The pressure to be perfect


'Love Island' & Bear Gryll's 'The Island'


Three recent experiences got me thinking - I read an article about the “Snowflake Generation”; somebody I respect referred to “the shallow behaviour of the young people” on Bear Gryll’s “The Island”; and I watched “Love Island” with my teenage daughter. 

Bear Gryll’s last series of The Island saw the young and old split into teams and separated to survive. Their abilities to cope were starkly different. The young seemed to give up easily and be more concerned about how their bottoms looked in a bikini than in finding water and lighting a fire. The older team was very vocal in its criticism of these perceived failings. 

On the surface, Love Island seemed to be about physical perfection, for the boys as well as the girls, and I feared for the messages that this was sending to my girls and their friends. In reality many of the young people on Love Island were kind, intelligent, and hard working, arguably utilising the choices they have to advance their careers, in a world where social media matters.

Today there is nowhere to hide, image is all and reality is rarely real. What does this mean for our young people? 

It is easy to sit back and observe from the perspective of a childhood in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Home was a safe zone, without the intrusion of social media. If your Mum unlocked the phone you sat in a freezing cold hallway to chat to your friends, having put 10p in the jar. Friends were people you actually knew, people you spent physical time with, and playing meant going outside. In many ways childhood was simpler, there was less choice but we didn’t have the whole world watching. 

When I reflect on my own teenage life, I can do so in the safe knowledge that there are very few, if any, photos of my mistakes. Whilst some of my choices were mortifying, when the flames died down people’s attention moved on. Today those mistakes can spread in seconds, the whole school can be aware in minutes, and there is no limit to the scope for one mistake to spread. Is it any wonder young people today obsess about having the perfect body and appearing to have the perfect life? Fear is the perfect fuel for self-obsession.

I hear my peers criticise the “young of today”. Is that criticism fair? Are our fears for their futures justified simply because they are so different from our own experiences? Or do they have advantage in the choices available to them? What should we be doing as parents, teachers and employers to ensure young people have a secure base from which to navigate the world and the challenges they will face?

The rise in mental health issues, especially in young people, is well documented. What really lies behind the statistics? The pressure to be perfect, under a permanent public radar, and resulting low self-esteem, play a large part in this rise.

Young women today have seen their mothers attempt to have it all — a successful career, motherhood, marriage, independence and slower aging. They have also witnessed the price their mothers have paid to have that.   We have a blurring between the generations. The experiences I share with my friends and my daughters are not something that was witnessed when I was a child — triathlon into your 80s? Skinny jeans in your 60s?  

I have so many questions and am determined to dig deeper, to work out where my generation, especially those of us working in the fields of coaching and psychotherapy, can support young people and their parents. 

I believe that the pressure to appear perfect is very real. I also believe that whilst it is most significant for young people, it is starting to be felt throughout the generations. The advance of social media isn’t going to slow anytime soon, so we need try and understand it, talk about it and find a way to support — rather than sit back and look appalled. Every generation contributes to the focus of the next, how can we own that contribution and act?

Hello Digital