Monday, July 17, 2006

Wherein I get a teensy bit controversial, maybe

...or maybe not. Hey, I've got to stick my big toe in the water first.

Lately, a some of my fellow B-List blogging ladies have written about the difficulty of shielding their children from certain adult influences (namely, of the sexual and fashion variety, which are becoming increasingly intertwined). If you haven't read these posts, you really should, because these ladies are good writers. I have the highest respect for them and their talents and their blogs, and I've read enough of each of them to know that they surely must be excellent mothers.

Unless you are new to this blog, you probably know that I do not have children. Indeed, I am that woman at the restaurant who silently swears in her head when babies scream at dinner, all the while praying for stimulation of my own ovaries. Meaning, of course, I don't have empirical knowledge of the difficulty of raising a child. All I have is a strong memory of my own childhood, and exactly those things that bothered me and exactly those things that didn't.

I understand (well, at least I think I understand) how a mother wouldn't want her daughter constantly to see images of larger-than-life cleavage and smaller-than-my-wrist waistlines, and think that that's the way she's supposed to look. But I don't think that asking supermarkets to put the men's magazines away is the answer. Here are some reasons why.

For one thing, it's a free speech issue. (Oh, stop groaning and read.) People like looking at images of sex. We all do. It's just a fact. I remember being a child, crouched before the VCR, repeatedly pausing, rewinding, and watching the one split-second scene of naked breasts in Airplane! with my good friend, who happened to be a boy. I grew up to be a heterosexual female; he grew up to be a homosexual male (i.e., neither of us grew up to become adults who receive sexual gratification from the sight of naked breasts). We both manifested evidence of our adult selves from the time that we were very young children. Nevertheless, we were fascinated and spellbound. We were looking at something sexual, and something taboo! We were simply hard-wired to want to see naked people. The science of marketing had probably been in existence for all of 0.0018 seconds before someone figured out that you can make lots of money by showing naked people, precisely because we are all hard-wired to want to see them. These men's magazines are simply trying to make money by giving people what they want. And we live in a country that guarantees them the freedom to do so. As both bloggers and avid readers, I'm sure the relevance is not lost on us.

Since people like looking at other naked people, they will always find ways to do so. If your adolescent son can't ogle men's magazines at the supermarket, he will Google Image-search up some fun on the Internet. Actually, he'll probably do both, and lots more. I think that, in moderation, this curiosity is both healthy and somewhat important. It is how adolescents learn about bodies and sex without actually engaging in it. I don't believe that such nudity is a "gateway drug" to the world of sex, either. As a teenager, I voraciously read (repeat: READ) everything Cosmopolitan had to offer on the art of giving head, and, at my high school graduation, I was still a virgin who had never even seen a live naked man.

Men like looking at the women on the cover of men's magazines. Period. They always have liked looking at such images, and they always will. They enjoy it and it gets them aroused. They get even more enjoyment out of looking at women who look like that in real life. Virtually all men do--even the most faithful, loyal husbands, the best fathers, then men who would never even think of cheating on their spouses. It is about as important to them, though, as a $6,000 handbag is to us women. We look at it, we think, "Wow, that's beautiful," we are even more intrigued by it in person, we gaze at it for a few moments, we know we won't ever have it, and that, even if we really wanted it (which we don't), the sacrifices it would entail would be too great, and that other things are far more important to us. So, we simply walk away from it, forget about it, and get some lunch. This, too, is how men with a healthy perspective view Barbie-esque women, whether in images or in real life. Having such images around actually provides us with a stellar opportunity to gauge whether men we're interested in have a healthy perspective. If they tend to obsess over these images, or want you to wear your hair or your clothing like the women in the pictures, RUN LIKE THE PLAGUE. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200; for this is a man who is dangerously incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality.

(So, what does this have to do with a six-year-old girl in a supermarket? Hang in there; I'm working up to it. We're almost there. This isn't that long. I linked to that Larry Kramer speech last week for a reason; it makes this post seem like a one-sentence blurb.)

Because men will always, always, always look at the Barbie-esque women, there will always be women who will go to great lengths to be the Barbie-esque woman. Even when they're washing their cars or buying frozen fish sticks. They will preen and strut and walk around wearing little more than dental floss. And there will always be merchants who are happy to sell them their breasts, nails, highlights, and string bikinis. And to show them, in graphic advertising materials, billboards, magazines, commercials, etc., exactly what they can buy.

More than anything, these women want attention. They derive their power from taking male (and female) attention away from other women and putting the focus on themselves. How, then, can one combat this?

By simply looking away. Like Kryptonite to Superman, simply ignoring such women completely takes away any negative power they may hold.

