is encouraged to work out because on Love Island they’ve got that gym.
Bethany: Have you ever seen anyone big on Love Island?
Hannah: No, and I don’t think you ever will.
Is that a good or bad thing?
Bethany: Bad! Love Island is a love show and they’re promoting the idea that only skinny people, or people with abs, can find love. So many young people watch it and they don’t see bigger people. Girls will watch it and think that’s what they have to look like.
Renalta: But if boys aren’t seen to have muscly arms and abs then they downgrade themselves. Like Jack [Fincham], he didn’t have a six pack and he was thinking of not going in because of it.
Do you think boys care as much about how they look?
Bethany: Yes. They feel like they have to impress you, too. I see my 13-year-old brother spending ages doing his hair and asking if he looks OK. If his hair isn’t going right he gets frustrated and doesn’t want to go to school.
Renalta: Men look after themselves more. It used to just be girls, but now you see men who look put together and have tried hard, but their friends still take the mickey out of them for doing it.
Jessica: They say boys shouldn’t try or make an effort because they’re boys. But some want to wear make-up and then they get classed as being gay.
Is boys wearing make-up normal to you?
Bethany: Yeah, my little brother loves it.
Renalta: I think we’re still so stuck on the traditional view of how men and women should be.
Bethany: And how women are lower than men.
Renalta: If it’s not causing any harm, I think you should just carry on with it.
Have you formed any opinions yet on cosmetic procedures like botox?
Hannah: I don’t like them at all.
Renalta: I don’t either.
Jessica: It’s OK if you want to change your own body. It’s yours to do whatever you want with but personally I wouldn’t.
Bethany: I wouldn’t have it, but if it makes somebody feel better they should be allowed to do it.
Who in the public eye do you consider to be beautiful?
Renalta: Selena Gomez.
Jessica: Rihanna. She’s beautiful.
Julia: A lot of Instagram models. Like Wolfie Cindy and Belle Lucia. Instagram is full of pretty girls so I follow them because they have such pretty photos. It’s like a positivity feed.
Do you feel confident?
Hannah: I’d say so, yes.
Jessica: Being at sixth form has given me a confidence boost. At school everyone was the same, but in sixth form we can express ourselves in the way we dress and the subjects we take.
Julia: I agree, but I fake a lot of my confidence and then it makes me feel better. I fake it until I make it. Bethany: Throughout school, people are horrible, even if it’s not intentional. They say things that can really put you down. There’s a lot of weight shaming, or people say things about your skin or hair. People used to be horrible to me because I didn’t fake tan.
Renalta: Yes. Although three years ago I’d have said no. It’s a growing thing and I hope in future it gets better and I love myself more. Not just me – I hope everyone can just be the best version of themselves.
As I left I was pleasantly buoyed by my conversation. I wasn’t that mature at 16. True, they have their worries and contradictions, but they are well informed and know that confidence and success is not to be gained through looks alone. Ironically, I think it’s because they are exposed to so much that they can decipher quite clearly what they do or do not want to be.
And, at the age of 28, I realise I should try to think a little more like them.
Main image: Dennis Pedersen