Thursday, 21 January 2010

Teach The Well and Let Them Lead the Way

Recent propaganda would have us believe that anyone under the age of 18 is a shameless thug, desperate to gain their coveted ASBO by committing unprovoked acts of violence on unsuspecting, law abiding citizens. It’s a classic example of the minority being hyperbolized into a stereotype by a scaremongering media campaign which has rendered some people in the UK too frightened to leave their homes after dark.

Recently, I was having a conversation with an 80-something year old acquaintance who stated “young people, they have got no respect, they think they know it all”. Somewhat foolishly, when you consider my audience, I responded by articulating my theory that one cannot demand respect without giving it. “You could be right” she replied, in the sort of tone which assured me that she thought I was anything but.

Having met hundreds of UK teens during the course of my Body Confidence Campaign, admittedly with trepidation, I have not yet encountered a single one who was deliberately rude. What I have discovered is a generation of people who are, whilst wonderful as individuals, despondent, disillusioned and lacking in self esteem as a whole.

The current financial climate means that even the most well qualified of our students are not guaranteed employment which utilizes their skills, or even pays the rent. A recent study found that in an average London classroom, 60% of fathers are absent altogether, with single working mothers absent a lot of the time, struggling to provide for their children. Feeling neglected and unloved, a huge proportion of teens are seeking the financial reward and adoration they crave by pursuing a career as a C:NS (celebrity: non-specified). Their dreams are nurtured and fuelled by the Big Brother and Simon Cowell reality television empires, churning out one gormless, unsuspecting victim after another, catapulting them to dizzy heights of undeserving fame and then allowing them to be ripped to shreds by a gleeful paparazzi.

With glamour models and it girls heralded as the epitome of success, it is little wonder that young people are feeling increasingly resentful, in a plastic reality, offering little reward for hard work and no recognition for those who don’t fit a certain aesthetic. The elder generation must seem, collectively, to be a bunch of whinging, judgmental, environment destroying idiots, whose only legacy to the children of today is a constant feeling of insecurity and a hole in the Ozone layer.

And then we wonder why, with little incentive to pursue any dream which cannot unfold in front of a camera, portrayed as society’s villains and often without a stable home life, young people act up from time to time. The key, in my experience, is simply to show interest in them and to listen to their needs. With 70% of people in the UK between the ages of 11 and 19 citing their relationship with their body as their “number one worry”, 14 and 15 year olds asking their parents for plastic surgery for their birthday and 1 in 10 people under 25 having an eating disorder, the message is pretty clear: One of the issues which desperately needs to be addressed is body confidence and whatever measures are currently being taken are falling woefully short.

Having 11 GSCES, 3 A Levels, an Honors Degree in English and a Diploma in Law under my belt didn’t stop me casting aside all my potential, throwing myself head first into an eating disorder, plunging into depression and ultimately nearly ending my life. It’s therefore always been my opinion that schools have a duty to do everything they can to help students feel happy in their own skins, something which is as, if not more, crucial to their success in life as an academic education.
Luckily, when I launched by Body Confidence Campaign in August 2009, schools in Hertfordshire and Essex were enlightened enough to recognise the importance of the issue, with schools, colleges and universities all of the UK quickly following suit.
Andy Ginn, Director of Creative Academies at Gloucestershire College said of the campaign:
"The college is actively engaged with the 'every learner matters' agenda and under the framework for excellence, we're particularly proud to be associated with this extremely innovative and positive campaign. Students studying on a variety of courses such as fashion, music, hair, beauty, graphics and photography for example will be helping in the future to shape the attitudes and beliefs of our society, so in the creative academies we're fully supportive of the work of Natasha Devon (in association with Winning Minds, Body Gossip- and B-eat) in raising these issues at the first opportunity"
What Andy has shrewdly recognized, is that the campaign will not only benefit the young people of today, but that by investing time and effort into the people responsible for shaping future attitudes towards beauty, we are saving subsequent generations an awful lot of turmoil and heartache.

I devised the campaign to be more than just a lecture, which, however eye opening, represents only an hour of the student’s lives wrestling with a lifetime of indoctrination and programming - Which is why I also incorporated a confidential helpline and an online forum with a variety of causes, petitions and groups the students can become involved with. Since I began working for Winning Minds, I have been astounded by the size of the community out there who are passionately dedicated to changing the perception of beauty to promote a healthier and happier society and by working with Body Gossip, B-eat, MGEDT (Men Get Eating Disorders Too) and Evolve Magazine (to name but a few), part of my motivation is joining the dots - United, we are formidable. The forum aims to introduce the students to this community, let them know that support is available if they wish to make their own stand against prevailing attitudes and beliefs. With the helpline designed to cater for their emotional needs, the Body Confidence Campaign represents, I hope, a fully comprehensive network of support.

That is why I was particularly deflated to receive a letter today from the Department of Children, Schools and Families on behalf of Ed Balls essentially stating that the current PSHE program on the curriculum offers the scope for the effects of the media and airbrushing to be taught in schools and therefore, whilst they supported my campaign, they were not prepared to offer me any funding.

However, I cannot help but wonder, what with the massive recent media interest in and public support for my campaign and in Gok Wan’s petition to have Body Confidence classes included in the curriculum, and with the elections fast approaching, which of us is in fact missing out of the potential benefits of my attempted political alliance……?

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