I woke up today and did my usual “check tweets blearily through one eye” routine only to stumble across FYI (If You’re A Teenage Girl). I know, I’m a bit late to the party.
If you haven’t heard of it, FYI is a post aimed at the female friends of the writer’s teenage sons, urging them to keep their clothes on and stop posting “sexy selfies” on social media.
Sounds sensible. Teenagers certainly need reminding that the way they present themselves online could affect their future careers and prospects more than they currently appreciate.
Phew. A sensible mother attempting to shepherd her sons’ naive friends through the difficult adolescent period.
No. That’s not what’s happening.
Kimberley Hall, the blogger in question, isn’t concerned with the girls’ future employment or self-respect or any of the other things you’d usually find parents stressing about. Nor is she, as far as I can tell, “slut-shaming” as most of the blogging community seems to be accusing her.
But the advice she gives these girls (who her family sit around the dining table judging, despite them presumably only accepting friend requests from the boys themselves and other friends they know and trust) is that her precious sons won’t be able to “un-see” those photos.
“You don’t want our boys only to think of you only in this sexual way, do you?” she asks in all seriousness, and with one too many “only”s.
What strikes me most is that she isn’t sitting with her sons and telling them that it’s their responsibility to see these girls as more than “only” sexual. She’s not reassuring them that there is more in life than sexuality but that it’s okay to express it. She’s not explaining that a girl in pyjamas doesn’t become their property because she’s taken a photo and allowed them to see it. And she’s completely failing to address the main issue: these girls are striking these poses because our society tells them that’s what women do. Our newspapers, magazines, advertising and red carpet events all show young girls what’s expected of them.
As parents of boys it’s our job to start trying to change that; to tell them that women are more than caricatures with their hands on their hips and their backs arched, but that for a while at least teenage girls are probably going to try to play the part because we – and specifically men – expect it. Where does she think these men come from if not from our teenage boys?
Of course girls should think carefully about what they’re posting online and it’s important that we explain why, but there’s no way I’m going to try to shame them into it when I could have a meaningful conversation.
“But if you want to stay friendly with our sons online, you’ll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent. If you post a sexual selfie (we all know the one), or link to an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it’s curtains.”
The idea that I would monitor and edit my boys’ social interactions with their female friends in this manner makes me feel a bit sad. Yes, I want to know what’s going on in their lives, and of course I want to make sure they’re safe. But I also want to trust them and instil a sense of their own responsibility. If I ever feel that they can’t look at pictures of girls in their pyjamas without becoming wicked evil boys I think there’s an issue bigger than a sexy selfie to address.
I like to think I’ll spend more time parenting my own sons than other people’s daughters, and that by doing so I reduce the chances of my boys growing up to think they need to avoid all contact with women who don’t fit some chaste patriarchal ideal.
My boys are my responsibility and your girls are yours. But my boys’ thoughts, feelings and actions are their own. So are your boys’, Mrs Hall. Trust them to give it a go.
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