Fifteen-year-olds make some poor choices. But while they may feel like the whole world is watching, usually it is just family and friends. Miley Cyrus is not just a fifteen-year-old. She is not even just a superstar, though she did have the top grossing concert tour in the country last year. She is also a brand. Over one billion dollars worth of merchandise featuring Miley and the character she plays on The Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana.” The success of those products depends on her squeaky clean image and parents have been reassured repeatedly that Miley is a sensible, responsible girl with grounded parents and that she will not create the embarrassment of former Disney stars like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and “High School Musical’s” Vanessa Hudgens. But Miley has hit the headlines with some photos taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. By the tabloid Lohan/Spears standards and even the far lesser escapade of Hudgens, whose private nude photo for a boyfriend made it onto the Internet, the Cyrus flap is quite mild. The photo that has attracted the most publicity shows her bare back, holding a sheet up to her front.
Miley has apologized with a statement released by her publicist. “I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed. I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about.”
This is an opportunity for parents to talk to young children who are Miley fans — and to listen to what they have to say — about some important issues. First, make sure they know that everyone makes mistakes and it is how we respond to them that matters. We take responsibility for our actions (including apologies as appropriate), do our best to fix whatever we can, and learn to do better. Ask them why they think Miley made this mistake and what they think of the way she responded.
Let them know that it is all right for them to continue to like her. Loyalty to friends and family is an important value, and all of us need to learn to forgive and be forgiven for our mistakes. But it is also all right for them to like her less if they believe that she made some bad choices.
Remind them that they should never feel that they need to do what an adult tells them if it makes them uncomfortable — even if the adult is a famous photographer working for an important magazine. We want them to feel safe but we also want them to know that not everyone is as protective of them as those who love them. And let them know that bodies are nothing to be ashamed of, but a photograph that may seem perfectly innocent to the one whose picture is being taken may be seen differently, especially if the person in the photo is 15, not 10. In the era of Facebook and YouTube, a reminder that we have to think about what is in the minds of the viewers, especially strangers, and not just the people making the picture is a good idea as well.