In an age of celebrity where the spotlight tends to be on women who are famous and glamorous, and who tend to be promoted by the media as "the ideal" to strive for, where does this leave impressionable young women in the process of establishing their own identities?
Women need "real" and powerful alternatives—women they see on a regular basis whom they can learn from and be inspired by. The single most life-changing decision a woman can make is to choose her role models wisely. Very often women are not discerning about the qualities they wish to emulate in other women. They tend to pattern themselves after their famous idols, whether chosen consciously or sub-consciously. The elevation of someone to the pedestal of a role model can be detected through such statements as:
- "I'm a fan of... "
- "... is my idol."
- "I admire... "
- "... inspires me."
- "... is my hero."
[You fill in the blanks.]
On a practical level, this makes no sense, as these public figures are only known to us because their images and statements have been featured repeatedly in the various forms of media—from advertising and print media to the internet and social media. The reason a media role model cannot ever be appropriate is because there is no relationship, no meaningful bond other than that between a "star" and a fan, which is based on fantasy and illusion. The beautiful model or actress is actually not as beautiful as you think—because much time, effort, cosmetics and photo editing have gone in to achieving that "perfect" image for her. The voice of that musician you admire is enhanced by instruments, clever arrangements and possibly auto-tune. The sportswoman you idolize is not as strong or as skilled as you think—she relies on coaching, training and physiotherapy, as well as sports psychology—to keep herself in peak form.
Fashion and lifestyle blogger, Scarlett Dixon, has recently come under fire—along with so many others posting "picture perfect" lifestyles on Instagram. It is feared these social media influencers are helping to undermine mental health by causing an increase in feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy at not being able to measure up. In response to these concerns, Dixon countered on Instagram, "I personally don't think my content is harmful to young girls, but I do agree Instagram can present a false expectation for people to live up to."
The term "female power," spun from popular culture, has gathered momentum with the recent #MeToo Campaign where survivors of sexual assault, rape and harassment have collectively found their voices. It may mistakenly be used to endorse behaviors which mimic men in an attempt to gain equality such as Thandie Newton's remarks as she accepted her recent Emmy award—"I don't even believe in God but I'm going to thank her tonight." When "power" is associated with women, it tends to alienate or subjugate men. Yet, we do women a grave disservice if we confine their "power" to the limited roles of seductress, adornment, sex objects, playing second fiddle to or oppressing men. But "power," a word which tends to carry connotations of machismo and brute strength, might be better defined for women in terms of "influence."
Most surveys in popular newspapers and magazines, such as the "50 Most Beautiful," "100 Richest," and the "Woman of the Year," are taken from a sampling of the population mainly limited to celebrities. Moreover, the fame of those listed is typically linked to the film, music or fashion worlds. These industries are based on false values such as, "the love of money [materialism and marketing], the lust of the eyes [image and glamour], the lusts of the flesh [sexual fantasy and promiscuity]" (1 John 2:16).
But since all people are flawed, in whom can we vest our admiration, and from whom should we derive inspiration? This begs the question as to the purpose of a role model. A role model should spur you on to your own personal development. If this person only inspires passive hero worship, then you need to question the pride of place they occupy in your heart. Scripture warns us to, "guard [our] heart with all diligence because out of it flows the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23). The dangers are that female media icons consume so much of our attention, time and imagination that our own lives are neglected as a result. A role model may shape you, but you still need to decide what it is that makes you unique:
- What beliefs do you hold dear?
- What causes do you believe in strongly?
- What do you want to be remembered for?
Although we are all fallible, a worthy role model must be able to admit the error of her ways and demonstrate a willingness to change for the better. That way you can learn from her accomplishments as well as her mistakes. You can admire and imitate qualities such as hard-work, endurance, kindness, and politeness. If you incorporate these into your character, you will reap success in your life. Young girls and women need to discern what are the positive, desirable traits to follow in the women they are exposed to through the media and their community, and conversely what are the negative, unflattering ones to avoid. This can be achieved through mentoring by women in the church, family or neighbourhood (Titus 2:3-5).
You can only discover a sense of purpose by embracing the life you've been given and seeking God for his divine purpose for you as an individual. Rather than falling in love with a media idol to compensate for your sense of inadequacy, embrace positive qualities in an admirable person, and recognise that they are transferable—you too can possess them without compromising those qualities which make you unique.
— Dr. Carla Cornelius aims to shine a light on contemporary trends in the light of biblical wisdom. She holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Counselling and is the author of several books including "Captive Daughters: Breaking the Chains." Her heart's desire is to empower women in the truest sense of the word so that they understand who God desires them to be rather than simply riding the tide of popular culture and becoming captive to social stereotypes of how they should look and behave.