Once upon a time, I lived in Sicily, teaching English to Mafia children.
(Okay, they weren’t really Mafia children. They were students. But this was Sicily.)
I always used to begin with the same question, no matter how basic or advanced their English was.
“Who’s your role model?”
I like that question. For the advanced speakers, they get a chance to test their vocabulary making a strong argument about someone they admired and why. For beginners or children, they get to understand how to make a question in English, how to construct a basic answer, and we usually spend a lot of time talking about their families.
“Kim Kardashian,” one of my students replied confidently.
My heart sank a little, but I’m always prepared to take a debate. “Why?”
She frowned, working out her next sentence carefully. “She is just… so beautiful.”
I was disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised. Again and again I see and hear from young girls that their idols and inspirations are so chosen because they are attractive. Attractive women are successful women. Beauty draws the eye, beauty sells, beauty wins sponsorship deals and television shows. Beautiful women can have whatever they want, they get digital likes and sponsorship deals and money and cars and clothes and money and makeup and money and money…
“That wasn’t really what I was thinking,” I ventured, “I was thinking more someone you admire for what they’ve done. Maybe they’ve worked really hard to overcome difficult situations, or achieved something great. Maybe they’re staying positive in adverse circumstances. Doesn’t have to be someone famous, it could be a member of your family. Do you know anyone like that?”
She screwed up her face to think. “Kendall?”
But how can we blame them? Our Instagram screens are flashing constantly with gorgeous women, their designer clothes oozing money so transparently they may as well have dollar signs in their eyes. Some actually do. Their mothers, sisters, and teachers actively encourage the girls to aspire to these role models, encouraging them to look Insta-perfect every time they left the house, praising loudly their most attractive friends.
In fairness, I think they honestly believed they were helping. Many of these women grew up desperately poor in a country ravaged by the effects of the Second World War. Economic prospects were exceptionally limited, and there was little money left over for luxuries like lipstick or pretty dresses. As a result, many women were often encouraged to associate wealth, luxuries, and physical beauty as a marker or achievement.
So the lie is fed to their children, piece by piece, a grotesque fairy tale. That if they work hard enough anything is possible. That they too can look like her, dress like her, have her clothes and her money and her life – because if she can do it, so can you. The pain, when these dreams are not realised, is real. The fairytale is shattered.
And by encouraging their daughters to pursue these dreams they are glorifying envy, greed, pride, lust, and want. They are chasing easy, material luxuries at the expense of kindness, compassion, generosity, and love. It breaks my heart to see young girls coveting the ugliness of fame, with no-one to tell them that their own beauty doesn’t lie in their ebony curls or their blue eyes or their form-fitting dress but in the sweetness of their souls. In the way that they can make their little sister laugh or care for their grandparents or help their friends through difficult times.
All women are born with one natural female role model: their mother. A loving mother will teach them about all the other amazing heroines throughout history: Mary, the saints, great leaders and writers and thinkers. She will teach her girls to love God more than their dresses, to love their friends more than lipstick, and that the life Instagram paints for them is a lie. She will teach them that their worth does not lie in their income nor the cost of their clothes but the goodness of their character.
Most importantly, she will teach her daughters to be role models for others, not because of their outer attractiveness but the true beauty of their souls. That is how to be a role model, not just for our own daughters, but to Catholic women around the world.