Go ahead; try it. When you take your 87-year-old grandmother shopping, and there's a fellow shopper dangerously close to nip-slipping, simply ignore her. Don't even look at her; she's not there. (The only exception to this policy is that the truly ridiculous may receive the appropriate degree of mocking with your companions-- "Her pants are so tight that they create cellulite! And you can see her pubic hair poking through!!! Can you imagine walking around in public like that???.") Otherwise, focus on the fine cotton fabric, the soft leather, or the cute baby. The hussylady will simply fade like a garment left too long in the sun. Any men with you will follow suit; they will get their three-second-glance jollies and turn their attention back immediately to the issue at hand. This works in almost any situation; parties, trendy restaurants, walking down the street, etc. The hardest part is learning to ignore such stimuli.

Unless we're taught to ignore them all along.

My hypothesis is that these images need be nothing more than a low-grade annoyance to mothers. A six-year-old girl, if she notices these images at all, would probably merely point them out to her mother (this communication is very good), and look to the mother for guidance as to how to respond to this tantalizing visual. I'm honestly not sure exactly what I would say, but it would not be an angered response. It would probably be something like, "Yep, that lady is wearing very little clothing." I might possibly add, "Isn't she silly?" before changing the subject to something like, "Will you put the organic basil on the belt? It smells so nice. Organic basil is so good. It was grown with only natural ingredients, and later we will use it to make a wonderful sauce. Would you like to hear what we'll put in the sauce?" I really believe that giving such minor distractions too much attention strengthens their importance in the mind of a child.

But children are easier than adolescents. Adolescence is the time when people become conscious of their bodies. For my kids, I plan to point out beautiful attributes of my friends, who will all be real women with unique faces and figures, many of whom I expect to be in wonderful relationships with men who adore them. I plan to try to expose my adolescent children to couples with genuinely loving relationships so that the importance of perfect appearances becomes minimized. Perhaps a few European films with non-cookie-cutter actresses would help, too. I recall seeing a foreign film a few months ago in which the "sexy young" heroine was actually a little bit chubby, and her breasts weren't particularly large or well-shaped, and her hair was kind of messy, yet she was tantalizingly cute. Nice to see.

Ok, I'm spent. Commence venting or praising, please.


Blogger ptg said...

Verily, thou sayeth a mouthful, but it needed saying. Our hard wiring is a fact. Another fact is that some cats have bad wiring. Sheltering kids won't fix bad wiring any more than seeing the real world will cause good wiring to go bad.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Liberty Belle said...

Wow...I hadn't thought about it that way before. I don't yet have children, but now I know have something else to consider when raising them. Thanks for the well-illustrated different perspective!

10:13 AM  
Blogger DebbieDoesLife said...

You are soooo wise. And absolutely right.

The fact is, people don't want to DO anything or take responsibility. They want to blame everyone else for every problem in their life. That's what this issue is to.

Great post.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous wordgirl said...

I've always thought that was the way to go. Unfortunately, I can't get enough people to ignore Paris Hilton so she'll finally slink away. She's such a worthless HO.

12:03 PM  
Blogger mamalujo1 said...


12:06 PM  
Anonymous V-Grrrl said...

Regarding media images: the problem isn't that kids have a healthy interest in naked bodies, the problem is that they will never see a normal naked body on or in a men's or women's magazines. They're not bombarded with images of normal breasts, healthy women, real skin--they're bombarded with bodies that have been surgically altered and photoshopped to perfection. Men don't have to be thin or handsome to be powerful or on the cover of a magazine. Women have to be virtually perfect. Vince Vaughn and Jack Black can be fat, leading men. Short, fat women don't exist in the movies. I do think the images matter. I do think they consciously and subconsciously affect women's self-images and relationships--no matter how smart and talented we think we are, no matter how much we laugh at the Jessica Simpsons and Paris Hiltons of the world.

Likewise the messages conveyed directly and indirectly about sex can't be ignored.

My niece rides a school bus where a SIXTH grader was disciplined for giving her boyfriend a blow job on the BUS. Her parents' reaction? Her 12-year-old daughter's "sex life" is nobody's business. A blow job is not a big deal, it's not even "sex."

A friend in Virginia had her daughter suspended from school for inappropriate sexual contact IN THE CLASSROOM DURING CLASS. They weren't kissing or holding hands people, they weren't passing suggestive notes.

In conservative, white bread Virginia, my girlfriend Jan was volunteering in her daughter's kindergarten class. The teacher was gently trying to encourage a boy to do an in class assignment. His response: "I'd do it for you if you were sexier." Five years old.

First graders calling girls whores. It happens. And not just in the ghettoes.

Moms showing the video "Pretty Woman" at an 8-year-olds slumber party.

