“No bellies, no breasts, no bums”
For those who may have missed it a few weeks ago, this line is part of a well-circulated letter from college authorities to parents. It’s also part of a much broader discussion about how teenage girls dress and pose which has been unfolding across the US and elsewhere.
Numerous articles have been written on both sides, ranging from requests to teenage girls to cover up, to heated responses about gender discrimination. A few articles picked up the more relevant issue of parental responsibility in teaching respect to their kids.
As always, I’m intrigued by the deeper layers, such as why this has attracted such attention in the first place. So, as I did in another recent article, I’m going to see if I can strip away some of the surface to look at what’s underneath. And there are so many worms in this particular can it has been difficult to catch them!
Before I get started, let me say that I’ve deliberately stayed away from the gender discrimination agenda as that has already had plenty of coverage; I’d like to pick up on some of the other underlying issues that haven’t really been touched-on to date.
So, let’s start with why teenagers might want to flaunt their bodies?
Maybe we should spin this question around and ask why they wouldn’t. For as far back as we can trace, the human species has adorned, decorated and displayed the body in an infinite number of ways—body paint, piercings, feathers and skins, cloth, anything you can think of. It’s just a natural part of who we are. It’s also a very natural part of growing up—wanting to explore, exhibit and experiment with this newly-forming adult body. Online media just offers a new way of showing off.
It’s when this natural instinct hits up against a society that has anything but a natural approach to sex and nudity that the problems start. Before kids can talk, many are exposed to our confused and dysfunctional feelings about the physical body, imbibing them along with the formula fed from a plastic teat and other, everyday ways in which modern society has attempted to replace natural processes with man-made ones. Then, into that gap where a healthy attitude to the body might have been modeled, steps the media, with artificially enhanced and glamorized images of women (and, to a lesser extent, men).
The daily dose of television and internet in the lives of most children serves as the equivalent of an adult mandala meditation—except that the qualities of the the mandala they are absorbing in their open state are not necessarily what we would choose to meditate on ourselves as adults. And these are the qualities we see reflected back to us through the appearance of overly-made-up, scantily dressed, ‘up for anything,’ teenage girls. These girls are stepping into a new-found power to be who they want to be—and their desires are based on what they’ve perceived around them growing up. They are simply mirroring the qualities that win attention and focus, and appear to be valued, by our society (by us!), as evidenced by movies, magazines and other media. The fact that it is women, rather than men, that are so widely objectified in media simply adds extra weight to these external role models for teenage girls.
But then teenagers also dress and act as they do as part of a desire to be accepted by peers—the way we all tend to look to others to reassure us that we’re okay, in the absence of an inner knowing. Teenagers, going through rapid changes in physical appearance, emotions and responsibility, need particular reassurance that they are worthwhile and lovable in their own right as their sense of identity is shifting.
But how they dress and behave can also be a call for attention from the adults around them. Young women, particularly, learn early that displaying their bodies in a sexually alluring attracts male attention—it can boost weak self-esteem, become a temporary fix for a lack of love or a way of feeling powerful when there’s an underlying sense of powerlessness. The extreme of this is obvious from any browse through online web-cam or chat room sites, where seemingly endless arrays of incredibly young women offer their bodies for attention and/or money. Why older men respond to this offer of pre-mature, and often wounded, womanhood is a subject picked up by many others but is also worth considering in any discussion of this kind.
The bottom line, though, is that most teenagers aren’t fully aware of the motivations for their behavior and much of what we, as adults, perceive to be explicit sexual behavior is a projection of our own inner world. They are experimenting, trying things out, role-playing, reacting. Each of them has their own unique personality and sense of purpose, and any attempt to understand their behavior has to take this into account.
Jane may be sexually aware from a young age and deliberately dressing to get a reaction, but Esther may be just trying to fit in and Fiona, who may have been abused as a young child, may unconsciously be seeking a way to heal.
Similarly, how young men feel about their bodies and how they behave, depends on their own individual make-up as well as on examples of masculinity on offer around them. Projecting any motivation onto teenagers en-masse is just that—a projection on our part of adult beliefs and perceptions of the world.
But why would a scantily dressed teenager push our buttons in the first place?
- Well, there’s one obvious reason—it can arouse sexual feelings we may not want. In a world which values youth and vigor, and isn’t fully at ease yet with sexuality (especially female sexuality), the sight of scantily-dressed young bodies can trigger a sexual response – not only in other teenagers but in adults too. And in the same way that joy is infectious, heightened sexual energy can also be infectious. How we, as adults, welcome this response depends largely on how comfortable we are with our own sexuality. Are we able to just enjoy our own and others’ sexuality as part of life, or do we find it difficult to accept it in ourselves and therefore seek to repress it in others so that we can be more at ease?
