On Selfies & Teenagers

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the so-called “selfie” pictures, especially when it comes to teenage girls.  Two moms of sons wrote contrasting blog posts about girls posting inappropriate pictures that they took of themselves in suggestive positions or with sexual innuendo.  The first mom who started this off commented that she was disappointed in the girls because she knew they were bright, well-rounded, beautiful girls and that these pictures degraded them and turned them into sexual objects that boys couldn’t “unsee” or ever stop thinking about.  She also went on to say that as soon as one of these inappropriate pictures showed up on her son’s Facebook newsfeed, her son would have to “unfriend” her because there were “no second chances.”  The second mom, in response, was concerned about some of the first mom’s attention to the girl’s photos that may have actually encouraged the son to view the girl sexually.  The second mom also questioned the true validity that the son would never view that girl as anything other than a sexual object.  And most importantly, the second mom also raised the point that in her own life, she has needed second, third, and really infinite chances to learn from and correct her mistakes and stumbling blocks throughout her life and encouraged the first mom to be more forgiving.   These two moms couch their posts in their Christian faith and support their different perspectives in that faith.

It reminded me of when I was thirteen and taking roll after roll of self-portraits with my 35mm camera.  I wanted to add my thoughts to the discussion, reflecting on my desire to take selfies, and as a mom to both a son and daughter (and step-mom to another son and daughter).

Eighth grade in middle school, The Mickey Mouse Club television show on the Disney channel was doing a nationwide casting call.  I was a dancer, experienced with working professionally, and a singer.  My dream job was to be a dancer/performer at Disney World.  We had only recently gotten cable and my brother was still little, about 7 years old, and we watched A LOT of Disney Channel.  So I had seen the commercials for the casting call and had seen the ads in the newspaper.  I showed up at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC with my mother to a cattle call.  Every dancer got a number and we had to wait in the Conference area of this hotel, stretching, singing, warming up, before we were let in by groups of 20 or so for our audition.  Inside the audition room, the put on Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (I am not joking) and we were supposed to dance in the 1-foot by 1-foot space between you and the next person and make an impression.  Then, a producer or casting person came through one by one and had us sing a few lines of the song we prepared.  I didn’t make the first cut.  A few well-known stars made the cast that year: Brittany Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake.

Afterward, I became a bit obsessed with correcting what was obviously a mistake.  The producer/casting person had said that if we had names similar to anyone already on the show, we probably wouldn’t be consider.  Well, MMC already had a Jennifer.  So I created a resume using my middle name, Elizabeth, and wrote a letter to the studio.  And I started taking self-portraits in various clothing styles, makeup, and poses for what I thought would be my portfolio.  I don’t know, I was 13.

I do not consider myself a photogenic person, and sometimes I wonder if that fuels my selfie fetish because I’m always looking for a good shot.  I want to see myself looking beautiful, interesting, and yes sexy.  I don’t know how it is for uber-beautiful girls who run in the popular crowd, but part of my desire to see myself as beautiful is due to extremely low self-esteem.  I can only imagine that with all the pressure on conventionally beautiful girls who run around with other very beautiful girls, self-esteem also comes into play.

Also, at 13, 14, 15…and even now at almost 36, I was growing as a woman.  I was transitioning out of being a child, just starting to understand myself as a sexual being.  And make no mistake, BEING SEXUAL IS PART OF BEING HUMAN.  While idealistic as it may be to view each other as equal, and I am a foremost proponent of treating people equally, as I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, there is evolution and biology at play.  Women are just not going to be as physically strong as men.  Is that always true?  Of course not.  But men are generally larger and stronger than women because of how we’ve evolved.  It’s just a fact.  There’s no prejudice in play here.  It might CREATE prejudice but that’s more of a psychological issue.  As my therapist once reminded me, we may have primal urges but as humans we also have this big thinking brain that helps us moderate our instincts and control our behavior.  So just because I want to yell and scream at the crazy slow lady pushing the shopping cart down the grocery aisle, it doesn’t mean I will.  Again, is this always the case?   No.  People make mistakes.  People lose their temper or give in to temptation despite their better judgment.  I mean, hey, that chocolate cake just looks so good right?  And there re varying degrees of consequences.  And then there are people with mental issues who have an innate difficulty that makes the instinct-thought behavior filter faulty.

It is a complete contradiction to raise a child without acknowledging that they have sexual urges.  It is culturally accepted, and even pressured – ESPECIALLY during the teenage years – to find a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Falling in love is a central plot development in many many kiddie movies.  Children see their parents’ affection for one another, or for their boyfriends/girlfriends.  Children see their brothers and sisters seek out relationships.  They see it on tv.  It is part of our culture, and part of being HUMAN.

