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Sunday Reflections: Sex sells . . . but what are we selling? Low self esteem and body image among on tweens and teens

That night I lay cuddling in bed with my almost Tween watching the very last episode of Hannah Montana, a tear slid down my cheek as I recognized that we were closing the door on a chapter of her life.  We had grown up watching Hannah Montana try and have the best of both worlds together, the Tween and I, me trying to figure out this mom stuff and her trying to figure out her kid stuff.  I had taken her to the movie, one of our first non-animated movie experiences, just the two of us going out to dinner and a movie where we could actually talk about it afterwards.

Fast forward to today, as I stood in line at the grocery store there sits Miley Cyrus on the cover of Cosmopolitan, having forgotten to put her shirt on under her pant suit.  This just after we watched Beyonce strutting her stuff in barely there wear at the Superbowl.  And then a thought came to me: sex sells, but what exactly are we selling?

Don’t get me wrong, as I wash the spit up from my hand and contemplate taking a shower finally at 2:00 pm, I get the desire to feel sexy; that feeling of thinking yes, someone would still want me.  And I remember being in the 3rd grade and begging to wear make-up and high heels, and sneakin off to kiss a boy named Ricky in the bushes.  There is something primal in us all I think to feel desirable.  But how do we embrace our sexuality as women and still find ways to send empowering messages to the young people among us who are trying to figure out what to do with these newly raging hormones, trying to figure out who they want to be, and trying to figure out how to be in relationship with one another?

This afternoon I played hooky from reading and blogging and all the behind the scenes business that is TLT and went to the movies.  I went and saw Warm Bodies.  If you have not seen or read Warm Bodies, I highly recommend it.  It is not what you think it is; it is, in fact, basically a gentle reminder to us all that being in relationship – being connected to people – is what makes us truly human and alive.

Warm Bodies stands in such stark contrast to the normal messages our tweens and teens receive: You must be beautiful. You must be sexy. You must be . . . While the message in Warm Bodies is much more simple and empowering: You must be truly connected to others to live.  This is even more empowering when you realize that the only way you can truly connect with others is to truly be yourself.  Any relationship built on anything less is a shallow, casual acquaintance that just kind of rests on the surface of the pool.  You have to really dive in to the deep end to truly be connected to people.

At one point and time, early in the relationship between The Mr. and I, we took a car ride that involved lots of curvy, windy mountains.  I got car sick.  Wearing sandals.  It was the first truly authentic moment, really, in our relationship.  Watching someone barf on their feet really takes the romance out of the moment.  And The Mr., he went and got a bunch of paper towels out of the bathroom and cleaned my feet for me.  Our kids need to know that those are the moments that help you know what love is.  Make-up and clothes can make you look and feel sexy, for a time, but they aren’t what relationships are built on.  

As I watched Beyonce shake her thing on the stage and read about Miley declaring her self a sexual creature in the magazine, I struggled.  There is this part of me that recognizes of course it is their right to do so, but I also question the impact that it has.  If a woman presents themselves sexy in these ways, who is defining sexy?  Is it because our culture says that barely dressed, gyrating women are sexy?  How come sexy isn’t defined as strong, confident, empowered, powerful?  Those qualities are still often associated with masculinity and a woman who personifies these traits will often get called a bitch.  But if I stick my cleavage in your face and wear knee high socks and rock a mini skirt, well then I am likely to get called sexy.

I spend a lot of time thinking about our culture and what it means to be a woman, how we treat women, not only because I am one, but because I am raising two and they mean everything to me.  I would like them to see a burger ad that doesn’t suggest that you have to be drop dead sexy to eat a burger (I’m looking at you Carl’s Jr.) or to see a woman sing while she is wearing an actual pair of pants (why can’t pop stars afford pants, they seem to make a lot of money?).  I want my daughters to go to the book store and pick books off of the shelf that have covers with girls that look like them, not some sexed up, ball gown version of a 16-year-old.  I want them to know that being a woman, having meaning, and being in relationship with others means so much more than simply being sexy.  I want them to know that they have value in a world that is far beyond what they look like and how sexy they are, unfortunately our world still seems very content to emphasize sex and sexuality, to objectify women.

