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In the space between old and new: Irish girls, the body, and self (part three)

[Ed. note: This article is Part Three of a three-part series about the intersection of secular and religious culture in Ireland and the effect of those forces on Ireland’s young women. Here’s Part One and Part Two.]

Ireland’s small size and historical lack of political and economic power, as well as its location between the United States and Britain (two dominant, wealthy, image-driven cultures) necessitated that it fall more in step with westernized-secularized ideals. Its other option would have been to take the lead with Catholic values, as the Church and Vatican originally hoped.

The Church still possesses the power to shield young Irish people from matters of sex: from its limiting of health education in schools to the enduring impression it has left on older generations who continue to reinforce its position.

Nonetheless, mainstream media continues to challenge this. In the U.S. and U.K., media pervades all aspects of Irish public and private life. The power and influence it has on younger generations of Irish people mirrors the power and influence that the Church once had in previous times. Recurrent media messages and imagery have become the basis for a universal language that is now so widely familiar, and so much a part of everyday life, that it is taken for granted.

Lucena Clinic, University College Dublin, and Crumlin Childrens Hospital (three prominent Irish institutions) conducted a body-image survey involving 3,000 Irish adolescents. The results are unsurprising. 71% reported that they were negatively affected by body-focused imagery and messages promoted by the media. However, the extent of young girls’ (Irish ones included) direct media exposure on a regular basis is becoming less of an indicator of just how media-influenced they can be. People on the ground, in everyday life, have become the great disseminators of popular media. We are bombarded by it, so naturally we are going to invest in it, process it, take it in as our own, and pass it on.

The logic we devise from this process shapes our world outlook and motivates us along various paths. Nonetheless, the body has become fodder for the media and this clearly has an impact. Everywhere we turn there is some reference to sex and bodies, mostly women’s bodies. Developing a sense of self and the body at an early stage has become entangled with how we view the world.

Imagine being a young girl growing up in Ireland, a culture that openly discourages sex education but allows such things as under-16 discos, where dressing like soft-porn stars is the norm. Additionally, such factors as changes to traditional family structure and the increasing importance of high social status achieved through having expensive things — compounded by the ever-enduring pressure to fit in and be liked — are real issues that teenagers continue to contend with within a local and global context. This, of course, is exacerbated by the broader forces of modern capitalist values and the drive of consumerism, all out of our control and all becoming more prevalent in modern Ireland.

We know that young girls the world over are disproportionately affected. The Church’s tight-lipped approach to sex and the ethos and shame about the body that continues to line Irish discourse means that Irish girls are left on their own to negotiate ideas about sexuality and the body. Well not entirely, because they always have TV, magazines, and the Internet — all global guardians of our youth.

Media is a marvel, and it has proven to be a wonderful thing in a lot of ways, but its fascination with sex and the female body — which has become our fascination — has transformed the collective consciousness in societies like Ireland. As in the early days, there are two voices in Ireland: the voice of the Church and the voice of media. It doesn’t take a genius to know which one is louder and more powerful. As long as Irish girls are out there, exposed to it, without proper support and education, having all the cop-on in the world won’t matter.


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