And part of finding a boyfriend or girlfriend is to see them in a SEXUAL WAY.  How many people have you known, stories that you’ve heard, read, or seen, where a person falls in love with their best friend but only after finally finally looking at them in a new way?  Not just in a “hey, you’re neat and we both like the same things” but “hey, you’re neat and I really want to kiss you and touch you.”  I’m not trying to be vulgar, just real.

Does looking at someone in a sexual way mean that you see them as nothing else?  Who thinks this way?  I feel like people who must feel this way are really repressed or simply terrified of their own sexuality/sexual urges.  We all operate in our daily lives without ogling our coworkers inappropriately and I think for the most part, our children will be similarly socialized.

But part of that socialization, part of that growing up process is EXPERIMENTATION.  Teenagers are trying to figure out who they are, what they like, who likes them, what they want, where they’re going.  It’s incredibly confusing and overwhelming.  I honestly dread parenting my kids through their teenage years because I remember it so viscerally.  And I want to protect them.  I want to save them from heartache.  I want to parent them so much that they always make the right decisions and never make a mistake.  Is this realistic?  Hell, no.  My kids are going to make mistakes, and what’s more, they NEED to make mistakes in order to become better people.  People who get everything they want, in my opinion, don’t actually know what they want because they’ve never had to fight for it.  They’ve never had to struggle.  Struggle, failure, disappointment, heartbreak and all those horrible things make us stronger and better as human beings.  Sometimes mistakes turn out deadly.  Sometimes a bad call in judgment leads to a truly traumatizing experience.  Sometimes, though, those things happen anyways.  And the fact is there is no way to judge when that may happen, no way to control it, no way to really prevent it.  But we can’t live our lives in fear of those worse-case scenarios.  We can’t raise our children in that fear.

My experience, so far, has taught me that if we over-protect and try to “save” people – loved ones especially – from themselves, save people from hurt, we only prevent them from growing.  And we’re only doing it out of our own fear and need for control.

I’m not saying to let your daughter post topless pictures of herself online.  But kids are going to experiment with flirting, their sexuality, and their image.  Because it’s all in flux.  And you know what happens, often, when things are just too crazy?  People try to control things.

And guess what?  Taking selfies is a form of control.  These girls are controlling their experimentation.  Controlling their image.  Getting validation on their own terms.  Think about it, when a sleezy male photographer takes pictures of young girls in sexy poses or nude or whatever, we feel as if the girls were taken advantage of.  And maybe they were.  But when girls do it to themselves, we judge them as being slutty.  I think in both cases, though, there is on some level a NEED to explore these burgeoning feelings, this changing body and that has been going on for centuries.  How many paintings of nude young women are there?  How much emphasis on celebrity culture, sex tapes, sexy poses?  As a young woman, there is so much self-doubt and having a picture that you can look at and say “damn, I look good,” can help you through a shitty day.  Having someone else look at that photo and say “damn, girl, you look hot,” is even better.

Cameron Diaz made a controversial statement a little while ago that women LIKE to be looked at as sexual objects.  Women like to be catcalled.  And, like most generalizations, I’m sure that’s not true.  But what I do think is true is that women like to be validated and SEEN as beautiful and sexual and as long as that validation is not coming from a threatening source, I do think women secretly appreciate it.

What I appreciate about my horrible teenage years was that I got to completely fuck up within the safety of my home and with the support of my parents.  Did they agree with what I was doing?  NO!  Did they worry?  YES!   But I got to go to a number of extremes in my experimentation that allowed me to explore who I was on every level and I came out of it and went into adult life, away from my parents, without a need to go crazy.  Many people I saw in college had never experimented with drugs or sex or alcohol, and it seemed like a much scarier proposition to see them let loose without any safety net.  No parent to set a curfew, or to pick them up.

I don’t share the two mom’s Christian faith and there are some morals there that I have a hard time relating to because, again, I feel like it’s contradictory.  Don’t view women as sexual objects but find a wife and then have sex with her?  I think better to acknowledge that men, and women, are going to have sexual feelings and teach the kids how to incorporate that into the full picture.

Online pictures become a part of a person’s social reputation.  But unless a girl only posts inappropriate selfies over and over again, I don’t see cause for more than just open dialogue.  And the girl who does post all those pics?  She needs help because she is not getting enough love and support from the people closest to her and she’s seeking it out in the anonymous and to some extent “safe” world of the internet where everything feels a bit less real than the overwhelming feelings of every day life.