Recently, my husband and I were in Amsterdam for the weekend and in the midst of all the culture and apple cake and beer and canals we went to the Sex Museum. Stop rolling your eyes at me, it was research! That and the fact that I am a 15 year old boy trapped in a 47 year old woman’s body…
We ended up being in there for ages because, apart from the novelty aspect of it, and the queue to take a selfie in front of the giant plastic penis (what? Don’t tell me you wouldn’t), it’s also a really fascinating place.
The bit I was most interested in was their display of pornography through the ages, from the 1890s through to the 1970s, which highlights the way that our idea of what makes a woman sexy has changed over the years. The biggest difference is, of course, pubic hair. Back then, all the women in those photos looked like they had Leo Sayer’s wig stuck to their bits (google it, kids, you’ll thank me later) whereas now all the porn stars have a vajanus that is weirdly smooth, like a load of dolphin’s mouths looming out at you (sorry Flipper, The Porn made me do it…).
So what is that saying to our teenagers? And I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong, your teenager has definitely seen porn, they all have, deal with it. For a lot of young boys, their first experience of a naked woman is one without any pubic hair, it’s what a lot of them expect. Which in turn means it’s what a lot of young girls think they need to do. Add to this the increasing popularity of programmes like Love Island and it’s no surprise that young girls are feeling not good enough before they’ve even got started.
The idea of what is sexy has been homogenised. If you look at the vintage porn photos the women are all different, some have big breasts, others have tiny ones; all of them have round stomachs, some have big wobbly arses and thighs, others are skinny; the point is they were all attractive in different ways because we are all different. The idea that there is one type of body that people find attractive is ridiculous, we all know this and yet the images that are pushed on young people hardly have any variety, apart from maybe hair colour. They all have flat stomachs and big breasts and tiny waists and long legs and pert arses and while that is nice to look at, so are other types of bodies and it completely ignores the fact that someone’s appearance is only one part of why we’re attracted to certain people.
It’s difficult, even as a grown woman who’s pretty comfortable with her own body, when you’re bombarded with this unattainable ideal every time you log on, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for a teenager. We know that this stuff really doesn’t matter, we see all these women with amazing abs and pert breasts and we know that they’ve probably got a personal trainer and maybe even had surgery or are airbrushed, but we also know that these are the ones who get all the likes so the messages are mixed.
In the past these things were private but in the world of visual-based platforms like Instagram we can see what everyone else is looking at and liking. Social Media is like a big magnifying glass and there’s no hiding anything. Everything is available to everybody; to think that nobody notices what you’re looking at is the same as little kids thinking you can’t see them if they cover their eyes when playing hide and seek.
We can talk to our kids and push body positivity but, and brace yourselves for this, we are not the ones who influence our kids, Social Media is their rose-tinted filter on the world and while things are getting better and there are some really strong role models out there, women like Jameela Jamil for example, there’s still a long way to go, it’s not enough.
Teenagers are too young to put porn into context, too young to know that it isn’t a real representation of the complicated world of sexual relationships. It teaches them nothing about intimacy and love and respect and consent, it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the wonderful, ridiculous importance of sex and it doesn’t portray men and women as the unique, brilliant creatures we are, and while it is entirely normal to want to look at it we need to make sure it’s balanced out. We need to make sure we’re not lazily relying on porn and popular culture to carry out our sex education for us.
While I’m not saying you should take your kids to the Sex Museum, although why wouldn’t you want to explain to your child that the toilet isn’t shaped like a flower, it’s actually a giant clitoris (insert own tired joke here about how they had to put extra signs up for the men to find it…), we do need to think about the messages our kids are picking up from the world around them, boys and girls, we need to teach them how to be and not assume they’ll just pick it up by osmosis because we’re nice, decent people.
We need to remind our kids that you can make all the changes you want (or can afford) to the outside, but no amount of money or surgery or highlighting or completely bonkers eyebrows can change the important bits inside, the bits that affect our self esteem. There’s a really interesting documentary on Channel 4 at the minute where Kathy Burke explores what it means to be a woman. There’s a part where a former Love Island contestant talks about her extensive plastic surgery and how it didn’t stop her feeling insecure and it’s heartbreaking.
So shave or don’t shave, but think What Would Leo Do?