The commercial world cynically promotes unrealistic aspirations among young people, who are most vulnerable to them.
Barbie is fifty seven years old in 2016 and yet even in comfortable middle age she has kept her impossibly proportioned figure. It has been calculated that to look like Barbie, the average woman would need to be two feet taller, take six inches off her waist and add five inches to her bust! It was in 1959 that Ruth Handler took inspiration from a sassy cartoon character in an adult German magazine called Lilli to create a doll that would ‘project every little girl’s dream of the future’. Since then over one billion Barbies have been sold worldwide and Barbie has had close to one hundred different careers.
A survey of primary school children in south-west England was recently conducted to find out if Barbie is cool or uncool. The researchers expected it to be the latter, but were shocked nevertheless to find a subterranean development in Barbie play. The children routinely tortured Barbie: maiming, decapitation and burning being three favoured options. You could probably write a thesis on why they were doing this, which would include the prominence that extreme violence has secured in contemporary culture. What it may also unconsciously represent is a severe reaction by some against the aggressive marketing of Barbie by adults to children as a fantasy they should aspire to.
Children may object to shameless marketing but they are still in thrall to it. A survey carried out by Luton First of 1,600 British under 10s early in 2009 revealed that for our primary age children, the very best things in the world are ‘good looks’. The corollary for them was that ‘being fat’ topped the list of the worst things in the world. (The same survey found that Simon Cowell was more famous than God, but we won’t go there.) It is perhaps against this background that poor Cerrie Burnell, a CBeebies presenter, was recently objected to by parents because she had only one arm and was ‘scaring the children’. We worry about teenagers struggling with self-esteem in a world where appearance is prized over character but this evidence shows that children are being afflicted with anxiety over their bodies even before they become sexually aware.
The cultural context has changed beyond recognition. In general, a hundred years ago, the only people you were likely to compare yourself to were those who resided in your neighbourhood where you also lived near to you extended family, with all the nurture and support it could bring. Today, thanks to global media, we can compare ourselves to anyone, anywhere in the world and inevitably human beings contrast themselves with beautiful, rich, famous and unusually talented people. Labour mobility means that many people are deprived growing up of the resilience and significance an extended family can impart in dealing with such images. The media do not play a neutral role in this staggering but largely ignored development; instead they play to it, making sure we see little else when we open a magazine. If adults struggle to deal with such images, how much more vulnerable are young people?
As Christian people we find several touchstones for dealing with this dilemma. The first is the unique worth of every human being to the God in whose image they are made and for whom he has died. From our fellowship we learn to cherish relationships, not possessions and to pursue Christ, not fame. These things are true, but they are made harder to embrace by a warped material culture.
Young people have been stigmatised for many social ills, but the world they are growing up in has been created by previous generations of adults who have been quick to market products to them but careless in attending to the unusual demands aggressive commercialisation places on the youngest.
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