Last Tuesday I stood in line at a pharmacy next to a man with a giant tattoo of a naked girl on his arm. Her face and body looked like a prepubescent tween, but she had giant breasts and angel wings. Her posed screamed “senior picture” not “Porn star.” It was not a piece of fine art. It looked like something a very talented 10 year old would draw of herself if she was imagining what she’d look when she grew to be as big as her mom and got implants. If the girl in the tattoo had had clothes on, I would have assumed it was a tribute to they guy’s deceased daughter.
I considered asking the man about his tattoo, (In my head it went like this: Sir, why do you have a naked child with giant boobs and angel wings on your arm, and how come you feel it is alright to have that on display every where you go in front of every person you are around no matter their age?) but I was intimidated by his size and appearance and how he might react to me. Plus there was a woman with three young children also in line, and I worried about what the kids might hear. I watched as the oldest child, a girl of around 5, studied the man’s tattoo, and I wondered what she was thinking. While some people were busy that day shaming or defending celebrity women for taking naked photos that were subsequently stolen and circulated through social media, this guy gets to walk around all day every day with his giant naked woman/child for all to see. I doubt very many people express their opinion about it.
The tattoo sums up so much of the crazy messages our young girls are sold this day in age: Be an angel and a vixen. Be sexy but innocent. Be an accessory for a man. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, in (R)eality girls a primed to be objects of sexual desire from the the time they can pick something out at the store. It’s so common, so normal, so ingrained in our culture that the voices of people trying to stand against age compression and the sexualization of childhood get lost in the crowd.
Here are just a few examples of what psychologists, feminists, and girls have to say about what is expected of our daughters this day in age:
They need to be ambitious yet subdued, athletic yet feminine, intelligent yet flirty, and hardworking yet fun-the whole gamut of externally driven ideals. (MPG,766)
Your littlest girls are “perfect little angels”, sometimes with a sassy twist; your elementary school girls are boy-crazy tweens, ready to be sold a version of mini-teendom…your middle school girls are full-fledged teenagers or at least teenage wannabes eager to conform to that CosmoGirl! lifetstyle. Your high school girls are sold an identity story of the sexually free model-diva-rock star the younger girls are supposed to look up to. (PG 119)
“…You’re either for the boys or one of the boys. To be for the boys, you look good for them, you perform sex acts for them , and you support them as friends and girlfriends. To be one of the boys is to be outspoken hard girl who doesn’t take crap from anyone.. Remember that feisty girl you knew in kindergarten? the one who was independent and could think for herself? a leader? Well this image his been co-opted and sold to girls as a male image. The fact that it’s a male image is betrayed in the way these girls put down other girls, show shame about things that are associated with feminine things, and align themselves with boys. (PG266)
The pressure on young women to attain an ideal (and impossible) image of beauty is becoming steadily worse. Several studies have found that young women today feel tremendous pressure to be *perfect*. They feel that have to have perfect hair, skin, and clothes and also to be extremely thin-as well as to be “hot” and sexy and to excel academically. They also feel they mustn’t be perceived as trying too hard, but must create an illusion of *effortless perfections*. (SSSS2404)
Girls become “female impersonators” who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces. Vibrant, confident girls become shy, doubting young women. Girls stop thinking, “Who am I?” What do I want? and start thinking, “What must I do to please others.” (RO232)
Increasingly women have been sexualized and objectified, their bodies marketed to sell tractors and toothpaste. Soft and hard core pornography are everywhere. Sexual and physical assaults on girls are at an all-time high. Now girls are more vulnerable and fearful, more likely to have been traumatized and less free to roam alone. This combination of old stress and new is poison for our young women. (RO340)
“As never before in human history, a huge proportion of what children learn comes not from hands-on interactions with people and things, but from secondhand experiences with media and popular culture.” (SSSS 526) As a woman and a mother of daughters, what infuriates me the most is how society tells little girl that they can be and do anything they want to be yet the marketing and media almost always offer predictable pigeon holes to choose from: pretty pink princesses, cute little shoppers, tweens who get to pretend to be teenagers and hot, sexy in the prime of their lives teens. Each stage of growing up is packaged and sold as if they were independent choices the girls are making on their own. Imagine how much money must be being spent every day to help girls (and women) look powerful by conforming to stereotyped images.
