Picture this — you’re scrolling through your friend’s Instagram, when suddenly you see a picture of a young woman.
She is a stereotypical “hottie.” She has a face full of expertly applied make up, and her Victoria’s Secret push-up bra makes her breasts look two cup sizes larger than they actually are. She’s wearing a tight tank top and short shorts that hug her in all the right places, leaving little to the imagination. Her sultry pose looks as if she’s inviting you to imagine the rest. She looks as if she’s in her mid twenties, but after tapping on her profile you find out you are sorely mistaken. She is only 16.
Sexualizing underage girls has become something so commonplace that we’ve become desensitized to the fact that adults are essentially lusting after children. Girls are even taught from a young age that being sexy is normal and desirable. Many little girls play with the popular Bratz dolls, which launched as the toy company MGA Entertainment’s over-sexed answer to Mattel’s Barbie doll. These dolls, in particular, have been at the center of a parental controversy since their release in 2001. Many parents forbid their children to play with these dolls, specifically.
Angelo Martinez, a 34-year-old stay at home dad, said that he and his wife are not comfortable allowing their daughter to play with any toys that they deem overly sexual.
“It’s so common nowadays,” Martinez said. “It’s not just toys either. It’s clothes, too. I’ve seen bikini-cut bathing suits for toddlers. If that’s not inappropriate, then I don’t know what is.”
Martinez said his daughter, Alison, 4, asked for a Bratz doll during a recent trip to Target. Martinez explained that he and her mother did not want her playing with those dolls.
“It wasn’t a big deal to her,” Martinez said. “She put it back without question and I think she ended up putting an Elsa doll in the cart instead.”
According to the National Child Stress Network, children begin their sexual development at birth. Very young children, preschool aged and younger, are naturally immodest and curious about their bodies and the bodies of those around them. However, they often don’t start seeking out sexual attention until puberty, which typically occurs between the ages of 10 and 14 for girls and 12 to 16 for boys. The US library of Medicine and National Institute of Health reports that children begin exploring their sexuality during this time, and begin to discover how their sexuality can affect the behavior of others.
This is when girls begin to consciously experience how their physical appearance can influence the actions of those around them. Megan Carter, 16, a junior at Washington High School in New York, remembers the first time she realized how her appearance affected others.
“There was this boy who was always teasing me in the sixth grade,” Carter said. “He called me ‘Meggy No Boobs’ and other stupid names like that. I was 11 so I still looked like a little girl because I was one. Then, the summer between sixth and seventh grade, my mom bought me a bra. I also started wearing a bit of makeup to school that September.”
“All of a sudden, not only was that boy not teasing me anymore, but he actually went out of his way to tell me how nice I looked. I remember thinking how powerful I felt, to have a subtle change in myself make him shut up.”
Carter said that although this feeling of empowerment has not caused her to strive to look older than she is, it sometimes causes her to try to look a certain way in order to get a certain outcome.
“Last semester, I wanted this senior to ask me to prom, so I started dressing really cute, and taking my time to get ready in the morning. It worked,” Carter said.
Carter said that she would rather have control over a situation and dress in a way that she knows will impress the guy she’s after than risk him not liking her for herself. This practice is very indicative of low self-esteem. According to the Schools Health Education Unit, teenagers’ self-esteem, especially that of teenage girls, has plummeted since 2007. This coincides with the crash in the economy in 2008, which brought hardships to many families in the United States and could have had an adverse affect on the self esteem of teenagers, but also the rise in the popularity of social media.
According to an article in Washington Post, Facebook’s popularity soared by 181 percent within a year in 2007. The popularity of Instagram, Tumblr, and other social media sites followed soon thereafter. Before the invention of these sites, people traditionally lost contact with most of the people they grew up with and knew before adulthood. Now, it is possible to see details about someone’s life that you haven’t spoken to in years simply by scrolling through your news feed.
Arlene Sanchez, a 21-year-old agriculture major, said that Facebook does, at times, make her question where she is in her life.
“I see people I knew in middle school and in high school graduating, getting married and having babies. I’m just going to school and working part time. So sometimes when I see things like that it makes me wonder why I’m so behind in my own life.”
Britany Solis, 15, said that at her school, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram act as a silent judge in a virtual popularity contest.
“The more likes you get, the cooler you are. I’m not really in the popular crowd at my school, and that’s okay. I know who I am, but I’ve noticed that the girls who are are the ones who tend to dress as sexy as possible in their selfies. They also tend to be the one with the most likes on their pictures.”
Solis said it makes her feel good when she gets a certain amount of likes on a post.
“It makes you feel, you know, important, I guess. If no one liked my post or picture it’s like saying no one cares. It’s embarrassing and I’d delete it.”
According to computer programmer Rameet Charla, the phenomenon of linking likes with self-worth is not uncommon. Charla told the Daily Dot that people give too much value to likes.
“People are addicted,” Charla said. “We experience withdrawals. We are so driven by this drug that getting just one hit elicits truly strange reactions.”
Strange, indeed. Carter said that she and her friends have taken photos of themselves doing specific things because they knew it would get a lot of likes online.
“One time one of my friends dared me to stick my head out of the car as we were driving and take a selfie,” Carter said. “I did and it turned out really cool. I knew it would be popular on Instagram.”
