Many young women look to movies and to television to help them figure out who and what they want to be as they get older. When I was little, my first onscreen role model was Sandy Olsen from the movie Grease. Sandy was my idol. I wanted to dress, talk, and most of all, look like her. I couldn’t understand why Sandy, who was only two years older than me at the time of my obsession, was so much more mature looking than I was. I eventually came to the conclusion that I would have to wait until I was 18 to look like Sandy did. I held onto the hope that in two years, I would wake up and have a perfectly proportioned body, clear skin, and a boyfriend who could dance like John Travolta.
What I didn’t realize was that I was much farther away from reaching the physical maturity that Sandy had than the two years I imagined. Although the character was supposed to be a teenager like myself, the actress portraying her, Olivia Newton-John, was 29 when she filmed Grease. Her fully developed body and lack of awkward gangly limbs and acne scars was less a result of movie magic and more so due to the fact that the actress herself had been out of her awkward teen years for almost a decade.
The trend of casting adult women to play teenage girls is one that is prevalent in every area of entertainment from television, to films, to the stage. While the choice of casting older is one that saves studios time and money by not having to work around child labor laws, it is also one that contributes to dangerous body image issues in young girls. Girls who idolize the characters they see in the media and strive to be like them are reaching towards an impossible goal of looking like someone who is 10 years their senior. Shows like Glee grew in popularity because of the it’s relatable characters and portrayal of everyday high school life, but with a lead actress who is eight years older than the average high schooler (Rachel Berry is supposed to be 17, Lea Michele was 23 when the show began filming), it calls into question the message that young girls are receiving about what they should look like at a time where they’re still trying to understand how their bodies are growing and changing.
Additionally, having more mature looking actresses often times leads to the characters being portrayed in a more sexualized way than they might be if the actress was actually underage. Since the actresses look older, the audience can accept any adult situations they are put into and have a tendency to think of them in a more sexual way, often times forgetting that the person they’re looking at is supposed to be much younger. When this happens over and over again, audiences begin to see of this kind of thinking as normal and it no longer becomes inappropriate for a 15-year-old girl to be seen as a sex symbol.
The world of entertainment has a huge influence on the way people view themselves and other people. Young girls need positive role models, and by telling them that the standard to which they should achieve is that of someone years ahead of them, both physically and emotionally, is extremely damaging. We should stop casting so many adult women to play teenage girls because it creates an unrealistic expectation of what it is to be a teenager. We should normalize braces and pimples for adolescents because puberty is hard enough without thinking that you’re the only one it’s happening to. We should encourage young girls to be the best them that they can be and to live in the moment, instead of having them wait around for the day that they mature enough to become a Sandy Olsen.
Most of all, we should be encouraging them to not want to be a Sandy Olsen at all, but rather to embrace their own unique selves and to be proud of whatever body they have and whoever they are, no matter how slowly or how quickly they grow up.
Cover image courtesy of New York Daily News.