Editor's note: This is the third post in a four-part series about teens, sex, and social media. Read the entire series here.
I made a somewhat shocking discovery in our storage room a few weeks ago.
I was looking through a pile of old photographs when – mixed in among the usual family holidays and memorable birthday parties – I found a set of six shots of me posing seductively in a series of sexy outfits. Me in a bikini. Me in a silky top. Me in a tight black skirt and vest with no bra.
I stared at these images with my jaw dropped, feeling as if I'd stumbled across a collection of photos taken without my knowledge. But no, I remember this… We were in my friend's basement bedroom. Her parents were out. We were 14 years old.
In every one of the photos, I'm wearing a wooden cross necklace, clearly aware of the irony.
Fortunately for me, the internet wasn't a thing in 1991 and we were taking pictures with a disposable camera, not a smart phone. Maybe I would have sent those photos to a boy I liked. I don't know. But the fact remains that I had the inclination and curiosity to pose for them.
Take a moment, right now if you can, to recall what it was like to be a teenager discovering your own sexuality. Remember the questions you had, and the various methods you and your friends came up with for answering them. Think about how natural it is to wonder what your body looks like to other people. Isn't a photograph the best way to find out?
Discovering these photos changed the way I approached this piece. I was filled with compassion for teen girls, and filled with gratitude for my parents, who somehow guided teenage me to a place of relative confidence and fierceness.
Which reminded me – that's what it's all about. I was getting distracted as I researched the current technological landscape and how it affects the way our kids experience adolescence. There are some unique considerations because of the state of technology, but what's more important than preparing your daughter to be a good digital citizen is preparing your daughter to be a woman in this world.
As I discussed in my post on talking to boys about sex, love, and relationships, having the “one big sex talk" doesn't work. Your daughter won't experience her sexuality in one fell swoop. It's a process that begins way before puberty.
Help your daughter build a strong, confident foundation from which to navigate her budding sexuality by modeling these four behaviors.
1 | Positive body image
Studies have shown (over and over again) that a mother has an incredible amount of influence on her daughter's body image.
One study at the University of Notre Dame found that “direct maternal encouragement of daughters to lose weight is linked to daughters' development of bulimic symptoms." To which you might say, “Obviously." But the study's abstract also states that “daughters whose mothers merely talk about dieting and body dissatisfaction are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder."
I would never presume to tell you that you need to be 100% happy with your body (I mean, that would be ideal, but I understand self-acceptance is an ever-evolving process). The point is, it's on us to deal with our shit in private. Do not talk about calorie counting, dieting, or losing weight in front of, or with, your daughter. Period.
Instead, talk to your daughter about healthy eating choices and introduce her to a range of physical activities that might interest her. If you think that ship has sailed, it's never too late to talk about loving yourself. Teach her what an amazing feat of science and magic her body is – that we are made of the same raw material as the stars.
You may laugh or tell me that I'm barking up the wrong new age tree, but I want to offer this thought anyway: teach your daughter that she is a goddess. Not a queen or a diva, but a beautiful, sensual goddess whose body is to be celebrated. While you're at it, remind yourself that you're a goddess, too.
There is equal onus on fathers to consciously avoid using language that objectifies women in front of your daughters (or how about all the time?), and to maintain a closeness with her, even as her body changes through puberty.
Laura Choate, author of “Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture," says that, “if you have always been affectionate, this is not the time to stop hugging your daughter or to push her off your lap just because she has grown a little (or a lot)." That kind of rejection – no matter how unintentional – can leave a lasting imprint.
2 | Strong, supportive female friendships
I was a mean girl in junior high. Heavily influenced by the movie “Heathers," two friends and I called ourselves the Three Blonde Bitches (3BB for short). We weren't overtly mean, but we certainly thought we were better than other girls and knew how to influence almost any social situation. At the time, it seemed like the best way to be a “strong girl."
I wish I had done it all differently. I wish my notion of a strong girl involved lifting other girls up, making friends feel good about themselves, and showing boys that I didn't rely on their feedback to bolster my self-esteem.
Cattiness – the cornerstone of any mean girl squad – can be described as an evolutionary byproduct of the competition for sexual partners. In modern day terms, it's just competition. Women and girls are uncomfortable with competition because it's not something that we're encouraged to feel or benefit from the way boys typically are. But we experience it anyway, and don't really know what to do with it. So we snipe. We betray. We lie.
…Until we learn that there is a much better way to deal with our feelings of inadequacy. Once girls and women experience the brilliant force of female support, they will choose it over cattiness every time.
Female friends provide an outlet and a soundboard for those feelings that would otherwise manifest as passive aggression. Even better than that, the support of a close girlfriend has the ability to change the way we see ourselves. Your daughter will see the difference in you – before and after you spend time with your ladies – and understand on a profound level that girls are good for each other.
