The #metoo and #timesup movements have brought up a lot of emotions for me… emotions I’m still trying to work out for myself. And having to do that in front of my 18-year old son and 15-year old daughter can be a bit tricky to navigate. I recognize that, as their mother, I am the one they look to as an example for how a woman should behave and expect to be treated. And that is a huge responsibility. One that can overwhelm me when I really think about it. It’s scary to raise human beings. Especially because I feel like I’m figuring things out in the moment.
Recently, my son and his friend came to me to show me a picture my daughter had posted of herself on Snapchat. They said they thought it was inappropriate and it made them feel uncomfortable. They said she often poses “sexy” pictures of herself, and many of their friends have told them they had to unfollow her because it made them uncomfortable to see her like that. They want me to talk to her about it. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous to see these pictures. He held up his phone to show me a picture she had taken of herself standing in front of the mirror in a bikini – with the caption, “Jacuzzi Time!” They were right… she did look sexy. She was beautiful and had curves that I hadn’t really noticed before. I was a little taken aback and reacted that, yes, I would be having a talk with her.
Since she was at her dad’s that night, I texted her. I told her what was relayed to me, and that I was concerned she would be attracting the kind of attention she won’t necessarily want. She responded that she did it because she was proud of herself and didn’t care what they thought, and that if it truly made them uncomfortable, they could stop following her. Hmmmmm….. she had a point. And this is what got me really thinking about this a little more critically. Especially in today’s climate of bringing change to the way women are treated by men. There was nothing inherently wrong with her picture. She wasn’t doing anything sexually explicit. Her bikini wasn’t especially skimpy; just a basic top and bottom. She was just a girl in a bathing suit. Was it because she also happens to be beautiful and have curves that made it sexual? Would the boys have had the same reaction if she wasn’t considered attractive and had no curves? This is where it struck a chord with me.
The first time I became aware of how others perceived me was in 8th grade. I went to a very small, private Christian school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I say small… I mean, REALLY small. There were 5 boys and 5 girls in our class. I had started attending this school halfway through 7th grade, so by the time Angelique joined us midway through our 8th grade year, I considered all of them my best friends – including the boys. Angelique had a very strong personality and wasn’t one to hold back. One day, she told me I was too flirty with the boys. I was truly perplexed. I wasn’t flirting with them; they were my friends. I asked her why she thought that. She told me because I touched them all the time when I talked to them, and that I smiled and laughed too much. Note taken. I didn’t change my behavior because it’s who I was. However, I did start to pay attention to how the boys responded to me.
Those same personality traits put me in some awkward positions in high school when a few boys who I thought of as only friends interpreted my friendliness as flirting and thought I wanted something more. As I entered my senior year and discovered my sexuality, I was constantly trying to find balance with this newfound level of confidence and the expectation of being a “good girl.” This is also the first time I became aware of the term “leading guys on” and made to feel that I wasn’t “playing fair” if I didn’t follow through with their expectations.
At age 20 -21, I began participating in a series of seminars that encouraged growth and self-discovery. Everyone’s path, of course, was different so everyone had different issues to explore. The big one they wanted me to get was to accept and acknowledge my sensuality rather than being a “snake in the grass.” Not only did I accept it and acknowledge it, I embraced it. I felt empowered. When one of the married seminar leaders, who I happened to work for, started flirting with me and kissed me, I also felt ashamed. I knew what I was doing was wrong and a huge betrayal to his wife, but he was a highly-revered “leader,” a very successful attorney 10 years my senior, and my boss. I didn’t really know how to say no. I wasn’t even sure I really wanted to say no. This was all new territory for me. We made out a few times, and unsure of how to handle it, I told a couple of my girlfriends. It got back to him, and he came clean to his wife and the organization. I was made out to be a Jezebel and lost my job while he was seemingly forgiven and appointed to lead the upcoming Sex & Intimacy seminar. Seriously. My first experience of just how differently men and women are held accountable.
In my twenties, I had a lot of men hit on me. Some were genuine, but many were crude. Some were strangers but many were coworkers. While I embraced my sexuality and exuded confidence, I also blamed myself for “leading guys on” when they would expect more from me than I wanted to give. I would feel guilty and sometimes find it difficult to say no to a kiss at the end of a bad date. I mean, they bought me a nice dinner… the least I could do was be grateful, right?
It occurs to me now that these are all the subtle nuances that women learn along the way as they grow up. For instance, if you are pretty and considered sexy, then you are responsible for the way men treat you. If you don’t “acknowledge and embrace” you’re sensuality, you are a snake in the grass. But if you do embrace your sensuality, then you are inviting men to treat you like a sexual object, and you don’t get to complain.
Which brings me back full-circle to my 15-year old bikini-clad daughter who is apparently embracing who she is. She is proud of herself. She has the confidence to post a picture of herself in her bikini. That’s all. She wasn’t inviting crude comments. She’s not saying it’s okay for boys to send her pictures of their penises (this is a common thing apparently). They just do it. Why? Because if she dares to post a picture of herself in her bikini, or shows a little bit of cleavage wearing a tank top, or smiles at the camera, she must be asking for something. Because what we are teaching as a society is, boys will be boys. And the pretty girls who embrace their sexuality are Jezebels.
I am not condoning young teenage girls posting provocative pictures of themselves. Please don’t read this as that. There is a big difference of a young girl striking a sexy pose, half-naked on a bed, covered in dollar bills, from a girl simply snapping a pic of herself in her bathing suit in the bathroom as she prepares to go to the Jacuzzi. Our girls shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of their bodies. They shouldn’t have to feel as if they’ve done something “slutty” just by putting on a bathing suit or a tank top. It’s a fine line to walk as a parent. On the one hand, of course, we don’t want to see our children making choices that will negatively affect them. We are naturally concerned with how others will perceive them. But on the other hand, we shouldn’t be reinforcing this notion that it’s the girl’s fault for how the boys respond.
This is a deep-rooted problem. How do we as a society shout #metoo, #timesup, and preach equality while at the same time tell our daughters not to dress a certain way because of how the men will react? Many people in my own family, and many of my friends who are moms, tell me it is my responsibility to teach my daughter to be modest; that she’s sending out the “wrong kind of message” with the pictures she posts. But why would I want to make her feel ashamed of who she is? Why would I plant even the tiniest seed that she is somehow responsible for boy’s reactions?
Talking with my daughter about not finding her self-worth in her sexuality is a different discussion altogether. As a matter of fact, I just read an interesting article on this in Time Magazine called American Girls; How Social Media is Disrupting the Lives of Teenage Girls, by Nancy Jo Sales. However, I am not chastising her for posting her pictures. I am talking with her about the kind of unwanted attention that will inevitably come along with her doing that because I want her to understand that there will be piggish boys who see her picture as an invitation for them to say crude things. I shouldn’t have to though. The real conversation we should be having is with the boys: JUST BECAUSE YOU SEE A PRETTY GIRL AND FIND HER SEXY DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN SAY CRUDE THINGS AND SEND A PICTURE OF YOUR PENIS!
What I do want to say to my daughter was put beautifully into a song by Sara Bareilles:
You can be amazing
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up
Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
And they settle ‘neath your skin
Kept on the inside and no sunlight
Sometimes a shadow wins
But I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave
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Justine is a full-time working mom/wife/woman/daughter/sister/friend/ stumbling through life and uncovering dormant truths about herself!