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What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Edwina Dunn is joined by Psychologist Terri Apter to discuss the science and the art behind Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, and to look at how the novel's themes are more poignant than ever.

Alice at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party by John Tenniel, 1865 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

150 years ago, the novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There was published by Lewis Carroll. It was the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with Alice again entering a fantastical place, this time by climbing through a mirror into the world that she can see beyond it.

There she finds that - just like a reflection - everything is reversed, including logic.

At the end of 2021, Edwina Dunn, Founder of The Female Lead, and Terri Apter, Psychologist and Author, spoke at a symposium at the V&A which celebrated the 150th anniversary of this book. They were joined by scientists, artists and designers to explore how the themes of the book have sparked new ideas in our world.

Edwina Dunn told the audience why she is so fascinated by people and their self-image: "One of the first Female Lead projects was the 'What I see Project'. I was curious about how women see themselves when they look in the mirror."

"We filmed over 1,500 women from all over the world. These videos are part of a global collection of women’s voices coming together to share, connect, and actively shape what it means to be a woman."

"What fascinated me was that many women described their physical selves when we asked 'What do you see when you look in the mirror?' Others saw their inner self – their dreams, hopes and worries. The films aimed to reflect on self-perceptions and female identity."

Edwina said she finds people endlessly fascinating because they are so diverse. "I went on to create The Female Lead to explore the idea of women being so invisible. I was concerned about the lack of positive female role models, because you can’t be what you can’t see. So much of women, their stories and their output has been erased from history."

"All this is about women, but of course The Female Lead is also interested in teen girls and how they see themselves."

"Teens develop a “looking-glass self” that arises from the newly urgent question, 'How do other people see me?'"

In May 2022, Terri Apter is releasing a book titled The Teen Interpreter: A Guide to the Challenges and Joys of Raising Adolescents. With perceptive conversation exercises, Apter illustrates how teenagers signal their changing needs and identities - and how parents can interpret these signals to see the world through their teenager’s eyes.

Terri writes in her book: "When teens are asked to list their greatest concerns, top of their list is the threat of being overwhelmed by negative emotions, particularly anxiety and depression."

Edwina asked Terri to explain to the audience the concept of the “looking-glass self” and how it affects girls, which Terri delves into in her book.

Terri explained: "The concept of looking-glass self was developed in 1902 by Charles Horton Cooley, who argued that a sense of self grows from others’ perception of us."

"More recently this concept, along with the imaginary audience – the sense that they are always being seen and appraised (often very critically) - has been used to highlight important aspects of teen’s experiences. Teens develop a “looking-glass self” that arises from the newly urgent question, 'How do other people see me?'"

"The image in the mirror doesn’t help them because their concern is with what other people see."

Throughout Terri's book, she illuminates the rapid neurological developments of a teenagers’ brain, explains the power of teenage friendships, and explores the positives and pitfalls of social media. Edwina asked Terri to share with the audience her thoughts on how worried parents should be about the impact of social media on teens' self esteem.

Dr. Terri Apter

Terri explained, "Social images of girls and women have been a concern for some time. A decade before the first widely available smart phone, girls looked at images of girls and women in magazines and on TV, and ended up feeling low as they compared themselves to those models."

"Parents, teachers and politicians worried about the impact of size 0. In 2001, Labour MP Tessa Jowell called for a body image summit to address what they saw as a self-image crisis in teen girls."

"Teens are primed to compare themselves to others, because they don’t really know how they look. The image in the mirror doesn’t help them because their concern is with what other people see."

The Female Lead's own research in collaboration with Terri Apter found that a teen's social media use is a window into their self-image, which affects their wellbeing as well as their future goals.

Edwina told the V&A audience, "When we worked with Big Data provided by the data science company Starcount, we noticed that girls use a limited, shallow vocabulary on their social media sites when they describe themselves and their interests. But there was also data showing that girls who followed just a few real (non-airbrushed) women, used much broader, more aspirational terms to describe themselves."

"I presented this data at Cambridge University and Terri came up to me and said, 'If you want people to take this seriously, we have to test it. We have to show that following positive role models and having a more positive self-image are causally linked in some way - not just that the two things happened to be found together.' And this was the beginning of an important journey – for both of us."

The Female Lead and Terri Apter trialled an intervention that would support the hypothesis that following positive role models on social media and having higher aspirations were linked.

Terri writes about the research in her latest book: "Extricating teens from social media seems futile, and at present the companies that benefit from this dependence appear to have little motivation to improve its impact."

"But parents and teachers can go some way towards transforming a junk food diet into a healthy one by introducing profiles that show the daily processes and challenges and disappointments that underpin real aspiration and achievement. In this way, the algorithms that often reinforce teens’ more simplistic and superficial interests can be reset to support their better angles."

The research led Edwina and her team at The Female Lead to create a campaign called 'Disrupt Your Feed', which was a huge success. The simple intervention encouraged girls to follow different influencers, changing their entire social media experience and sense of wellbeing.

The campaign went viral, reaching 20 million people on social media, with 330 million impressions all over the globe.

Edwina told the V&A audience, "I just wish it was something that we could embed as a regular advert on platforms like Facebook and Instagram."

Terri expanded on this idea: "If models are used as templates indicating, “This is what a woman should be,” then models constrict imagination. But if they are presented as an array of possibilities, as you do at The Female Lead, then girls and women have a wide reference pool on which to draw, as they develop their own interests and shape their own goals."

Edwina Dunn

Edwina added: "So it is about choice. This has always been the approach I have had to Data Science. Women are not one caricature. We are different in our needs, wants and ambitions."

"When girls choose the elements on social media which resonate with them, they are putting together a game plan – taking the lead in their own lives. That’s why we call it 'The Female Lead'."

Towards the end of the talk, Edwina asked Terri, "Do you think the looking-glass self disappears as teens grow up? Or does the looking-glass self still feature in their lives?"

Terri told the audience, "It always features, even when women learn to manage it better than teens do. I don’t know one woman who does not know what it’s like to walk into a room and think, 'If only I were beautiful/attractive/desirable/well dressed/well shaped, I would be better off/more secure/more successful/happier.'"

"There is still the legacy of how we are seen by others - its important to who we are, and that somehow we’ll be safer if we are attractive. As women age, there’s a concern that we’ll lose whatever appeal we once had."

"But women also resist this critical looking-glass and shrug it off, especially when they have wider interests and strong personal connections."

Aptly timed a few days after The V&A's Through the Looking-Glass symposium, The Female Lead

launched their latest book, We Rise By Lifting Others. The book features original interviews and photography with 67 women who are changing the world, including Julia Gillard (former Prime Minister of Australia), Tarana Burke (Founder of the MeToo Movement), Joyce Banda (former President of Malawi), incredible actors including Jodie Whittaker and Geena Davis, musicians including Sheryl Crow and Little Mix's Jade Thirlwall, and a long list of sports stars, scientists and activists.

A series of films featuring each individual woman's story is also being released every week over the next year on The Female Lead's social media channels.

The hope is that young women will be inspired by these amazing role models, and follow more positive influencers. We want to help young people to enhance their looking-glass self, realise their self worth, reach their full potential, and most importantly to find successful and fulfilled lives.

To purchase Terri Apter's book, The Teen Interpreter: A Guide to the Challenges and Joys of Raising Adolescents, CLICK HERE

To purchase The Female Lead Volume II: We Rise By Lifting Others, CLICK HERE

Written by Holly Droy


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