Airbrushed pictures of women in underwear in magazines are not new, but for one of Britain's leading headmistresses the image of a wealthy American socialite in bra and pants above the headline "Officially your hottest woman in the world" was too much.

In a speech to an education conference on Saturday, Dr Helen Wright said the cover of Zoo magazine, featuring US reality TV star Kim Kardashian, represented "almost everything that is wrong with Western society", with her success rated by looks, not achievement. The "descent of civilisation" could be read into every one of Kardashian's curves.

"The pupils in our schools really are soaking up a diet of empty celebrity and superficiality. They are under a huge amount of pressure, buffeted by these images and messages."

Wright, head of St Mary's Calne, a private girls' school in Wiltshire, said she had been inundated with messages of support.


"It's not about a person. That single photograph brought together two aspects of our society - fame for fame's sake, the distorted view of reality that that brings, and our over-sexualised culture - that encapsulate the vast pressures on young people. I'm not just talking about girls but boys, too, suffer from the focus on appearance that we are in danger of allowing to become mainstream."

She believes that, just as footballers and politicians are coming under increasing pressure to behave like responsible role models, so should celebrities like Kardashian, the face of assorted ranges of perfumes and clothing, who became famous when a home sex video made it on to the internet. Her reality TV show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, has been running since 2007. Interviews centre around make-up, the size of her bottom and boyfriends, currently rap star Kanye West.

But at one British school three 15-year-olds said they felt patronised by people assuming they were sucked into celebrity culture.

Victoria, Lucy and Helen are all pupils at St Catherine's School in Surrey and are not impressed by the idea that they might be unduly influenced by celebrity culture.

Victoria said: "There's a stereotype and it's quite hard to battle against."

But the girls admit plenty of young women struggle with the constant images of celebrity wealth and perfection on show.

"You shouldn't aspire to be somebody who doesn't have to work to achieve something, if that's what they are saying. I also think it's bad for self-esteem. A lot of my friends think they are so fat when they are not at all and they think they are not perfect and think they should be. All the Photoshopping, they know it happens, but they still think they should look like that," said Lucy.

They also all resented the idea that they needed to have a role model. "A role model isn't the best idea: you shouldn't want to duplicate someone else but be yourself," said Helen.


Louise Robinson, head of Merchant Taylors Girls School in Liverpool, is also president of the Girls Schools Association, which is running Ahead of the Game, an entrepreneurship competition for girls, precisely to help combat some of these issues.

"We don't praise the characteristics of women, it's all about looks and what they are wearing," she said. "In our school we use celebrities as examples who are also businesswomen, like Beyonce and Victoria Beckham, women who go on the record and talk about how hard they work."

Last week the Home Office produced a booklet with before and after photographs of actresses and singers to help parents show children aged 6-11 how airbrushing works. It's a bid to help children deal with the body image issues that affect them as a result of constant exposure to digitally enhanced pictures of celebrities.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, pointed out that "most celebrities get rich because we line their pockets. Now it may be that [Kardashian's] skill is one that's harder to identify than a prize-winning scientist, but she's good at what she does: getting people to pay attention to her."

Thompson believes if all celebrities disappeared tomorrow, we would clamour for them to be back.

The desire for attention is, however, where the major danger of celebrity culture lies, according to Dr Angie Hobbs, a senior fellow in the public understanding of philosophy at the University of Warwick.

"I do think sometimes that adults can think celebrity culture is more of a problem than it actually is. Young women do realise when people are trying to sell them stuff and exploit them."

She said the human desire for status had been documented as far back as Plato. "But when a society starts divorcing status from doing honourable things and awards it for materialistic things, that's when you are in trouble. You have to look very carefully at why people who don't want to be famous themselves want to follow famous people, what they are lacking."

But she said she was optimistic that things would soon come full circle. "As part of the profileration of media, the blogs, the news outlets, it gets to a point where nobody is going to be talking about the same thing. Already it is impossible for anyone to be as famous as the Beatles, for example, because already the media conversation is so diverse."

Kim a role model
Stefan Olsson Robbie, 25, Edinburgh

[Hers] is essentially a contentless fame. I don't think she's a role model. Recently I read an article that discussed this movement in our society where we celebrate people being famous; we don't celebrate achievement any more - and the example was Kim Kardashian vs Bertrand Russell.

Christa Opheim, 26, Minnesota

Someone who got famous because they did a sex tape is not a role model. I'm sure she works hard - that's something to be proud of, I guess. But they go about their fame in a way I find disgusting. You're famous for being famous but then complain they won't leave you alone.

Paul Stollery, 23, Cardiff

I don't have a massive issue with her, but I hate how news outlets seem to obsess over her. She's in more news articles than Angela Merkel or Barack Obama. I understand the really negative view of her, but it's the media coverage that represents what's wrong with the Western world.

Sam Connacher, 20, Cambridge

I don't think celebrity culture has as much of an impact as people imagine. Certain people would aspire to be like her, but they are the sort who wouldn't be a professional person anyway. I don't think she lowers expectations and distracts people who would otherwise be aspiring to greater things.

- Observer