Take a quick look at just about any 8-year-old girl, and you're likely to see a baby face looking back at you. But the "baby" behind that face is hardly the naïve child that a typical pre-teen girl was several decades ago. Today's pre-teen girls have been exposed to more pressure than most of their mothers experienced in their teen years. And a result has been a confused and confusing scenario for Christian girls and their parents-mothers and fathers who are trying to help their daughters navigate their way through some of the most difficult years of their lives.
One of the most common ways girls cope with their body image, according to author and youth worker Dannah Gresh, is dressing provocatively. It's become an area where Christian parents tend to make concessions to their daughters, either because the parents don't want to fight them on every issue or because the parents themselves-especially mothers-fail to recognize the dangers inherent in showing too much flesh.
For girls between the ages of 8 and 12, the number one concern is body image. On the surface, that may seem innocuous compared to more serious issues like teen pregnancy. But mental health professionals and youth workers know better, because they are well aware that poor self-esteem, coupled with misguided attempts to deal with body image, can lead to the kind of behavior that results in other problems, like early sexuality.
"They don't understand how a guy's mind works," says Gresh, author of Secret Keeper: The Delicate Power of Modesty and founder of Pure Freedom, a ministry that helps young people pursue sexual purity. "In a girl's mind, there's nothing wrong with dressing immodestly. You have to explain that for men all it takes is a glance for their [sexual] body system to be enacted." Furthermore, she says, parents need to make sure their daughters understand that guys cannot control the resulting physiological response.
But what's "immodest"? That's a question Gresh hears frequently. Instead of giving girls a set of rules to follow, she points them to a fashion test she developed with her own daughter called "Truth or Bare?" (The test is posted on Gresh's ministry website, www.purefreedom.org.) "We'll ask something like, 'Can you raise your hand to praise the Lord without showing off your belly?" Gresh says, bringing up another important point: The eye is created to complete an incomplete image. So while girls see nothing wrong with revealing their midriff or wearing spaghetti straps, boys see all that skin and complete the image-not by mentally adding clothes but subtracting them.
Gresh's concern for teen girls was fueled in part by her own unwise choices as a teenager, which she wrote about in her best-selling book And the Bride Wore White. Even more significant, though, was the birth of her daughter ten years ago. "I delved into the science of sexuality because I wanted to be able to mentor my own daughter," she says. "A lot of Christian resources lack an explanation of the practical reasons of why we should wait [to have sex]. They don't approach the subject from the standpoint of the benefits they'll experience if they wait, and I wanted to do that."
Several years ago, Gresh began encouraging the girls in her church to live a life of purity. Her message eventually grew into a full-time ministry. Today, she's reaping the rewards of her early efforts. "I've been attending the girls' weddings in the last couple of years and watching them walk down the aisle-and having them whisper things in my ear like, 'You encouraged me to wait, and now I have to go to this stupid reception!' Those have been moments of great reward," she says with a smile.
Fitting in to that wedding gown may not be an immediate concern for most teenage girls, but the thinking behind it-that a girl must be thin to be attractive-is reinforced countless times a day, especially in the life of a young girl. Teen magazines, popular TV shows and movies, and music videos all project an unrealistic image of the ideal girl, what some call the Britney Spears effect.
According to statistics posted by the National Institute on Media and the Family (www.mediafamily.org), by age 13, some 53 percent of American girls are unhappy with their bodies; that figure grows to 78 percent by the time girls reach 17. In another study on fifth graders, 10-year-old girls and boys told researchers they were dissatisfied with their own bodies after watching a music video by Britney Spears or a clip from the TV show Friends. And adolescent girls who viewed commercials depicting unrealistically thin models felt "less confident, more angry, and more dissatisfied with their weight and appearance."
"Girls today have an entirely different set of pressures when it comes to body image," says Gresh. "A lot is being thrown in front of them. Sometimes it leads to eating disorders, sometimes to sexuality. But whatever it is they're dealing with, they need to start dealing with it so much earlier than they feel comfortable with."
Indeed, sexual activity among girls is starting at an earlier age, and the ramifications can be complex and longstanding. A case in point is Renee, who at age 15 sat across the desk from her therapist talking openly about her sexually active lifestyle. She felt stuck, she said. She wanted to practice abstinence, but she didn't know how to. Her friends were all having sex; in fact, that was part of what defined her clique. They were among the girls who were willing to "do it."
