Four girls gaggle in the back of our van as I eavesdrop. They discuss Donald Trump, Miley Cyrus, the status of their braces, and length of their earrings. The topics weave between global politics and pop culture, as they offer up bits and pieces of chatter they have absorbed and metabolized at their level. They are 10.
A friend sits with me as we lament the conversations we’re having with our daughters. Calorie intake and thigh size, peer pressure and emotional manipulation. These are not topics we want them to be struggling with, though they are.
I see an Instagram post: “Mother Theresa didn’t walk around talking about the size of her thighs. She had stuff to do.” I call the youngest, the one who will no longer wear shorts to school, and hold up the screen. I desperately want her to embrace her body, but more than that, I want her eyes to be set on something bigger, something better.
In fact, I have a working theory that the antidote to a girl’s obsession with bodies, boys, and besties is a vision for a bigger story.
Oh God, gather them up into the story you are telling to them, through them.
These are my girls. My friends’ girls. We are vigilant, if not nosey. We stalk (a little). We pry in all the right ways. We are parents on a mission to protect and prevent, equip and empower.
What of those without such parents?
A teacher tells me of her 5th grade girls. The ones who talk about the older boys they meet in parks at night. The ones who relate to boys in inappropriate ways. She tells me about the boys, too. The ones who discuss prison food and who will be visiting their dad next visitors day. The ones who smack girls’ butts on playgrounds and then tell the teacher its because girls like it.
My heart breaks a little. They are my daughter’s age.
I teach community members about how human trafficking can happen in cities like ours. I try to explain the basic needs of all kids: love and acceptance. I see heads nod as they connect and identify, so that when I continue, it makes more sense: add to this another vulnerability like financial insecurity, family chaos, absentee fathers, or a sweet talking guy online. Now it’s not a huge leap to imagine exploitation.
Because really, kids just want to believe they are wanted. They want to believe their bodies are acceptable, that boys notice them, and that best friends are loyal. If all their energy is directed toward filling these needs from these people, without an alternate narrative or a bigger story, well is it really that hard to see how easily they are manipulated?
In the absence of parents offering a counter story, or a youth group casting vision for their role in God’s kingdom, and without an entire cultural shift, what in the world are we to do?
How are we going to stop the spiral of our over-sexualized youth and the commercial sexual exploitation of kids?
I read So Sexy, So Soon and learn that this is actually a public health problem and a global phenomenon, not just an American one. My real fear is confirmed: “once something becomes normalized, it becomes the wallpaper of our existence – we don’t see it, we accept it as just the way it is and we are numbed to seeing any ill effects or taking action to change it.”
So let’s consider this a wake-up call. Where are the youth in our lives? Our kids? Nieces? Grandchildren? Neighbors? Sunday school classes? Let’s metabolize the junk in the air with them. Let’s paint a picture of a different narrative and call them to live for something greater. Let’s give them heroes, starting with us. Are we living a bigger story? Are we like Mother Theresa, with stuff to do that lifts our eyes above trite obsessions?
Oh God, gather us up into the story you are telling to us, through us.
Beth Bruno is founder and director of A Face to Reframe, a non-profit committed to preventing human trafficking through arts, training, and community building. She writes about women in ministry, girls becoming women, and exploited women. Her writing has appeared at Relevant, Today’s Christian Woman, InterVarsity’s The Well, and she is a proud member of Redbud Writer’s Guild. She can be found in the mountains of Colorado with her husband and 3 kids or at www.bethbruno.org.