Who Am I?

In 2005, Liz Beattie, a retired British school teacher, proposed to her union, the Professional Association of Teachers, that the word failure should be banned from classrooms and replaced with the phrase deferred success, as the former was not good for building self-esteem in school children. Building self-esteem in students has been a primary focus in schools, especially in the western world.

Not only schools, advertising industry also focuses on self-esteem, because people need self-esteem. It gives them a sense of self-worth. Advertising appeals to this need in people to sell its products.

What does advertising do? It tells us what it means to be a “desirable” or “ideal” woman or man. It uses different strategies depending on whether the target audience is female or male.

Advertisements of cosmetics, hair colouring and skin products aimed at girls and women show their models as “beautiful”. Unfortunately, skinny models, with skimpy rags at times, are presented as if everybody is supposed to look that way. Advertising presents a very narrow and limited image not only of beauty but also of women roles. Girls and women in advertisements show concern mostly about their physical appearance – their clothes and their body – in order to attract boys and men. Seldom are women shown in roles of authority and responsibility. The relentless barrage of advertising with the narrow and limited images of beauty and potential programmes our minds to a limited understanding of self-image and self-worth.

The “flawless appearance” of models with airbrushed blemishes and wrinkles, bleached teeth and eyeballs, created by makeup artists, photographers and photo retouchers, captivates girls and women. What happens when a girl or a woman is exposed to these artificial, manufactured images? She will be dissatisfied with her real self. Poor self-image results in higher levels of anxiety and depression. It can cause her to avoid activities she normally enjoys, lower her confidence and self-esteem, and at times lead to eating disorders.

The “highly processed look” of models in the advertisements, thus, creates anxiety and depression, promoting envy and fostering feelings of low self-image and low self-esteem.

Advertising also targets boys and men. It presents boys and men having an aura of power, physical strength and dominance. Personal grooming products, such as deodorants, colognes, shaving aids, hair colouring, etc., are sold using self-esteem through improving appearance. Most of these advertisements use the idea of drawing the attention of “attractive” women, because of a smoother face, sexier smell, or younger-looking hair. The implied message to the viewer is this is the way a boy or a man should be. This is again a very narrow and limited image of masculinity. Traits like sensitivity, compassion and vulnerability are never shown in the male image.

When the self-image of boys and men do not align with that of handsome, muscular and clear complexioned men in advertisements, their self-esteem gets damaged.
Advertising, thus, creates a “problem” in viewers by presenting a new image of “perfect person” and consequently denting in their self-image and self-esteem. It also offers a “solution” to this “created problem” saying, “To become “that perfect person” you should consume our products.”

Self-esteem and Character

What the advertising industry is trying to do is to instil in us an obsession of “self”. The focus is so much on “self”: “I should be the best”, “I should have the best”, “I should be the prettiest”, etc. This produces selfish, dissatisfied people with a distorted self-image and an unrealistic view of the world they live in. If the “self” is allowed to become the overriding focus of our lives in a misguided pursuit of self-esteem, the results can be disastrous, experts say. The extent of greedy, egocentric, careless behaviour observable in our consumeristic societies seems to confirm that pursuing self-image and self-esteem as created by the advertising industry is catastrophic both to individuals and communities.

While no one denies the importance of having a healthy self-esteem, overemphasis on it would lessen the focus on another, perhaps more important one – character. This is a rare commodity in the present consumeristic world. People no longer talk about character. Nor do families, educational institutions and religious centres emphasise on it.

However, I believe that a healthy self-esteem comes from developing a firm, good character. One should focus on building character. Self-esteem will naturally follow.
Character refers to “the moral dimension of one’s self understanding or self-definition.” People of good character place moral concerns at the center of their identity. Conduct flows from character. Also attitudes, motives, perception and value system are based on character.

Although people of good character derive self-esteem from many sources, their self-esteem is deeply influenced by their moral behaviour. Self-esteem results from good conduct. In other words, you feel good about yourself because you have done something right.

Building character involves having integrity and honesty, and becoming a neighbour. Self-esteem should come from love for others. This is outgoing love, which is opposite to selfish love promoted by the advertising industry. Love for neighbour concerns for the wellbeing of the other. This is the core of healthy self-esteem. As we do things for the welfare of others, we begin to experience feelings of true worth.

The worth-based self-esteem comes from a firm belief of being created in the image of God. This belief gives a sense of intrinsic self-worth or self-dignity. If one has a sense of inherent self-worth or self-dignity, then one may be motivated to behave in ways that brings this worth or dignity into realization.

Since everybody is made in God’s image, everyone has an intrinsic worth. Individuals have value and worth apart from their age, gender, race, educational status, vocation, etc. This notion of personal worth leads to a judgment that individuals have a right to life and wellbeing. The belief of intrinsic human worth, therefore, ought to be expressed through compassion and love to enhance life and wellbeing of ALL.

A firm belief of being created in God’s image, therefore, forms the basis of a healthy self-esteem, which in turn prompts one to bear the fruit of that inherent self-worth or self-image.


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