The Contradictory Worlds of Today's Teen Girls
An estimated three million young girls per year are subjected to a practice called female genital mutilation (FGM).1 It involves removing, altering, or injuring female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is a means of social control and is often done to prevent a woman from having any sensations during sex. In certain parts of northern Africa, if a young woman does not have it done as a child, she will have to undergo the procedure before marriage or risk being rejected by her future husband.
The United Nations has condemned the practice both because it is a human rights violation that denies women their inherent dignity and because it poses several physical risks. The UN has launched efforts to eradicate FGM, and people worldwide have condemned the practice.2
In the past five years in the United States, gynecologists have reported an 80 percent increase in the number of requests for cosmetic vaginal surgery among girls under 18 years old. Researchers attribute this trend to the widespread viewing of pornography, thanks in part to its easy accessibility on mobile devices. Cosmetic vaginal surgery, or labiaplasty, can result in the loss of sexual sensation, numbness, pain, and permanent scarring. Yet, according to one researcher, girls are willing to risk losing their ability to enjoy sex if it means they will not be rejected by boys whose tastes are based on what they see in pornography.3
In both FGM and labiaplasty, young girls are pressured by cultural forces to have themselves surgically altered so that they will be more sexually desirable to men. But attitudes toward the two kinds of procedure are markedly different. In the U.S., for instance, opponents of FGM will vociferously stand up for the dignity of young girls half a world away, some of whom willingly undergo FGM, yet will say nothing about the dignity of young American girls who undergo labiaplasty purely to appease the porn-based aesthetics of boys.
It is as though teen girls today lived in two contradictory worlds.
In one world, they have more opportunities than women of previous generations ever had. They can pursue higher education in almost any field and work in almost any occupation. They can ascend to the upper tiers of academia, the corporate world, government, medicine, and the arts. They can become Supreme Court justices or launch their own start-ups. They can run the Boston Marathon or run for public office.
But in the other world, girls willingly sexualize themselves to get likes and followers on Instagram. They aspire to become internet--famous, with the Kardashians serving as the exemplars of success. Boys don't ask them on dates; they ask them for "nudes" (nude pictures) instead. They are called "prudes" if they don't participate in the game and "sluts" if they do. Gifts and abilities are secondary to breasts and curves, because in this image-driven world, it's what is on the outside that counts.
As we will see, these two disparate worlds did not spring up overnight. While one values women's gifts and abilities, the other is a result of a secular worldview whose consequences are being played out on social media and the internet.
The Medium Is the Model
Nancy Jo Sales, in her 2016 book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teen-agers, reveals a darker side to the social media world that the Kardashians and many teens inhabit. In this world, validation in the form of "likes" and "followers" is the currency, and admiration and fame are the rewards. Girls will post numerous pictures of themselves in order to create a personal brand. But, writes Sales, always being on display comes at a price:
The constant seeking of likes and attention on social media seems for many girls to feel like being a contestant in a never-ending beauty pageant in which they're forever performing to please the judges—judges who have become more and more exacting.4
Teen girls today are not expected merely to look nice or pretty. They must be "flawless," according to the standard established by cosmetic companies and Hollywood. It is no longer enough to Photoshop one's images. Now girls feel pressured to Photoshop themselves.
Where did these standards come from? Neil Postman in his 1982 book, The Disappearance of Childhood, describes the "adultified" child, a type that is particularly evident in the depictions of young girls on television and in magazines. The adult world, at one time, was kept separate from the child's world because it was generally acknowledged that some things should be reserved for adults. Television, says Postman, ushered in the disappearance of childhood by making the things of the adult world, like sex and violence, readily accessible to children.5
But the problem is deeper than children being exposed to material that is not age-appropriate. Television, which was the predominant visual medium in 1982, served as a model for all interactions off-screen. Postman says that Americans no longer talked to each other; they entertained each other instead:
They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.6
Today, the internet has supplanted television as the primary visual medium. The easy accessibility of pornography on the internet has further eroded the distinction between adulthood and childhood, and porn now serves as the model for interactions between teen boys and girls. Certainly, there is nothing new about girls wanting to attract boys, but the expectation that they must look and act like porn stars in order to do so is new.
