Attracting attention (thoughts on teen girls, selfies and finding love)

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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, 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.

beauty chalkboardWhile 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!

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20 thoughts on “Attracting attention (thoughts on teen girls, selfies and finding love)”

  1. Another well-put, thought provoking post. Thank you! Yes, I believe our culture suffers from affirmation addiction and it can be a very dangerous, destructive force. As you say, we all want to be loved/appeciated. I think part of my plan will be to remind my kids about the source of all love and help them find ways to let that love shine out to others. That is where the joy is! No matter how many people “like” us, there is only One who loves us with perfect love. I can only hope my kids spend their lives seeking that love.

  2. Such a great addition to the conversation about how we, mostly females, but also males, go about projecting the most attractive self. Looking at teen (and all) social media posts as bids for intimacy is an inspired perspective that will bounce around in my head for days/weeks/months to come. Thank you.

    1. Thanks JR/E! It occurs to me that I even post pictures of my messy self with crazy hair sometimes for the same reason. We all love people who are “real” and “not too perfect”, because they are approachable…. So even photos of our imperfections serve to make us ‘attractive’ (in the “it is safe to be my friend” and not the “come hither” kind of way).

  3. Well said. And in our sex-bombarded, Miley Cyrus kind of world, I hope parents remember the powerful tool of praying for their children!

  4. I like this – made me think! I have two sons and feel that a lot of the positive affirmation I give them is about their character – cause I guess it just feels a bit weird to constantly say to teenage boys – ‘wow, looking handsome there today’! 🙂 But seriously I do wonder if we tend to say to girls how pretty they look etc so a lot of the positive is on the physical instead of the character. Good post!

  5. Thanks for your excellent post. I have two teenage girls (14 and 16) and I know your approach works! I also learned something from their teenage male friends: one of the guys said: There are two kinds of girls around; 1) the easy to get, for one night and 2) the kind of girl you want hope to marry some day.
    He complimented her that she is part of the second catagory. And it encouraged her that she wants to stay there.

    1. Jo, this is SO ENCOURAGING to me! I long to have teen boys and girls who appreciate the difference between the two types of girls… And think the latter is better! We have ten years to go before we get there, and it is deeply encouraging to hear comforting words from parents further down the road. THANK YOU!

  6. Really good to hear this. During my own teenage years I had a lot of this encouragement from my parents but I also saw the physical-appearance-driven bid for attention from my peers. I turned out alright, probably because of my amazing parents, because people were praying for me, and because I was in a relationship with a God who I had discovered in high school loved me immensely. However, I can’t deny the effect of my peers’ views on my own. While I didn’t take selfies or dress as inappropriately as some of my friends, I think modesty was less high on my list. In high school we are so about fitting in, and while I may not have caved in, I think I struck mild compromises on some of my convictions during that time of my life.

    I’m not saying this to discourage you. I didn’t have premarital sex or go wild, and at the end of a couple years I decided that shirts that hit my waistband (but showed my midrif if I lifted my arms) weren’t the sort I wanted to wear anymore. ENCOURAGING YOUR CHILD TO SEEK TO BE KIND AND GENEROUS INSTEAD OF A RUNWAY MODEL WILL MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE. It truly will. But if you see things in your child’s life that discourage you:
    1. Know that it doesn’t mean you failed. They are impacted by their peers too.
    2. Realize that to change things for your child, you can’t just create an emotionally-healthy home life for your child, where they are loved for who they are, etc.; you also need to welcome their friends into that healthy home. You can have an impact on their peers, not only helping other kids whose parents may not be sending the greatest messages, but also indirectly impacting your child through their friends.

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  8. Bronwyn, what a great post! As someone who works in the world of teen and young adult relationships, intimacy, sexuality, etc., I find what you are saying to be very true. I know that I am incredibly guilty of this. I always choose pictures to post to my Instagram or Facebook that I hope people will see and be drawn to wanting to know me or emulate me. And this gets really exhausting, not to mention saps my self-worth when I don’t get as many “likes” or comments that I think I should.

  9. Hi Bronwyn! This is exactly my philosophy when it comes to modesty! When some women argue that modesty is harmful to women, because it teaches girls that their body isn’t beautiful and puts women down to protect men, it kind of baffles me, for exactly the reasons you mentioned.
    They never address the fact that when I grab that more revealing shirt, my MOTIVATION is never to be more comfortable, but rather to attract ATTENTION with my body or to FIT IN with everyone else (Let’s be real. Are we really putting on those short shorts its “too hot” for just two more inches of fabric?). What women don’t realize, is that they are choosing to convey a message that the very first thing I want the world to notice about me is my body. Not my intelligence. Not my personality. Not my creativity. So if that’s our motivation, how could dressing provocatively be empowering to women? And I don’t say this to condemn anyone who does this, I say it because I find myself doing the same thing!
    Coming from an Indian culture, modesty is very important. Many people assume that Eastern cultures encourage women to cover themselves up, because they are trying to oppress women. Although it is true that this is sometimes a side effect, it has never been the motivation. When my Indian community taught me about modesty, the discussion never came from a place of “men can’t control themselves, so you so have to make it easier for them.” The discussion always centered around the idea that I have too much self-respect, too many other other wonderful things for people to know about me, to allow myself to give the impression that my body is the highest thing of value that I can offer.

    1. Love this, Michele. I recently read gina dalfonzo’s rule of thumb: if you dress like you respect yourself, modesty is not an issue. I liked that 🙂

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