Yup, I’m probably going to piss some people off, but I’m gonna just take the risk. A few days ago I came across a blog post that has apparently made the rounds on Facebook and other social media, called FYI (if you’re a teenage girl), by Kimberly Hall. Mrs. Hall is the Director of Women’s Ministry at All Saints Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. I mention her position just to give her a little credibility that her intent is good. Doesn’t mean I’d likely agree with her on every point of theology, or even most, or for that matter all parenting points, but it does mean that she’s likely given these issues some real thought and not just rattled them off with a self-righteous zeal at the top of her mind.
So, Mrs. Hall is of the mind that teenage girls should be more careful about the things they put on Facebook. (Here we agree and I’ll elaborate on my opinion shortly.) She regularly gets together with her three teenaged sons and one pre-teen daughter, and looks through the social media scene with them. (Not sure that’s how we’ll handle social media in our house, but we haven’t had to cross that bridge, yet, so it’s still to be determined.) She blocks those girls who might be “tempting” her boys to “impure thoughts.” (Okay, here Mrs. Hall and I part ways, though I think she means well. I completely disagree with this approach, but I’ll get to that, too.)
Now lots of people are offended by this mother’s approach and she’s been accused of everything from slut shaming to irresponsible child rearing. There are all sorts of responses on other people’s blogs now, and here I go writing one, too. I was going to link to some of them, but I don’t want to get too off track. A simple Google search brings up almost 140,000 of them. Most of them are offended that she has put out the message that teenage girls bodies are bad, boys bodies are wholesome (she did include a bunch of pictures of her shirtless boys), and that it is entirely a girl’s responsibility to be sure no boy or man, for that matter, sees her a sexual object. After all, the male of our species is completely incapable of controlling either his eyes or his thoughts, right? Well, no, and I don’t for one second think that’s Mrs. Hall’s point.
Yes, it’s true, how a man looks at a woman, or young girl, and what he thinks when he looks at her, are not her responsibility. Each man, or boy, is responsible for his own heart and mind, and certainly the direction of his gaze. But why would we not tell our teenage daughters that it is silly, pointless, and degrading to ATTEMPT to control them. Posing in your bedroom without a bra, back arched, sultry pout and all, are DESIGNED to control the thoughts of the men and boys for whom they post these pictures. It is an ATTEMPT to make those males on their friends list see them as a sexual object, at least at that moment. Maybe not every pajama selfie by a teenage girl is taken with that goal, but to say that NONE of them are is disingenuous and does these girls another disservice. Will the young men who view these be destined to never see her as anything but a sexual object? No, of course not! But he has now gotten the message that she WANTS to be thought of that way. How horribly confusing to him. And NO, I’m not saying that the young lady wearing a short skirt is asking to be raped, or even to have sex. That is NOT the same thing.
We all agree that our society has over sexualized woman, and that our daughters are being pressured in ridiculous ways to be conscious of their sexuality from an insanely young age. It’s no wonder that they are trying harder and harder to “be sexy” from younger and younger ages. But that’s not what I want for my daughter. I don’t want her to post those pajama selfies. I don’t want it to even occur to her that she should post those. I don’t want her to spend one second ever feeling that she needs the kind of injection of self-esteem that might be gained from seeing how many “likes” or comments she can get from posting a sexy selfie intended to cause her male classmates to imagine being there in bed with her. I can hope for the best and tell her body is wonderful, which it is, but why would I not also tell her to knock off the selfies with no bra? Why would I not point out how much I disapprove when I see her friends doing it?
And, boys! Yes, you are in control! Here’s a good post with the message I want my boys to get. But even that is almost too far the other way. Boys, you are totally and completely in control of your thoughts and eyes, and playing the victim or blaming anyone else for your thoughts and actions will always turn out badly. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t beware of someone, anyone, attempting to manipulate your thoughts, particularly in a sexual way. Not because she might succeed, and not because you might lose some of that control that you cannot lose, but because it says something about her. It tells you first of all that she thinks that’s a healthy way to interact with you. It tells you that she is gaining some amount, large or small, of self esteem by attempting to exercise a sexual power. She likely hasn’t given it that much thought. She hasn’t thought through the whole thing, but to say that she isn’t hoping for a whole lot of attention as a result of that post is not realistic. That attention gives her some boost of self-esteem, and I’m sorry that she feels she needs it. It doesn’t mean she’s a whore, or that she’s slutty, or that she has any intent to act on the thoughts she might be hoping to provoke.
In the end it’s all about judgement, right? Mrs. Hall got all sorts of grief for judging those girls in their jammies. We want to teach our boys not to judge girls for posting pictures in nothing but a towel. We want to work hard, like this mother did, not to judge Mrs. Hall and her parenting decisions for her post. But none of that is realistic, either. No, we don’t want to make hard decisions on what kind of person someone is based solely on how short their skirt is on a given Tuesday. We shouldn’t BLOCK a young lady’s profile completely based on one poorly advised selfie. We shouldn’t decide a mother is screwing up her sons because of one rashly formed family social media policy. But as humans, we are always categorizing and organizing and drawing inferences based on available information. We HAVE to. Our brains are just wired that way, and we’ve been doing it since birth. The only part of that we can change is HOW we do it, and how permanent those judgements are.
All I’m getting at is that this is a tough parenting dilemma. There are a lot of people making all sorts of absolute statements and getting more and more polarized about this and SO MANY other things. Why must every issue be all or nothing? I want my sons to know they are in control of their thoughts, but it’s not realistic to expect them, as hormone-crazed teenagers, to look at that braless cutie and NOT have a sexual thought. I want my daughter to know that her body is fantastic, and a gift, and though it will give her lots of sexual pleasure, it is not dirty, but I also don’t want her posting pictures like those we’ve been talking about all week. There is a medium. There are so many shades of grey.