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What is society really telling our girls? Last week I was thumbing through People magazine when I came upon an ad. It featured a bikini-clad woman standing at the edge of a pool with her legs spread apart while a guy stared straight up at her crotch and smiled.

Then someone sent me two deeply troubling articles. One was about sexting and how you don’t have to literally send pictures to help your partner be aroused. The other was questioning whether porn might be able to actually help people better understand consent. 

You might be questioning where this reading material came from. If I asked you to guess, my gut tells me you probably wouldn’t guess the source: Teen Vogue. No, I am not kidding. Both of these articles, “Sexting Doesn’t Have to Be So Literal” and “Can Porn Help People Understand Consent?” contain content for mature audiences.

These pieces, and others like them, target the curious teens in your life who want to be in the know about today’s culture.

Few parents I know get super excited about having ongoing conversations about sexuality. Even fewer look forward to talking with their middle or high school teen about pornography. But, if you don’t speak into this area of your child’s life, the culture will do so in a very big way, and you might find much of the information disconcerting and inaccurate. It’s so important that your kids get the information they need from you to have healthy relationships now and in the future. Sadly, our kids believe a great deal of what they read online or in print, and it’s so easy to access.

They need guidance to understand whether what they are reading is simply entertainment or helpful information that leads them to make healthy choices.

For example, in the sexting opinion piece, Nona Willis Aronowitz describes graphically photographing herself in order to get comfortable with her own body image before she shares pictures with anybody else. She goes on to say that “if you are texting with someone, sending nudes is unbelievably commonplace.” Additionally, she quotes sex philosopher, Adrienne Maree Brown from her new book, “Pleasure Activism,” which does not appear to be written for a teen audience. 

Now for the recommendations for sexting: She says it’s important to determine that the person who will be receiving the pictures is trustworthy. And, “regardless of how serious or intimate y’all are, any worthwhile boo will appreciate the titillation of a beautiful nude, even if they don’t get to bring the image home with them.” There are plenty of teen girls who believe their “boo” is trustworthy when it comes to not sharing nude pictures of her with his friends, only to find out that wasn’t the case.

At the very end of the article, the author discusses the risk involved in sexting, stating that she is sure parents and others have warned that once you send a nude pic you have no control over where it goes, “so the public embarrassment you worry about could become a reality,” and if you’re under a certain age, sending sexy selfies can count as distributing child pornography. All this comes after a total tutorial on how to take great nudes.

In the second article on porn and consent, the author wonders if explicit verbal consent in more porn could help people understand the concept better. “Imagine this,” says the writer,  “You’re surfing the Internet, looking for some porn to watch (you know why), and after scrolling for what seems like forever, you finally find a video that fits what you’re in the mood for. You click play and after watching the prerequisite awkward intro, you hear one person in the film ask another, ‘Is it okay if I kiss you?’”

The author says that porn shouldn’t be used as sex education, but that young people should be educated on how to consume porn in a healthy way. This is an alarming statement considering the significant amount of research regarding the dangers of porn addiction. 

According to Fight the New Drug, a non-religious and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts and personal accounts, porn physically changes the brain over time. When one looks at porn, there is a surge of the chemical dopamine that feels really good. Dopamine helps create new brain pathways that essentially lead the user back to the behavior that triggered the chemical release. Porn users can quickly build up a tolerance as their brains adapt to the high levels of dopamine released by viewing porn.

Even though porn is still releasing dopamine into the brain, the user can’t feel its effects as much.

“It is as though we have devised a form of heroin – usable in the privacy of one’s own home and injected directly to the brain through the eyes,” says Dr. Jeffrey Satinover of Princeton University, describing porn’s effect to a U.S. Senate committee.

Numerous studies indicate that porn is a very significant problem in the U.S. In fact, the Justice Department estimates that 9 out of 10 children between 8 and 16 have seen online porn. Once you have seen porn, the image remains in your brain.

The author of the Teen Vogue article cites research from the UK that 60 percent of students in the survey had turned to porn to learn more about sex, and 40 percent of them said porn colored their understanding of what sex is. Young people in the U.S. also report turning to porn when their school sex ed classes don’t equip them for the realities of sex. 

