Dear Mrs. Hall,
I saw your letter to teenage girls posted by several friends in my Facebook feed. Friends I admire. Friends with whom I have deep, true things in common. Friends who are strong women who care deeply about the character of their kids and my kids and all our kids. Friends who found richness and beauty and wisdom in what you shared about teenage girls and sexuality and online presence.
I was torn up by your letter. And not in a good way.
And I tried to let it go. To release it and let it be. But here I am, still thinking about it. Still mulling it over. Still dwelling on it. Still imagining, if you were here in my house with a freshly brewed cup of coffee, sitting on my slightly sticky couch, what we might say to each other. How I might respond to you in person.
Because you are a person, which seems to have been forgotten by many of the folks who commented on your post. You are a lovely person who is obviously involved and invested in raising your sons to the very best of your ability because you love them and you want what's best for them. And I want to give you mad props for that and to tell you I understand how hurtful it can be when people judge the public persona and not the heart. I, for example, was once called a "classic example of a woman who puts herself up on a pedestal" for writing about the ways we women are all becoming; as in, already lovely and still in process. And it sucks to be called names online.
But I did have a problem with your letter, and, as I have both a teenage daughter and a teenage son, I feel compelled to respond. To gently and, I hope, kindly open a dialogue that offers some alternative thoughts. Whether I actually push "publish" on this is another decision entirely. We'll see. We'll see.
Mrs. Hall, I know that the most vocal criticism about your letter to teenage girls and, specifically, your reminder that they reconsider their provocative poses and their public state of dress is the fact that you published pictures of your boys wearing low-slung swim trunks without shirts and making muscle poses on the beach. I saw lots of suggestions that, if those pictures hadn't been there as a "hypocrisy" or "double standard," the rest of the your letter was wonderful.
But I actually had a tough time with your words, not the pictures. And that's what unsettled me all day. The idea that your words were written to teenage girls, and, to personalize it, to my teenage girl.
So, I'd like to go through your letter and talk about it a little and pray for the right words to express what bothered me.
I see that you and your family look at each other's social media feeds together -- at Facebook and Instagram and maybe others, and I just want to say, HOORAY! I love that you do this. I love this part of your message. I love that your boys know you're part of their online community. And I love that you're telling our teenager daughters that they're part of a bigger, broader community, too. We can see you is a good thing for our girls to know. It's a good thing for our boys to know, too, of course... but your letter implies that, even though it doesn't say it out loud.
And so I read the start of your letter cheering you on.
But then you mentioned the part about the bra. And I started to feel a little unsettled. Because I didn't see the picture you saw, so I don't know how you knew, with your sons and your daughter around you, that the girl in question wasn't wearing one. I think it's clear, based on your letter, that you're concerned about overt sexuality and come-hither eroticism and not trying to make a cultural statement about whether or not girls should have to wear bras. I don't know how closely your family had to look to determine that one was absent. I assume the "the red carpet pose, the extra-arched back, and the sultry pout" were part of the clue, so I assume the bralessness was obvious, but I don't know if you critiqued the photo that specifically with your family present, so I don't know whether you quickly blocked that picture or detail-by-detail discussed the girl's body with your boys.
Then you mentioned the towel. "I know your family would not be thrilled at the thought of my teenage boys seeing you only in your towel," you wrote. "Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can't ever un-see it? You don't want the Hall boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you? Neither do we."
That's when my stomach sunk. Please, please tell me if I'm reading too much into what you're saying here, but it looks like you're suggesting that once a male sees a female in only a towel, he can only think of her in a sexual way. If so, YIKES. Also, NO. I made a phone call on this one, just to double check with one of the most rule-following, law-abiding, deeply-rooted-in-Christian-culture men I know... my father, former Marine, former missionary. And he said two things that stood out like flashing neon signs: 1. Although men certainly retain memories of seeing exciting things -- "like I'll never forget seeing my first Ferarri!" he said -- it's demeaning to men of any age to presume they can only see a woman as a sexual object once they've seen her in a state of undress, and 2. This shifts an unreasonable burden of responsibility to young women for ensuring men don't view them sexually.
Yes. What my dad said, exactly. I'm raising a young man, too -- three of them, actually, though only one's a teen so far -- and I want him to learn that once he sees a young woman as a sexual object (which he undoubtedly will, what with being human and a sexual being, just like most* men and women), he can look with new eyes and see her also as a friend, as a member of his community, as someone worth championing, as someone with talents and gifts, as someone to learn from and maybe even, eventually, as a romantic interest. Because the real goal, of course, for all of us, is how to stop objectification and to start seeing people.
The last issue I had with your letter was on the subject of second chances. "And so, in our house," you wrote, "there are no second chances, ladies. If you want to stay friendly with the Hall men, you'll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent. If you try to post a sexy selfie, or an inappropriate YouTube video -- even once -- you'll be booted off our online island." And I guess, to be completely honest here, the reason this made me so sad is because I'm someone who needed a second chance as a young woman. And a third chance. And a fourth chance. Infinity chances, really. The difference then, of course, was there was no social media to check. Or ways for my insecurity, my disrespect of myself, my questioning, my doubts, my wandering, my desperate search to find myself, to find value, to find meaning... to be part of the permanent record.
Now, is it your right to look as a family at pictures people have made public and to determine whether you need to block them? Absolutely! It's your responsibility as a mother to decide what's appropriate for you and yours, Mrs. Hall.
When you write a letter to my daughter, though, I need to weigh in on the message she's hearing. Both from our overly-sexualized culture and from a well-intentioned mom on the Internet who's trying to combat that. That's my responsibility. And the message I want her to internalize is this:
We see you, sweetheart. We do. We see what you're writing. We see what you're posting. We see more of you than you think we do. We see sometimes down to the very center of your soul. And what you need to know is this: You are beautiful. You are valuable. You are worthy. You are your physical body, and you are so very much more. And you, baby girl, have infinite chances for grace and redemption and relationship and community and wholeness and LOVE. Always. Always and forever. Amen.
Which I bet, Mrs. Hall, is very close to what you think, too, and that we're really not so very different at all. Thank you for the food for thought and for love-loving your children like I love-love mine.
Beth Woolsey is the writer and humorist behind the Five Kids Is A Lot of Kids blog where she shares her expertise about pee and sometimes things that matter. Beth is described by readers as "optimistic, authentic, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, [capturing] the mom experience with all its pathos and humor." Beth and her husband, Greg, are parents to five kids; they are adopted and homemade, singletons and multiples, and some have special needs. Most importantly, Beth says, "they're all our very own."
*The original post read "what with being human and a sexual being, just like all men and women." I changed the word "all" to "most" to reflect a kind correction I received that encouraged me to look at the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.