3 | Respect
How many times have you heard the phrase (dripping with judgment as it is), “No self-respecting girl would ever…"
I loathe the sentiment for all the ways that it's been used to victim-blame and slut-shame. I also believe there's a kernel of truth in there.
Modeling self-respect for your daughter is like teaching her about consent, integrity, and strength all at once. She will learn that she has value, that her words matter. Since the understanding that all people are born with inherent worth is a natural outgrowth of self-respect, your daughter will respect other people, too.
Be respectful of your partner, respectful of your own needs, and for the love of God, be respectful of your daughter. This includes respecting her privacy.
Amy Adele Hasinoff, Assistant Professor in the department of communication at the University of Colorado, Denver and author of “Sexting Panic," explains that digital privacy is also an important consideration.
“Covert monitoring (of your daughter's texts and social media) sets a really bad example that says, 'You have no right to privacy. I don't care about your personal space,'" she says. This is the opposite of respect.
And there's a larger message coming through. Says Hasinoff, “You're sending a very dangerous message that there is no privacy in digital information. I think we want to be modeling to kids that, just because something is digital and Facebook's telling you to share it and Twitter's telling you to share it, doesn't mean you should. There's still an ethical obligation to respect people's privacy."
In any area where your daughter may have a reasonable expectation of privacy – her phone, her email, even her bedroom at times – it's incumbent upon you to provide that privacy.
4 | Advocacy
Advocacy can be an intimidating word. It sounds like something one does for a cause or a struggle; we advocate for things we believe in.
Well, I have no doubt that you believe in your daughter. You believe that she deserves respect just like her male counterparts. She should have the freedom to be herself without ridicule or bullying. She is your cause.
As much as I wish it wasn't so, we still live in a misogynist culture – particularly when it comes to female sexuality. Girls are routinely given the message that they should be chaste and humble, but not too chaste and humble; that they can be one of two things – a prude or a slut.
If your teenage daughter is caught sexting, do not punish her. Have a conversation about it. Ask her why she did it and explain why it's not a good idea. Help her find safe, healthy ways to explore her sexuality. That's advocacy.
If your daughter is being slut-shamed for that sext, or for the way she dresses, something she said, or something that someone else invented about her – MAKE IT STOP! Her school may not intervene, her friends may do nothing, and – saddest of all – your daughter may feel powerless to fight it. It is up to you.
Furthermore, if your daughter is contributing to the slut-shaming of another girl, you need to become an advocate for that girl. There are too many examples (because even one is too many) of girls being relentlessly harassed by other girls – sometimes, tragically, to the point of committing suicide.
Hasinoff says, “It's very easy for parents to think of their teenage girls as potential victims. They feel like their kids are vulnerable… I think the best thing parents could do is think of it as their job to make sure that their kids don't perpetrate these horrible violations – that they don't slut-shame their classmates."
She goes on to say, “That's the moral and ethical training that I think parents should be giving their kids, rather than, 'Don't sext.'… If all you tell them is 'don't sext,' you're setting them up for a lot of problems and you're not solving any of the issues."
There is a lot of messed up shit that happens when it comes to girls and sexuality. Tune your radar into this realm and be prepared to fight when you see the double standard in play. By advocating for your daughter now, you're teaching her how to do it herself for the rest of her life.
You can change the world for your daughter
I just love this powerful visual of my daughter embodying the grit, humor, sadness, and fear of every woman. To think that we have it all somewhere inside our cells and can access whatever emotion or experience we need to inform our reaction to any situation we find ourselves in – it feels good to me.
It's also daunting as hell, isn't it? Speaking as a mother who tends to get caught up in the details (Shit – did I remember to put her tap shoes in her backpack? What will we do if we don't have her tap shoes? I'm the worst!), thinking about writing this piece has caused me to take several giant steps back and consider the whole picture.
When I judge myself, I judge my daughter. When I look at my belly, no longer the defined mid-section of a 25-year-old yoga instructor, and think, “Gross," I lay that feeling at my daughter's feet. When my sweet, wonderful mother calls herself stupid for forgetting to pack her toothbrush, my daughter feels the weight of those words.
It's not fair. She didn't do anything wrong. But you see, neither did I. All of this judgment and criticism is learned behavior. When I was a kid going to Catholic mass, I would keep my lips closed during the part of the service when the congregation speaks the phrase, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."
But WHY am I not worthy?, seven-year-old me thought. What did I do wrong?
Nothing, sweetheart. You've done nothing wrong. It's just a phrase from a book written by men who were trying to control a whole lot of people. People are easier to control when you convince them that they lack worth.
And that's what our culture has done to generations of women. The words change slightly, we gain a little ground now and then, but the underlying (heteronormative) belief that women exist primarily to be tools for male sexual pleasure, and to reproduce and care for their offspring, persists.
But you can make a promise right now that it ends with you.