My teenage daughter daily posts pictures of herself on Instagram in sexy poses. I’ve even noticed recently she posts herself in bikinis and tight dresses from the neck down.
How do I begin a dialogue about what she is putting out there and her sense of self? I don’t want to shame her exploration.
Double Tapped Out
Dear Double Tapped,
One of the most memorable things a girl ever said to me in my research came from a 16 year old girl named Maya. “Social media,” she told me, “is a way to show everyone what kind of person you are and what kind of girl you are. It creates a me I am in front of other people.”
Powerful words. Social media is a tool girls use both to develop their identity — who they think they are and want to be — and to share it. That’s not a bad thing, either, say experts like Boston University’s Jill Walsh.
The problem is, social media rewards something that adolescent girls have long been primed to value: looking good. With a simple tap, your daughter can offer herself up to the ‘gram in exchange for attention, validation and valuable social currency.
She can count the likes on her photo, tallying her self-worth. These 128 people think I’m beautiful. That’s heady stuff, and it’s a source of validation she can pursue every time she posts a picture.
You’re right to not want to shame your daughter, and kudos to you for leading from that place. But how do you start a productive dialogue with her about what she’s posting?
For starters, be prepared for a big time eye roll. Most teens I know go into defensive mode from the get-go (which I understand, given the often unfair ways that adults have demonized social media). My advice? Show up ready to listen, not lecture.
Start by saying you want to talk with her about her Instagram feed and some of the pictures you’re seeing. Lean into curiosity, not judgment: ask her why her appearance has become an increasing focus of her feed. Try to find ways to empathize. Maybe you didn’t have Instagram growing up, but surely you cared a little about what other people thought of you and your appearance. Share this with her. By opening yourself up a little, you’ll create space for her to be honest back.
Now this is the part that’s tricky. She may tell you that she finds showing off her body empowering — that she’s proud of how she looks and enjoys sharing that with others. Personally, I want my daughter to feel this way, too.
The problem, for me, is less about the message she’s sending out, and more about who’s receiving it.
In other words, a girl doesn’t share her body with the world in a vacuum. The way she sees her body is not always the way everyone else does. She’s sharing her body in a world that sexualizes girls — that is, measures the worth of girls (and women) in terms of their bodies and sexuality.
So, while your daughter may see herself as a student, athlete, friend, daughter, sister, and so on, her Instagram viewers — and that includes some of the people she may know and go to school with — may focus only on the body that she is showing. They may not see her as a whole person. And they may take her less seriously as a person as a result.
Is that wrong? Yes. Is that an injustice? 100%. Which is why this is an opportunity to cultivate consciousness in your daughter about the cruelty of a culture that reduces girls’ value to their bodies.
If you have a daughter who’s heard the message that she can be and do anything, some of this might be very new to her. In fact, with all the opportunity that is available to girls today, they are still pummeled with contradictory messages that tell them they can’t be anything if they’re overweight or unattractive. There’s no time like the present to have this conversation with your daughter.
You might even show her something like the documentary Miss Representation, which helps explain how the media’s focus on women’s bodies undermines them — and will explore why others may have a very different interpretation of the images she shares on her feed. Let her know that girls have been mobilizing to fight destructive images that reduce women to their bodies, like the girls in the SPARK movement.
If you’re feeling like she’s going too far, now is a good time to work with her to set some parameters to her posts. Maybe together you can decide that cropping her face out of a photo is not okay, because it’s a way of objectifying herself (reducing herself to an object instead of a real person). Perhaps you’ll suggest she not highlight certain parts of her body. Get ready for her to surprise you with a rebuttal so convincing that it may change your perspective on the photos she posts. One thing’s for sure: You’ll never know until you start the conversation.
The tone you want to strike here is less about judging her and more about judging the society that sexualizes her. It reminds me, to some extent, of what my own parents would say when I asked to drive late on a weekend night right after I’d gotten my license. “It’s not you we don’t trust,” my mom would say (as I rolled my eyes as far back into my head as they would reach), “it’s the rest of the world.”
This distinction rings true here, too.
Beyond that, below are some guidelines for posting that I wrote about in Enough As She Is which may be helpful for this conversation.
- Use social media to say something about herself, rather than prove something about herself to others.
- Refrain from using social media as a tool to compete, and instead use it to connect.
- Don’t using social media to ask a question about what others think of her, but instead use it to make a statement about what she thinks: about the world, the issues she cares about, or herself.
- Ask herself, before she posts content, a direct question: why am I doing this? What is my intention? How am I feeling right now? And then, be willing to answer that question honestly. If I am looking to be filled up with affirmation from others, is this the right way to do it?
Best of luck.