One of my favorite writers and TikTokers, Gwendolyn Ismatu, talks a lot about the concept of capital ‘B’ Beauty. Beauty that is defined by white supremacy, misogyny, fat-phobia, ableism, you name it. The Beauty you see in magazines, runway shows, and Instagram ads. The Beauty that leads men who only date younger women to believe it’s “just a preference” – that their internal desires could not possibly be representative of larger systemic issues. One pillar of this capital ‘B’ Beauty is Youth. But when we equate youth with beauty, with desirability, with sexuality, what does that mean for young women?
I am not thinking about this issue from the perspective of women who lose their desirability and social capital with age, though that is an important perspective as well. Too often we forget the experiences of teenage girls who have to learn to deflect the sexual appetities of men who are many years their senior. We forget that the leading cause of teen pregancy is not sex between consenting teenagers, but rather between teenage girls and men in their twenties and thirties. We forget that men who make dating profiles tend to set their preferred age range younger, while women set theirs to their own age group.
A few weeks ago, I saw a lot of women on TikTok talking about how catcalling specifically targets teenage girls. They (myself included) had been catcalled since they turned thirteen or fourteen, but the minute they became visibly adults the catcalling stopped. When the social conception of Beauty depends on youth, young women become the primary target of sexual harassment and assault. There’s also this false conception that young girls are somehow more prepared for romantic relationships with older partners than young men. We hear time and again the “old soul” excuse. We hear “age is just a number,” “she has an old soul,” and the all too classic “well, she’s just so mature for her age” as excuses to justify relationships between nineteen year olds and men in their thirties. As if reading Russian literature and having a pseudo-depressive cynical outlook on life is equivalent to over a decade of life experience and romantic relationships.
The sexualization of youth often makes young girls the target of grooming. We know age gap relationships frequently have toxic power dynamics. We have seen the “All Too Well” music video. We have listened to “29” by Demi Lovato. We have read the history books where teenage girl after teenage girl was forced into sex and pregnancy by powerful man after powerful man.
Did you know that the most searched and catalogued term in pornography is “teen”? This conflation of youth and desirability cements pedophilia into our society, and into the minds of individual men. It is present in internet search terms, in the age disparity between on-screen and celebrity relationships, even in the way we market wrinkle creams and mascara. But this is not an amorphous systemic issue beyond the control of individual people. I do not want to lift responsibility off the shoulders of the men who have created and continue to perpetuate this disgusting narrative. Yes, the way media portrays youth and desirability is bad. But the reason that narrative becomes dangerous for young girls is because of the individual men who treat teenagers as a sexual option. This systemic pedophilia (can I call it that?) is evident in the minds of men everywhere. In the way that they prey on high schoolers and inexperienced women, the way they slut-shame girls with high body counts, the way they expect women to shave everywhere, the way they ask you to call them “daddy”, the way they want to call you “baby”, the way they want hairless, wrinkless, experience-less, baby-doll women. Sorry, girls. Not women.
So when I talk about the conflation of youth and capital ‘B’ Beauty, I am talking about myself. I am talking about the women who get catcalled right up until they turn 18. I am talking about the girl next to me at Sweet Eugene’s yesterday, who told a full-grown man that she was in high school while he continued to hit on her. After I made that guy uncomfortable enough to leave, she told me “I thought when I said I was a high schooler that he would leave.” I felt so unspeakably sad for her then, because I didn’t know how to explain to her that her age was the reason he was getting too close and saying gross things. Because she was young, and he didn’t think she knew how to say “no” yet. The hardest lesson I’ve ever learned as a woman is that for a lot of men, beauty = youth = inexperienced = easy to take advantage of. Of course they prefer girls over women, because girls haven’t learned how to say “no” yet. Women have.