Older women are influenced by all the same messages as well. Show me a woman under 40 who truly and honestly loves and respects her body and doesn’t feel like she’s ugly if she doesn’t conform to the current opinions on beauty. Ask her what it took to get to that place. What products she used to buy or diets she used to try. I’ll wager that if you find this woman, she either wasn’t raised in America or she has completed a lot of difficult personal work to get to that place.
One of the trends I’ve noticed on Facebook is of women, almost always under 40, posting pictures of themselves nearly naked (underwear, bikini, you get the idea), showing off their abs or the ass they squat for every day. Even presentations of true physical strength and fitness are often photographed in very little clothing. Why? I believe that to a great extent, women, especially those who graduated from the mid-nineties on, are simply accustomed to this as normal female behavior. It’s a message they saw in the media that has gained strength over the years. They’ve learned that being sexy and thin and beautiful-wait, make that hott- are super important. Mary Pipher wrote Reviving Ophelia in the 90’s. It is based on her experience with girls as a psychologist. Check out her video. The Youtube date is 2006 and the quality shows that it is dated. In my opinion, the fact that it is dated makes it more relevant to the choices young women make now because it shows the media culture they were growing up in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrRtJY28ps8
(For more videos that explore the sexualization of women in advertising, please take the time to watch Jean Kilbourn’s “Killing us Softly” series.
Very rarely do I see an older woman post a picture that makes me think “put some clothes on” and “stop fishing for compliments on your hott body. You are way more important that that.” We are all sexual beings. The difference I see between what older women share and younger women share is that what older women generally reserve for a lover or close girlfriends younger women actively choose to post for public consumption. Another trend I’ve noticed is woman claiming they choose striptease, pinup fashion, burlesque and other traditionally sex object type displays as expressions of personal power. Comments like “I have the power because I choose when, where, and how much of my clothes I take off” justify partaking in objectifying roles, but the truth is that these woman are still choosing the same old pigeon holes they were groomed for anyway. I often wonder, “Is sexy the newest form of power or the oldest?” But, just like I’m not surprised that women’s naked photos get stolen, I’m also not surprised that girls offer themselves up in such ways.
When I start thinking about these types of choices my brain gets flooded with questions. Is it healthier now because the women feel like they have more freedom and choice even though they are choosing to be objects for other people’s consumption, sexual gratification or sexual entertainment? Do I really need to care about the choices adult woman make? Why? How do I talk to my child about the woman in that seductive pole dance video that turned up accidentally when I was looking for circus routines? What goes through my daughter’s head when she happens to be near me while I scroll through Facebook and a provocative picture of someone she knows turns up and the flood of comments about how hott that person is, how great she looks, how lucky her boyfriend/husband is, how this commenter wishes she had such an amazing body and that commenter asks about what she eats and how much she works out? Do I just act like it’s normal and no big deal, or is that supporting the culture that says women’s bodies are for the enjoyment of others? If younger women were more body confident, if depressions rates among girls were decreasing, if eating disorders were declining, if suicide/attempted suicide rates were dropping, if sexual abuse and rape were only things we read about in history books, I’d probably say that all this marketing and all of this desire for a sexy hott body that can be shown off to the public is a good thing. Sadly, here are some statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Conditions. Pay special attention to the ages:
• 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted “often” or “always.”5
• 86% report onset of eating disorder by age 20; 43% report onset between ages of 16 and 20.6
• Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.7
• 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.8
• 25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.3
• The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.4
I am raising girls. I have struggled with my own body image issues and still do. I am not opposed to my daughter’s learning about sexuality. It’s sexualization that I have problem with.
