A couple of months ago, after seeing the Macleans magazine cover story about “dressing our daughters like skanks”, I wrote,
What continues to surprise me is how many mothers around here, and remember, I’m far away from liberal east coast urban types, so your experience may be wide of my mark, are the ones who choose to pimp put their daughters in (often matching) stripper chic not because it’s the path of least resistance but because it’s the path to popularity, to approval, and — hey, a bonus — makes the mothers themselves look or at least seem hip and trendy and young. Well, younger at least. When Laura was in kindergarten and first grade at the local public school, one of her classmates was often dressed by her mother (who in the past few years decided to return to the classroom and now teaches first grade) in fashion-conscious “mini me” style — feather boa trim on sweaters and matching short skirts and dressy suede boots. Not good for the playground at recess or those messy arts and crafts projects, but certainly eye-catching. And this classmate was in good company.
Bling-Bling Barbies and pouty-lipped Bratz. Thongs for tweens, and makeover parties for 5-year-olds. The past couple of shopping seasons have brought a constant stream of media stories — and books and school lectures and anguished mom conversations — all decrying the increasingly tarted-up world of young girls and preteens. Now the American Psychological Association has weighed in as well, with a 67-page report on the dangers of the “sexualization” of girls.
The report takes aim at the music lyrics, Internet content, video games and clothing that are now being marketed to younger and younger kids, and correlates their smutty content with a number of risks to girls’ well-being. It finds that sexualization — turning someone into “eye candy” — is linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression in girls and women. Adopting an early identity as a “Hot Tot” also has, the researchers wrote, “negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality.”
This isn’t surprising, or even new. But what did surprise me, reading through the A.P.A.’s many pages of recommendations for fighting back (like beefed-up athletics, extracurriculars, religion, spirituality, “media literacy” and meditation), was the degree to which the experts — who in an earlier section of the report acknowledge the toxicity of mother-daughter “fat talk” — let moms themselves off the hook as agents of destruction requiring change.
I know that sounds pretty nasty. We’re not supposed to be judgmental these days. We’re not supposed to blame parents — especially mothers. I also know that what mothers do or don’t do (short of out-and-out abuse) doesn’t, single-handedly, “cause” much of anything. But I think it’s fair, even necessary, to wonder: how can we expect our daughters to navigate the cultural rapids of becoming sexual beings when we ourselves are flying blind? How can we teach them to inhabit their bodies with grace and pleasure if we spend our own lives locked in hateful battles of control, mastery and self-improvement?
We all tend to talk a good game now on things like body image and sexual empowerment. We buy the American Girl body book, “The Care and Keeping of You,” promote a “healthy” diet and exercise, and wax rhapsodic about team sports. But do we practice what we preach?
Not when we walk around the house sucking in our stomachs in front of the mirrors. Not when we obsessively regulate the contents of our refrigerators in the name of “purity.” (Did you know that there’s a clinical word for the “fixation on righteous eating”? It’s called “orthorexia.”) Our girls see right through all our righteousness. And they hear the hypocrisy, too, when we dish out all kinds of pabulum about a “positive body image,” then go on to trash our own thighs. …
Maybe it’s time to take a break from bashing the media and start to take a long, hard look instead at the issue of mothers’ sexuality, which is, apparently, after a long and well-documented dormancy, enjoying a kind of rebirth — thanks, it is said, to things like pole dancing classes and sports club stripteases. These new evening antics of the erstwhile book club set are supposed to be fabulous because they give sexless moms a new kind of erotic identity. But what a disaster they really are: an admission that we’ve failed utterly, as adult women, to figure out what it means to look and feel sexy with dignity. We’ve created an aesthetic void. Should we be surprised that stores like Limited Too are rushing in to fill it? (Now on sale: a T-shirt with two luscious cherries and the slogan “Double trouble.”)…
“Smart Is Sexy” likely wouldn’t sell as many t-shirts, though I suppose you could try a “Double trouble” version with Ben Franklin and Tom Jefferson, or Plato and Aristotle, especially if you decide to trade in that pole dancing class for a Great Books discussion group. I don’t always agree with Warner, or with Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabees, whom Warner quotes at length in her post, but there are some good thoughts in Warner’s post today.
As an aside, last summer I read both Queen Bees and Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher and much preferred the latter. I read them on the recommendation of a good friend, who happens to be the mother of three daughters, ages six to almost 15; as she put it succinctly in a letter about a year ago,
it’s Mary Pipher’s “Fence at the Top of the Hill” metaphor that differentiates the aim of the books. QB&W is the ambulance at the bottom of the precipice. RO is the fence on the hilltop. QB&W’s focus on cliques is just one manifestation of a much larger problem, instructing parents how to deal with the situation at hand, not how to avoid it.