A friend of mine, the mother of a son, confronted me with some photographs of my daughter and some of her girl friends, at a church camp. All the girls were posing, pouty looks on their faces, in their underwear, like Victoria’s Secret models. Evidently, the pictures had been inadvertently left at the boy’s house after a get-together. I didn’t blame the woman, who was going to each of the girls’ mothers with the photos. If my son’s female friends had left such pictures in my home, and he had seen them, I would have been mad, too.
“The boys weren’t supposed to see them,” said my daughter, defensively. I was angry because I was embarrassed—hadn’t I taught my kids better? “We were all girls. What’s the big deal?” My older daughter matter-of-factly concurred that she, too, had taken similar pictures when she went to camp.
Issues of modesty and appropriateness are difficult — unfortunately, more so for parents of girls. It’s legitimate for young women to want to feel attractive, and it’s normal for young men to be attracted to them. After all, the propagation of the species depends on it. Used to be, a great hairstyle, a little makeup and cute clothes were enough for most girls to feel attractive. But there’s something new out there now, and it has me worried.
It seems it’s no longer enough for girls to look pretty — the new standard of attractiveness is to look sexy.
A walk through the shopping mall features displays with photos of models with sultry half-closed eyes and parted lips, their long, carefully messed-up hair suggesting they just arose from bed. Even the female shoppers are in revealing clothing and smoky eye makeup, with half-bared breasts, bare midriffs accented with navel piercings, and the “whale tail” — thong underwear showing above low-cut pants. Bombarded by Victoria’s Secret catalogues, booty-shaking music videos featuring scantily clad dancers, panty-free celebrities, and increasingly frank articles in teen magazines, girls have gotten the message that looking sexy is now necessary to be attractive to boys. Not only that — it’s expected that girls will want to look sexy. Revealing clothes, bolstered with push-up bras and accented with siren eye makeup and hooker-style high heels, are de rigueur, even for school.
Moreover, the focus on girls’ bodies starts young. Target carries teeny hot pants that barely cover preschool girls’ underwear, complains one mom on her blog. Target’s boys’ clothing, of course, is more substantial. Other mothers of girls complain that bathing suits for the under-ten set are designed to make them look like Britney Spears. Often, the objection these parents have to such attire is dismissed. “Oh, what’s the problem?” other parents say. “It’s cute.”
While it may be cute to see a four-year-old running around in a jeweled halter top and miniskirt, if you don’t let her wear stuff like that now, you have a much more substantial leg to stand on when she wants to do it at age 15. Of course, I want my girls to feel attractive and fashionably dressed — I want to be that way myself. I work very hard to find the happy medium between allowing them to totter around like streetwalkers and putting them in burkas (which I am sure my husband would prefer). I suppose it makes me a prude to be the parent who says no to bare midriffs, who tries to encourage her children to appreciate modesty, to value themselves for their intellect and talents more than their faces and figures.
When a girl or woman emphasizes her sexuality, it sends the message to men that sexual allure is all that’s valuable about women. I worry about that, especially because I have a son. But regardless of what I personally teach my own children, they are the peers of others whom I see becoming increasingly jaded and cynical about sexuality and self-control.
Emphasizing sexuality over other personal attributes is bad for both girls and boys. Men come to think of women as one-dimensional, only there for visual and sexual gratification. Girls value themselves only as sexual beings, therefore trivializing their other qualities. I don’t want my kids to either think of others that way, or be thought of that way themselves, but I feel I’m fighting an uphill battle. Not that I’m going to stop.