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Some insight into how media images are processed into behavior comes from a 2004 Harvard study on the arrival of TV in Western Fiji. The most noticeable change was that Fijian women became dissatisfied with their bodies and tried to lose weight. They didn't necessarily want to be like Europeans; they just wanted to look like them. Is it possible that the situation for teens and tweens is the same? They don't want to be like the characters in Gossip Girl (only 16% of whose viewers are actually teen girls) or America's Next Top Model; they just want to look like them, to try on that identity. "Nine-year-old girls do not experience dressing up in a sexy way as a sexy thing," says Deborah Tolman, one of the authors of 2007's American Psychological Association (APA) report on the sexuality of teen girls. "They're just wearing clothes and thinking it's cool to look older." School-age girls want to wear thong underwear for the same reason their mothers wanted to wear crocheted bikinis: to drive their parents nuts.
The real problems arise when the media unanimously suggest that hotness is the only identity worth trying on. And when they venerate physical desirability in young women without explaining how to use it responsibly. And when they define desirability in such a narrow fashion that many girls feel they have to amp up their sexual signals to measure up. One of the clear findings last year of the APA task force was that an early emphasis on sexuality stunts girls' development in other areas. "When kids are about defining themselves, if you give them this idea that sexy is the be-all and end-all, they drop other things," says Sharon Maxwell, a psychologist who specializes in adolescent sexuality.
Should girls fear that they don't have the requisite hotness, there's a surefire way to overcome that: find a boy to sleep with. "They're subconsciously looking for love," says Amanda Ireland, another Gloucester teen. "They think, If I have a baby, I'll be someone. It gives them an identity." How can Ireland be so sure? She gave birth to daughter Haley, now 3, when she was 15.
Learning from Lolita
The interplay among teens, the media and sex is a complicated one. As Ireland shrewdly observes, the way a girl sees herself is more powerful than what she sees in magazines. But here's the rub: what she sees in the media does affect that self-image, especially in terms of her body. Some experts recommend media-literacy classes--as early as kindergarten. "Children need to learn how to dissect and understand this pervasive aspect of their environment," says Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect, "just as they learn to understand the seasons or Newton's laws of motion."
Durham also suggests, counterintuitively, that kids should have access to more media. But the venues she recommends are those--like girlsinc.org--that are not in a symbiotic relationship with people who want to sell things. And she believes that girls should be encouraged to create their own media, not just to talk back but also to understand how they work.
Since it's impossible to put the genie back into the bottle, girls also need some straight talk about what to do with all the desirability society is heaping on them. "It's like we've given them the keys to the car," says psychologist Maxwell, "but we haven't taught them how to drive." The APA task force urged more study into how teen girls are affected by seeing people who look just like them heralded as sexual icons as well as research to "identify effective, culturally competent protective factors." Translation: Find something not lame that sends an alternative message. Stephenie Meyer's highly popular Twilight series might be one example.
Most important, say therapists and academics, adults need to look to themselves. "There's a whole other piece that we don't talk about," says Tolman, "which is holding the people who are reacting to these young girls accountable." When tweens see a picture of Cyrus with her back bare and her hair tousled, they don't see her as postcoital. That's an adult interpretation. Cyrus has made it abundantly clear that she hopes to remain a virgin until she's married. "It's this very odd attitude," says Durham, "where at once we want to eroticize [girls like Britney Spears and Cyrus], and then we turn around and condemn them immediately."
Maybe we believe so readily in notions like a plague of teen sex because they titillate us, the grownups. The volume of child-pornography arrests has skyrocketed in the past decade. It's not teens who are using it. And it's mostly not teens who indulge in the voyeuristic obsession with starlets or who use young people to sell products or win votes. It's all of us. Fifty years ago last month, Lolita was published in the U.S. Her name is often invoked to describe today's teens. But what people forget is that in Nabokov's book, Lolita was the victim.