Do we judge girls for imitating tropes about female sexuality?
I n this interview, Inimini (13 years old) tells me that music videos often ruin the songs she likes to listen to. When I ask her why, she explains that no matter what the song is about, the girls in the videos are always doing the same thing: sexy posturing in minimal clothing. Inimini is clearly irritated by this and understands the implications of this imagery for her. She bristles: “I don’t need to be half undressed to be who I am.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard a young girl express confusion or anger about the images of women they encounter both online and offline. In my classes, I’ve had many young girls ask me why images of women so often look the same: half-dressed, large breasted, tiny waists, pouting lips, suggestive postures. Answering is hard – both as a parent and as a teacher. How does one begin to explain why these female body types colonize so much of our media and our attention? How does one tell a girl NOT to internalize the images around her? Is that even possible?
This reminds me of an incident when I was sitting with a group of parents at an outdoor café. From where we were sitting, we could see a group of young teenage girls taking selfies: sweaters were taken off to reveal tank tops, breasts were slightly arched forward and long hair released from ponytails. Their faces assumed similar expressions: wide eyes, pouting mouths, cheeks sucked inward, (this expression is also known as the “duck face”). We immediately began commenting on the way the girls were recording themselves. There was a shared sense of disbelief and a fair amount of eye rolling as we watched the young girls pose relentlessly for the camera.
Thinking about it later, I wondered why we had this reaction. Wasn’t it obvious that the young girls were mimicking the language of “female sexuality” they had internalized? Isn’t this the main message in our media culture for young girls – as Inimini had so clearly explained? So why were we judging these girls?
Inimini’s words got me thinking: perhaps some of the girls had felt like Inimini but had posed anyway. Maybe they played along to be included in the group – partly having fun with the posing but, perhaps, partly alienated from or even apprehensive of the process: after all, now those images had been uploaded and were being assessed by their peers, by strangers, by themselves even, under the harsh light of stereotypical, Photoshopped beauty norms. Would their images be good enough? Would they get enough likes? There was so much at stake for each of those girls. Each of them had to make many calculated choices about their bodies, their behavior, and their peer group. They also had to process the critical gaze of adults nearby (whether they chose to ignore or absorb the disapproval). If I hadn’t had the opportunity and privilege to talk to so many young girls for this project, I might have easily walked away from that café without considering any of this. My heart goes out the girls. Inimini has helped me to “re-see” that incident. And it changes the way I will respond next time.
Inimini, you are right: a teenage girl should not need to be half undressed to be who she is.
I’m here and I’m listening.