Believe me, a scantily clad woman at a grocery store is not my biggest problem.

So as a parent, I definitely filter what my kids see and talk about the issue with them. Nudity isn't the problem--it's the underlying messages hammered at them from every source and the constant lowering of standards of decency.

I won't even go into what Europe and the Netherlands are struggling with as an organized political party promoting no age limits on sexual relationships and no restrictions on sex with animals gains ground. And PETA thought its biggest problem was stopping the fur industry.... ; )

1:22 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Harridan said...

Yeah, I think that keeping your kids from the dirty mags just makes them more tantalizing. Every kid has an age of discovery where they're looking for that taboo stuff, out of curiosity or whatever.

I'm not sure if any kid will be distracted by a discussion what you'll put in the sauce, but I think promoting healthy discussion is the way to go.

The 12 year old blowing her BF on the bus has blown my mind, V-Grrrl. Crazy.

What was the movie with the chubby heroine?

1:31 PM  
Anonymous mamatulip said...

I don't want to shelter my children from what's out there (and what obviously isn't going away), but I want them to have a 'real' grasp on the subject. The images that are plastered all over the newsstands? Not real. Yet those are the images that are being sold, so basically, what's being sold is the idea that 'you're not perfect, but we can touch that up and make you look like you are.'

I've never looked like a supermodel, and now that I've got two kids under my belt I look more like a Barbapoppa than a model. I want my children to understand the difference between real and Photoshopped. I want them to know that what's on the newsstands isn't real most of the time.

V-grrrl's comment is excellent. The whole time I read it, I was nodding my head in agreement. She says it so much better than I could.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Arabella said...

V-Grrrl: I totally agree that the lack of normal naked bodies and the double-standard regarding men's and women's bodies is a huge problem. The biggest problem in this whole discourse, in my opinion. Hence, my desire to expose children to more natural body images, such as those to be found in some European films (although it sounds as though the problems in Europe may be worse than I had anticipated). My husband and I have also chosen to live in an area in which there is relatively little emphasis on women dressing sexy, and tremendous emphasis on bookstores and intellectual pursuits. I believe these community values filter right down to the local schools, both public and private, and I'm willing to work like a dog to keep us here as long as possible. I think this is one of the reasons that people spend a fortune to live in a shoebox-sized apartment in New York.

I don't think, though, that these airbrushed and exaggerated images will ever go away. They will always be around us. I think it's important to teach our children to coexist with them, ignore them, and, ultimately, to devalue them, in the same way that we all have and that all concerned parents eventually do.

I don't think I'm being naive when I say that I highly doubt that my daughter will ever (willingly) fellate a fellow student on a school bus. I think this has far more to do with the girl's upbringing and her parents' values (as evidenced by their reaction to this incident) than it has to do with plastic-breast visibility. Ditto the five-year-old, and the first graders calling girls "whores." This is a disciplinary issue, and a boundary-testing issue, and perhaps an issue of exposure to extremely poor male role models.

Do you remember that girl in school that was confident, sweet, and well-groomed, who was very smart and funny and wore normal, nice jeans and sweaters and had tons and tons and tons of male admirers, and the slutty girls, who she didn't look up to, and, in fact, totally ignored, couldn't, for the life of them, figure out what they were doing wrong and she was doing right? If pressed, she used to say things like, "I don't know how you can wear that--I'd be so uncomfortable!" to the slutty girls, and smile sweetly, and she would mean it. Everybody liked and respected her, and lots of other girls wanted to be her. THAT's who I want my daughter to be. I want her to be aware of what's out there, and not to care less, because she knows that she doesn't need it and, in fact, that she's better than that.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Mignon said...

Arabella, I remember that girl in high school. It was me, and I didn't have any male admirers, except for one guy that turned out to be gay and a Japanese exchange student. But I grew up in rural, red-neck Amurica.

V-Grrrl, it's interesting you made that comment, because what you said is Exactly why my mom didn't like Shopgirl. Because she say beautiful Claire Danes and not-so-hot Steve Martin and bristled at the thought of Hollywood force-feeding us the whole image double-standard yet again. I wanted to argue, but she was right in a way. I admit even at our age we can't always differentiate between a formula designed for consumers and real art.

It's not Paris Hilton that'll end up giving my daughter a body-image issue. It's the people like Ms. Danes or Venus Williams or Alanis Morrissette. Women with real talent that have something wonderful to offer, but are also valued for their beauty and shape. It's those kind of images that I simultaneously worry about and admire. I just hope the real positive rubs off more than what the media tells us is the positive.

Arabella, wonderfully said and V-Grrrl, excellent comment.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Arabella said...

Well said, Mignon. Very good discussion, all. Thank you.

