Dear Teenage Girls,
By now, I’m sure you’ve all read this letter from a Mrs. Hall, shaming you for your scantily-clad selfies and your braless pajama photos, and explaining why you are not permitted to associate with her perfectly chaste sons. I read her letter, too. And it made me feel compelled to write one of my own.
Being a teenage girl is a confusing thing. It was confusing many years ago when I was one myself, long before social networking was a part of our lives. You are given a lot of conflicting messages about your body and your sexuality. You’re made to feel that you must live up to a certain beauty standard, but you are considered shallow and self-centered if you spend time and energy on your clothes and makeup. If you somehow manage to feel self-assured and confident in spite of all the impossible air-brushed images you’re encouraged to replicate, then you are called a stuck-up bitch (after all, according to One Direction, what makes you beautiful is not knowing you’re beautiful!). You are pressured to be sexy and desirable, made to feel that your very worth depends on your sexiness, and yet if you wear sexy clothing or take pictures of yourself in a sexy pose, you are shamed for being a slut and told that you are responsible for making boys view you as a sexual object.
In other words, you can’t win.
I don’t want you to think that the entirety of your value lies in your appearance. I don’t want you to hate yourself if you are bigger than a size 4, if you have pimples, or if your chest is flat. I don’t want you to think you that you must post certain kinds of pictures of yourself in order to prove your worth, in order to make people like you. But if you are baring your body on the Internet because you feel like you have to, you are not to blame for that. You are responding to tremendous amounts of pressure from the world around you. I’m more interested in changing that world—creating a society that does not value you for your appearance alone—than in blaming you for being influenced by those pressures.
But I also want you to know that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel sexy. I want your idea of sexiness to be grounded in what makes you feel awesome and comfortable and excited inside of your own awesome and unique body, whatever shape or size that body might be. I don’t want you to feel forced to conform yourself to anyone else’s idea of what sexiness is. But you have nothing—absolutely nothing—to be ashamed of if you want boys or girls to find you attractive. It is normal and natural and OK for you to find other people sexy, too, and to have sexual desire. This does not make you a slut. It makes you a perfectly typical teenager.
When it comes to your sexuality, I want very much for you to feel empowered to say no to anything you are not comfortable with—and that includes posting sexy pictures of yourself on the Internet. But I want just as badly for you to feel empowered to say yes to the things you are comfortable with. I don’t want you to ever feel like you have to give in to anyone’s pressure to do anything sexually that you don’t want to do. But I also don’t want you to ever feel ashamed of the things you do want. I want you to have exactly the amount and kind of sexual experiences you authentically want to be having, with the people you want to be having them with. And I want you to be comfortable enough with your own sexuality to be able to assert your desires and your preferences, to educate yourself, and to be safe. These things are all more important to me than whether I can see the shape of your nipples through your pajama top on Facebook.
Finally, last but not least, I do not want you to ever believe Mrs. Hall’s words, that you are to blame for boys viewing you as a sexual object. There is a difference, first of all, between seeing you as an attractive or sexy human vs. viewing you as only a sexual object. There will undoubtedly be some people in your life who think you’re sexy no matter how much or how little you wear, and that’s not a bad thing—you probably think some people are sexy, too!—as long as they don’t see you as only your body. People can love and respect and value you, admire your work ethic or your sense of humor or your brilliance or your generosity, and still find you sexy. If you are seen as attractive by someone who also respects and values you as an entire, complex, wonderful human being, that’s OK.
What is not OK, ever, is for someone to see you as Mrs. Hall describes, in “only this sexual way.” That’s called objectifying you, reducing you to nothing more than your body, and if someone treats you that way, it is never your fault. No matter how many scantily clad photos you put on Instagram, no matter how often you go braless, no matter how short your skirt is, you are not to blame for anyone viewing you as an object rather than as a person.
And I wish that, rather than blaming you for corrupting her sons’ innocent minds, Mrs. Hall was more concerned with teaching her sons that women are human beings worthy of respect and value no matter what they’re wearing in their Facebook profile shots. Boys are not some kind of unwitting victims who are helpless before your bare shoulder or your pouty stare, left with no choice but to see you as a mere body. And if there is only one thing I could tell you, it would be that you are never, ever, to blame for unwanted sexual attention of any kind, whether it’s verbal harassment or physical assault.
I agree with Mrs. Hall that you are lovely and interesting and very smart. But I want you to know that tight T-shirts or sexy poses don’t change any of that, not one bit.
Angi Becker Stevens lives in the metro-Detroit area, where she is an active member of The Organization for a Free Society. Her writing on feminism and other forms of social justice has appeared in such places as RH Reality Check, the Ms. Magazine blog, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. Her first collection of short fiction will be available in 2014 from Aqueous Books.