Thoughts on Why 12-Year-Olds Dress Like Rihanna

Virgin Mary

This post is in response to an article published in Ireland at the weekend. It lambasted young girls attending a Rihanna concert in Dublin on the basis of their clothing and general appearance.

In my research, I spend a lot of time exploring the ‘mythology of femininity’. This refers to the ways in which the feminine has been represented socially, politically and culturally throughout human history. Femininity today is a vast church, better described as ‘femininities’ to appreciate the multiplicity of identities and desires it groups together. Despite this variety, however, contemporary femininities remain haunted by the spectre of femininities of yore. One particular dichotomy – fresh out of the Bible ! – is that of the Virgin/Whore, which continues to exert a depressing level of power.

So what does this have to do with 12-year-olds dressing like Rihanna? Everything, as it happens, but this story is not new. It is as old as Western civilisation. As human beings, we learn ‘appropriate’ behaviour from the world around us. Institutions like the family, the education system and the media provide us with norms and benchmarks against which to measure ourselves. This a serious undertaking for, in order to be accepted by society, the individual has to learn to play by the rules, rules they usually have no part in making, rules they are told are natural and universal. Throughout the 20th century up to the present day many of these rules have been rightly and effectively contested, their ‘naturalness’ dismantled, but all too often their influence prevails in new ways.

The Virgin/Whore complex is a type of rule. It decrees that there are two types of female: the good, who is chaste and biddable, and the bad, who is sexual and assertive. A woman can only be one or the other. From birth, girls are told to turn their attention to their appearance, to value male attention above all else. This arrangement is reinforced at almost every juncture by our culture, a culture ruled by capitalist-patriarchy which relies on sexualized, commodified female bodies to sell everything from cars to music to ice-cream – and newspapers, of course.

We do not live our lives in a vacuum. History, society and culture shape our sense of self and our choices in complex ways. In trying to understand why it is we do what we do as humans, context is all important. If you want to begin to understand why teenage girls dress the way they do, open your eyes. Look at where they take their cues from, both today and traditionally. Consider how and why these images, practices and stories came to be and their effects. Have the compassion to understand that teenage girls are trying to navigate a world that expects the impossible of them: that they be simultaneously sexy but chaste, beautiful and smart, strong but nonthreatening.

Finally, if you want to start a conversation about the effects of hypersexualisation, begin by examining the language you use to use to provoke that discussion – is it rife with Virgin/Whore inferences? Does it belittle and objectify the bodies it claims to be so concerned with and indeed women in general? Does it use terms like ‘slutty’ and ‘tramp’, contrasted with an example of ‘appropriate’ femininity? And if the answer is ‘yes’ to all of these, then maybe this particular conversation, while much needed, is not one you are best positioned to give voice to.