Growing Up in a Culture of Empty Cheers

Why Instagram-ready positivity is failing our girls with platitudes that set them up for inadequacy
February 11, 2021 Updated: February 11, 2021

My babysitter gave my 10-year-old daughter a scrapbook. The sparkly pink binder was filled with adorable photos of the two of them eating ice cream, drinking smoothies, ice skating, wearing rainbow wigs, dancing to TikTok videos, and all the other Instagram-ready photos we’re so familiar with these days. In between the photos, my sitter had written and compiled stickers with uplifting memes and positive messages for my daughter to live by.

To name a few: “Live life on your own terms,” “Whatever is good for your soul, do that,” “Find the magic in every moment,” “You only live once, so live it your way,” “You’re right where you need to be,” “No one can make you feel less-than without your consent,” “You decide your destiny,” “If you’re always trying to be normal, you’ll never know how amazing you can be,” “Own your life,” “Everything happens for a reason, you decide the reason,” “You go girl,” “You be you” … well, you get the point.

While I was touched by my sitter’s efforts, and most of all, by the absolute delight and pride in my daughter eyes as she flipped through the book for the hundredth time that night, truth be told, I was also disturbed by what I read on those pages.

Many argue that these uber-positive, social-media-driven messages inspire confidence and power in girls. I’m not so sure. I’m also not sure they’re harmless.

At a basic level, most of these aphorisms are simply gobbledy-gook. They may feel good to say or hear in the moment, and may offer a fleeting burst of inspiration, but they’re not helpful in any real way. They don’t change the way someone feels, or provide any lasting confidence, or comfort for that matter.

For that girl who feels insecure and unpopular, telling herself she’s crushing it will not change what it feels like to walk into her middle school cafeteria. While these positive mantras may distract her from the deafening negative thoughts informing her she’s not pretty enough, not cool enough, or not (fill in the blank) enough, they’re not going to make a dent in her self-doubt or create a boost in her self-esteem. Her inner reality cannot be corrected or soothed with such empty clichés. And yet, she has to pretend they can, and she believes they should.

What’s problematic about such vernacular becoming standard speak is that it promotes a way of thinking, imagining, and being with one’s own feelings. These sorts of quotes create a climate in which young women believe they “should” feel brave, “should” know their worth, “should” know how to be who they are, “should” be able to “crush it.”

This diet of positive platitudes on which our girls are feasting is a set-up for inadequacy. It ends up creating yet another way for a young woman to fail at being the fabulous, Instagram-ready superstar she’s supposed to be (and everyone else seems to be).

Furthermore, these snappy sayings, designed to make our girls feel powerful, are disturbingly superficial and inadequate. Being a girl, a teenager, a young woman, heck a grown woman with confidence in this society is hard. Trying to build and hold onto self-esteem in a culture that implores females to be beautiful, have fabulous bodies, blaze a trail, be warriors, and also be kind, selfless, compassionate, brave, and always positive, not to mention, make everyone else feel good in the process, is a daunting task indeed.

True self-esteem, the kind that’s personal, reliable, and lasting, the kind that holds up under real challenge, requires more than wearing a “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think” tank top.

Growing up in this social-media madness, our girls need real psychological and spiritual tools, guidance that contains substance and depth. They need support that acknowledges the challenges they face, not only as young people, but young people growing up in this digital carnival.

Sadly, what we offer our girls, as nourishment, protection, and fuel for their journey into womanhood in this society, is woefully deficient. We tell them “You’re worth it,” but without teaching them why that is, or on what to base their worth. We tell them “you be you,” but without teaching them what that means, or what values to base that “you” on. We let our girls down and then leave them to feel ashamed for not being able to make use of such artificial nonsense.

Perhaps the most prevalent message in all these cheerleading memes is that of being the master of our own universe, and the idea that our destiny is in our control, that anything and everything is possible if we set our mind to it. (If you can dream it, you can do it.)

There’s no doubt that we need to feel a sense of control in our life, at every age. It’s a central aspect of our well-being. We must believe that we can create our reality, that what we do makes a difference in what happens to us. And yet, this social-media-fueled “you control your destiny” message has left out a vitally important aspect of this truth.

Here’s the rub: Our destiny is up to us and also not up to us. Sometimes we control what happens to us and sometimes we can only control how we respond to what life decides for us. No matter how much you’re crushing it, there are things in life that we just can’t control.

We convince our girls that they can control their destiny, but we don’t prepare them for the experience of not being in control. Most young people these days are desperately ill-equipped to deal with or soothe themselves when it comes to what they can’t control and what they didn’t wish for. At the same time, they blame themselves for life taking its own path, as if they had failed in some way because they couldn’t make it happen the way it happens on Instagram.

Our girls are growing up on empty platitudes that are fun to shout at a softball game or write in bubble letters in a scrapbook. But sadly, there’s nothing in these cheerleading fumes that help our girls become confident women, trust themselves, or manage life as it is. These useless words quickly disappear into the shallow cultural sea in which our kids are swimming and growing.

There’s nothing wrong with a good “You Go Girl” refrigerator magnet. Our happy memes are yummy in the way that cotton candy is yummy. They’re pleasurable, but they can also rot our teeth. But whatever we do, let’s not mistake these hollow words, this fleeting emotional dust for anything like real nourishment, or real empowerment. They’re not that. Our girls deserve that.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com