So, if you think your daughters are purchasing or looking at Teen Vogue online for the fashion, you might want to think again.

Their website says, “Teen Vogue: Fashion, Beauty, Entertainment News for Teens,” and it lists the topics of style, politics, culture and identity. I would strongly encourage you to visit the site and read through the content for yourself.

The middle and high school years are complicated enough for so many reasons, but these articles in Teen Vogue and other publications are troubling for those of us who have been fighting against the sexualization of women. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of advertisements, media and music that sends hypocritical messages about what is acceptable and what is not. What our kids consume shapes the trajectory of their lives. The impact of sexting and looking at porn in their teen years will follow them into adulthood.

Women who don’t want themselves or others to be seen as objects or commodities have a responsibility to call out these overtly sexual messages that undermine the change for which many have advocated. We have made a great deal of progress in the age of #MeToo, but we still have a long way to go. 

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on May 12, 2019.

More than 29 million Americans tuned in on May 19 to watch the royal wedding of Prince Harry and his American bride, Meghan Markle. People attended watch parties, complete with tea and scones, and took in every wedding detail. Viewers blew up social media with comments about everything from Camilla’s hat and the twin boys who carried Meghan’s train to the rendition of Stand by Me and the response to Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon—all of which were fairly harmless.

Then something else happened. People started sharing their opinions about Meghan’s dress (“I think I would have done one more fitting”), makeup (“She could have used a little help with her wedding day makeup”) and other wedding day choices. It’s interesting that now more than ever, our culture encourages young girls to be their best selves, and yet judgment prevails. So the directive is, “Be you, but prepare to be judged.”

Really? It sounds like young girls are getting mixed messages.

It seems many are bent on cutting each other down. It’s almost like it’s become a favorite pastime or sport.

Markle comes across as a very strong and confident woman, but that does not mean she doesn’t fight insecurities of her own. On one of the most meaningful days of her life that really was about what she and her husband-to-be wanted, people felt compelled to give their approval or disapproval. Hopefully, Markle doesn’t care what anybody else thought. What about young girls (or women, for that matter) whose self-confidence is much more fragile? Some brides would be devastated. It’s just plain hurtful.

There must be a lesson for all of us in this. Do we really want girls to be themselves, unafraid to express their individuality? If the answer is yes, we may need to consider a few things.

Perhaps it would be helpful to teach girls how to have a thick skin and remind them that just because somebody says something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Also, they need to know who the truth-tellers are in their life. That way, they can discern if what is being said is accurate and deserves their attention or if it is something they need to let roll off their shoulders.

Most women know how it feels to be cut down, and it doesn’t feel good. Women are often experts at being hypercritical of themselves anyway, and when others pile on the judgment, it complicates life even more. Perhaps the most important lesson we can teach our girls is to be careful about judging others. Everybody has a story, and it is uniquely their own to write.

Teens want to know what adults think, even if they don’t act like it.

  • Adults are powerful figures in the lives of young people and hold the key to preventing teen pregnancy.
  • An MTV poll found teens ranked their parents as their #1 heroes.

Forget about “The Talk.” It is an 18-year conversation about love, relationships, values and sex. Start early and let your kids know that you are an “askable parent.”

  • Teens tell us their parents tend to give them information too late and in too vague a way.
  • They can get clinical information from school or books (and they already know more than you think), but what they really seek are parents who are comfortable talking with them about relationships, how to handle peer pressure to have sex, how to say “no” without hurting feelings, and other such issues.

Don’t let your daughter get involved with a much older guy.

  • Teen girls who date much older guys are more likely to report later that they didn’t really want to have sex in the first place and are less likely to use birth control/contraception.
  • Among mothers aged 15-17, about one in four has a partner who is at least five years older.
  • Older boys and men can lead younger girls into very risky situations and relationships.
  • Seventy percent of teenage pregnancies are caused by guys over the age of 20.

Sometimes, all it takes for teens not to have sex is not to have the opportunity.

