How role models have changed

If you were a tween in the 80s chances are you were rocking some serious shoulder pads and baggy denim jackets, jamming to Tiffany’s I Think We're Alone Now and watching endless Molly Ringwald movies.

It's clear to see on the walk down memory lane how much things have changed when it comes to celebrities and pop culture. Tweens and teens today are rocking to a whole new beat - emulating role models who are pushing much more sexual messages than their parents were ever exposed to.

While concerns over hyper sexualised images and videos are certainly not new, psychologists say helping teens develop positive body image and self esteem is one of the ways parents can help their teenage girls develop a healthy and complete sense of self.

How times have changed ...
How times have changed ... 

Auckland-based psychologist Iona Winter, who has been working with teens for over 20 years, says that while things haven't changed much in terms of young women struggling with body image, the effects are more amplified as a result of the current visual age.

"It's a different world we are living in. I personally wouldn't want to be a teenager in this day and age because I think they are dealing with a lot more pressure on top of trying to navigate the normal developmental tasks that take place during the teen years."

Winter says the effects of constant internet connectivity have confounded the issues stemming from hyper-sexualisation and visualisation, adding that she has seen a recent increase in the number of teenagers seeing her who are suffering from depression, anxiety and eating disorders, all closely related to low self esteem and poor body image.

"Things are a lot more visual and as a result of being more socially aware, teens seem to be becoming more socially anxious," she explains.

Rather than confiscating the laptop and cell phone, or blocking access to the internet, the best way to help teens deal with the incessant barrage of "sexier is better" messages that pervades everything in modern media is to talk to your daughters about body image, Winter says.

"Teens today are much more visible than they ever were and while we still have pressure about what we should look like, what music we should be listening to, what we should be wearing, teens are constantly targeted with these messages."


Teens already feel the need to belong, which makes the messages all the more dangerous. 'If Miley Cyrus is cool because she twerks and everyone else is twerking, then I should be twerking too' seems to be the subconscious message going out to the fans who grew up with the Miley of the past during the Disney Hanna Montana wonder years.

Wellington psychologist, Karen Nimmo, who runs workshops on confidence and self-esteem, says that the sexualisation of young women is happening at a time when they are often not emotionally equipped to deal with it.

"I would say that often young women are quite confused because it is hard to know what healthy sexuality is. A number of confusing messages stem from the media, social media and society. It is like a pendulum. On the one end is Miley and the twerking and at the other end of the scale is the repressed idea that sex is evil. So it is quite hard for young women to know where they fit on that scale," she says.

Both agree that the teen years are a sensitive and often difficult time. Parents are having a hard time trying to break through the influence of peers and messages from the media, which have become far more important than they were during the pre-teen golden years.

What can you do?

Here are some of their tips for parents to help their teens develop a healthy body image and self esteem to help them navigate through the media storm.

Be aware of your own body image and make sure the way you view yourself and speak about yourself is positive: "When you are relentlessly dieting and criticising your own looks your daughters will pick up on those messages. In other words if you say all the right things, but don't walk the talk, then it is going to be quite difficult for a young woman to follow you. That is the most important thing," says Nimmo.

Remember what it was like: "I encourage parents to remember what it was like for them when they were teenagers and be honest about that. I think parents believe things will be different, or better for their own kids, but that is not always the case. Thinking back, we can all remember the pressure we were under ourselves when we were teens," says Winter.

Teach young women to view themselves as whole people, not just bodies: "I would agree that social media has put a relentless focus on how we look and being constantly connected and online exacerbates this," says Nimmo.

Check in with them: "It doesn't have to be every night, but make a point of talking. The key task of the teenager is to separate from their parents, but keep the lines of communication open and let your children know they can be honest with you," says Winter.  

Encourage them to acknowledge their strengths and interests, so that their self identity is strongly developed: "These strengths might not be in the most obvious places. It might not be that they are a star netball player; it could be their ability to write poetry. As a parent, look for the clues as to what they are interested in," says Nimmo.

Don't lead by what you think: "A teen will think that what ever their parent's opinion is, it's invalid because they are old. In a lot of ways they are more connected with the world than their parents are because of the media, don't be afraid to talk about the hard stuff but let them voice their opinions," says Winter.

Encourage them to make their own choices: "You will not always be able to choose for them, so encourage them to make their own decisions for what they want," says Nimmo.

Find ways to empower your teens: "Teens need a network of peers, have a discussion about what their peers are interested in and who else they could connect with. It could be a shared hobby where they are able to make a network of friends who are interested in fun, healthy activities."


Louise is 30, as a teen in the 90s her favourite female singer was Alanis Morissette, but she remembers that when she was about 16, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were popular and both copped flak for being very sexual in their music videos.

"It was a similar deal to Miley Cyrus in that they were both breaking away from their former 'child star' statuses," says Louise.

"The main difference today, is that this sort of thinking is not only acceptable at a younger age, but actually expected. If you want to be a pop star and not take your clothes off, then you probably fit into the 'alternative' genre like Lorde."

A 16-year age gap between Louise and her 14-year-old sister has provided startling insight into how much things have changed over the past decade and a half.

"When I was young, there was pressure to be thin, to look good, to wear the right clothes. It's still similar - but I think it's been changed slightly, in that now, there is pressure to be sexual too."

Louise sees how love songs have morphed into sex songs, she has seen how her sister views her own body as an object of desire and she wants to show it off.

"She doesn't want to look nice, she wants to look sexy. All of her friends are similar; they are very much into twerking and have no issue with near nudity if that is what fashion 'demands'. My sister likes Miley's Wrecking Ball music video and it doesn't even cross her mind that perhaps being naked in a music video might not be acceptable to some people."

Louise says she thinks her sister is lucky that she has the type of body marketed as desirable.

"If she didn't, I think her self-esteem could be very much affected by these sorts of messages. She is extremely affected by other people's perception of what she looks like, not who she is. Although in her defence, I think all teenagers tend to be a little obsessed with themselves."

Facebook, Louise says, is the perfect playground for physical obsession.

"My sister and her friends live and breathe Facebook. It is all about how many 'likes' you have on your photos. The more likes, the more worthwhile you are. They types of photos are definitely affected by popular celebrities and are very sexual in nature."

Although her parents try and monitor what is going on online, they do rely on their elder daughters to help keep an eye on their youngest's online activity.

"My mum and I are very open with her about everything - we let her ask us any questions and are always happy to provide her with answers, including questions of a sexual nature. I work with the idea that I would rather know what she's doing (even if I don't approve) than for her to think she needs to keep it a secret from me," she says.

"Keeping that open dialogue is really important. I am a psychology major, so I often ask her what she thinks about the behaviour of young stars and then offer my opinions too - trying to make these stars seem like everyday people I guess."

- © Fairfax NZ News