When I was in my teens and 20s I hardly ever took photographs, and when I did nobody else saw them. I certainly didn’t pore over them with my mates, pointing out cellulite or critiquing cankles!
Now, the ease of being able to take instant pictures, the ability to Photoshop or use filters, then post them online, means we’re bombarded with images of perfection and invited to pass judgement in a way that would have been unheard of even a decade ago.
It’s a theme I explore in my forthcoming BBC1 drama Age before Beauty, which is centred around a family-run Manchester beauty salon, 13 years after my hair salon drama Cutting It ended.
The time between the two shows allowed me to reflect on the massive cultural changes that have happened in the intervening years – and the realisation that, thanks to social media, we are now much more obsessed with appearance and staying young.
In the show, no one is saying there’s anything wrong with a desire to be fit and healthy. Nor is there a problem in finding people attractive. It’s in our DNA to look for an appealing mate.
What our story suggests is that the problem comes when we judge people’s worth solely on what they look like, as happens in certain reality shows that showcase unrealistically perfect bodies. Who wouldn’t feel intimidated by these displays of honed, unblemished perfection?
In Age before Beauty, it’s the blemishes that provide the reality check, not to mention the humanity and heart of the drama. Hopefully we explore these issues in an entertaining and humorous way, while coming to the conclusion that the perfect world, perfect body and perfect lifestyle don’t actually exist.
Inevitably we witness a couple of “makeovers” – those staple “before-and-afters” in which the after is always an improvement on the before. Not in our case. The makeover that solves everything doesn’t exist – and in many cases, not only fails to address the core issues but actually makes them worse.
Of course there are no easy answers. The internet and Instagram aren’t going to disappear and can’t be legislated against. But ultimately it’s for the older generation to reinforce the idea that young people don’t need to measure up to somebody else’s standards of appearance.
James Murray as Wesley in Age Before Beauty (BBC)
Not that all our older characters are ideal role models. In Age before Beauty it’s the over-70s who are the most outrageous and selfish, while being the most at ease in their own skin.
Perhaps that’s why the Instagram generation has such a tough time. We’re at our most sensitive and impressionable when we’re in our teens, and care desperately what people think of us. Our 70-somethings couldn’t care less. Which is liberating for them, if infuriating for everyone else!
Mainly, though, we explore our theme through the middle generation, focusing on long-term marriages, long-held rivalries, unfulfilled hopes, missed opportunities, middle-aged spread, thinning hair and frown lines.
But is that all the middle age has to offer? What about hard-earned wisdom and experience, a healthy dose of tolerance, pragmatism, generosity? More to the point, do we just roll over and throw in the towel once we hit 40?
My starting point for Age before Beauty was a magazine feature that declared what women and men can and can’t wear and do over the age of 40. Apparently 40 is the age when we should consider wearing a paper bag on our heads and start planning for retirement.
The characters in Age before Beauty have no such intention. They ask the questions “Is it always better to be young?” and “Does youth have anything to learn from age?” and “Is beauty the be-all and end-all?” You might think so if you watch Love Island. Some of us beg to differ!
Debbie Horsfield’s drama Age before Beauty is coming to BBC1 later this summer