Every week brings a new facebook meme, but this weeks’ one got my attention. First, there was Mrs Hall’s post: an open letter to teen girls encouraging them to keep their online pictures modest (or else their family would have to block them from their newsfeed), followed by a zillion other responses – snarky and mean ones from jezebel.com, wise Dad-words from Nate Pyle, and a thoughtful reply from Beth Woolsey reminding us to be gracious in these conversations.
Amid all the discussion about “how much skin is too much?”, “is there a difference between beach-skin-reveals and pajama-skin-reveals?”, “is modesty her responsibility or is it his job not to look?” etc., my friend Tammy raised this excellent question:
Why is it that teen girls feel compelled to post these kinds of selfies anyway?
(Now, I am not a psychologist or a teen-expert and I don’t have a PhD. This is a blog post exploring this question; It is not an article in a renowned journal on human behavior. It is the beginning of a conversation, not the final word…. but all that being said, these are my thoughts:)
I believe that what we girls are aiming for is not so much to be seen as sexy, or even to be seen as beautiful.
I believe what we want is to be ATTRACTIVE.
Being seen as ‘beautiful’ and ‘attractive’ might seem like synonyms, but here is how I see the difference. We can admire and appreciate beautiful people (and things) from afar. And sometimes, as women, we want to be admired and appreciated. But I don’t think that being thought of as beautiful and garnering distant admiration is what drives us women to dress or pose in a certain way.
While beauty can be admired from afar, attractiveness means that people want to draw close to us. And isn’t that what we want? We post pictures that will make others like us, want to know us, want to spend time with us. We post pictures that we believe will ATTRACT people to us, and the pictures we post reveal what WE THINK others will be attracted to.
So, perhaps for a teen girl in a Miley Cyrus kind of world, we believe that people will be attracted to a more sultry look.
As an adult, I do EXACTLY the same thing as teen girls do – I post pictures of what I believe will be attractive – all that’s different is that my beliefs about what is attractive have changed over the years. I still want to be seen as attractive – but in a different way: I want to be seen as friendly, warm, fun, smiling. I also want to be seen as a good friend and mom and person who-kind-of-keeps-it-together … and consequently I also choose to post pictures which represent that definition of attractive: pictures of me smiling, with my kids, with not too much of a double chin.
I think the whole issue of how we represent ourselves in photos online has less to do with wanting to be thought of as beautiful or sexy, and more to do with wanting to be attractive, because in essence what we want is to be KNOWN and LOVED. We want people NEAR. We want to ATTRACT them to us.
As I’ve written about before, I believe that modesty and intimacy go together: when we choose to reveal parts of ourselves (whether baring our bodies or our souls), what we are really doing is making a bid for intimacy. We are saying “here I am, please know and appreciate me. I want to be known and this is how I believe I can attract your attention.”
So this makes me think: how then can I prepare my kids for the World of Social Media? I’m thinking it may have less to do with rules about photos and facebook, and perhaps more about to do with teaching them about what attractiveness means. There are conversations that need to happen about beauty and our bodies, but I’m thinking too of things I can say and do to deliberately teach them about being attractive.
Much like a parent who is frustrated that they and their toddler are caught in a cycle of misbehavior-followed-by-negative-attention and needs to work on deliberately catching their kid doing something RIGHT so that they can reinforce positive behavior with positive attention; I want to try and be deliberate about speaking up when my kids are attracting attention in a healthy way.
Saying things like:
“That was a really beautiful thing you did (when you showed kindness to your sibling, helped me in the kitchen, picked a flower for a stranger)”
“I love seeing your smiling face.”
“I really enjoy your company.”
“I have so much fun laughing with you.”
“Come here, cutie pie, mama just needs to kiss that kind face of yours.”
“I saw how the kids on the playground loved it when you invited them to play with you.”
“You did a great job of inviting the shy kid to join your game.”
“I love spending time with my friend Kati – she is such a good listener and she makes me laugh.”
“Thank you for offering to share your seat/snack, that really made them feel welcome.”
“Thank you for cheering me up.”
“I love reading with you.”
“It makes me feel so special when you look right into my eyes and tell me a story.”
…. You get the idea – things that reinforce that they can build intimacy and attract my (and others’) attention by showing their character and kindness. And my hope is that when the time comes and they want another teen to notice, and I mean REALLY NOTICE, them, they will have a decade of mommy-brain-washing behind them telling them that they can be wonderfully attractive people and have intimate-as-well-as-appropriate relationships, no matter what they look like on the outside.
I’d love to hear your thoughts: got any additional ideas of ways to teach our kids to be the right kind of attractive? Or for us to cultivate the right kind of attractiveness? Please leave a comment!