Before Warm Bodies started today, we were reminded in an ad that 1 out of 3 women will face some type of domestic or sexual violence.  In a world that emphasizes sex and demoralizes and objectifies women, it is not hard to imagine why this keeps happening.  The only way to stop it is to change the message.  And I think it has to start with the women.  I can’t tell Beyonce that she needs to put on a pair of pants and just let her powerful voice sell her records, but I can – and do – change the channel and refuse to buy the record.  We don’t eat at Carl’s Jr.  Sex may sell, but not in this household.  I want my daughters, and my teens, to grow up in a world that embraces all that a woman has to offer, not just her body or her sexuality.  It’s the least that I can do for Women’s History Month.

Discussing body image, gender issues and diversity in YA Lit
What It’s Like for a Girl: The politics of sexuality


  1. Anonymous says:

    While I truly appreciate what you're trying to say, it's important to remember that if women like Miley or Beyonce want to express themselves as “sexual creatures” or perform on stage in a pantsless outfit that is entirely within their right. It's okay to embrace and express your sexuality. Maybe Miley feels empowered to have that picture posted on that magazine. While it's entirely possible that someone bullied her into that photo with a “sex sells, babe” this could be a very intentional act on her part to represent herself the way she wants. And that's not bad. Sure there will be people who objectify her, but that's their fault, not hers. And Beyonce dressing that way at the Super Bowl was another act of empowerment because she wasn't dressing to just be sexy, but to be fierce. Everything about that performance was intentional from the outfit to the fact that there were no male dancers on that stage with her. Just women owning what they've got up on that stage. I do understand how tiring it can be to be constantly bombarded with images of overly sexualized females especially when you have young daughters who you're trying to raise right, but shaming women (which I'm not saying was your intention at all)who are comfortable with owning and expressing their sexuality is not the way to go. Sorry if this got long. Again, I truly appreciate what you're trying to say and regularly visit and enjoy your blog, but I just wanted to get this out there.

  2. Actually, if it appears that I am shaming women then I have failed at the intent of my post. What I am trying to question is this perception of what sexy is and how it is being defined. Are women truly taking ownership of their sexuality or are we thinking we are embracing sexuality and yet really still fitting into cultural standards that are being defined by men? Why is it that showing a lot of skin and dancing in certain ways is considered sexy for a woman while a man can still be considered sexy (and perform) while wear blue jeans and a t-shirt? When I dress a certain way and it makes me feel sexy, is it because that is what sexy genuinely is or is it because I was raised in a culture – a male dominated culture – that tells me that is what sexy is? It's an interesting question, one that I think about.

    As to the second point, yes – I do in fact think it is destructive to our young people – of both sexes – to constantly be bombarded with overly sexualized and objectified images of both genders. It sets up unrealistic expectations, and sense distorted messages, and it does not adequately prepare them for real, meaningful relationships. In short, it sets them up for failure during the very time that they are at their most formative. When they stand in line at the grocery story they see overly idealized and sexualized images. Watching commercials. These messages are every way and inescapable. And while I freely admitted in my original post as I do here, all people are of course welcome to express themselves in the way that they choose, I have always been very adamant about that. But I also think society functions better when we step outside of ourselves a little bit and remember there are actions – including the way we present ourselves and the culture we create – also has an impact on those around us, especially the youngest and most impressionable. And I think we should find better ways to balance the two. Imagine if occasionally those in the media actively chose to present themselves more realistically. That would also send a powerful message. These are thoughts that I contemplate and wonder about, which is the goal of Sunday reflections. I don't have all the answers, but I like to ask the questions and maybe one day, we can live in a world that is less about sex and beauty and more about truth and meaningful relationships – even on the glossy surface.

  3. sense should be sends, don't know what happened there. sorry.

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