  • Many teens say that if they had something to do after school that’s fun and interesting, they are less likely to experiment with sex, drinking, and other risky activities.
  • If parents can’t be home with kids after school, they need to make sure their kids are busy doing something constructive and engaging.

Parents need to make girls feel valued and important. You can’t give a girl self-esteem, but you can give her the opportunity to develop it — encourage her involvement in sports, volunteering, drama classes or other activities that make her feel talented and confident.

  • Girls involved in sports are half as likely to get pregnant as non-athletes, regardless of how much sex education they have. They are more likely to delay sex until they are older, and to use protection when they do so.
  • Another study shows that girls who are active volunteers throughout their high school years have half the teen pregnancy rates of the average for their peers.
  • If you give a girl something positive to say “yes” to, she’ll be much more likely to say “no, not yet” to sex and pregnancy.
  • Remember, condoms do not protect the heart.

Talk to sons as well as daughters. The nearly 1,000,000 teen girls who got pregnant each year don’t do it alone.

  • Boys need to know that teen pregnancy happens to them, too. We need to talk to boys – not just girls – about consequences, responsibility, sex, love and values. Surveys show that boys want to do the right thing.

Learn the facts yourself. It is a scary world out there. Sexually transmitted diseases have multiplied at a frightening rate in the last 30 years.

  • We have gone from two to 38 identifiable Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD’s), and some of these – including AIDS, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), and Herpes – are incurable.
  • HPV causes more than 90 percent of all invasive cervical cancers, and condoms do not prevent HPV. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 45 million Americans have HPV.
  • In addition, chlamydia is rampant and is frequently symptomless. Chlamydia is a leading cause of infertility in later life.

Adapted from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Tips for Parents

In the movie Spanglish, the mother, played by Tea Leoni, is clearly obsessed with exercise and her looks. Her daughter, played by Sarah Steele, is not overweight, but clearly not thin enough to meet her mom’s standards. Leoni tries to motivate her daughter to lose weight by going on shopping sprees and buying her beautiful, but too-small clothing. Steele is excited about the clothing, but her self-esteem tanks when none of the clothes fit.

“Between these types of movies, television shows and airbrushed photos in magazines showing women with ‘perfect bodies’, impressionable young girls get the idea that it just isn’t acceptable to be anything but a size 6 or smaller,” says Pamela Kelle, licensed nutritionist and registered dietician. “What many don’t realize is what they see on the screen isn’t real. Their body was never intended to be that size, yet they go on fad diets and do all kinds of obsessive workout routines to get themselves down to their dream weight. The only problem is, even when they get to the size they wanted to be there is still this small voice inside saying, ‘It’s not good enough.’”

As each new year gets closer, many people, including teenagers, resolve to lose weight in order to feel better about themselves. But, is it really about weight loss?

“In most instances I would have to say that losing weight is about a lot more than shedding pounds,” Kelle says. “At every turn, sometimes even in the home, teens are bombarded with negative messages about how they look. I strongly encourage parents to be aware of how they talk about food and weight. Many parents talk negatively about their own looks. Teen girls pick up on this and often internalize it. If mom doesn’t think she looks good, the daughter thinks she must not look good either. The goal for our kids should be overall health, not a certain weight.”

If you own a scale, Kelle says to get rid of it. None of us needs a scale to know when we have put on a few pounds. The way your clothes fit tells you all you need to know.

You can protect your kids from the dangerous lies in the culture. If you want to teach your children about healthy living, Kelle’s tips can help you out:

  • Encourage and model healthy eating and exercise;

  • Provide healthy foods and nutritious meals consumed by the whole family;

  • Do not praise or glorify someone for being a certain body size or losing weight;

  • Don’t talk negatively about your own body; and

  • Don’t expect perfection.

Our bodies are the canvas upon which our internal conditions express themselves.

“Helping teens have healthy self-esteem and body image can be challenging in light of all the external messages they hear and see,” Kelle says. “Making your home a safe place where your teen can be real and talk about these issues will go a long way toward helping them fend off unhealthy habits. This is a gift that will last a lifetime.”