According to the American Psychological Association, sexualization has to do with treating other people as “objects of sexual desire…as things rather than as people with legitimate sexual feelings of their own.”
When people are sexualized, their value comes primarily from their sex appeal, which is equated with physical attractiveness. This is especially damaging and “problematic to children who are developing their sense of themselves as sexual beings. (SSSS104)
As the book So Sexy So Soon goes on to explain, our media saturated culture helps children develop a picture of what sexual behavior and relationships look like long before they understand the meaning of sex and sexual relationships. Hopefully kids witness loving, affectionate, trusting relationships and have a nurturing and open parent who is able to answer questions and gracefully bring up conversations kids are too shy to start. The problem isn’t that sex is portrayed in the media. The problem is that “sex in commercial culture has far more to do with trivializing and objectifying sex than with promoting it, more to do with consuming than with connecting…The expolittion of our children’s sexuality is in many ways designed to promote consumerism, not just in childhood but throughout their lives. (SSSS 133)
One of my facebook friends posted this picture the other day and it really hit home. I’ve been there, and I have a sweet, funny, intelligent little girl at home who is starting to wonder why she is bigger than the rest of the kids her age. I hope that this thought never, ever crosses her mind. It kills me to think about it, but I know about reality.
How many girls have wanted to slice away the parts of their bodies that feel unacceptable? Anxiety and depression related to body image, eating disorders, self mutilation and self hate are still normal parts of the female condition. The average age in which girls start to experience body hatred is getting younger but the common image being marketed to girls revolves around looking good for boys. Becoming an object of desire seems to be the ultimate goal despite the fact that it is literally and figuratively killing our girls.
According to the CDC one in five women report being raped sometime in their lives. ONE IN FIVE. That statistic is 1 in 71 for men. I bet every woman I know has experienced some kind of verbal or physical sexual harassment. We know what it’s like yet the culture that is grooming our girls (and our boys!) seems normal and/or impossible to change.
It’s time to educate our girls. If media literacy isn’t being addressed at school then we better address it at home. Time is ticking and our daughters are growing up.
Here is a list of the books I’ve read related to the subject of today’s post. Educate yourself so you can educate your daughters.
Packaging Girlhood by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown
Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher
The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons
So Sexy So Soon, Diane Levine and Jean Kilbourne
The Myth of the Perfect Girl, Ana Homayoun
Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein
Mothering and Daughtering, Si and Eliza Reynolds
You’d be so Pretty If, Dara Chadwick
Tomorrow is November 27th. I lost my brother in a car crash on that day 25 years ago. I lost my mother to Alzheimers on the same date 6 years ago. Even though I think of both of them multiple times a day every single day, the actual anniversary still gnaws at me. My memories of their lives and their deaths are vivid, and the pain, though no longer unbearable, still hard.
Today I want to share some experiences I had with my mother *after* she died that have shaped who I am and who I intend to be. Whenever a loved one passes, no matter what our religious traditions or beliefs about life after death, most of us hope to receive a sign or some kind of visit from the person who is gone. I have been lucky to have such experiences.
I find it hard to choose a word to describe my relationship with my mother. Our love for each other was great, but it was also wrapped up in codependency and dysfunction. For much of my life I was unable to have an opinion of myself that wasn’t somehow tied to what my mother thought of me, or maybe more accurately, what she thought of herself and projected onto me. I frequently made choices or adopted opinions and behaviors not because I approved of them, but because they might earn me a “good girl” stamp of approval from my mother.
During the final few months of my mother’s life and for some time after, I was ravaged by anxiety. It wasn’t the anxiety that was new. Anxiety is as familiar to me as my oldest friend. The intensity was new. I began to have muscle spasms throughout my body, so severe that when I’d sit in a bathtub to relax, I could see the water pulsate around me. Certain types of lighting caused the room to spin. I would drop things and stumble over my own feet. I sometimes slurred my words and felt like I couldn’t swallow. At the time, I had two very small children at home and I needed help.
