My daughter and I love to shop together. In the last few years our styles have converged and we enjoy the chance to get out, grab a Starbucks, and pick out a cute top or a bracelet. She notices different trends and styles as she matures. She has developed a unique style of her own and enjoys the art and beauty of fashion. Shopping with her naturally lends itself to discussions about our bodies and how have they been made. Questions often lead to how we present our bodies to others, how we physically attract people and yes, these conversations have led to sexuality and sex. Because it is normal and natural for a girl to become self aware of her appearance as she ages, shopping for clothing and talking with our daughters about their body, beauty and sexuality go hand in hand. In our particular culture, fashion lends itself to a broader conversation and as moms and mentors, we need to be engaged in this conversation from the beginning.
Last month, the July edition of Teen Vogue included an explicit article describing how to have anal sex. The fashion magazine has a target audience of girls aged twelve to seventeen. There has been (justifiable) outrage by many. However others have come to the magazine’s defense in the name of necessary sexual education. I am in the “feels outrage and complete shock” category. As I have read through the website of this fashion magazine other articles that stood out to me include, “The Perfect V creates a Vulva highlighter”, “12 Adorable Drawings of a Vulva that will make you Grab a Flashlight”, “Periods and Dating when you are Intersex”, “How to Masturbate if you Have a Penis” as well as a commercial for “Healthysexuals” that shows two shirtless teenage boys putting superhero masks on each other and then embracing and jumping into bed. There is a LOT about sex in this magazine. A LOT. Teen Vogue touts itself as, “The Rebellious, Outspoken, Empowering magazine that you need right now.” As a parent, an alarm goes off right away when the words rebellious and empowering are put together as the theme of this so called fashion magazine.
As I read the graphic and disturbing article about anal sex my initial response was anger. Parenting in our culture is a battle and as I see my daughter and other girls struggle, the anger increases at this disregard of the beauty and health of innocence and love. They can’t even open up a magazine about fashion without a sexual agenda. How have we come to the point in our culture that a teen fashion magazine has the authority and listening ear of fourteen year olds girls when it comes to explicit sex? Our girls deserve so much more from their surroundings.
This article reveals two realities about our culture and the necessity to have a plan in place to deal with it.The culture will likely not change for the better any time soon so it is imperative that we consider how to walk with our girls through this toxic world in which they are being raised.The first reality the article revealed is the significant amount of authority beauty and fashion often have over our young women. There is an unhealthy cycle that takes place as they look to fashion and beauty as a place of authority and identity.
The same “experts” that promote a narrow version of physical beauty are the ones many young girls go to in order to feel confident about themselves. Many studies show a girl’s self-esteem is affected by images they see in fashion magazines and websites. According to the NYC Girls Project, 60% of girls say they compare their bodies to fashion models. The study further says, “A fair amount of unhappiness (about their bodies) results from media-which presents images that tend to portray a narrow standard of beauty.” This same industry that offers the girls the unrealistic pictures also offers them solutions through purchasing beauty products. The beauty companies pay a great deal to advertise in fashion magazines. So, our young women are motivated to purchase the products so that they can be more beautiful like the girls they see in the magazines. The ads speak with authority, with scientific research, and with convincing photos. Teen Vogue and other fashion magazines have a captive audience. The images are powerful and the sermons these magazines decide to preach now have the listening ear of impressionable young women who have been convinced (often subconsciously) by social media that their value and identity come from looking like the pictures in their magazines. Simply put, this narrow view of beauty carries a lot of authority in the lives of our young women.
The second reality is found in the implicit message about sex in general in the article describing anal sex, specifically. I do not even want to give credence to the article by describing it but there are huge ideas and concepts missing, namely love, commitment, and parents. There is absolutely no mention of having feelings for anyone that you might have anal sex with. There is no mention of any kind of commitment needed to allow someone to penetrate you in this way, and there is no mention of seeking wisdom/counsel from an adult that loves, cares, and seeks your welfare above all else. This anal sex act described is just that…an act. It is nothing more than a casual encounter that can be pleasurable if you are comfortable with it. There is no mention of a purpose for sex or the bond it creates. In this article, like many in this “fashion” magazine, sex has been completely reduced to a casual consensual, recreational act. In essence, this is an article severely lacking in consideration of the hearts, changing bodies, and insecurities of our daughters. Our twelve year olds are just beginning to enjoy style, color, and their bodies when they open these magazines. Most teen magazines provide numerous ads showing skinny, touched up models that can cause deep insecurity while at the same time portray a view of physical intimacy that can cause great harm.
