WELCOME to the intense world of adolescence, a place more psychologically and sexually complicated than that experienced by any Australian teen or tween girl before you.
A place where chances are your parents have little to no idea of the influences you’re receiving or the messages you’re hearing … or what you are seeing online.
You need to have a personal “brand” and it’s not worth much unless you’re thin with high boobs
and a Kardashian pout — you’re worth the most if you look like you may just put out.
One way you connect with peers is through sharing selfies, it’s quite “normal” to share nude ones, no big deal.
You’re reminded on social media 24/7 of the competition you’re in to look hot, available, sexy … yet you’re also told that it’s your fault if anything “sexy” about you gets shared somewhere you didn’t mean it to be online, even if that image was taken without consent. You cop the blame for being “slutty”.
It’s even your fault if boys are “distracted” by the sight of your legs in your school uniform and if they treat you with a lack of respect. And it’s definitely your responsibility to behave in such a way as to defend your own “integrity”.
You may be only 11 but you’re probably on Snapchat and Instagram.
It’s a world where, according to psychologist and developer of the iMatter young women’s app Carmel O’Brien, even in some magazines aimed at that age group, there is “a lot of advice about attracting a sexual partner for girls who are very young, say 12”.
A wave of news stories this year give a troubling glimpse of the dos and don’ts, blames and shames in the new world of girls: of school boys sexually ridiculing and denigrating girls’ appearance and alleged sexual activities — girls as young as 12.
We’ve seen boys get into strife for disseminating nude selfies of girls or for rating young girls. There’s even an Australian Federal Police investigation into an international online porn sharing site looking for explicit pictures of particular girls and seeking boys to provide them.
About 70 schools across Australia had been targeted, with hundreds of individual names appearing on “wanted” lists. Authorities have shut down the site.
Prominent youth psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, who heads the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, says girls are “under siege”. They are more psychologically vulnerable than any previous generation.
One landmine area for girls is how they present sexually.
This is an area especially difficult to navigate because, as Kaz Cooke, author of the best-selling
girls’ advice book Girl Stuff says, girls appear so sophisticated.
Parents have so little understanding about what’s normal now, many “walk away backwards with their hands in the air”, leaving girls to work out “how to be attractive” for themselves.
“There have always been ideas about what girls should look like,” says Cooke, who is about to release Girl Stuff 8-12, “but what’s changed is the porn industry bringing sex into the idea of how young women should look.”
Porn standards have moved into mainstream fashion, she says.
Girls experience this not only in the way they are treated by boys learning what sex is from porn — which they may start seeing as young as 10 — but through everyday presentation of young women.
Cooke describes the look to which girls are made to think they should aspire as “wet, open mouths, heads thrown back, wearing virtually nothing — things you can only wear if you have a Brazilian — extreme heels, twerky poses.”
“If we’d seen this (as mainstream) 20 years ago, we’d have gone, ‘What?’ Suddenly, this is all pervasive, there has been this creeping change in what girls are supposed to look like.”
“It’s relentless: you see it on billboards, when you go the movies, on TV, Instagram, Snapchat, hear it in stuff people say, literally everywhere they look — it’s actually quite hard to get some peace and quiet from these messages that you must look like you’re available.”
But despite the fact girls get the idea they need to compete to be hottest and play by the rules of wet-lipped availability, if they do act out sexually, old-fashioned words such as “loose” or “slut” are still used to belittle them, Cooke says.
Heather Gridley, manager of community engagement at the Australian Psychological Society, which made two hefty submissions to inquiries on sexualisation of children and young people, says pressure on girls to be sexual has always existed but the old idea “nice girls don’t” has become blurred.
Girls used to be “protected” to a point from the need to get sexy before their Barbies had gathered dust by the idea that “you won’t, because nice girls don’t”. “Now,” she says, “nice girls don’t, but you’re hot if you do; but if you really do you’ve kind of been conned because then you get called ‘a slut’.”
She warns that while some “anti-sexualisation” and anti-porn groups are driven by plain old conservatism and prudishness — “people who are uncomfortable with sex in any form” — the notion that someone’s value comes from their sexual appeal is a “major problem” for the wellbeing of younger and younger girls.
Girls are presenting for cosmetic procedures such as breast surgery and even “talking about labiaplasty” at 15 or 16, sometimes younger.
Carr-Gregg, an adolescent mental health specialist, describes the pressures like this: “Girls are born into this giant beauty contest where everybody is evaluating the s— out of them and if you don’t meet the Taylor Swift standard, you’re pretty much wretched.”
Ironically, he says much of the stress girls feel to get worldly fast is coming from other girls relating to them in far more mature ways than in previous generations of girls.
“The relational aggression 12 and 13-year-olds get up to now, the language they use (towards each other) is stuff I used to see in 16-year-olds. Now: my God.”
Without wanting to terrify parents, he says the stress on girls can be seen in rising statistics for self harm and even suicide.
“Since 2005, the suicide statistics for young women aged 15 to 24 have had the highest increase (of all the demographics), a 50 per cent increase — and that’s the pointy end. Under that are a whole lot of young women self-harming and suicidal but who haven’t actually ended their life.”