Then there’s a less obvious reason. It can be an unwelcome reminder of our own aging process and unresolved dilemmas. If we aren’t at ease with our own bodies and/or with getting older, then the sight of a bare-chested young dude with jeans hanging off the hips or a flat-stomach proudly displayed under a sheer belly can trigger self-doubt, fear and other negative emotions.
- At a deeper level though, there’s the question about why naked skin would automatically make us think of sex. There are still many places around the world where nudity is simply part of daily reality, where the sight of a naked body isn’t automatically associated with sexual intimacy or ownership, or seen to be disrespectful. In our ‘civilized’ world, the lack of natural nudity, combined with the emphasis on nudity in a sexual context, has led to a direct connection in most people’s minds between nudity and having sex. Repression and censorship only serve to further embed this imbalanced perspective and some of the consequences of this are so obvious they don’t warrant extra attention here – such as repression of images of breast-feeding women and online censorship of naked body parts regardless of context.
There still is one other aspect, though, that we haven’t addressed: How we help teenagers stay safe.
This idea of safety normally incorporates two specific themes. Firstly, supporting them in not being sexually active until they feel ready and, secondly, preventing abuse or abusive situations/relationships.
Part of maturing (rather than simply getting older) is becoming aware of ourselves as sexual beings—exploring what that means for us personally and finding ways to release less positive views on sexuality that we may be carrying. It means learning to accept and to integrate our sexuality in a way that gives us, and possibly others, pleasure—without nagging undertones of shame, disgust, guilt and judgment. And it also means knowing when to share sexually with another or not. Helping teenagers with all of this is part of what keeps them safe.
Sex can be amazing and being aroused is a wonderful feeling, but it is our business, not someone else’s, regardless of whether the feeling was triggered by our thoughts about another or not. These are also important messages for teenagers to hear (and for many adults).
Being turned on doesn’t automatically mean we have to have sex with another unless other factors are lining up too – most pertinently, that it feels right to both individuals and that they are both similarly self-aware. Few would argue with that first point – that sexual intimacy should feel right for both parties before they engage in it—but the second point is one that gets less attention. And it has to do with awareness of our own power and that of others.
Sex is an incredibly powerful energy and those who work with it deliberately are only too well aware that it can be used to wield power over another. Guiding our youngsters has to include conversations about power and intuition—not only to keep them safe but, more importantly, to support them in having a positive experiences with their body and with sex.
Helping teenagers develop a strong sense of inner guidance supports them in sensing when a situation is positive for them or not, giving them an instinct for when and how to behave, and when ‘no’ or a quick exit might be in order. It also gives them a sense of how others may be feeling. They need to be coached in sitting with their emotions, in sensing what’s happening for them inside.
Guiding teenagers into a healthy relationship with power—including their own and others’ sexual power—helps to sow the seeds for mature adults who know when, why and with whom to share sexually. A sexually self-contained, self-empowered woman is aware that she can wield her sexuality as a powerful tool if she chooses to, but has the respect and self-discipline to use it only when it feels right to her to do so. She’s also more likely to be wiser in her choice of sexual partners, looking for those with similar values and awareness. And the same is true for men. Sexual power is no different to other forms of power—it can be used for great healing and joy when directed with a healthy awareness, but can also lead to pain and destruction when used without awareness—particularly in a society where much of our emotional wiring around sexuality has been tampered with.
And taking the time to have these conversations (through the medium of daily, ‘on-the-job coaching’ by parents and other influential figures in the lives of teenagers) helps to share the vocabulary and communication skills which teenagers need in order to express themselves clearly. It can be difficult for youngsters to stand their ground without the language and the experience of having open discussions around sensitive issues.
I’m aware that I’m offering as many questions as answers here, but there’s one more I’d like to offer, and it’s a very fundamental one. Why do we make such a big deal about sex anyway?
I think the time of abdicating responsibility for answering this question to external authorities (especially those that have been male-dominated) is now past and we are being asked to find our individual truths about it, no matter how challenging that may be to us. This individual soul-searching about why sex is such a ‘big deal’ is needed to help re-balance the deep wounding around human sexuality, and the physical body, that exists in our society, and to start the process of reclaiming one of the most powerful and joyful energies that human beings can experience.
The question isn’t about whether someone else’s behavior or views are right or wrong—regardless of whether they are teenagers or adults. It’s about being aware of what feels deeply right or wrong for each of us as individuals and understanding why, and it’s about respecting that others may feel and choose differently.
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Ed: Sara Crolick