Parenting Teen Girls: When Did Sexy Become The New Pretty?

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Teen Girls, Sexy-Selfie’s, Box Gaps: How Did We Get Here?

BY DR SARAH HUGHES

If someone told me my body was the best thing about me I would be downright offended.  There are so many other things I would rather be admired for – kindness, intelligence, strength, courage, a sense of humor.  Weight and body shape don’t even rank on my list of ‘what I want others to know me for’.  Not so for teenage girls. 

What message does an outfit like this send to teenage girls?

A tame example of the message sent to teen girls through the media

In the last few weeks I’ve had far too many teens tell me just how much it means to them to have others admire them for their body.  I’m still struggling to get my head around this.

How did we get here?  When did it become the norm to measure your self-worth by how many likes your ‘sexy-selfie’ gets on Facebook? 

And since when has beauty been about box gaps???  Haven’t heard of it yet? A box gap is the space between your thighs – no I’m not making that up, yes it’s a real thing.

The media is an obvious culprit.  Airbrushed images, emaciated models, barely clothed “role models” (think Miley Cirrus at the VMA’s) – they all put pressure on teens to look and act a certain way.  The message to teen girls is clear – get your clothes off, sexy is the new pretty.

And don’t get me wrong, I in no way think that teenage boys are to blame, but their interest in revealing photos on Facebook doesn’t help much either.  When a teenage girl posts a sexy image of herself on Facebook and is hit with hundreds of “likes” she learns that her appearance is her gateway to popularity and peer acceptance.  When she’s inundated with messages like “you look so hot” when she posts a picture of her box gap, she learns that the skinnier she is, the more interesting she is to other people.

If the media changed its tune it would have a boundless effect on the self-worth of teenage girls the world over.  Maybe one day.  In the meantime what we need is a stronger counter-message.

I recently read a blog written by Kim Hall, a mum of two teenage boys and an 8 year old daughter from Texas.  Her blog, titled “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” was an open letter to teen girls who post sultry, scantily clad photos of themselves on social media.  She wrote:

So, here’s the bit that I think is important for you to realize.  If you are friends with a Hall boy on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, then you are friends with the whole Hall family.

Please know that we genuinely like staying connected with you this way!  We enjoy seeing things through your unique and colorful lens – you are insightful, and often very, very funny.

Which is what makes your latest self-portrait so extremely unfortunate.

That post doesn’t reflect who you are at all! We think you are lovely and interesting, and usually very smart. But, we had to cringe and wonder what you were trying to do? Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to say?

Kim’s blog offended many.  It went viral.  She was slammed for “slut shamming” and blaming teenage girls for their own sexualisation.  After reading the responses to Kim’s blog I can see (only just) how some of what she’s written could be interpreted in this way.  I still have a different take on it, but then maybe I read her blog through a different filter.

What I read was a mum trying to instill in teenage girls that despite the messages they might take from the media, she believes their body is NOT their best quality nor their ability to be sexy their strongest attribute.  I read that by blocking these images on Facebook, as a mother, she was trying to teach her teenage sons to respect and value their female friends for who they are and not what they look like.

Are teenage girls to blame for their own sexualisation? No.  Should the blame fall on the shoulders of teenage boys? Absolutely not.  It’s the media that’s taught teenage girls that they’re only worthwhile if others find them attractive.  But what can we do to give teenage girls a stronger counter-message?

If you are the mother of a teenage boy help him to respect and compliment his female peers for who they are and not what they look like.  If you are a mother of a teenage girl help her to see that she is more than her body.  Teach her that scales can’t possibly measure how amazing she is because they don’t measure her intelligence, her ability to make the people around her feel special, or her kindness.  And warn her about the risks of posting revealing pictures of herself on the internet.  As Kim Hall wrote:

You are growing into a real beauty, inside and out.  Act like her, speak like her, post like her

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.