During a guided meditation in therapy, I was asked to describe what my anxiety looked like. I closed my eyes and saw myself tied to a chair that had been placed in the middle of large room. My hands were tied behind me. My mouth was gagged. My legs were bound to the legs of the chair. Friends and coworkers began to move through the room, dancing and socializing as though it were a party while I remained stuck to my chair. A movie screen came down from the ceiling and scenes from my life played before me, reminders of events in my life I was not able to fully participate and enjoy because of the psychological ropes that had me tied down.
What I realize now is that my mother was the chair. She had tied me there, and she had to be the one to set me free. In my meditation, she came to me with love and cut the ropes that had me so firmly attached to her.
About a year later the final and most significant meditation came when I was up north at my parents’ cottage. It was the first time I had visited since my mother’s death, and I was triggered badly. I called my therapist and she asked me to find a place on the beach where we could have another conversation with my mother. I chose a bench near an empty playground, closed my eyes and let myself into the experience. I was asked to see myself walking the beach with my mother like I had hundreds of times growing up and to listen to what my mother had to say. Strange things began to happen. My mother took her shoes off and walked in the water. Then she began to play in the water, kicking at it and splashing and teasing me to come in. Then she let herself fall into the water and and flail like a child. It was a strange and beautiful sight. I only recall one or two times in my whole life when my mom actually went in the water while we were at the cottage.
My mom’s message was clear: play. Play in this life and have fun. Do things because they give you joy and don’t worry about the opinions of others. Give yourself permission to be free and grant that same permission to those you love.
When I opened my eyes on that beach that day, the playground I was sitting by was no longer empty. There was one woman, a little older than me, playing on the monkey bars all by herself. (Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.)
You are never too old to play.
Today I am happy to say that every Friday night and Sunday morning I get to play in an environment that supports me being me. Maybe my mom sent these little angels into my life to give me what she wasn’t able to give me while she was here. I am grateful.
Mom and I are tight now. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
- The Strength of My Mother
My father told me a story the other day
about how my grandfather screamed at my grandmother
and called her a bitch
because when she was pouring his water
a bead of sweat from the pitcher dripped off
and got his crisp white dress shirt wet.
“I saw the tears well up in her eyes
and I looked around the table,
but the family carried on like nothing happened.”
My father always says that my grandmother was a kind woman,
but I’m pretty sure he thinks
(but would never say aloud)
that my grandfather was a mean motherfucker.
Everyone who knows my dad would agree
that he is a really nice guy.
So nice sometimes,
that it can actually be a problem,
(but that is a story for another day.)
Children who grow up witnessing spousal abuse
often demonstrate behavior and emotional problems,
psychosomatic disorders, anxiety and fears.
This was true for my mom.
It is not uncommon
for those children to be drawn into abusive relationships as well
And for that pattern to repeat
generation after generation.
But my mom broke that cycle.
She chose a nice man.
A good man.
And because she did
And because I did
my daughters will too.
My white flower glides swiftly across the ice, and other heads besides mine swing to follow her motions. She’s beautiful in her element, and I can feel my chest tighten in anticipation as she swoops and glides down the arena. Her forehead snarled in a web of concentration, she gathers herself inward, the springs of her muscles coiling tightly. She explodes, releasing her pent up energy in a focused burst, leaping and twirling in the air like a baby dove, airborne for a scant second that burns into my mind, an image that stays with me long after she is gone.
As she comes down, her angle is wrong, and she has to flail her arms momentarily to keep her balance. She coasts to me, and in her eyes I can see her frustration and anger at herself for overbalancing on her landing and for messing up again on this jump she’s been practicing for countless weeks. But buried deep under the layers of gloom, I can also see her silent laughter at herself, and the little spark that will never let her quit or give up hope or get really mad burns brightly, turning her brown eyes into chocolate; melting and sweet and achingly beautiful. I love her for it.
