A couple of summers ago, as I played on the beach with my little girls, a scene unfolded, which is undoubtedly repeated countless times every second of every day in our 24/7 social media world.
Three girls, who looked no more than 14 or 15, were in their bathing suits, taking turns striking the most seductive poses possible, pushing up whatever breasts they had, while one of them snapped a photo on her phone.
My husband and I looked at each other and knew that photo was probably just posted to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, name your social network.
I thought of that scene after a blog post went viral last week by a mom of teenage boys, who said she would block any sexy “selfie” photos girls sent to her sons. What sent the blogosphere into overdrive wasn’t necessarily that she was going to block the girls who post these photos; it was the apparent blame she seemed to place on the girls in sexualizing her sons.
“I know your family would not be thrilled at the thought of my teenage boys seeing you only in your towel,” wrote Kim Hall, who is a director of a women’s ministry in Austin, Texas, on her blog, Given Breath. “Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t quickly un-see it? You don’t want our boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?”
Before the comments come pouring in, I want to make it clear that I didn’t think of the story of the teens on the beach because I support Kim Hall’s position. I thought of it because of the double standard, which this controversy seems to demonstrate, in how we view what girls and boys do online.
Would I have cared — or worried — or paid much attention to a group of 14- and 15-year-old boys posing in their bathing suit bottoms for all the world to see? Probably not. And that speaks to how we’re socialized to place the onus on girls to police sexuality while giving boys free rein. (Ironically, Hall’s original post included photos of her sons flexing in their bathing suits. She has since updated the post with more family-friendly photos of her boys and has declined to talk to CNN.)
Stephanie Dulli, a mom of two young boys, who blogs atStephanie Says, says Hall, like any mother of sons, has a responsibility to teach her boys that girls, even those sending sexy photos, deserve respect.
“It’s our job as mothers of boys to raise our children, our sons, to see more than just boobs, to see more than just a scantily clad female, to be able to say, ‘Well that’s one part of this person, but what’s the rest?'” said Dulli.
“And it’s our job as mothers of boys to make sure they don’t easily categorize those girls or write them off simply because they posted something stupid on Instagram.”
Laurie Marshall, whose kids are 8, 19 and 21, believes Hall is encouraging her sons to pass judgment and shun people deemed to be inappropriate, which she feels is the “worst kind of message to give teenagers,” who are already doing that to each other.
“What I would want my son to do is not turn those people away but understand where they are coming from and what motivates the kids to do things like that and then form their judgments based on what they really know about that person, not the photo,” she said.
Andi Zeisler is founder and editorial director of Bitch Media, a nonprofit feminist media company, which publishes the magazine, “Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture.” Zeisler believes Hall’s post is indicative of a larger problem in how we, as a society, often view girls vs. boys especially after incidents of sexting, sexual assault and even rape.
“It is so much easier to put the onus on girls, to blame them for how they dress and how they act, than it is to just teach boys and men not to sexualize women, not to think it’s OK to take advantage of or rape them,” said Zeisler during an interview.
A Montana judge’s recent decision to sentence a teacher to 30 days in custody for raping a teenage student put a national spotlight on this attitude, after the judge cited the girl’s maturity and complicity in the situation. The judge faced an immediate backlash, but his words highlight a tendency among some to blame young women for their own victimization.
“I realize it may seem like a stretch to connect rape to (Hall’s) blog post but I do think it’s part of a series of pieces that are all connected to the way we think about girls versus boys in terms of sexuality.”
But on the other side are many parents who think Hall is 100% right.
“These young girls showing their ‘goods’ have no idea how this could come back to haunt them,” said Shasta Gift, a mom of two, in response to a request for comment on CNN’s Facebook page. “It naturally causes hormonal boys to go crazy.”
Celia Crecy, who has a 20-year-old son, says some of his friends wear clothing that makes them look like “little hookers.”
“I worry not only about the girls but the message the boys get that it is OK to dress like that so it must be OK to treat them as objects of desire instead (of) as a human being. It is very confusing for some boys,” she said.
Said Darrell Andrews, on CNN’s Facebook page, “Stop this foolishness and let parents parent. She obviously loves her kids and (is) trying to protect them from this sick and out of control nation we have become.”
Maybe that last point is one place where those of us who take issue with Hall’s post and the dangerous double standard we feel exists in society, and those who don’t, can find a place to agree — that we, as parents, can and should do more to empower women, like those girls I saw on the beach a few years ago, and educate men, like Mrs. Hall’s sons.
“Boys and girls are getting the message that sexy is valued from a very early age,” said Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, a New York City-based child, adolescent and family psychologist and author of the book, “Princess Recovery: A How-to Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters.”
Parents of girls need to encourage their daughters to believe that they are worth much more that what they look like, despite the messaging they get in the media.
“The more we can empower girls to believe in themselves and what they have to offer without falling into the ‘appearance trap,’ the better prepared they will be to handle being asked to send sexy photos, or to post them looking for positive feedback,” she said.
And as for boys, Hartstein says they are “bombarded” with the same images, leading them to think it’s perfectly fine to view girls solely based on their outward appearance.
“Young men need to be taught that respect is the primary thing to consider when seeing a young woman,” said Hartstein. “It’s important to try to teach boys, from an early age, that girls are more than the clothes they wear and to help boys see the person underneath.”
I hope Mrs. Hall’s sons, and those girls on the beach, are listening.