Tag Archives: adolescents

R.I.P. Hope Witsell: Adult Power and Teen Suicide

Laurie and Debbie say:

We weren’t familiar with the blog Sylvia Has a Problem, but judging by this one brilliant post on a tough subject, we need to be.

This is the appalling story of Hope Witsell, a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after a cascade of events which started when she sent a boy a picture of her naked breasts via cell phone.

As Sylvia points out, the MSNBC news story consistently poses Hope as the villain in her own story.

In the lede we discover that it was the showing of her boobs to a boy that — let’s look at that one more time in full — “robbed Hope of her childhood, and eventually, her life.”

Does she get the blame just once? No, no, let’s go down a few more paragraphs.

She got INVOLVED in a DANGEROUS GAME. She gave a boy a picture of her boobs, you see. And that was the dangerous act.

Read all of Sylvia’s post, in which she carefully outlines the role of bullying students (acknowledged in the headline, but not in the story proper), the role of school administrators, the role of parents, the role of all the adults in her life.

And of course it wasn’t a slut-shaming, woman-hating, sex-hating culture that divides young women into “good” (virginal) and “bad” (fallen) and allowed a 13-year-old girl to believe that she had ruined her life forever by showing a boy her tits.

From where we are now, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the initial experience with the cell-phone picture could be different, how she could have avoided the sense that her body was currency, something she had that would attract the attention of a boy she liked. Boys send pictures of their penises around the internet all the time, and while they may be criticized or disciplined, they aren’t shamed and bullied, because penises are just private, personal body parts, but boys control their own bodies, and society owns women’s bodies, so the society–not the individual–gets to decide where and how they get seen, and who sees them.

No, it was her “impetuous move” and somehow also the dangers of the INTERNET (even though the internet was not involved, except in that her internet access, probably one of her major sources of social support, was taken away by her “churchgoing family” as a punishment for an act that they had no goddamn fucking idea what it even was or what technology it used).

Every time you turn on the TV or surf to a news site, you get a story about the dangers of social networking, the viciousness of teens to one another (which can certainly be true), the ways in which our children are destroying themselves and each other.

You almost never see something like this, which points out that adults hold far more power over teen lives than the teenager’s peer group does. Parents have very direct power over what a teenager can hear, see, interact with, learn from. Teachers and school staff have the power to close their eyes to bullying, to strengthen and back up some student values over others, to decide what can go on and what must be stopped. And the system of laws says how old you can be before you have sex, what chemicals you can put into your body legally, how long it will be that these other people have power over you. And far too often, adults will engage in adultism: using that power in ways that are profoundly damaging to teenagers.

It was you, adults, all the adults in her life. The high school assholes too, but they’re in high school. You’re adults. She was thirteen years old and she was driven to her grave for nothing and there was nothing inevitable about this.

She’s never coming back. … She wasn’t killed by this year’s sexy scary cyber-youth-trend. You could have saved her if you hadn’t ALL been so busy reinforcing values that are killing our daughters.

Again, Sylvia says the thing that never gets said: she didn’t kill herself in a vacuum. She didn’t kill herself by putting a picture of her chest on her cell phone and sending it to one person. She killed herself in a societal context that told her exactly what she wasn’t worth, and exactly how few choices she had.

It does not have to be this way.

Stop killing our daughters. Stop killing our daughters. Stop killing our daughters. Stop killing our daughters. Stop killing our daughters.


Early Puberty

Laurie and Debbie say:

Last July, Laurie met a woman who worked for Planned Parenthood and taught sex ed in Bay Area schools. She said that she now teaches in junior high school and high school but that she wanted to be teaching in elementary schools as well. She said the puberty beginning at 7 was not uncommon. Laurie was probably more surprised than maybe she should have been, and did some research about it. We included it as part of our conversation at the Kids and Body Image Panel at BlogHer

The fact that puberty is starting significantly earlier for girls and boys is not new news. The quotes below are from a study about 10 years ago.

There are new guidelines for pediatricians that are guaranteed to shock: girls who start to develop breasts and pubic hair at age six or seven are not necessarily “abnormal.” (Kaplowitz, et al., 1999).

….Results found that in their seventh year, 27% of African-American girls and 7% of white girls had begun breast development and/or had pubic hair. Between ages eight and nine, those numbers had increased to 48% of African-American girls and 15% of white girls. National Research Center for Women and Families

A new report by the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society (LWPES), a nationwide network of physicians headquartered in Stanford, California, suggests that it is normal for white girls as young as 7 and black girls as young as 6 to start developing breasts. This conclusion was based on a study of 17,000 girls between the ages of 3 and 12 conducted by the Pediatric Research in Office Settings (PROS) network of 1,500 pediatricians nationwide.

And we’re also talking about boys.

The early sexual development of girls has received tremendous media attention, but there has been no similar attention to boys. A new study of signs of puberty among boys between 8 and 19 may change that, because it shows that early puberty is also happening among boys.

I’m surprised, as is Tracee Sioux at Empowering Girls: So Sioux Me, that this has not been in major public discussion. (In spite of what the CNN quote above says.)

This raises a number of questions for me. These are just a few of them.

One prime characteristic of childhood is that it’s the time we deal with the world before the surge of adolescent hormones. What are the effects of a shortened childhood development?

What are the implications of “hot” clothes for girl tweens and cool adult clothes for boy tweens when they have adolescent bodies as opposed to children’s bodies?

How does raunch clothing on young girls relate to this? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

What are the effects of adolescent hormones on children who are still playing with toys?

We worry about pedophiles harming children; what about men who are attracted to nubile or developed bodies, and would not be attracted to 7 to 10-year-olds with child bodies?

When we’re talking about early puberty, what changes in the implications of the ways society permits or encourages boys to have a more intense adolescent sexuality than we do for girls?

And finally how do we help parents and children to deal with this effectively?