She asks me what she did wrong, and I stammer out a few words about what she should change and work on, but they are lies. To me she was perfect, but I’m supposed to be helping her improve. She can tell that once again I’ve gotten caught up in watching her skate, and forgotten to watch for her mistakes. The corners of her mouth turn up slightly, and then she’s gone, flowing around the other skaters, the twin white trails that follow her every move circling and spiraling, spinning and looping. I feel slow and clumsy, an ignorant lump of clay cursed to a life of plodding down beaten earth trails. My hands are numb and my nose feels red and swollen from the cold, but her skin glows and tingles from the exhilaration of her skating. My breath floats lazily on the air, while hers is pushed out of her lungs in steam-engine puffs. As she again makes her approach, I try to remind myself to watch her posture and her footwork and her speed. But my eyes want to drink in her grace, and poise, and precision; her beauty is intoxicating and addictive, and I’m not strong enough to resist its temptation. Just as I’m not strong enough to resist her.
-March 2, 1993
Recently I began digging into a bunch of books about the culture of girls. As a result of a difficult situation with a friend, I really began examining what I have learned over the years (especially the growing-up years) about friendship, conflict, and being nice. Once I was willing to dig, the Universe seemed willing to lend me some support.
The journey began when I saw an ad for a workshop with Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes. I bought the book to see what she was about and quickly decided I wanted to hear her speak. The decision to go to the conference may seem like a no-brainer, especially since there was a little voice in my head telling me “This will change your life.” However, I really struggled with feeling selfish for taking a day for myself because it meant I would have to depend on several other people to shuffle my kids between multiple schools and take care of them until evening. Imposing on others goes against my good girl nature.
My husband, annoyed with my inability to make a decision, encouraged me in his oh-so-Nathan way: “Go and be awesome or stay home and be lame.” Who was I to argue with that?
After the workshop I came home and did some research about Rosalind and the organizations I learned about while I was there. Rosalind had a brief endorsement for a book called “The Curse of the Good Girl, ” and again I had a”this will change your life” feeling. Although I had not ever defined “The Curse,” I knew I had been living under it for my whole life.
So how do you know if you are also living under The Curse? Rachel gives us some clues. We are a victims of The Curse when being nice is our primary goal. We are a victims when we believe that we don’t have the right to complain when people who are supposed to care for us treat us badly. We are under it’s spell when we don’t ask for what we want or stand up for we believe in out of fear of making other people angry, or when we guilt and shame ourselves for experiencing intense anger or hurt. We are under The Curse when we turn to food or alcohol or any other sort of drug to numb our emotions instead of feeling them and dealing with them. The Curse is operating when we act as if someone else’s opinion is more important than our own and when we silence ourselves as a result. It is operating when we believe conflict will ruin a relationship and when we avoid confrontation to keep peace, even if we are the one being hurt. We are manifesting The Curse when we make assumptions about why people are doing what they are doing instead of asking them. It has a grip on us any time we think we are responsible for someone else’s happiness (or lack of it.) The Curse encourages us to minimize our talents in order to be more likable. It says, “Don’t try that. You might fail,” and it hijacks our personality causing us to act differently then we want act in order to please another person. The Curse tricks us into thinking that perfection is an attainable goal.
Yep. I can relate to a lot of these, and I sure as hell don’t want The Curse to take hold of my daughters. I want them to be what Rachel calls “Real Girls.”
“A Real Girl stays connected to a strong inner core of her thoughts, feelings, and desires. She is able not only to listen to who she is but to act on it. She maintains a critical balance: she can manage the needs of others without sacrificing the integrity of her own. A Real Girl can defend her interests in a relationship or advocate on her own behalf. Where a Good Girl might meet someone and automatically hope she is likable, a Real Girl will reflect on what she thinks and feels about the other person before deciding what to do next.” (10)
Both Rosalind’s and Rachel’s books show us how to cultivate our daughter’s Real Girl identity. As we help our daughters we can heal ourselves.
