There’s a saying that goes like this: it used to be people became famous because they were special, now people become special because they’re famous. I try to remember this when talking about how tween girls interact in our celebrity-obsessed culture, and even in how they interact with their peers. A hallmark of the tween years is the need for peer acceptance. Our girls are looking for ways to become and stay relevant, and based on what they see in the world, it seems as if the easiest and most effective ways to do this are the least dignified. It’s important to understand girls’ need for relevance, and even more important to help them aim high and establish themselves in ways that will make them, and you, proud.
Yes, there are great stories about celebrities and others doing wonderful things in the world. But these stories are much quieter than the stories of sex tapes, bad behavior, and pictures that go viral for all the wrong reasons. A mere photo of a celebrity in a risqué outfit (or lack thereof) gets mentions on entertainment shows and lots of shares around social media. And a celebrity feud? That gets top billing and people can’t seem to get enough of it.
Compare that with the lives of our tweens, and it’s not much different. A quick scroll through your daughter’s Instragram will make two things abundantly clear: girls are inundated with photos of their peers looking WAY older and advanced than they should be, and it is obvious which kids know that their parents won’t ever check what they post. During almost any activity, girls are more focused on how to get the best picture or how to caption it than the activity itself. And for many girls, the sexier they can look, the better. After all, reading through comments that say “wow,” “you’re so hot,” etc. can really make them feel that they are approved of, accepted, and important. And this feeling can almost be addictive. Besides the fact that bikini shots and sexy poses (seriously, the sexy finger-to-the-lip move with middle schoolers in braces makes me shudder) are highly inappropriate, when you start this in middle school you have to ask – what will they do in high school? The stakes only go up.
Many celebrities, especially female, that appeal to the tween girl crowd post photos almost exclusively of themselves in sexy outfits and poses. Any other posts seem to be about some event or trendy thing they were doing. If you were to caption each post, it could be with some form of “me, me again, me-me-me, and keep looking at me.” Much is the same with their peers (coincidence? Hmmm). They’re not just smiling, they are posing, trying to look much older. And throw in a bathroom mirror or beach/swimming pool and the poses seem to go downhill from there. So how do we acknowledge their need to be relevant and accepted while keeping them from feeling that their value comes from how they look or what they do? Not very easily, but here are some powerful tools to use as often as possible.
Accentuate the positive. The best way to keep her focused on important values is to highlight the positive and reduce the spotlight on things that are negative or unimportant. Last year, the girls on the softball team at a local high school each asked a special needs boy from their school to Homecoming. It was an amazingly generous act, but got little attention. Once I heard about this, I talked a lot about how awesome those girls were. We talked about how Homecoming is a big deal, and usually girls are concerned about their dress and how cute or popular their date is. And while that is certainly understandable, imagine how much cooler the feeling of pride was, and how they will remember this so much more when they are older than just a cute boy.
Look beyond the celebrity. This is a tricky one. If you mock a celebrity that she thinks is cool (“she’s not even 20 and she’s getting lip injections?” “her outfit is ridiculous!” “all she cares about are her looks, she has no brain behind them!”) you create a gap that signals to her that you just don’t get it. So yes, it’s important that you understand why the attention that celebrities and reality starts garner seems so desirable. But what’s beyond that? Ask questions about the people she follows: So she is famous because she was on a reality show? What good quality(ies) does she have? Does she have any kind of skill or talent? What kinds of positive things has she done? And ask with genuine curiosity, keep the sarcasm to a minimum (good luck).
Translate that to her world. Building on the theme of evaluating the merits of what celebrities are doing, bring that same assessment into the world of her peers. If you are looking at her Twitter or Instagram feed with her (which I hope you are!), notice what the girls are posting, and talk about them. If you see a post that promotes something positive, talk it up! And if you see posts that are shallow, no need to bash her friends (remember not creating a gap, above?). But ask her “oh look, that’s Ashley – what’s the coolest thing about her?” Most likely, the answer will be something like “she’s great at soccer,” “she’s really smart,” or “she’s so funny.” After a while, it is worth pointing out to your daughter that what she likes about her friends usually has nothing to do with how they look, what they wear, or how they pose in pictures. And the same goes for her – there are plenty of qualities that her friends like about her, and little of them will have to do with looks. So while she may think that your rule about not posting photos of herself in swimsuits is cruel, you can point out that you understand that she doesn’t like that rule, but it’s not what her friends are talking about. (Tip: our rule on posting photos is that if she wouldn’t wear it to school, she can’t post a photo of herself in it.)
Focus on qualities other than looks. It’s human nature to notice appearances first. When an entertainer steps on stage, the first thing we do is notice if they look great, heavier, too much make up, etc. Girls do the same with people they know – “she looks heavier since summer break,” “she’s dressed so dorky,” “she thinks she’s so sexy.” One of the best things we can do is make an effort to look beyond appearances. Instead of pointing out surface qualities, accentuate and reinforce deeper attributes. Point out when your daughter, her friends, or others excel or try hard at a sport, art, or endeavor. And emphasize traits such as sense of humor, wittiness, intelligence, and kindness. The more your daughter hears comments about positive qualities and attributes – about herself and others, the more she will start to look beyond the surface in her world and find true value.
Telling our daughters that being pretty or admiring a celebrity with no apparent contribution to society other than risky behavior and/or appearance does little to acknowledge the reality of their lives. Of course it’s important for them to like how they look, and as much as we wish it weren’t true – they care about what their peers think of them. We can’t talk them out of any of this. What we can do is keep it from looming large in all aspects of their lives. We can acknowledge that they want to look cool and they want to see what their peers and celebrities are up to. But more importantly, we can keep this part as small as possible, and build up the parts that have great value and merit. Let the world that is sometimes shallow have its voice, but let your voice and what you represent speak louder.