Media – cruel arbiter of youthful self-respect

Nov 8, 2016 | 4 comments

Stressed businesswoman

Are we too relaxed about the power of modern media to determine how young people value themselves?  Here Sean O’Conaill argues that we need urgently to respond to this growing danger – with the Gospel message that every person without exception is of equal, constant and infinite value.

According to Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, one in four Irish teenage girls aged 16-18 is self-harming, and obesity rates among young people are higher for those socially less advantaged. This news of Nov 3rd 2016 shows that Ireland is following a pattern that is uniform throughout the developed world: a new tyranny is growing, far more insidious than any that preceded the rise of electronic and print media.

Under British imperial occupation Ireland suffered huge psychological damage that has still not been overcome, but at least we had far closer bonds with one another than is happening today. We could join to celebrate what we had retained of our historical memory, and dream together of a future truly free.

self-harmBut what does true freedom mean today for Irish young people, when stereotypes of physical attractiveness, celebrity and success are mercilessly relayed to them by ‘must have’ devices that wake them in the early morning. And when trolls, fashion police and ransom honey-pots lie in wait on ‘social media’ throughout their waking hours?

This ‘media colonisation’ was impending even before Ireland’s 20th century overthrow of ‘the British yoke’. The very first clinical diagnoses of what are today termed eating disorders occurred in the 1800s, in an era of expanding print mass media. The latter exploited the appetite of young women for every detail of the costume and ‘lifestyle’ of highly placed ‘beauties’ – such as Sisi, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1898), wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I.


‘Sisi’, Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1898)

It was this ‘new woman’ who, along with her good friend the Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, put an end to the wearing of the crinoline and made slimness de rigeur for fashionable women from then on. According to one account they had in their early friendship retired to a private room to measure their waists – inaugurating what is now the global craze for competitive thinness. Ominously, Sisi insisted upon a rigid low calorie diet and dedicated herself to physically demanding sports – and it wasn’t long before the highly placed female readership of the growing print media was aware of every detail of this new ‘must’ for the ‘new woman’.


Empress Eugénie of France, (1826-1920)

The first clinical descriptions of what is now called anorexia were written when Sisi and Eugenie were most influential, in 1860 and 1873.*

The habit of imitating social models began much earlier, of course, but the media  multiplication of images of the model ‘socialite’ meant that body-shape competition intensified – and the least ‘body-confident’ girls among the upper classes were necessarily in most danger. Now every young woman is subject to the same threat.

As for rates of obesity, those too are now known to correlate with social disadvantage and the self-dislike to which the least fortunate give way. ‘Comfort eating’ is far from being a myth for those subject to media, yet incapable of participation in any of the competitions for status that they see.  Self-cutting is obviously closely related, an expression of the deepest self-rejection.

For commercial media, competition of all kinds is the ‘gift that keeps on giving’ – because of a singular human frailty: our tendency to agree that our worth is indeed determined by other humans, by ‘society’. There is a complete uniformity in the damage done to young men who ingest steroids to ‘bulk up’, and young women who swallow dieting doctrine, by virtue of the same conviction: ‘I must not be shamed by my body’.  Media are almost uniformly the conduit of this merciless dogma: beware at all costs of social contempt; seek honour through conformity.

scales-helpThose who see religious faith as the greatest threat to freedom have not yet noticed that it is now from a thoroughly secularised media, dominated by purely commercial interests, that a far greater danger threatens. Or that, as the greatest theme of all great religion is the equal sacred and inviolable value of every one of us – no matter what ‘society says’ – it is only through those who believe this passionately that true freedom will come.

‘What happened to sin?’ asked the late Sean Fagan. Answer: it became ‘self harm’. (For St Thomas Aquinas ‘God is not offended until we harm ourselves’.)  Irish Catholic clergy, many still despondent over their own recent shaming, need to remember that it is only from their current social altitude that the Gospel can be effectively preached.

Only now, released from its mistaken role at the pinnacle of social respectability,  can the Irish Catholic church – clergy and people together – effectively uphold the full Gospel of the equal and infinite value of every person.  The power of Christendom to teach the whole Gospel was always an illusion, because it was in those centuries of the clergy’s greatest social power that the deepest meaning of the Resurrection was almost lost: that our value, our worth, is God given and is therefore not in the gift – or justly subject to the contempt – of any other power: not ‘society’, not media and not even the Church.

*    See: Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire’, René Girard  [Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 3 (Spring 1996)]


  1. Teresa Mee

    ‘Those who see religious faith as the greatest threat to freedom…’ Do you think it might be helpful here to distinguish between religion and spirituality, Sean?
    Religion tends to be concerned with worship of, and obedience to a Power outside of oneself, perceived as supernatural, transcending, controlling; or a proclaimed representative of that Power. Spirituality involves an awareness of one’s true inner self, in touch with the transcendent Power within, spurring one on to the search for ultimate meaning and leading to inner freedom One would be acting freely out of informed faith and personal conviction rather than from indoctrination from whatever source.
    A strong inner impulsion to measure up to some external model, prescription or fashion would seem to reflect a lack of inner freedom.

  2. Sean O'Conaill

    Thanks, Teresa – but if spirituality involves being in touch with a ‘transcendent power within’ doesn’t that imply a willingness to accept that there can be such a transcendent power – and can’t that qualify as a religious faith?

    Fowler’s ‘stages of religious faith’ allows for a life progression from e.g. faith in an institution to the kind of consciousness you describe as spirituality – and the absence of any general academic agreement as to the parameters of ‘religion’ also argues against a dichotomous understanding of religion and spirituality. The Latin word ‘religare’ simply means ‘to bind’ – and I am sure you would agree that even a freely chosen relationship with the transcendent is likely to involve also a sense of binding obligation to others. That can therefore qualify as a ‘religion’ – freely chosen and therefore not dependent upon a servile obedience to external authority.

    Thanks for affording me the opportunity to insist that by ‘religious faith’ I mean a mature, freely chosen response to the transcendent, not a submissive response to authority.

  3. Anthony Neville

    We are becoming more aware of the power of social media with the incidence of depression and suicide being caused or fueled by abusive activity by internet trolls. Getting young people to understand their worth and to value themselves is a key to combating this development.

    Unfortunately, the possibility of the Church being used as the channel for this communication is greatly hampered by the fact that the young people are no longer listening to it.

    • soconaill

      I have never heard a homily that expanded relevantly in this context on the frequent scriptural assurance that ‘God has no favourites’. Have you, Anthony?

      The principle of the equal dignity of all – reiterated in Catholic social teaching – is never opposed to e.g. the cult of celebrity, the global problem of radical income inequality, or the vicious competition for status that dominates the Internet, as you so rightly say.

      No wonder young people see the church as no longer relevant! Under Christendom clergy accommodated themselves and their preaching to a social pyramid – and never unpacked what Jesus might have meant by saying ‘I have overcome the world’ – an obvious rejection of the power of the world to shame anyone.

      But isn’t ‘the church’ all of us, and don’t we all have the power to challenge ‘the world’s’ constant ‘put downs’ and status competitions – especially now that Christendom is ‘toast’?


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