Back when Nathan and I used to attend the Church of Today in Warren, I was always captivated by it’s leader, Marianne Williamson. Marianne was outspoken and passionate. She was sexy and spiritual. She was vulnerable and powerful. She was loved by many and hated by many. She was injured and she was strong. Heck, she was Jewish but teaching about Jesus. Marianne was ying and yang, a whole spectrum of a woman yet centered in who she was. Here is one of my favorite quotes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Let’s not raise another generation of girls who play it small in order to earn acceptance from others. Let’s raise a generation of Real Girls raised by Real Moms. If you choose to read this book and want someone to discuss it with, please, PLEASE let me know. I’d love to discuss it with you. Peace to you all!
Have you ever had the dream where you go to talk to someone and there is a softball sized wad of gum stuck in your mouth? When you reach in to pull it out, all you get are long stringy bands, and the more you pull the bigger the wad seems to get? I think I started having this dream somewhere around age 10. It represents feelings of not being allowed to speak my mind and needing to stuff my thoughts back where they came from.
Growing up, I was taught many things about speaking my mind. I was taught it was disprespectful. I was taught it could hurt someone’s feelings. I was taught that it would get me in trouble. I was taught “Who do you think you are… to disagree? to think you are right? to think you know anything?” My mother had a tremendous influence on my life. I know she loved and cared for me deeply, and I also know that her own mental, emotional, and social handicaps (for which she, for a number of reasons, never got help for) were passed on to me through her words and actions. She was not the type of woman I could go and pour my heart out to, and if she ever suspected that I might be trying to talk to my dad she would sneak up on us and attack us with her words. She worried about what I said when I was away from home. I was often reminded that what happened in our home needed to stay in our home. Eventually I gave up trying to confide in my dad, and he gave up trying to help me. Stuffing my thoughts and feelings and opinions inside became a survival skill.
I turned to journal writing at a young age because it was a safe way to express myself. I could pour my heart out and no one would know. Then one day in my senior year my mother found my journal and read it. I have to laugh a little because I remember writing, “Private, do not read!” on the cover. How could she resist?? I had a boyfriend. His mother had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Surely I was siding with the devil. Needless to say, she didn’t like what it said. She burned it on the gas grill behind my childhood home. All the poems and stories I wrote for my brother who had passed away were gone. All my thoughts about falling in love and bonding with Nathan’s family were gone. And so were all my thoughts and frustrations about life.
So much for having a safe place to express myself.
I’m a thinker, an analyzer, a talker and an observer by nature. It’s really difficult to stuff away who you really are year after year.
I’ve grown a lot thanks to the help of a great therapist, years of hard work, and a husband who has stuck by me through thick and thin. Becoming a parent has forced me to deal with a lot of my childhood angst, and I am thankful. It has forced me to find ways to heal because I desperately do not want to pass along the unhealthy habits I learned growing up. Through all my recovery work, I’ve rediscovered my love of writing. I discovered my voice, and it feels wonderful. I am so thankful to have a place share my passion for conscious parenting through this blog.
As I’ve become healthier, I’ve found that I have many opinions on many things, especially when it comes to parenting and education. Because I’ve done a lot of therapy and a lot of research, and because I have a background in education and spent 7 years working for the school system, I think I have some pretty valuable ideas on these subjects. At the same time, I am certainly still learning and I always try to remain open to new ways of looking at things. Yet I still worry about pissing people off. And even though I know that I am not responsible for other people’s reactions to my ideas just as they are not responsible for my reaction to theirs, I can’t quite shake the voice in me that says, “Shut up, Janet. What you have to say doesn’t mean shit you poor pathetic, wounded woman.”
Yet it is these wounds that give me passion.
I’ve decided I’m not going to shut up. I can’t. I’m going to keep talking, keep reading, keep learning, keep tweaking my opinions, and keep healing, and in so doing I hope to encourage others to keep talking, keep reading, keep learning, keep tweaking their opinions and keep healing as well. Yes, I can learn to speak with more tact. I can learn how to more clearly express respect and love. I can learn when it is valuable to speak up and when it is valuable to keep my mouth closed. But I can’t learn unless I practice.
Thank you to my friends who let me practice with them.