Face It

The challenges of aging in today's culture

Internet Porn and Body Image

As school starts, who knows what teens will be viewing on their computers?

One has to wonder what the late Helen Gurley Brown would make of the sexually explicit world now available to young teens, both for viewing and experiencing. While HGB spent her life encouraging woman to "have it all," even she may wonder if we've gone too far when it comes to "Porn and the Single Teen."

NY Times reporter KJ Dell'Antonia raised a similar issue in a recent Motherlode column, posing the question to parents, "How do you steer a teenager away from the worst porn?" As our children head back to school and their computers, it isn't just homework that will pop up on their screens.

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Her article focuses on the quandary faced by parents of adolescent kids — sons, in specific — as they deal with their inevitable exposure to Internet pornography. She acknowledges that they are likely to explore "what's out there, on their own or in the company of friends," just as most of us did when we were their age. The issue Dell'Antonia raises is less about exposure to porn — we survived those hidden centerfolds, didn't we? — but rather how to deal with access to what she calls "the wrong kind" of porn.

Dell'Antonia writes, "It's every bit as easy for a boy looking for the Internet equivalent of Playboy to come across something that, to put it delicately, is an even more distorted representation of sex and the female gender than that august publication, and is neither accurate nor healthy." What's out there has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, she writes, and is moving in a disturbing direction that may require additional parental attention.

An interesting challenge facing parents, but one that made me wonder not only about the "right" versus "wrong kind" of porn, but about how our young daughters fit into this discussion. How does the changing landscape of "what's out there" influence the way young girls view their own maturing bodies? And, maybe even more worrisome, does it shape their perspective on what is arousing to others?

Teenage girls generally tend to be less fascinated with pornography than with heart-throbbing romance — think Twilight — yet clearly they have equal access to sexually explicit imagery (owed, in part, to the efforts of HGB and her cohorts). And while this young generation is almost surely viewing porn more often than did previous ones, exposure to it influences girls in ways that are different than boys.

I believe the distorted, enhanced imagery burdens teenage girls with unrealistic expectations about beauty and body image and with damaging ideas about what is attractive and sexually appealing to others. From the perfect waif-like models in teen magazines to the perfectly voluptuous ones on internet porn, the common theme is that these body shapes are unrealistic and unattainable. Consequently, when it comes to young females, the question better asked may be, "How do we steer our teenage girls away from distorted images of women, not only in porn, but in the media in general?"

In "Bridging the Authenticity Gap," I wrote about a growing movement — started by Baby Boomer women, but joined increasing by their teenage daughters — pushing toward authentic imagery in the media. In another post, "Is Photoshop Destroying America's Body Image," I described how overuse of airbrushing and non-stop exposure to digitally altered photos has contributed to the current epidemic of eating disorders among young girls.

A recent survey in Glamour showed that 97 percent of the young girls surveyed are critical of their bodies and have an average of 13 negative body thoughts each day. By the time they reach college age, over half of young women are already suffering from disordered eating. I wonder what statistics would reveal about how teenage girls feel about sexual attractiveness? What percentage do you imagine view their bodies as appealing to others — a different question than the one about how they see themselves. With the number of teens lining up for cosmetic surgery before entering high school and college, the answer seems clear — too many.

Back to the boys for a minute: If adolescent boys grow up regularly aroused by images of women with enhanced bodies — whether through Photoshop or cosmetic surgery — is it possible their expectations will continue into their real relationships? Will they not only expect their mates to look and feel like the porn stars they watch, but expect them to have the same kind of insatiable interest in sex? Willing to do anything and everything, while looking beautiful doing it? Won't everyday adolescent girls — turned sexually active young women — feel undue pressure to measure up? And when they can't meet these expectations, will it undermine their already fragile self-esteem?

So my response to the issue raised by Dell'Antonia in Motherlode is this: We need to help our teens understand distortion in the media — pornographic and elsewhere — in order to stay grounded in reality. With girls, it is especially important to help them distinguish between airbrushed models and authentic beautiful women (along the lines of the efforts by Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty and Spark's Keep it Real Challenge). We need to remind them more than ever that in our youth- and beauty-obsessed culture, perfectly shaped bodies and faces are media-driven illusions and place unrealistic standards that undermine confidence.

And, when it comes to the distortions portrayed by porn, it's no different. Sure, the 'sex talk' may never be comfortable between parents and their kids — teens naturally shy away from most serious discussions, let alone this particular one — but distortions in the media should be part of the conversation.

Talk to them — yes, both girls and boys — about the enhanced images and videos that they will inevitably be exposed to. Tell them that pornography is like false advertising, the goal being to sell and market products, not necessarily to convey truth and honesty. Remind them that while they may enjoy what they see, they need to become wise consumers — informed and educated about what is real and not — in order to make safe and smart choices as adults.

One of the most refreshing things about the HBO series Girls — while highly graphic and out there sexually — is that the male and female stars are not only far from perfect physically, they don't even seem to care that much. Perhaps, from a certain perspective, writer and producer Lena Dunham is leading teens toward what might be called "politically correct porn," a healthier, more realistic vision of sexuality that in the future may support, rather than undermine, their authentic sense of self.

Come to think of it, while Dunham's Girls and Helen Gurley Brown Cosmo may seem in complete opposition to each other, perhaps they have more in common than meets the eye.

How do you think sexually explicit imagery in today's culture will influence teens in the future?

 

 

Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty, and cosmetic products. Her book Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit her website at VivianDiller.com, and continue the conversation on Twitter: @DrVDiller.

 

 

Follow Vivian Diller, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrVDiller

 

Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City and co-author of Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change.

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