Self-esteem and body image issues are one of the biggest problems facing young people today (the facts speak for themselves), and it’s sadly quite common for me to photograph beautiful and wonderful young people who don’t see the great person their friends, family and I see.
Why do kids feel this way?
It’s got a lot to do with our celebrity culture and social media. Today’s kids have grown up in a world where they are constantly connected to the curated lives of their idols. Naturally they begin comparing themselves to them, and seeing beautiful celebrities plastered all over social media creates unrealistic standards for our kids who begin to think this is how people should look.
Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom. Many celebrities like Zendaya, Keira Knightley, Lorde and Kate Winslet have said they are not okay with how they have been airbrushed/photoshopped. Other social media stars like Lexi Harvey and Rebecca Pearson have said what they were portraying on Instagram wasn’t real or representative of their actual lives. This is all good for teaching our kids about what is and isn’t realistic online.
How else can we help our teenagers love themselves?
Whilst putting an insecure person in front of a camera may seem counter-productive, studies show it has a positive effect on the way we see ourselves. Here are 3 ways photography can combat low self-esteem in children and young adults.
1. Seeing The Difference A Professional Makes
A big reason a selfie a teen takes doesn’t look like a picture of a celebrity isn’t the difference between them and the celebrity. More often than not it’s the difference between the photographers. People don’t see themselves properly in selfies. They see a reflection, a one angle image or a reversed picture, all in imperfect light. In comparison a celebrity has a professional photographer with high quality equipment and a carefully lit location.
As with any professional service, you’re paying a photographer because they can do something you can’t. Portrait photography is more than just pressing a button on a fancy camera, it’s seeing nuances, lines and angles in a person they might not see themselves (certainly not in a low quality mirror image!). A good photographer can find this in a person, their personality and inner beauty that makes them unique, and commit it to film. A good portrait proves there’s beauty in everyone, the only difference is some people spend a lot of money to have it documented regularly!
When I photograph a teen (or anyone for that matter), I take the time to make them feel comfortable with the camera. This means I’m able to get a portrait of them that shows their true character. Using my skill and abilities I pose and direct them in a way that brings out their best features. A friend of mine once told me that ‘I see the best in people and reflect it back to themselves,’ which was a lovely thing for them to say and something I try to focus on. So many people think they are ugly or unattractive, but that’s nonsense. I want kids to realise that they are special and awesome and it just takes a little direction to make them realize that.
2. Learning About Photoshop
Another issues children have is they don’t understand what effects photoshop can have and what is photoshopped and what isn’t. One American photographer engaged in a great project to help young girls understand this and found it really helped their self-esteem. Heather Douglas did shoots with young girls in her hometown of Huntsville and showed them the difference a professional can have.
In this project, Heather only used Photoshop to alter a few blemishes and stray hairs, and this is what we limit our use to as well. It’s not about massively changing people’s body shape or any of these other dodgy things you see. It’s just altering temporary things that aren’t reflective of the person and helping them see themselves without distractions. Again, the difference is this happens to celebrities are in every picture!
“Girls see images in magazines and this helps to take the mystery out of it,” Heather explained. “Everyone that I’ve photographed have been normal, local little girls. It shows them that they might not look like that every day but they can if they want to. And that the people in the magazine might look a certain way but they don’t look like that every day either.”
Research by Dove shows this light use is actually what young women prefer. After asking young women to compare four differently altered images of a model, 76% said they preferred the natural or lightly retouched images. Learning about photoshop is a great way for young people to understand what’s realistic and what isn’t.
3. Strengthening Bonds
Self-esteem is something that you should always encourage. If a child is content and confident at a younger age it will make the issues they face as they grow and come across these societal pressures easier to deal with. There is well-established research that proves taking family portraits is a great way to improve a child’s self-esteem as it helps them learn their place in their family and that they’re loved.
Judy Weiser is a psychologist and art therapist based in Vancouver and a big advocate of family portraits. “It lets children learn who they are and where they fit,” she said. “When a child sees a family portrait with them included in the photograph they say to themselves: ‘These people have me as part of what they are, that’s why I belong here. This is where I come from.’”
This can help a great deal, as a child who is confident in who they are from a young age will likely find it easier to keep that self-esteem, partly because they will simply be more likely to speak to their family about it!
So as surprising as it may seem, in a world saturated by unrealistic and altered images, natural photography can actually be a great way to improve body confidence and self-esteem. A professional photographer can help young people learn about the power of photoshop and other techniques, as well as using their expertise to take pictures they love.
If you’d like to learn more about this, I fully recommend you watch this BBC documentary that came out this month. It’s about how digital photography, social media and selfie culture have affected people’s sense of identity, and explains how concepts of beauty have changed drastically over the years. Watching it with your kids could be a great way to learn about how standards have changed based on cultures and trends in the beauty industry, and that what is currently popular isn’t any indication of how beautiful they are!