Sales interviewed dozens of teenage girls for her book, from various regions across the U.S. and from different socio-economic backgrounds. She quotes one sixteen-year-old girl's comment about the online culture that exemplifies Postman's point: "It's depressing because guys have come to recognize women from images on the Internet. Guys look at [pictures of girls on social media] as like a different kind of porn, almost. It's self-generated porn."7
Sexting & Child Pornography
If the internet is the new model for how we interact with each other, then we need to consider how women are portrayed on it. A recent survey showed that 35 percent of all downloads were of pornography, and one of the largest pornography websites reported that people watch more than 4.6 billion hours of porn in a single year.8 The majority of this content shows violence or aggression towards women, and the most popular role for porn actresses to play is that of an underage girl.
Teens often share provocative or sexually explicit pictures or videos of themselves with each other, a practice called sexting. Some boys will "ask a girl out" by saying she is hot and asking for "nudes." Sometimes a boy will send a girl a picture of his penis and then ask her for nudes. This brings a dark context to Postman's idea of exchanging images rather than ideas.
Sexting is heavily skewed toward girls sending salacious images to boys. According to the girls Sales interviewed, many feel pressured into sending such pictures to a guy because they're afraid that if they don't, the guy will spread sexually explicit rumors about them. Some girls fear that a guy will post a picture of her that he found. Oftentimes after a breakup, a guy will post sexually explicit pictures of his ex-girlfriend online as revenge.
While in reality interactions like these constitute harassment and blackmail, they are instead considered simply "part of the dating ritual" by those who see sexting as another form of sexual liberation.
To be clear, boys are not always the instigators in these interactions. Sometimes a girl will send a boy a provocative picture to see if he's interested in her, or she'll post a suggestive selfie on Instagram to see who likes it. Some boys don't want to look at explicit images of their peers and would like to have a healthy relationship with a girl. But in some circles, to admit this is to risk being bullied and ostracized by other guys or by the shunned girl. A boy's masculinity may be called into question if he does not participate in the game.
Strangely, while our laws penalize people who create, distribute, or purchase child pornography, many parents and school officials turn a blind eye to underage girls sending nude or sexually explicit pictures to boys. And boys who post or send around pictures of girls are not penalized for distributing child pornography. At most they are reprimanded for not obtaining consent from the girl.
There is a certain brand of feminism that considers these interactions empowering, but it is a feminism that contradicts itself. On the one hand, girls Sales interviewed said they were over-sexualized and objectified by a sexist culture, but on the other hand, when they "self-sexualize," they are considered feminist because they are engaging in self-expression.9 Nancy Pearcey characterizes this new type of feminism as one in which girls learn to disengage their emotions from their bodies. The less they care, the more empowered they are, at least in theory.10
As Pearcey explains it, this theory stems from a secular worldview that splits the person in two, into an "upper story" and a "lower story." Materialism (the belief that matter is all there is) resides in the lower story, and Gnosticism (the belief that the mind is all that matters) in the upper story. This worldview denigrates both body and mind, seeing the former as nothing more than a conduit for physical pleasure and reducing the latter to emotional impulses.11 Right and wrong are based on what feels good. If rejection feels bad and validation feels good, then why not employ one's body, which is just flesh, bones, and hormones, to achieve validation?
Depressed, Alone & Always Connected
Social media, texting, and messaging allow teen girls to be more connected than ever. Yet girls today report higher incidences of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and depression than did pre-smartphone generations.
The first smartphone, the Apple iPhone, launched on June 29, 2007, and soon thereafter, mobile versions of social media sites were developed: Instagram was launched in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011. Since 2010, according to the CDC, suicide attempts and cases of depression among teenagers, girls especially, increased markedly.12 The American Psychological Association does not find this timing coincidental; it links the rise in depression to the increase in social media use among teen girls.13
In 2017, the U.K.'s Royal Society for Public Health published the results of a "Status of Mind" survey of 1,500 young people between the ages of 14 and 24. According to the survey, Instagram and Snapchat ranked as the worst platforms for teen mental health and wellbeing, but all of the social media platforms received negative marks for sleep quality, bullying, body image, and FOMO (fear of missing out). All but YouTube were associated with increases in depression and anxiety.14
So while girls may indeed be more connected than ever, their connections are about performance, recognition, obtaining likes, and backstabbing. Their social media communities are built on competition for validation, particularly sexual validation, and commodification of the body.
