Girl Talk: Branding girls – is this a good thing?

Girl Talk: Branding girls – is this a good thing?

'Styled by Mother', Sharon Williams and her beautiful brood c/o SMH
This week I flipped through a scrapbook my friends had made as a farewell gift on my departure to the dark side... public school (the ultimate act of teen rebellion for a convent school girl!). It contained all sorts of insights into the teenage me that I had long since forgotten, like my experimentation with the wonderful hair product Sun-In, and the mischief I created around the quadrangle at lunch time (Zoe Foster was not the only teenage ratbag!). The buffer of time, and the ability file such things away in the safety of one's cupboard, is a wonderful thing.

Facebook and Tumblr and Blogger are the scrapbook and diary of the inner and outer teen girl world. And girls are being called on to invest some thought into their "personal brand" to ensure their image is not tainted in this vast and treacherous online land. Mother of two teenage girls and brand manager Sharon Williams, interviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald, says girls now need to start cultivating their personal brand identity from the age of eight.

Ms Williams, a corporate brand manager, has applied her work to her children, teaching her teenage daughters to avoid posting comments and photos that would cause a future self to cringe. ''It's like a tattoo,'' Ms Williams, of Artarmon, said. "Parents need to take control and be responsible for their personal brand because as a child, you have no idea that in 15 years' time or five years' time, the effects of what you're doing today will be wide-ranging and have the most extraordinary repercussions.''

Of course, that's true: we can't know what girls who have grown up cultivating a presence online will think of their cyber-selves when they reach adulthood (will name changes be the new status update?). Now the internet is a self-publishing media behemoth and the online persona you create today will shadow you tomorrow on the information superhighway. But at what cost this investment into cultivating the online self... perhaps prematurely?

In the Flinders University 'NetGirls' survey, conducted in 2009/10, it was reported that 75.3% of girls aged 11-16 have a Facebook account with an average of 215 Facebook friends; only 34.9% of girls said their parents set rules about when and what they can look at on the internet. It was concluded that, "Time spent using the Internet (for pleasure) was related to lower body-esteem, self-esteem and sense of identity, and higher feelings of depression."

So what impact will all this added pressure on perfecting the online self have on girls who need room for growth, exploration, adventure and making mistakes to truly come into themselves? Will it give further incentive to narcissists to consume themselves with themselves? And if girls are measuring themselves up constantly against highly cultivated online personas, are we at risk of a Stepford Wife Rising with Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters outcomes?

Eugenie Kelly, mother and beauty director, writes of the discomfort of creating her own online brand in the August edition of Harper's BAZAAR Australia: 

It's the branding aspect I don't like. Talking yourself up. Projecting that perfect image out into the virtual abyss. The fact that you've got to be fabulous and new, new, new. And then there's the pressure to make your next tweet wittier than the last... what about the long-term detrimental effect this type of pressure could have on the rest of us? Should we be worried?

Soraya Darabi, social media strategist for ABC News in the US and former New York Times staffer, says that women feel added stress from the need to sound humble enough online. "I wrote a tweet I now regret," recalls Darabi. "[It] said, 'I'm in a new book about New York social media. God, I hope the character is cool and not a total dweeb.' The tweet was meant to show how this new-found attention weirds me out, but instead I think it came off as shameless self-promotion. Now I'm less likely to write about a personal win because I prefer to be authentic and well-regarded than notorious and famous."
One mother of a teen girl I spoke to said that she'd reigned in Facebook after an "incident", which meant her daughter had learned that there are repercussions for one's actions. Her daughter's school also monitors the Facebook behaviours of its students, much like many workplaces, and those who are found to have breached the school's requirements for conduct are dealt with appropriately. She says that the online self projected by many girls she knows is quite different to how they are in real life: so who is teaching them how and who to be online? Celebrities, culture and cyberspace itself.

Perhaps there is value in women like Williams grappling with the issue, telling girls like it is so they don't make traceable booboos. But all this zealous parenting and schooling and online monitoring and branding talk must surely feel a trifle stifling.

"Trust is the big thing," adds the mum I talked to. "But it's not just online, it's in every aspect of our relationship." How can this be earned without freedom to explore, be and do first? No wonder teens are drawn to the otherworldly allure of escapist literature like Harry Potter and Twilight where the kids make mistakes, have adventures and roam (internet) free.

There's a distinction between guidelines and "branding", the latter connoting a deliberate imagining and projecting of one's ideal image at a time when that image is in development and vulnerable to external influences. In the process of grappling with the public/private self dichotomy, I imagine many teens could become quite confused in the process. It's exhausting keeping up appearances, let alone two or more of them! But the last word goes to Eugenie: "Perhaps we need a reminder that not all of us are destined for fame. Or as Mother would say, sometimes a little mystery isn't such a bad thing."


Rachel @ Musings of an Inappropriate Woman said...

I so relate to that Soraya Darabi quote - I inadvertantly "humble brag" all the time, and I fear that people think me obnoxious for it.

Thing is, I don't actually know any other way to write openly about my life. Show a sense of humour or humility and it's a "humble brag"; take it out, and it's just flat out obnoxiousness.

Perhaps the answer is not to tell at all, but I think that's pretty sad, especially on a medium such as Facebook, which is supposed to be all about sharing with your friends.

Kite said...

Uhhhm, I think you've got to have a certain amount of privilege in order to have a personal brand to shape and guard in the first place.

This is my hugest problem with it.

So kids marginalised because of socially undesirable identities that can't be airbrushed away online (or who might have fractured identities online for self-protection or experimentation) - what does this proposed pressure to brand tell them?

Anonymous said...

I don't believe young girls 'need' to create a personal brand for themselves, unless they are at university and thinking of creating their own PR firm or considering a television career, or entering some other high profile industry. When I was a wee one I was under the impression that anything I did would not blight my reputation in 10 years time. In fact, after I had a run in with the police when I was 12 (oh, youth!), I was told that my police record would be wiped clean come my 18th birthday. Do we really think that recruiters are going to look at a photo of the 13-year-old you when you're say, 25 and going for a job interview, and not hire you because of some social media faux-pas? I hardly think so! (Having said that, don't judge 12-year-old Camilla!)

I have my public persona and my private persona, and the two are crossing over less often as I further my career. But this is for career reasons. I believe young girls should try and retain some dignity online, but they're hardly a brand to be sold. They should just give a damn about their reputation, perhaps.