We were sitting at dinner, when my 7-year-old daughter looked up from her meatballs, paused for a moment, and asked, “You know that woman who sings ‘Wrecking Ball’? Why does she show everyone her bra and underwear?”
For the record, I generally don’t let my second grader watch music videos. Most of what she watches on TV involves talking unicorns and overly pleasant bears. But we do watch The Voice together, and when Miley Cyrus was a guest coach, they showed some clips of her videos. Apparently, it made an impression.
Given her age, my daughter doesn’t understand that certain body parts are considered “sexy”—or even what “sexy” is. In her world, underwear is hilarious, bras are weird, and pop singers who prance around displaying them are a complete enigma. An enigma we now had to explain.
Clearly this was a teachable moment. The problem was that everything we attempted to teach seemed to come out wrong. I took the first stab at it:
“Well, when she parades around in her underwear, it gets her attention. But that’s all anyone sees. They don’t see what a good singer she is or how much talent she has.”
Even as I spoke the words, they didn’t feel quite right. I felt like a Puritan looking for someone to brand with a scarlet letter. No, I don’t want my daughter one day twerking on national television. But I also don’t want to teach her that she has to be covered up to be taken seriously — that a woman has to rein herself in for people to see her talent.
My husband tried a different tact: “Plus, she makes more money for making those types of videos. It’s a business.”
I shot my husband a look across the table. I wasn’t exactly sure what we wanted to teach her, but it definitely wasn’t that women should take off their clothes for money — or that it’s OK for a woman’s career trajectory to depend on getting naked and promoting herself in ways not expected of her male counterparts.
I could see that, as my daughter grew older, this issue was only going to grow thornier. Female sexuality in pop culture has become, well, confusing. I grew up in the ‘80s, in the age of Madonna and Truth or Dare. Even back then, I could sense a certain power in what Madonna was doing. Madonna’s shockingly overt sexuality was an experiment, an exploration. But most of all it was hers, and we were all along for the ride.
Somewhere along the way, however, things grew more complicated. Female artists started parading around in schoolgirl uniforms, trying to embody male fantasies. Even supposed “party girls” turned out to be masking a darker reality, as in the case of Kesha, allegedly controlled and manipulated by an abusive male manager.
So, perhaps the reason I can’t explain Miley Cyrus to my daughter is that, when it comes to women on the stage, it’s impossible to know what’s real. Is a performer’s hyper-sexualized image all a calculated act, aimed to propel her career and bring in the big bucks while she’s young and attractive enough to do so? Or is it a genuine exploration and expression of her body and sexuality, part of her artistry and personal growth?
Of course, neither explanation would be appropriate for a 7-year-old. But as my daughter grows older, she’s eventually going to face her own decisions regarding how much of herself to reveal to the world. And so, struggling to explain this half-naked pop star, I found myself walking a fine line — unsure how to convey the modesty I’d like to see from my daughter without venturing into the realm of dictating how a woman should dress and act. There’s already so much shaming of women in our society. The last thing I want to do is point to a young woman we don’t even know and start dissecting her (admittedly unusual) wardrobe choices.
And so, I did what every parent does when faced with a question they’re not ready to answer. I leaned in, looked my daughter in the eye, and asked the important question:
“Who’s ready for ice cream?”
Because that’s something every young woman can agree on, no matter how she’s dressed.
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