According to Suicide Prevention Australia, the rate at which young women are self-harming has also doubled in the past decade. Carr-Gregg advises parents to keep girls busy in activities from which they gain “units of recognition”, such as sport or dance — without over-scheduling them.
He also says it is important to monitor girls’ peer groups. “Their peer group is pivotal, it is the greatest predictor of wellbeing.”
Carr-Gregg very strongly recommends parents visit the website itstimewetalked.com, an educational resource developed by long-term Melbourne sex educator Maree Crabbe and her colleagues.
Gridley agrees parents need to strive to engage with and understand where kids’ culture is at rather than try to control it completely.
“Yes, their atmosphere is darker, and we need to somehow engage with it rather than be horrified by it,” Gridley says.
“For example, young people rarely use the term ‘sexting’, which adults do; they just see it as a primary way of communicating, it just happens to be sexualised images but they don’t think of it as a sexual message, they think of it as how we communicate.”
Even so, she says girls are suffering from “the notion you’re an object rather than a person; that you’re there for somebody’s use”. While sending selfies is considered part of young women’s culture now, she says many girls think they “should” do it, too.
“Girls are feeling that pressure, pressure to take a photograph of some kind and share it, and if they do, there’s no guarantee where that’s going to end up. They feel it’s just for me and it’s a present (to a boy), that’s how they show their love,” she says.
It’s naive to think this is safe though.
A friend of mine, who has a 14-year-old daughter, tried to have “the talk” with her about sharing nude selfies after yet another boy was expelled from school for allegedly distributing them. But she was surprised by the response of her daughter’s year 8 friend.
“She said taking nude selfies is normal, everybody does it,” recalls my friend. The look on the young girl’s face as she said this was one of pure contempt for how ignorant adults can be.
Melbourne University senior lecturer in the school of social and political sciences Lauren Rosewarne says shaming girls about the way they present themselves only sends conflicting messages from what they receive from the culture around them — including TV shows such as The Bachelor — that women are rewarded for their attractiveness.
She says contrary to perceptions, girls are not starting sex earlier, still not until about they are
16.9 to 17 years old, but they are doing “a whole lot of different sexual behaviours” in part as a result of technology.
“They’re products of the culture … not victims of it,” Rosewarne, who often writes about sexuality and gender issues, says.
“As a young kid you think the relationship you’re in is very important, (sending selfies) is an intimate gesture between a couple.”
It’s common and very much done in the present tense.
“They’ve got tech skills that are far beyond their years compared with their maturity, as well as hormones, and making decisions that feel good now, not thinking ahead to looking for a job and your employer Googling you.”
The sharing of intimate pictures that girls may give their boyfriends is not about the girls mucking up, she says, but more about the violation of their consent to who sees the image.
“I would look at this as an issue that has nothing to do with the girls themselves, this is about how (a viewer it wasn’t intended for) got it. They’ve been turned into an object.”
The bigger problem for Rosewarne is that schoolboys caught either taking or sharing non-consensual pictures of girls are showing an interest in much younger girls, and failing to understand or rationalise their actions and the fact they could have negative impacts on the girls, even when they may have sisters the same age.
The reason “everyone lives like they’re in a music video” is because girls are coached by pop culture and depictions of women in entertainment to mimic desirable adulthood.
When someone like Kim Kardashian posts a naked selfie to the public with the hashtag #empowerment “there’s a lot of confusing messages there for girls”.
If you listen to experts such as Crabbe, co-author of the secondary schools resource In the Picture: Supporting Young People in an Era of Explicit Sexual Imagery, parents would be best advised to try to understand kids’ culture and engage with them about it.
Crabbe is one of many experts in adolescent development who confirms selfie sharing really is considered a way to connect. Simply ordering kids not to do it is not effective (free resources at itstimewetalked.com will help).
Melbourne mother and self-esteem/wellbeing coach Catherine Manning found out the hard way
that plenty of schools don’t get that or that the way kids communicate has changed dramatically and has to be worked with. She was surprised to learn some would rather demonise girls than learn about their atmosphere and culture.
When her daughter’s state secondary school was found to have been targeted by the international nude photo sharing site investigated this month by the AFP, the school took the girls aside and chastised them about their skirt length and appearance.
Manning was incredulous that the girls were blamed for their own potential online stalking (for nothing more than wearing skirts at the length they came from the uniform shop) and her furious Facebook post got 23,000 likes and 12,000 shares between one Friday afternoon and Monday morning this month.
“The discussion should have been about respect and consent; this has nothing to do with the length of your skirt or how much make-up you wear,” Manning told the Herald Sun.
“They were told the boys are distracted by their legs, and that boys don’t respect girls who wear short skirts.” It made the girls responsible for their own potential exploitation.
The school has now arranged to meet with Manning and open a discussion about how best to address the new world its girls — like the rest of our girls — are navigating.
After all, it’s only by working together on the same side that we’ll get your girl, my girl and all the others happily, safely and healthily to womanhood.