May 02, 2008

Helping Girls Navigate Sexualization in the Media

Young girls are inundated with sexist media images. How do we help them develop a healthy sense of their own sexuality?

It needs to start in the home. Our daughters' best defense against the skewed sexual saturation of our culture is for us to support them in the healthy development of their own sexuality.

As I wrote in "What Huff Post Women Had to Say" women still experience discomfort in educating their daughters about menstruation. If our own discomfort gets in the way of that, imagine the unspoken, often unconscious, fear of teaching them about their sexuality -- which would by extension also be teaching them about ours. How can we expect our daughters to hold their own against unrealistic images of sexuality in the media when they sense our own impairments to being sexually comfortable in our mother/daughter relationships?

Maybe we're so afraid of having to go into the "naughtiness" of sexual detail that we're missing the simplicity of what our daughters most need from us: our blessing of their sexuality as normal and healthy.

Esther Perel, sex therapist and author of Mating in Captivity, a book exploring the sexual complications within marriage, wrote in her Huffington Post blog that it isn't usually the mechanics of sex that bring couples to her for help, but rather their desire for "the poetics of sex." I think as Americans, our fixation with the taboo of sexuality causes us to overlook its poetry and its greater meaning in our lives, and then we pass this limited view of sex onto our children.

It's difficult for women to teach their girls how to celebrate being alive within their desire; but it's commonplace for women to teach girls how to devalue their bodies in the quest for physical perfection. A mother, over the years, even in the most seemingly innocuous statements like "I was good today; I skipped lunch." or "I was bad today; I had cake" erodes herself in front of her daughter, and in so doing, systematically erodes her daughter right along with her. This is the crisis. Why do we readily and consistently, consciously and unconsciously, dispense messages of self loathing that will harm them in every way by undermining their confidence, even as we shy away from teaching them how to protect, delight in, and express love with their bodies?

It will be harder for our girls if we only engage in seeing them as sexual once they're adults. We need to be there with them from the beginning of the journey.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help us consider the possible impact of our reluctance to speak openly with our daughters.

We want our girls to grow into women who can be happy and experience love, but how do we imagine them arriving there? We want them to be in relationships, but do we really see our daughters as sexual? When we think of them being in love, do we stop at a love that's more to do with friendship and reliable companionship? How do we hope our daughters learn and measure what they find sexually arousing? Do we indirectly hope our daughters have unfulfilling sex? Do we feel too embarrassed to somehow give them, and ourselves, the support needed to lead full, open lives?

If the sexual lessons don't come from us girls will search elsewhere. This week it might be Vanity Fair's tutorial on Miley Cyrus. While it's healthy for girls to individuate from their mothers, does our fear of discussing sexuality push them even farther away than we intend? Do we inadvertently influence them to find other role models who unrealistically represent girls and women?

What of our sexuality do we allow them to know? Girls might come to learn through observation that "real" women can express their sexuality only through the smaller victories of erotic pleasure, such as finding it quite normal that women in restaurants or at the Thanksgiving table will openly tilt their heads back, close their eyes and moan unabashedly ... over a piece of chocolate ... with the full support and understanding of all onlookers.

It's hard to feel genuine and alive when we're taught to hide half of who we are. Being more open in revealing ourselves, mother to daughter, might offer our daughters a greater chance to feel more complete in an authentic sense of sexuality, as opposed to only donning the facade the media holds out to us.

Women of all ages in my study repeatedly reported wanting to know more about their sexuality, they just didn't know how to go about it because guilt, shame, discomfort and propriety precluded their taking the risk. There were important things about sexuality that they hadn't been taught by their mothers, and this gap in learning resulted in both a reluctance to confide in other women the sexual content of their lives, and an ambivalence about providing their daughters with a sexual contextualization of life.

What are we teaching our daughters about being female? And what are we withholding from them that might be useful for them to know?

If we choose not to ground their sexuality in a sense of home, they're more at risk of grounding it wherever the media directs them.


See more stories tagged with: sexuality, girls, media

Joyce McFadden is a certified psychoanalyst with an MSW from Columbia University and five years of postgraduate training. She's a faculty member, training analyst and clinical supervisor at the Training and Research Institute for Self Psychology, and author of the ongoing anonymous web-based Women's Realities Study.

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