Squeaky clean, wholesome goodness. For almost a century, that’s been Disney’s brand. But the young girls working for the Mouse have the most terrible habit of not getting the memo.
Case in point? Miley Cyrus (aka “Hannah Montana”), who went from teenage cutie to dominatrix sex kitten in little more than a calendar year.
There’s also Demi Lovato, who backed out of her hit Disney show after provocative photos surfaced online of her kissing another girl.
And now Selena Gomez has gotten in the game, with her newest flick, Spring Breakers, featuring The Wizards of Waverly star doing both drugs and engaging in threesomes with her female co-stars.
It’s not just Disney starlets that are the problem, though. The annals of Hollywood are filled with similarly cautionary tales. Not coincidentally, so too are homes across America, where girls from 5 to 15 and beyond are imitating the starlets they idolize, dressing, talking, and acting in ways that, in the not too distant past, would have made a sailor blush.
Setting aside the soul-destroying consequences of living life as a sexual object, from even the most secular vantage point the sexualization of young girls—Disney stars or otherwise—is bad news. Defining your worth by your sexual desirability causes grades to drop and athletic performance to suffer. It induces depression and triggers eating disorders. It leads to high-risk behaviors, sexually transmitted diseases, and situations where no amount of saying “no” can help.
On Sunday, two young football players in the town where I live, Steubenville, Ohio, were found guilty of raping an underage girl. That ruling has generated all sorts of chatter in the media about the lessons parents need to teach their boys.
And boys in this culture do need to learn some serious lessons. Parents need to teach their sons how to love, honor, and respect women, to see them as human beings to value, not bodies to use.
But as a cursory glance at either the Disney bullpen or the local junior high will tell you, our girls need to learn a few lessons too, lessons that are foundational to protecting their bodies, their souls, and their futures.
1. Growing up is about much more than sex.
Today, whenever a young singer or actress decides to leave their child star days behind, they signal that decision to producers, directors, and the culture at large by sexing up their image (a la Selena Gomez). In that, they also signal to their tween followers that overt sexuality is the mark of maturity.
Sex, however, doesn’t make the man (or the woman). Adulthood, real adulthood, is about making the hard choices. It’s about responsibility and hard work, generosity and wisdom. Adults put others needs before our own, sacrifice and suffer for those we love, and control our desires, sexual or otherwise, for the sake of a greater good.
Which is to say, our ability to say “no” to the wrong kind of sex with the wrong kinds of people in the wrong kinds of ways is far more the measure of maturity than our ability to say “yes” to the same.
2. Sexiness won’t win friends.
Not real friends, that is. Short shorts and shiny locks will attract some people in the short-term. But in the long-term, the way to find friends who will stand by your side in good times and bad, supporting you, challenging you, and loving you, quirks and all, isn’t to dress or act provocatively.
Rather, it’s to love. It’s to be kind and loyal, encouraging and generous, smart and funny, patient and forgiving. It’s to see what’s unique and beautiful about every person God sends your way, and celebrate that. It’s also to pursue what interests you—Shakespeare, show tunes, the Australian Peacock Spider—and enrich the lives of those you love through those pursuits.
Beauty fades. Age advances. But a loving heart, joyful spirit, and lively mind? They endure. And so do the friendships forged because of them.
3. Smiling faces lie.
Not all smiling faces. But the smiling faces of starlets who hop from one boyfriend to another and one bed to another? They lie. Oh boy, do they lie. A quick listen to a Taylor Swift album should tell you that much.
Here’s the thing: Being used doesn’t make any girl happy. Being treated as an object, not a subject, breaks every girl’s heart. The smiles in the tabloids are meant to deceive, and sex without consequences is a fictional plotline.
In the real world, as opposed to glossy magazines, the way to happiness is the way of commitment. It’s giving yourself, body and soul, to one person (or to God or his Church if that’s your vocation), and choosing to love that person every day of your life. It’s seeing the good in him and rejoicing in it. It’s seeing the bad, and believing he can do better. It’s bringing new life into the world together and holding hands as your days on earth grow fewer. That’s real happiness. That’s lasting happiness. The rest is just airbrushed misery.
4. Beauty is more than the sum of one’s parts.
What makes a woman beautiful isn’t just the shape of her face or the length of her legs. It’s the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eyes. It’s a voice that speaks with intelligence and a body that moves with grace. It’s a humble spirit and a prayerful soul.
When people (real people, not reality stars on Jersey Shore) look at us, that’s what they see. They don’t see a one-dimensonal photo-shopped picture. They see a person, a whole person, and they respond to that person. They’re attracted to gentleness and wit as much as they’re repulsed by vanity and vulgarity.
No matter what Cosmo says, whatever is on the inside eventually shows up on the outside. If what’s on the inside is beautiful, people will see beautiful. If what’s on the inside is ugly, people will see ugly. Maybe not right away. But the body expresses the person. One way or another, one day or another, the face will tell. What’s hidden is always revealed. Which means obsessing over our bodies, while neglecting our souls is the most foolish beauty regimen of all.
5. Modesty doesn’t deny feminine beauty. It affirms feminine beauty.
Modesty is temperance, prudence, and love in action. It’s tempering our desire to be desired, so that a person can see the beauty of our soul, not just the beauty of our breasts. It’s prudently dressing and acting in a way that will help others treat us like subjects, not objects. And it’s loving others by not making it easy for them to think of us in a way that violates their dignity and ours.
Modesty involves the way we dress—not by mandating that women don burkas, but simply by asking us to take a pass on clothing that’s aggressively or inappropriately sexual. Modesty also involves the way we act—what we do with our phones or allow others to do with their phones, how we relate to men, how we relate to women, how we speak, and what we speak about.
Modesty isn’t about being a prude. It’s about being discreet, elegant, and a touch mysterious. It’s also about being smart, remembering that thanks to social media, momentary indiscretions have lasting consequences. It is, ultimately, an affirmation of the great power inherent in feminine sexuality and a concerted decision to use that power for good and not for ill.
Handing on that lesson, like every other lesson mentioned here, isn’t easy. But if we want the girls we love to grow up to be healthy, strong, smart, confident, and joyful women, hand them on we must.
And if we don’t? Well, the Disney starlets seem more than happy to stand in the breach.
Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of“The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years.” Her next book, “These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body” is due out later in 2013 from Emmaus Road Press,