I have spent a lot of my teaching life thinking about how a girl might feel comfortable in her own skin: how she may grow to be a woman who likes herself without the security blanket of others’ approval. Through morning assemblies, PSHE lessons, Listening Ear sessions and Form Teacher discussions, our aim is to make a difference to the girls in our care, and we work hard to do just that.

When I was at school, I had an unforgiving sense of self. I’m not sure of its source, but it was not quiet, and I suspect there were times it made me hard to like. Always my hand up in the classroom, achieving the highest grades from the notoriously hard-to-please teachers. Roles in concerts, my name on prizes: I can remember the eye-rolls from classmates. But, in the main, I was approved of, and that was what mattered. It made me feel safe.

Except. I was so focused on high achievement that I did not have an authentic understanding as to why, underneath the shine, I might be truly valuable. I simply did not know of any other way to be: I thrived on keeping alive the engine of external approval from those I perceived to be my superiors. When I arrived at university, I still possessed what I thought was security, created by achieving others’ approval. It was also the first time in my life that I faced racial prejudice by my peers. 

I was too shocked to know how to respond. I still remember it with gut-wrenching clarity: how bigoted, how exposed they were – but how easily they could put me in a box and drag me down with their words. I would like to say that I didn’t care. But I did. 

And so I realised, as every girl realises – whether she chooses to consciously act upon this knowledge or not – that by mimicking what I learnt from films, advertisements and novels – being charming, witty, pleasing – such behaviour would make me more liked. I altered my personality, in order to feel a different kind of safety. People no longer felt threatened by me, and so I was welcomed back onto the social scene.

Being likeable can work. It works for many women. It works for nearly all of us in fact: indeed, for those who fail to stick to the script, who allow their differences through, who celebrate their race, disability or sexuality without the need for approval, or who appear confident to express or defend themselves, there can be a high price to pay. Society so easily disregards a young woman’s agency and freedom. 

As a girl, it seemed to me that to live a life free from the need to seek others’ seal of approval was a gift. Now life is far more complicated – with social media platforms enticing opposite feelings of contentment to thrive out of control. Any unsettled discontent which we may hold with ourselves can be awakened each time we scroll these apps. We hunger for people to like us. We are urged to perform, share and to seek the approval of others, while curating images with witty captions of a person we will never be. 

My closest female friend is not on social media, and I do not think this is a coincidence. In part, it reflects who they are and why I am drawn to their quieter ways. They live life without seeking the disingenuous ‘likes’ from a virtual community; their mood is not affected by the number of followers who reshare their posts. Sadly, reaching a position of never caring what others think of us is an unrealistic expectation, whether we fight our demons on or off line. If we condition ourselves to be rewarded by the dopamine hit of social media, however, the people in our lives whose opinion truly matters may get drowned out. 

Racial (or indeed any other form of) discrimination is, day by day, gaining the rightful attention it deserves. Time and experience of school leadership has made me a little less steely. Self-confidence and self motivation are more deeply embedded within me, although I need to consciously remind myself of how to nourish it. I have not become immune to eye rolls; any attempts at racial insults would still hurt; sadly, I have not been hit by a revelation about not worrying about being liked or how to solve it. But perhaps most importantly, I have come to value myself and those around me, not solely for what they have achieved or what they can do, but for simply who they are. 

As such, we encourage our students to see inside each individual – to understand her shortcomings alongside her glories – to embrace each complicated personality – allowing us to feel more whole, in many ways more real. Teaching the girls in our care to be comfortable in their own skin and to find a way to live in this world which feels good to them are the most fundamental roles we hold as educators. Central to this are some key questions which perhaps we ought to ask:  Whose approval do you seek? What is approval? Is it care, is it admiration, is it love? Is it to like, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word?

Perhaps our students today will always be drawn to the soaring delight of sharing a window into their life and awaiting the virtual applause for it. But if we know deep down whose opinions really matter, we may finally reach the toran to our freedom.

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School