There are psychologists and educators who speak to this issue considering the entire woman, not just one isolated type of sexual experience. In Swimming Upstream, Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, author and professor, Laura Choate discusses sexual identity and sexual decision-making. According to Choate, girls bodies mature at a much faster rate than their ability to make responsible sexual decisions. So, while their hormones are raging and their bodies are changing they are still very much like children emotionally. This reality calls for protection and communication with our girls. In addition, their brain’s pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed. This is the part of the brain that provides self-regulation, the regulation of emotion, and the part that enables her to slow down and think things through. So, if her body is sexually developed, but her emotions and her brain are not, presenting sex in a casual, non-emotional way is harmful plain and simple. Further, in the NYC Girls Project, there is a correlation between the early onset of sexual activity and self-esteem. Girls with a higher self-esteem in seventh grade were three times more likely to remain virgins than those with low self -esteem. The risk of teenage motherhood is raised by up to fifty percent by those with low self-esteem. Taking it full circle, a low self-esteem can be caused in part by the numerous fashion images they see in magazines such as Teen Vogue. Those with lower self-esteem about their bodies often engage in sexual relations at an earlier age and many studies show a large percentage of girls regret the age they begun to be sexually active. We truly live in a time of utter hypocrisy. This is not the kind of empowerment I desire for my daughters.
How do we respond? What then, is the plan? We can choose to shelter our girls completely and take away all social media or we can walk with our daughters through this toxic culture and use our time and energy to deeply, intentionally invest in them. I had a pastor who once said, “Rules without relationship equals rebellion.” This quote does not say rules are bad, but that they are effective through transformative relationships. If our girls at this age are not in a place to self-regulate, loving standards serve to protect them and ultimately empower them. As mothers and mentors to our girls what we have is the power of authentic relationships with our daughters. Our loving guidance can shape how they see the world. We need to talk to them about sex, and fashion, and beauty, and the images they see. We need to teach them to view things with a critical eye. We need to be their pre-frontal cortex helping them make decisions about sex and relationships. They may look like adults, but they are still children in many ways.
We also need to be aware. The article on anal sex served to wake me up. I could have never envisioned that a magazine geared to someone as young as a 12 year old that claims to be a fashion/entertainment magazine would put in writing a sexual act like this. If this was a movie, I am pretty sure it would have an R rating and have to be viewed with an adult. We need to read and observe the messages surrounding our girls and be proactive in providing a message that promotes flourishing, beauty, self-respect, and trust in loving rules and standards, not rebellion.
The first chapter of Proverbs is a call for wisdom. A father’s instruction and a mother’s teaching are described as a graceful garland for your head and a pendant for your neck. A parent’s loving, trustworthy insight provides beauty for the souls of children like adornment does for their bodies. It is easy for some psychologist to write an article about the nuts and bolts of anal sex. It is an altogether entirely different goal to raise a young woman who seeks self-control, inward and outward beauty, and self-respect. This takes years of walking with our girls through their hurts, heartaches, and joys.
As we do this, girls will be given the pendants and garlands necessary for real empowerment. They will have wisdom to know how to treat their bodies, how to enjoy fashion and color and how they have been made for so much more. When they see a flippant article about something sexually explicit from a fashion magazine they will recognize it for the absurdity that it is. The book of Proverbs begins with wisdom but ends with the description of an excellent woman. Her clothing is described as fine linen and purple. She sells sashes in the market place. She clearly had an eye for beautiful clothing. However, the proverb also states she clothes herself with strength and dignity and because of this, she can be confident of her future.
We can have fun with our girls and teach them that clothing and fashion can be beautiful but that ultimately one’s confidence will be in their faith and personal dignity, not in their appearance, apparel, or the false messages they hear from this industry. Pray for garlands for your girls and pendants for your preteens. Take them shopping and enjoy them as they grow into young women. Be their strong and loving voice of authority about beauty, their body, and their sexuality so that they can walk with confidence, strength, and dignity.