With conditioning starting at a young age and the pressure to be popular online, it is no surprise that some teenage girls have turned to using their bodies as vices to obtain likes on social media. However, the pressure to do this does not come from the desire to be popular alone.
Many underage celebrities are glorified by the press for being in relationships with adult men. Many of these same young celebrities are touted for their beauty and notorious for looking older — sexier — than they really are.
Kylie Jenner, 18, rose to fame on the popular reality series Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Jenner just recently turned 18 over the summer, but the press has sexualized her and promoted her relationship with rapper Tyga, 25, since she was only 16.
Bella Thorne, 17, a popular Disney Channel actress is dating Gregg Sulkin, 23, also a Disney Channel actor. The couple is referenced often by teen magazine Seventeen, and called “cute” or “#relationshipgoals.”
Singer Demi Lovato, 22, has been dating former That ‘70s Show star Wilmer Valderama, 35, for five years. That would make Lovato 17, or possibly newly 18, when she started dating a 30 year old man. The two are often mentioned in celebrity magazines.
The normalization of underage, or newly of age, female celebrities dating adult men, and the press constantly bombarding the public with new information about these couples promotes the sexualization of teenagers and subconsciously sends the message that these sorts of relationships are okay, and even things to be sought after.
Logically, then, given all of these reasons, it isn’t shocking that many teenage girls feel the need to dress sexier and try to look older than they really are.
Allison Howland, 14, prides herself on the fact that she is mistaken for 21 or 22 on a near daily basis by strange men on her Facebook.
“I do whatever I can to make myself look sexier. Especially in selfies that I know are going online.”
Howland has admitted to using push up bras, wearing short skirts, using eyelash extensions, applying a full face of make up and donning high heels to make herself more popular online.
Howland said she strives to be a model someday and will do “whatever it takes” to make her dreams come true, including flirting with men online who have no idea that she is actually 14.
Until recently, Howland said her mother was unaware of her online exploits.
“When I found out, of course I was horrified,” Angela Howland, Allison’s mother, said. “I made her delete the pictures and I made her add me as a friend so I can monitor who she is talking to.”
Allison said that the pictures have been put back up, despite adding her mother as a friend. She simply uses the Facebook feature that allows you to customize who can see which pictures and what status updates you post.
Howland said it’s fun to pretend to be older.
“I like the attention. I admit it. It’s nice to be called pretty and fun to be desired by men — not boys. Boys my age are dumb and immature — fully grown men know what they want and I like that.”
Howland said that while she doesn’t feel guilty about duping men and encouraging them to believe she’s older than she really is, she does feel badly about the pain finding out has caused her mother.
“Of course I feel bad. I love my mom and I don’t want to hurt her but she needs to understand that I’m not a little girl anymore and I can do what I want.”
Alexis Morales, 17, has been dating her boyfriend, Fransisco, 25, for six years. This would make Morales 11 and her boyfriend 17 at the start of the relationship. Morales said the two hid the relationship from their parents for the first few years and maintains that she and Fransisco do not engage in sexual activity and are waiting until after her 18th birthday to do so.
“He’s my friend’s older brother. We met one day when I logged onto Facebook and I had a friend request from him. Initially, he thought I was 18, because that’s how old he said I looked in my profile picture. There was an instant connection. Age really is just a number. I’ve never noticed the difference and neither has he.”
Morales said she told him the truth about her age the first time they met in person. He said he was okay with it because she was so mature for her age.
Morales said they hid the relationship from both sets of parents for fear they wouldn’t understand.
“I love him. I didn’t want to do anything that could possibly get him into trouble. So, for a long time, my parents knew nothing about him.”
Morales said they told their parents about their relationship a year ago. Morales told her parents he was 18. Her parents learned her partner’s real age when Fransisco accepted Morales’s mother’s Facebook friend request. Fransisco’s profile displays his real age, and when her mother asked her about it, Morales told her the truth. She said despite her initial anger, her mother eventually accepted the relationship. However, Morales said her mother is still in the dark as to exactly how long the two have been dating.
The sexualization of teenage girls, who are still children both legally and mentally, has become so ingrained in our society, it is no longer out of the ordinary to see these girls acting and being treated like adults. According to 24-year-old Chantel Johnson, waitress and a mother of two children, doing so robs these girls of an integral part of their childhood that they can never get back.
“When I was 16, I met this guy online,” she said. “He assumed I was 18 and I let him believe that for a really long time. He was 22 when we met. After I told him the truth though, the relationship didn’t stop. In fact, I wasn’t even 17 when he got me pregnant with my daughter.”
Johnson said as a result, she had to grow up fast and she could no longer be a normal teenager.
“If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t. I’d just enjoy being a teenager, instead of worrying about being thought of as sexy. I wish I could tell these teenage girls I see on Facebook doing that that they should just enjoy the moment.”
Johnson said that she loves both her daughter and her son, but sometimes wonders what, exactly, she missed out on by pretending to be an adult before she was one.
“I think I would’ve gone to college. Maybe I’d be married now, but maybe not. I just wish I could tell the girls who are like I was that being in high school isn’t something to just wish away. They’ll have plenty of time to be older when they’re older — but they can only be teenagers for right now.”