How false eyelashes exposed the new power dynamic in schools

Knole Academy in Sevenoaks has said it will no longer send pupils home if they are wearing false eyelashes
Knole Academy in Sevenoaks has said it will no longer send pupils home if they are wearing false eyelashes - Elisabeth Schmitt/Moment Open

A school in Sevenoaks, Kent, caused a furore this week by sending out a letter to parents announcing that pupils would no longer be sent home if they were wearing false eyelashes.

Knole Academy wrote: “We are increasingly seeing attendance affected by students taking time off to have false eyelashes removed or refusing to attend school through mental health considerations.”

By pupils, they mean girls. And by mental health considerations, they presumably mean the adolescent cry familiar to so many parents combining the following phrases: “All my friends,” “What about my mental health,” “It’s basic self-care,” “It’s not my fault I’m addicted,” and the perennial “You don’t understand.”

Essential for double maths

I’m the mother of two teenage girls and too right I don’t understand their high-maintenance beauty regimens. Procedures that were once the preserve of film stars are now deemed essential for double maths on a Monday: spray tans, acrylic nails, lash extensions and lash lifts, even lip fillers.

And it would appear children are increasingly able to influence school rules sufficiently to enable themselves to maintain such an exacting routine.

Social media such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat influence young people to enhance their look to fit in with others
Social media such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat influence young people to enhance their look to fit in with others - Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy Stock Photo

Much of the blame for these impossible beauty standards lies with social media and the full-lipped, tiny-waisted, long-haired aesthetic that it pushes – call it the Love Island look. A study by the Safety in Beauty Campaign last year found that 87 per cent of 15- to 18-year-old girls said that they would want aesthetic treatments after being influenced by contestants on the reality show. More worrying still was the fact that 92 per cent of those surveyed said that they would seek procedures regardless of whether it was legally allowed or not.

Added to this pressure is the daily reality show that is Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. As Dr Tara Porter writes in You Don’t Understand Me, her brilliant manual for teenage girls: “The ability to take, upload and edit photos instantly and the Instagram-mindset of flaunting success has made the perfection shown in public more visible, more frequent and, indeed, simply more perfect.”

I’m as guilty as my daughters of trotting out generation-gap clichés and mine is: “It was different in my day.” But yes, it really was. The teen magazine Just Seventeen’s tips were about squeezing lemon juice on to your hair to get blonde highlights while the most extreme skincare regimen was a three-step cleanse, tone and moisturise. Only this February half term, I went to the beauty hypermarket Sephora with my younger daughter only to overhear a girl who must have been no older than 11 explaining to her father that the anti-ageing serum she wanted was “only £30”.

Knole Academy has defended its decision, saying it is responding to changing mores
Knole Academy has defended its decision, saying it is responding to changing mores

Knole Academy itself says that it’s responding to changing mores. “We review our school rules on a regular basis and make amendments when changes in society make a previous standpoint redundant or untenable,” the letter went on to say.

But it has been accused by parents of lacking the backbone to enforce stricter uniform rules. One mother was reported as saying: “We’re a society being run by children… Rules are rules and that’s the end of it.”

Other schools have come across similar problems when enforcing dress codes. An avowedly feminist girls’ school in north London tried to suggest that, although it had no uniform, crop tops were not suitable academic attire. The girls immediately fought back with the slogan “My body, my choice” and claims that it was misogyny to police women’s fashion choices.

Some schools now allow PE kit to be worn all day, while others are eschewing blazers and ties as pupils say that they’re uncomfortable, especially in hot weather.

Sending out the wrong message

Catherine*, a recently retired teacher with more than 35 years of experience in secondary schools, sympathises with the school’s desire to maintain attendance, but worries that it’s sending out the wrong message to pupils. “A wider view of education means that we all have to learn to conform to certain standards for the wider world. Students can’t disregard a rule that’s been set as standard.”

