Damaging girls' self-esteem? There's an app for that.

Nearly every girl I spoke to while researching my book "All Made Up: A Girl's Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty" expressed a wish to be a model/celebrity in some way. Even the girls who excel in school, sports and activities. *That's* how strong the cultural messages are about the importance and benefits of having the right look.Over the course of my career, I have interned/worked/edited/freelanced at and for teen magazines like Sassy, YM, Jump, Teen People, Seventeen, Elle Girl, Cosmo Girl, Girls Life and others...and I can't tell you how many emails and letters I've seen asking the same question:

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"Do you think I could model?"

I've opened manila envelopes containing expensive professional photos girls have invested in.  I've received hand wrapped packages crammed with snapshots of bikini-clad girls in their backyards asking if I think they stand a chance at being in  ______ (enter name of teen magazine I happened to be working for at the time).

From these letters, I gleaned that girls all over north America were spending a disproportionate amount (and by that I mean A LOT), of their time, energy and money on trying to achieve the look and body that would open this door to them.  They talked about quitting their favorite sports and activities in order to increase their chances of getting discovered.  In their minds: no soccer = diminished risk of getting a ball to the face, thereby ruining their shot at getting discovered by a model agent at the mall or airport--as if all malls and airports are constantly being trawled by modeling agents.  (But then again, given how we've all heard ad nauseum that Kate Moss was discovered at while en route to a family vacation, is it any surprise that they want that fairy tale for themselves?)  Girls also wrote in about spending their allowances on products and services--waxing, highlights, gym memberships--that once upon a time were only for adults, And about how much time they spent "hanging out" with their friends primping instead of playing.

These letters and the burning need felt by so many young girls to look just like what they were seeing in the media--the idea that if they could achieve the right look and the right label (model/actress/star) that then they'd be desirable and worthy--troubled me so much that I wrote about book to counteract it.  My goal was to try to explain to girls that their worth does not lie in how closely they resemble these images and that copying them is not an actual key to the mythical existence depicted in the media.  And every once in a while, I get an email from a girl telling me that my book has changed her perspective, or from a mother thanking me for talking about these issues in a way girls can relate to.  And for a few moments, I feel like I've really made a difference.

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And if you've really got model potential, you can brag about it to your tweeps. Cool. Well, a new app called Model Potential is out to obliterate my life's work by reiterating to girls just how important it is to look like a model.

The premise?  You take a photo of yourself with your smartphone and Model Potential's "unique digital analysis system will...use complex algorithms and mathematics to analyse your image and let you know if you have the potential to become a model."  (Oooh, fancy!)  The app then gives users the "option to send and fast track your photo to experienced bookers at the UK's No1 model agency, Select Model Management, providing you with the opportunity to be represented by them!"  (Wow!  Like, it could really happen! All I have to do is spend more of my time getting gorgeous and then fork over some $$ to a company cashing in on my dreams and poof!  I might be the next Gisele/Kate/Chanel/Karolina etc!)

Really? Because girls need something else telling them that looking like a model is important?  Because there isn't enough out there already encouraging them to focus their efforts and energy on their appearance?  Because the myth of Being Discovered and rocketing to the top isn't strong enough?

It's a total pipedream, I know, given the tone of pop culture today--but wouldn't it be great if someone came up with an app that got girls thinking about where their true potential lies?  That could help them explore their interests and find meaningful ways to engage in them?  After all, we tell girls all the time that they can do anything... and they can!  But that's certainly not what the imagery and media that's marketed to them reflects.

So if I were to make that app, here are just a few of the tips I'd include:

  • Get in the Game  Girls need to be involved in activities where they get positive reinforcement for their skills, not just appearance.  So please don't let them drop their passions/activities before they've even fully explored them.
  • Set LimitsMarketers and the media don’t and won’t, so it's up to parents (older siblings, close family members etc) to help stop the barrage of images and messages trying to reach girls. But along with setting limits...
  • Find Ways to Compromise  Girls are swimming in this stuff--there's no denying that.  Plus it's fun and it's what their friends are into.  But in my opinion, banning something (like magazines, a TV show or a specific fashopn trend) outright doesn't help girls learn how to cope with the messages that are going to be bombarding them for a lifetime. Agree to let them watch/wear what you can tolerate...and talk about it (see below!)
  • Talk It Out  Have frank discussions about what they see in (or what/who they don't see) in the media they consume, or why some trends are more appropriate than others. Seize "teachable moments" and use them to help broaden girls' understanding of what is being marketed to them and why.
  • Keep it Real  Strong role models are often hard to pick out in the media.  So expose girls to powerful, smart women in their real lives instead of waiting and hoping to find one on TV or in a magazine.

Basically, girls aren't going to get excited about wanting something different for themselves until we, as a culture, get excited about different women.  So let's move on already from icons famous solely because of their appearance and dress size.  No more reporting on them, glamorizing them, caring about them--or using apps to determine if we could be them. 

To paraphrase my, er, own book, if we want to help girls see through all the celebrity hype, we have to start by helping them celebrate themselves.