The film I referred to is The Housekeeper. You can see a photo here:

She's slightly chubby by Hollywood standards (i.e., she has a normal body by everyone else's). Pretty refreshing.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Izzy said...

While I agree with you and the other commenters on many points, I still believe that there is an issue of appropriateness to consider. I don't think that I'm NOT taking responsibility by expecting that there should be a few places where I can simply shop and not have to worry about overtly adult materials being on display for my kids to see.

To argue otherwise suggests that something as absurd playing hardcore porn on a TV in a public place where children might see it should be acceptable and that we should just not look. I know that's probably never going to happen but if you wanted to take that point of view to the extreme, you can see that it really doesn't work across the board.

I do speak to my daughter about many difficult topics but she's six years old, not a teenager. Most of what kids are exposed to these days is well beyond their capability to understand.

And yes, I looked at Playboy snd Playgirl covertly when I was a kid but I also understood that because that material was not freely available for me to see anywhere, that it was not really indicative of normal life. It was clearly meant for adults. The items I referenced do not convey that message at all when you displayed in a grocery store.

In any case, I do intend to keep the dialog open with my kids but I hope to have a few more years before I have to address things with them that I didn't know about until i was 10 or 12. To wish for that doesn't mean I want to impede anyone's right to free speech or their right to look at naked women. I just think the rights of parents to raise a child in a world where they can be children for a little while bear equal consideration.

Thanks for giving me equal time :)

2:31 PM  
Anonymous TB said...

I don't spend a ton of time around little girls who are old enough to notice their exposure to the kind of media images you're talking about here, but when I do, it freaks me out. There is SO much out there that I wouldn't want my daughter to see and so much that would be detrimental to her self image. But what you said is true. We can't shelter them from it so we must find a way to help them process it in a healthy way. I really like your approach.
And the comments on this post have been great to read. Thanks ladies.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Arabella said...

You raise very good points, V-Grrrl and Izzy. Particularly about the constant lowering of the standards of decency, and the point about knowing as a child that covert material is covert by virtue of the fact that it's not freely available, and therefore not indicative of normal life. That is very true. And, Izzy, you are always welcome to equal time. All respectful dissenting views are. It is a privilege to have you here.

I really don't think that my argument suggests that we should all just look elsewhere if hardcore pornography is playing where children can see it. But it does raise an interesting point about exactly where to draw the line, and how to process and filter what's out there. As with many things, I don't think there are any easy answers at all. I remember seeing a talk show when I was a child in which rape was being discussed in a very sociologically-serious way, by people in suits, for one brief moment, before my babysitter swiftly changed the channel. Did it upset me (even that brief moment)? Yes. It still does. I don't want to hear about it, and I don't want to look at it, even handled reverentially in respectable publications. But, at the same time, I want them to be free to discuss it. And I want to keep my kids from hearing much about it. But I also want them, at an appropriate point, to know what it is, and ways of reducing their chances of being in a victim situation.

I'm still toying with this idea, and I don't spend a lot of time with six year olds, but...I think it would probably be okay to say to one, "Did you know that the magazine people take pictures like this and smooth out the ladies' skin and make them look thinner and make their bodies look fake? See how smooth her skin is here, and how a real lady's skin looks? (Point out my own freckles, moles, scars, pimples, etc.) It's true; the magazine people do this to almost every picture in their magazines. They think people will want to buy more magazines if they do it. Isn't that silly? I think real ladies look much more interesting. Plus, you know that mommy only cares about whether a magazine is has good articles that she can read."

And then I would definitely talk about sauce. What, Mrs. H, you don't think my sauce can grab hold of someone's attention??? ;)

4:59 PM  
Blogger Tink said...

As usual Arabella, a very wise and beautifully written post. I wasn't sure where you were going at first, but I found myself nodding along the way and thinking, "Damn straight."

I especially liked this, "we gaze at it for a few moments, we know we won't ever have it, and that, even if we really wanted it (which we don't), the sacrifices it would entail would be too great, and that other things are far more important to us." I don't think it could be said any better.

BTW: For some odd reason you've really been on my thoughts tonight. Are you OK? Pop me an email if you can.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Harridan said...

A, I know *I* would love to get a sauce recipe from you (hint, hint), and I would be rapt when hearing the ingredients listed. Seriously. I was just questioning whether that can hold the average 6 year old's attention. ;)

My husband's goddaughter is almost six, and I think I could engage her in a distracting conversation pretty easily, though, so I get your point. :)

Izzy, I'm glad you weighed in and I'm also glad that the store you frequent took away the magazines. I remember seeing such things in convenience stores, but alwasy under a smoked glass display, with a warning to children on it. Maybe the smoked glass needs to come back into vogue.

11:26 AM  

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