Airbrushed pictures of women in underwear in magazines are not new, but for one of Britain’s leading headmistresses the image of a wealthy American socialite in bra and pants above the headline “Officially your hottest woman in the world” was too much.
In a speech to an education conference, Dr Helen Wright said the cover of Zoo magazine, featuring US reality TV star Kim Kardashian, represented “almost everything that is wrong with western society”, with her success rated by looks, not achievement. The “descent of civilisation” could be read into every one of Kardashian’s curves, she said.
“The pupils in our schools really are soaking up a diet of empty celebrity and superficiality. They are under a huge amount of pressure, buffeted by these images and messages.”
Wright, head of St Mary’s Calne, a private girls’ school in Wiltshire, told the Observer that she had been inundated with messages of support after her speech and that she believed schools and the government were not doing enough to tackle the all-pervasive celebrity culture.
“It’s not about a person. That single photograph brought together two aspects of our society – fame for fame’s sake, the distorted view of reality that that brings, and our over-sexualised culture – that encapsulate the vast pressures on young people. I’m not just talking about girls but boys, too, suffer from the focus on appearance that we are in danger of allowing to become mainstream.”
She believes that, just as footballers and politicians are coming under increasing pressure to behave like responsible role models, so should celebrities like Kardashian, the face of assorted ranges of perfumes and clothing, who became famous when a home sex video made it on to the internet. She successfully sued a video company over the tape’s ownership, thus adding million to an already substantial bank balance. Her reality TV show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, has been running since 2007. Interviews centre around makeup, the size of her bottom – (she’s “proud”) – and her boyfriends, currently the rap star Kanye West.
It is, said Wright, the kind of role model young women could do without. But at one school three 15-year-olds told the Observer that they felt patronised by people assuming they were sucked into celebrity culture.
Victoria, Lucy and Helen are all pupils at St Catherine’s School in Bramley and are not impressed by the idea that they might be unduly influenced by celebrity culture.
Victoria said: “There’s a stereotype and it’s quite hard to battle against. The pressure is on to be the perfect women, but not to really work for anything. I think that’s really sad. I did watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I didn’t watch it because I wanted to be like them, I found it quite interesting to see how they live. I had to turn it off – I wouldn’t recommend it.”
But the girls admit there are plenty of young women who struggle with the constant images of celebrity wealth and perfection on show. “You shouldn’t aspire to be somebody who doesn’t have to work to achieve something, if that’s what they are saying. I also think it’s bad for self-esteem. A lot of my friends think they are so fat when they are not at all, and they think they are not perfect and think they should be. All the Photoshopping, they know it happens, but they still think they should look like that,” said Lucy.
They also all resented the idea that they needed to have a role model.
“I love the idea of independence, that’s important to me. A role model isn’t the best idea: you shouldn’t want to duplicate someone else but be yourself,” said Helen.
Louise Robinson, head of Merchant Taylors’ Girls’ School in Liverpool, is also president of the Girls’ Schools Association, which is running Ahead of the Game, an entrepreneurship competition for girls, precisely to help combat some of these issues.
“We don’t praise the characteristics of women, it’s all about looks and what they are wearing,” she said. “In our school we use celebrities as examples who are also businesswomen, like Beyoncé and Victoria Beckham, women who go on the record and talk about how hard they work to diversify and take their talent further.”
But while private girls’ schools may have the resources and space to help young women face up to the pressures of a celebrity-obsessed culture, not all schools can.
Last week the Home Office produced a new booklet with before and after photographs of actresses and singers to help parents show children aged from six to 11 how airbrushing works. It’s a bid to help children deal with the body image issues that affect them as a result of constant exposure to digitally enhanced pictures of celebrities. The booklet warns parents that children are at risk of developing warped self-esteem and even mental health problems over the distorted views of appearance that are presented to them.
It advises parents: “Place emphasis on personal attributes such as personality, achievements, skills and outlook on life. Refrain from placing emphasis on physical aspects such as prettiness, likeness to celebrities or thinness.
“However, do not feel scared to praise the physical attributes that make your child unique, whether they are tall, short, narrow or wide.”
It was especially poignant coming just days after a West Somerset coroner, Michael Rose, blamed the fashion media for the death of 14-year-old Fiona Geraghty, found hanged in her home in 2011 after suffering from bulimia.
Rose called on magazines and catwalks to stop using thin models.
But others point beyond the “media” to the consumers of celebrity culture. “Kim Kardashian is not famous for being famous,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at New York state’s Syracuse University, who pointed out that “most celebrities get rich because we line their pockets.
“Now it may be that her skill is one that’s harder to identify than a prize-winning scientist, but she’s good at what she does: getting people to pay attention to her. People have been complaining about it as long as it’s existed – it’s an abstraction. I don’t think we really want it to go away.” Thompson believes if all celebrities disappeared tomorrow, we would clamour for them to be back.
The desire for attention is, however, where the major danger of celebrity culture lies, according to Dr Angie Hobbs, a senior fellow in the public understanding of philosophy at the University of Warwick. “My first thought in hearing Dr Wright’s comments was that there are worse things – global warming, the banking crisis – than Kim Kardashian on the front of a young men’s magazine. But I do think sometimes that adults can think celebrity culture is more of a problem than it actually is. Young women do realise when people are trying to sell them stuff and exploit them. But for young people who perhaps feel more adrift, then it’s true that the choice of role models can be an issue.”
She said the human desire for status had been documented as far back as Plato. “But when a society starts divorcing status from doing honourable things and awards it for materialistic things, that’s when you are in trouble. You have to look very carefully at why people want to be famous, what they are lacking. And at why people who don’t want to be famous themselves want to follow famous people, what they are lacking.”
But she said she was optimistic that things would soon come full circle. “As part of the profileration of media, the blogs, the news outlets, it gets to a point where nobody is going to be talking about the same thing. Already it is impossible for anyone to be as famous as the Beatles, for example, because already the media conversation is so diverse. You can be famous in one chunk but unknown in another. No matter how many videos and blogs you put up, no one will be watching. So celebrity itself will implode.”
Perhaps thats why Kardashian herself is exploiting every moment of her already extended 15 minutes of fame. The man she was married to for 72 days is taking her to court to find out if their marriage was a publicity stunt, her tweets and blogs to fans carry advertising and there is currently debate about whether the leaking of the sex tape was an economic move.
She keeps to light topics, quoted as saying the worst thing on the planet was women who wear the wrong colour foundation. But last month, responding to an actor calling her and her close friend Paris Hilton stupid, she replied: “Calling someone who runs their own businesses, is a part of a successful TV show, produces, writes, designs, and creates ‘stupid,’ is in my opinion careless.”
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