She’s seen an increase in this sort of infringement and observes that “it makes no difference where you teach; some of the most awkward, made-up, eyelashed kids were the brightest ones at grammar schools”.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, were anyone to overdo the Sun In hair bleach or use a pair of compasses to make an extra ear piercing, then they’d be sent home to furious parents. I was taught by nuns who had no truck with self-expression in the form of make-up or hair dye. The wearers of scant eyeliner were sent to wash it off, but mostly it didn’t occur to us to bother beyond pinching our cheeks to make it look like we wore blusher. Our hair was never styled, our skin untanned and spotty and we were lucky to get our ears pierced just the once. Though I never saw it in my own school, it was rumoured that elsewhere those wearing nail polish were sent to the chemistry lab for an acetone soaking to remove it.

Alarm bells

But that was another time. Like the head teacher at Knole, I’m weak to the kryptonite of mental health concerns and conscious of the genuine pressures imposed on this generation by Covid lockdowns and social media. This month, it was reported that the number of children referred to emergency mental health care in England has increased by 50 per cent in the last three years. Catherine the retired teacher tells me I need to wise up: “They know that if they say, ‘It’s essential for my emotional well-being,’ we’ll give in.”

While Jonathan Stoddern, a teacher at a Buckinghamshire secondary school, agrees that “there’ll always be kids trying their luck”, schools are doing their best to nurture and support mental health issues – and if children don’t feel they can come into school without false nails or eyelashes, to him that rings alarm bells. “There are children who have genuine, deeper problems, involving, say, confidence or identity issues. Schools in general, and the teachers that work in them, try really hard to be more reflective, listening more, trying to find a way to work with that individual.”

I ask my 17-year-old, who recently spent £50 (two and a half weeks’ worth of her allowance) on acrylic nails, why she felt this need. “They make me feel feminine and a bad bitch, to be honest, and more confident.”

She also compares herself with others. “Yes, I feel peer pressure and FOMO [fear of missing out] so I want to do things that maybe aren’t sensible, but will help me fit in.”

“TikTok is full of beautiful people,” she adds, “and that makes us feel we’re ugly unless we do all this.” With boring predictability I point out that social media isn’t real, that even the beauties don’t look like that without filters – a study by Dove found that 11 in 12 girls were retouching their photos beyond recognition.

“I understand the reality,” she concedes, “but it doesn’t really matter.”

My own beauty regimen now consists of two or three trips to the hairdresser’s a year and buying (and then failing to use) anti-wrinkle creams. Compare this with the expense and effort of having beauty spray applied to, injected into or glued to your body, as so many teenagers do. Acrylic nails, for example, are plastic talons bonded to natural nails that leave the wearers struggling to type, play sports or, in the case of my 15-year-old, unable to put in her contact lenses. Replacements are required every six to eight weeks at appointments lasting up to two hours.

My younger daughter creosotes herself in fake tan every Sunday night and has earned the nickname Oompa Loompa. Were she to get a spray tan professionally, as many do, it would cost at least £25 and last only a week.

Attendance issues

And then to lashes. Today’s image-conscious teenager prefers professional lash extensions; these are semi-professional artificial fibres that are glued individually to natural lashes, a process that takes two hours, costs a minimum of £100 and lasts six weeks. Rest assured, there’s no soaking those off in the school toilets.

Catherine remembers how when she was young, you’d roll your skirts up, get told off and roll them down again. But today’s uniform rebellions and beauty treatments, while only semi-permanent, are not so easily reversed, leading to the attendance issues that schools are so desperate to avoid.

Eyelashes are only a small part of the restrictive beauty standards that girls are facing. “The whole issue that needs addressing in schools, social media and everywhere else,” says Catherine, “is how inadequate they feel if they don’t conform. Girls are being groomed, no pun intended, to look a certain, very stylised way.”

But whatever it is that’s fuelling this trend in schoolgirls’ appearances, it’s clear that if it’s a toss-up between being dolled up in class or missing lessons, certainly for some schools, the eyelashes are set to win.

*name changed