Girl Talk: Reflections on growing up girl in a pop culture world
When I was 17, I performed a contemporary dance piece to Portishead's "All Mine" for my HSC major work, and Mum and Dad came to watch. I wore a little black chiffon dress, which covered my arms and chest but showed a lot of leg. It was a fairly demure look, but the choreography was quite sophisticated – all elongated leg extensions, floor rolls and running side splits. The moody, dramatic music lent the piece a sexual expressiveness that my father was ill-prepared for. I vividly recall his look of reserved mortification. His little girl was no longer the snowflake with the cotton wool balls glued to her tutu: she was a young woman. I wasn't trying to be deliberately provocative; I was just doing what I love.
How soon we forget.
I was reflecting on this yesterday after seeing pictures of Miley Cyrus at the Much Music Awards. Not so different, Miley and I (millions of adoring fans, fame, wealth, musical talent excluded). In fact, Miley's story probably reflects that of a lot of young women on a less grand scale. I certainly wore some provocative outfits and did some things I'm glad to have not have had broadcast over YouTube or tabloid magazines or Perez Hilton as a teen.
Last week Nicole Richie had this to say in response to Lisa Wilkinson's question about leaving her "crazy days" of partying with Paris behind (I will stop banging on about this soon):
"You have to understand I'm 28 and I started The Simple Life when I was 20 or 21, so I'm sure that you can say that the difference when you were 20 to closer to approaching 30, you just grew up in just a very natural way. So, no, there wasn't a day when I woke up and said, 'Okay, it's time to completely change my life'. It's just part of growing up"
In her piece, 'Leave Miley's Crotch Alone', Tracie of Jezebel writes: "Aside from the bizarre assumption that a minor should have no expectations of privacy if she's behaving and dressing a certain way in front of other people, there's also another conversation happening, in which adults are trying to intellectualize and analyze the sartorial decisions of a 17-year-old girl, and ultimately coming to the conclusion that she shouldn't experiment with her sexuality because she's just a kid and she doesn't know what she's doing. My question, then, is: How is she supposed to learn?"
Is projecting all our worries about porn culture and the sexualisation of tween and teen girls onto Miley Cyrus (or, indeed, Hilary Duff – guilty as charged) helpful? Should we lock Disney princesses up in fortified towers so their youthful curiosity or sexual energy doesn't get the better of them? Or cover them in veils and long garments to avoid having to look at their burgeoning bodies? Turn our backs in shame when they refuse to play the good girl?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the early sexualisation of girls, aided and abetted by porn and raunch culture (increasingly part of popular culture), and arguably Perez Hilton, is to their detriment (I recommend Getting Real for further study). I cringe every time I see one of my nieces (aged three and six) do something behaviourally that's too mature for them ("Look at me, I'm a supermodel!"; "Look, I'm wearing my bra!" Eek). And I know, without doubt, that the predominant messages they see and here via the media are to blame.
But I believe we can all contribute to correcting this by educating the girls in our lives to apply themselves to their studies, explore their creativity beyond makeup application and make informed choices about their bodies and relationships (and reading/viewing habits). We can make them less vulnerable by making them smart. What girls don't need is more pressure or judgement.
After recommitting to my Christian faith about five years ago, while I was working on a teen mag, I was aghast at the judgement that fell on me – magazines like that were deemed evil by default. It was always a frustration trying to explain that we were actually doing lots of good things to address girls' self-esteem; ergo, don't judge a book by its cover. This has always struck me as odd, as Jesus was such an accepting person. He encouraged people to turn from their sin, but never turned away someone in need. What's more, he attended to and nurtured women instead of sidelining them. They were a crucial part of his ministry.
Helen Mirren's New York Magazine comments took me a little by surprise but gave me pause of thought: "The Playboy Mansion, coke, and the rise of all that—Guccione and Hefner always pushed it as liberation, but it didn’t seem like that to me," she says. "That was women obeying the sexualized form created by men—though maybe we always do that, because we want to be attractive. But I was kind of a trailblazer because I demanded to do it my own way. I’d say, ‘I’m not having it put on me by someone else.’ I didn’t want to be the sort of puritanical good girl with a little white collar who says, ‘Don’t shag until you get married.'"
Knowing what I know now, I'd say there's value in being the puritanical good girl, despite it being the unpopular way to go. Sexual permissiveness isn't even an issue anymore; it's the default, rather than the exception. But there is still a massive chasm that exists between what the world values in women, as dictated by men and advertising/media/Hollywood (sex! success! glossy hair! cool clothes! big boobs! tiny butt!), and what God values in women:
"Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious."
Like Billy-Ray Cryrus no doubt, my dad still loved and adored me even after the Portishead peace – instinctually, he wanted to protect me and keep me close to him, but all he could really do as a father was to love me and do the best he could to raise me well and create foundations in character to see me on my way. I have made many, many mistakes, but he's always there at the end of the phone line waiting to hear me out and help me get back on track.
God is absolutely the same, if not infinitely more generous and gracious with his time and gifts. The most liberating thing is knowing that God loves you Just As You Are. And wants the best for you. Miley "Can't Be Tamed", and – God help us – Perez will likely live to blog another day, but she will grow up, hopefully, with the knowledge that she's loved no matter what. As she sings, "Keep the faith, baby, it's all about the climb".
Girl With a Satchel