Teen girls' declining mental health is a symptom of a larger problem whose roots lie in the fundamental assumptions of the current culture. Contrary to the two-story theory of feminism, women (and men) are integral beings, whose bodies and minds are not severable from their whole being. We are also social beings who crave healthy interactions with others. And because we are whole beings, what we do virtually affects who we are in real life.
Quest for Control
In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT Professor Sherry Turklereports that hyper-connected teens are unable to make eye contact when they are face-to-face with a person and that they usually prefer texting because they are unable to have a real-life conversation.15 Teens whose primary social interactions are online tend to see people as a means to an end and seldom exhibit empathy, either online or in person. One teacher Turkle interviewed said it was as though everyone in her hyper-connected middle-school class had Asperger's syndrome.16
Texting and messaging allow teens to control their relationships. Many teens will intentionally ignore someone for a while in an effort to manipulate the other person's feelings, or they will wait to answer a text so they do not seem too desperate. Teens analyze the nuances of exactly how, when, and where to respond to a message in hopes of crafting exactly the right response. Many prefer being able to edit a message before sending it, and they want to have "a record of what was said" just in case a controversy should arise later. Their social interactions can sometimes look more like power plays than friendships.
With social interactions that are predicated on manipulation and control, it is no wonder that anxiety, self-harm, and depression are on the rise, especially among teenage girls. Even girls whose interactions are not to this extreme report having "trust issues," which is understandable considering that anything they say can be used against them.
Ironically, teens want increasing control over their conversations and their online image, but this comes at the cost of completely losing control over their ability to live without their phones. They obsessively check their phones for fear that they have not responded to something at the right time, or to make sure no one has said anything about them.
Today's girls are told that they are living at a time when women have more freedoms and more rights than ever before. At the same time, they are losing their childhoods, being expected to start looking sexually attractive at younger and younger ages. Technology reflects the things a culture values, and the internet is no exception. Our culture has done away with standards for age-appropriate materials, sexual mores, and treating people with respect for their inherent dignity. But these very things provide protective boundaries that allow people to grow, flourish, and form healthy relationships rather than vying for power in a no-holds-barred world.
1. Her Dignity Network (accessed April 9, 2018): herdignity.net/adolescence/female-genital-mutilation-cutting.
2. "Female genital mutilation," UNFPA (accessed April 9, 2018): unfpa.org/female-genital-mutilation.
3. Rachel Simmons, "Why More Teen Girls Are Getting Genital Plastic Surgery," Time (May 12, 2016): http://time.com/4327126/teen-girls-implants-genital-plastic-surgery/?iid=obinsite.
4. Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (Knopf, 2016), 92.
5. Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, 2nd ed. (Vintage Books, 1994).
6. Postman, 92, 93.
7. Sales, 225.
8. These statistics were discussed in Salvo 43, "Porn Planet."
9. Sales, 89.
10. Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Baker Books, 2018), 120.
11. Pearcey, 137.
12. "Increase in Suicide in the United States, 1999–2014," CDC (April 2016): cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db241.htm; Hannah Nichols, "How modern life affects our physical and mental health," Medical News Today (July 3, 2017): medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318230.php?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Medical_News_Today_TrendMD_1.
13. "Stress in America 2017: Technology and Social Media" (Feb. 23, 2017): apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2017/technology-social-media.pdf.
14. "Instagram ranked worst for young people's health" Royal Society for Public Health (May 19, 2017): rsph.org.uk/about-us/news/instagram-ranked-worst-for-young-people-s-mental-health.html.
15. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015).
16. Turkle, 161.
has an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Dallas, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University. She resides in Dallas and currently works as a freelance science writer and educator.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #47, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo47/do-you-like-me