We need to build a herd immunity against the sexualisation of girls

If you have ever seen a group of teens at a party, you will notice a huge difference between the boys and the girls.
If you have ever seen a group of teens at a party, you will notice a huge difference between the boys and the girls. Photo: Shutterstock

If you have ever seen a group of teens at a party, you will notice a huge difference between the boys and the girls. The boys will be wearing clothes: jeans, perhaps, or shorts, and tees or shirts. The girls, on the other hand, will be wearing very little.

They might be in a bra top and mini skirt, or some micro shorts and a boob tube. I’ve seen teenage girls at a party wearing nothing but bikinis. And it wasn’t a pool party and it wasn’t even summer.

Now, before you call me a "slut-shamer" or a "fashion-shamer", or a prude, or anything else: please hold your fire. This isn’t about slut-shaming and it isn’t about fashion-shaming. This isn’t about sex, informed consent, or even about clothes.

It’s about pressure.

There is enormous pressure on teen girls to look sexy – or, more accurately, f---able.

I am the mother of two daughters and I see what they are exposed to. We can no more deny it than we can deny the pressure on young women to be thin. It permeates our culture, and our screens, and their Instagram feeds.

Sexy is aspirational. Sexy is the gold standard for young women. Sexy is the Kardashians, and the MAFS stars, and Ariana Grande, and influencers.

Sexy is the accepted paradigm for teenage girls, whether or not they are sexually active. To deviate from that paradigm turns teens into outliers. And few teenagers of any gender wish to be outliers.

Now, there is nothing wrong with teen sexuality. There is nothing wrong with choosing skimpy clothes, when it’s a choice made of genuine empowerment. But when the value of young women lies in how sexy they look, when their sexiness is the accepted currency, then the way they present themselves ceases to be about choice, and becomes about fitting in.

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When looking sexy is about fitting in, it ceases to be empowering. When girls and young women are turning up to parties semi naked and the males are not, it becomes a gender issue. And when girls absorb messages that their currency lies in their bodies and not their minds, then their other achievements and qualities will not be prioritised.

Of course, some girls and young women stand up to peer pressure and opt out. There are teenage girls who don’t post bikini shots on Instagram or wear lingerie to parties. Realistically, however, it is bloody tough for teenage girls to resist. How many of us at 14 or 15 had the powers of critical thought to analyse the culture we lived in?

As adults, we need to all band together, and help develop some sort of herd immunity for adolescent girls against oversexualisation. That doesn’t mean we should ban teenage sex, or ban sexy clothes, or ban bikini selfies, or even Instagram. But it does mean that we need to educate our girls, and help them to understand the context of their choices.

Let's say your daughter wants to wear the bra top and booty shorts to a party because they "look good". You might think it’s great that your daughter looks sexy, or you might be horrified by her outfit, and want her to change clothes. What you think, ultimately, doesn't matter.

What does matter, however, is that she’s making an informed decision.

Your job is to help your daughter to examine her choices, and to understand the forces at work. For whom does she want to look sexy? What does looking sexy mean to her? What does it mean for a female to be perceived as f---able? What would it mean to be perceived in a different way?

We don’t need to force, or even encourage, our girls to opt out of the dominant culture, but rather to give them the tools to examine their decision to opt in. And we need to have these conversations regularly, and not at 7pm on Saturday night when they're walking out the door.

It’s not enough for a few brave kids to choose to reject the dominant paradigm; we need to build a culture that values character and mind above appearance and shape. We need to build immunity amongst our girls and young women.

Sexiness doesn’t equal value, unless we all agree that it does.

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