Adolescents like to think that they are in charge of themselves and their image. But all too often they are slaves to fashion, unhappily conforming to trends that do not reflect their own values and feelings. In this interview with MercatorNet, Maria del Carmen Bernal, a Professor of Education at the Panamerican University in Mexico, talks about the need for teenagers to get to know themselves and to find their own authentic style. Dr Bernal presented a paper on this theme at the international Congress on the Emotional and Sexual Education of Adolescents held recently in Mexico.
MercatorNet: When a teenage girl gets into her tight jeans and skimpy top and hits the streets with her snazzy little cell phone, what is she intending to say about herself?
Dr Bernal: The reasons are quite variable. Sometimes they do it to imitate their friends or simply because they want to show off their body and feel accepted in their social group. In either case we are not learning very much about who she really is, and neither are her friends.
MercatorNet: On the other hand, could the way she presents herself reveal something she is not aware of and doesn’t really intend?
Dr Bernal: Yes, indeed. Fashion is one of the main ways of expressing how we feel towards others and how we want to relate to them. These feelings include desire, love, hatred, passion, admiration, seduction and rivalry. Our body language, especially the way we dress, may express these things without our saying a word, or even without our admitting these feelings to ourselves.
In this way our appearance has a major influence on how others perceive us. It also has a big influence on a person’s self-esteem. This explains why some people who feel ugly or unattractive choose a more sensual look through their clothes in order to feel more attractive.
Opening the eyes of young people to this connection between feeling and fashion is an important part of education. They need help to develop an authentic personal style.
MercatorNet: Fashion itself reflects broader cultural trends. How would you describe this wider environment today?
Dr Bernal: We are living in an environment that entices us all the time with external things. It stops people getting in touch with their own feelings and thinking about things deeply. People are looking for a playful approach to life, to make fun and pleasure a way of life.
MercatorNet: How does this show up in the world of fashion?
Dr Bernal: The constant search for new sensations leads to an unrealistic look. The way people appear has less and less to do with their personal identity, and this is a very worrying issue. Anxiety among young people to achieve the “right look” while suppressing their natural inclinations leads to loss of self-esteem, dissatisfaction and permanent frustration.
At the same time as they are losing touch with their inner selves, they develop an obsession with the physical self — with their health, diet and exercise, which is all part of this obsession with appearance as a medium to connect with others and feel part of the group.
A perfect example would be tattoos and piercing. The theory is that among youth this is more than a fashion statement, it’s a statement about control over the body, another symbol that one is capable of having his or her own suffering under control. Adolescents are driven to follow this trend even if it is not consistent with their personal identity.
MercatorNet: What problems do you see arising from the trends?
Dr Bernal: I see different consequences taking their toll on many people’s lives. There is a pervasive infantilism, a refusal to grow up that is seen in the irrational eagerness to consume, in the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia, and in various addictions, especially to sex. There is emotional dependency, weakened willpower and a confusion about the meaning of such key concepts as love, sexuality and personal identity.
We urgently need an educational approach that includes reflection on these areas. Developing and creating a personal lifestyle is essential to counteract the seductive power of popular culture.
MercatorNet: How can you get teenagers to see through the manipulation?
Dr Bernal: We have to educate children in aesthetics, or taste. This means facilitating contact with nature and the arts. Developing their powers of observation and the capacity for amazement. Feeding the imagination and memory by means of literature and good movies. Encouraging self-knowledge. And helping young people to be original, not letting them fall into the uniformity that exists today.
Along with this we have to show children how to achieve self-control, so that they are not carried along by a situation but are able to assert their personality and their values. Self-control is the art of conquering and governing yourself — not forgetting the fact that we are vulnerable to crashes and will probably need to bounce back countless times.
Adela Lo Celso and Alegria Duran-Ballen represent Attex Communication & Consulting and write from Rome.