Renee (not her real name) is just one of the teenage girls Teri Fusilier sees on a regular basis in her job as a counselor with the Minirth Clinic in the affluent Dallas suburb of Richardson, Texas. Renee's story is not an unusual one; neither is her history. Like some of Fusilier's other Christian patients, Renee began having sex on a regular basis when she was 13. She is now in high school.
"There's tremendous pressure on girls in that age group," Fusilier said, referring to younger teens and pre-teens. Forced by their peers into making decisions they lack the emotional maturity to fully understand, girls who are only trying to fit in end up making choices that have devastating consequences throughout their adolescence and beyond. And all too often, their good Christian parents have no idea what the girls are really going through.
Even when girls are in full command of their faculties, they often fail to understand why they've agreed to have sex. Seldom at that age is it for pleasure, says Lisa Graham McMinn, a sociology professor at Wheaton College and the author of Growing Strong Daughters. Instead, teen girls give in to sexual pressure in order to feel loved, or, like Renee, to fit in with a certain crowd, McMinn notes. Girls often admit they don't know how to say no, nor do they know how to avoid situations that make them vulnerable to a boy's advances. Though the number of unmarried teen girls age 15 to 19 who has had sex declined in recent years, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (www.teenpregnancy.org), the proportion of sexually active teen girls age 14 and younger has increased.
As difficult as it may be for mothers to understand the pressures their daughters are dealing with, Teri Fusilier stresses the need for women to remember not only what it was like to be a teenager but also the many mistakes they made at that age. And they need to be aware that for girls, the inability to handle pressure can manifest itself in the form of depression, a disorder Fusilier sees all too often. Because girls are generally more sensitive than boys, they "take the hit much harder" when they fail in any way or experience a loss of any kind, says Fusilier.
In the face of such seemingly insurmountable obstacles to a healthy Christian lifestyle, it's easy for parents to fall prey to a sense of powerlessness. But repeatedly, polls, surveys, and research reports underscore the overwhelming influence parents have on the choices their children make. According to the National Survey of Family Growth, half of the older teenage girls who said they were virgins cited faith and higher moral standards as the reasons they abstained from sex. And a June 2000 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy revealed that most teens cite their parents as the most influential voice when it comes to their decisions about sex.
The bottom line: Parents and concerned adults must not abandon ship. While no one is suggesting that the process is easy-or the outcomes guaranteed-there are measures parents can take to help their daughters navigate their way through adolescence and empower them to withstand the pressures of their "tween" and teenage years:
- Pray. Christian parents know this, but often they're oblivious to the spiritual warfare they need to engage in. Danae Dobson (see "A Focus of Her Own," p.26) remains convinced that her parents' relentless prayer protected her and her brother from harm and from many of the temptations tweens and teens face.
- Provide open communication. "Start when they're 5 years old," says McMinn. "Have conversations, not monologues. Help them to begin thinking analytically about things like TV shows. Seek their opinions. When they reach adolescence, they'll be much more inclined to believe you'll actually listen to them."
- Encourage independence. Parents cripple their children by giving them rules instead of training them to think for themselves, says Fusilier. "I tell parents, 'I seriously doubt you're going to live at their dorm or go with them when they move away.' Teenagers need to stop depending on their parents and start making their own decisions."
- Establish rites of passage. McMinn suggests creating rituals that mark special events signifying greater responsibility, like entering high school or getting a drivers' license-or, in a females-only group, marking the beginning of menstruation. If the ceremony can take place in the context of a "community," such as extended family or her church, the rite becomes all the more powerful as the girl sees herself connected to something larger than herself.
- Model godliness. Mothers should run the "Truth or Bare?" test on their own wardrobes, says Gresh, and project a healthy body image of their own, say eating disorder specialists. In each area of life in which their daughters are experiencing pressure, mothers can model appropriate responses on their own level.
- Extend grace. If your daughter has already made some unwise choices, make sure she knows she's loved no matter what mistakes she has made, Fusilier emphasizes. "Tell her, 'I love you, and I forgive you, and let's start over.' That's what grace is."
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