It appears that Facebook has known for over a year that Instagram is harmful to the body image and self esteem of teenage girls. A Facebook whistle blower has been making shocking allegations to the Wall Street Journal and 60 Minutes. Soon, she will be appearing before congress with her documented evidence. There are many deeply concerning issues about the allegations, but the image concerns of children is the conversation I can have as a photographer, a photojournalist, and a former child model.
Modeling can be an amazing experience for minors, but it can also be dangerous. My worst experience as a child model was when I was nine. It was a runway show for Vidal Sassoon in the Chicago Area. In between my runs there would be a wardrobe change and hair adjustments. The man who was handling me was rough, demanding, and abusive.
I was scared. My head hurt. And I sucked up my feelings and put on my best fake smile and handled the runway each time. I was nine years old!
When I was in high school I was painfully aware of how many of my friends were bulimic or anorexic. Some of these friends were modeling, others were in dance, theater, gymnastics, or cheerleading. Some were in none of these things, they just hated themselves for how they looked.
As a portrait photographer out of high school I got my start doing school portraits for a local photographer and I worked for a Glamour Shots franchise. It took moments to find out who was excited about the portrait session and who was not. For some young people it was a matter of trauma to have to engage in this annual ritual for school. As far as the commercial portrait sessions, there was often a horrible “pageant” parent or toxic friends with a young lady.
Back in those days everything was prints and the tools we had at our disposal was contouring makeup, gauze shots, airbrush retouching. Now in the land of photoshop we can create anything. With these powerful tools we can do many good and honest things to make a photo better. But too often we reshape bodies and faces to impossible standards and have thigh gaps of teenage girls in every shot.
Now we are beyond prints. The good news, we can distribute images everywhere, the bad news is we can edit and distribute pictures everywhere. A cell phone app and you can create an impossible standard children are to live up to and you can viscously bully a child with captions, shame, and shares.
While these kids are feeling badly about themselves from the digital torture chamber of unrealistic expectations, the adults are not helping. I see my peers, who are parents, posting memes making fun of kids taking selfies and slut shaming children emulating the clothing and the poses they see on Instagram. Then I see parents and grandparents tell adolescent girls that they are getting “fat” one day and telling them they are too provocative the next. Sometimes you have households where mom is posting memes of her kids being the reason she drinks and dads ogling the thigh gap young flesh on the screen and making comments as he cracks open another craft beer.
Many dance parents, theater parents, pageant parents and model parents can be so much worse. In some cases it is tantamount to abuse.
This is simple and it is scary. Teenagers with image issues often take to eating disorders and medicinal enhancements that can permanently damage their skin and organs. This can also lead to depression. Depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts. This can lead to dead children.
The health and lives of children are in the balance. The digital age we live in now has amplified the shame and made the already impossible standard even more impossible.
It does not appear Facebook will do what is necessary to address their potential contribution in the harm to children. It is my hope that Congress and adults will take the necessary action to protect and encourage our children. It is my hope that photographers will take care and responsibility with how they engage with young people and how they edit them. The same hope is true with hairdressers, coaches, dance instructors, drama teachers, and parents.
With all my clients I make a promise. You will have fun in your portrait shoot and I am going to take a picture of you that has never been taken before. When that person is a child or a teenager, fun is more important to me than composition. Of course I want good lighting and I want good composition, but I can embrace a little wasi sabi if that is what is needed for the young person to have fun and feel safe.
My editing will always be only what is necessary for lighting and exposure.
The shot in this story is the daughter of a model who I worked with in a project earlier this year. She saw her mom posing and wanted to have her own session. So we did it. In the shoot there was constant encouragement, playfulness, and fun.
Her mother? Her mother is always in her child’s corner and this child always feels loved and beautiful. May the rest of us clean up our act so that her genuine smile does not fade as so many children before her.
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