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The meaning of pinkhood

By tanakawho from Tokyo, Japan (Not a black sheep  Uploaded by Petronas) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By tanakawho from Tokyo, Japan (Not a black sheep Uploaded by Petronas) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gender expectations for boys and girls.  I suppose this is because this great post about toy shopping in Target has been circulating.  I admit to loving it–it’s funny in a snarky way, and it certainly hits at what I feel is one of the biggest problems in toy advertising/store arrangement.  But something has been bothering me, and it wasn’t until last night that it really solidified.

If you’ve been reading here for a while, you may know that both of my kids are in multiple dance classes.  Currently, my son is taking private ballet lessons, as there was no class for his age group.  Yesterday, we arrived a few minutes before the end of class so we could watch him do a little combo with his teacher.  Afterward, he gave her a card he’d made and she gave him a small gift–homemade Chex mix and a little bag containing mini bottles of coconut-lime shower gel and hand lotion.*

He was thrilled.  I commented that his teacher sure knows him well, and he agreed.  It was a very sweet moment.  Now, what had me thinking about it is the number of adults in my circles who would find that strange or even bad.  Why would a ten-year-old boy want such a feminine gift?  Thus begins the speculating on my son’s life and future.

And that, right there, highlighted the real problem for me.

It isn’t merely that we think it’s not okay for boys to like dolls or fancy hand lotion or pink cook stoves that don’t feature boys on the box.  It’s the erasure of anything that seems too feminine.

The Big Questions that always come up are: Why can’t they market toy stoves and tea sets in neutral colors?  Why can’t doll clothes come in blue as well as pink?  Why can’t I find a boy doll?  Why can’t Barbies utter oddly specific action phrases when you push a button on their backs?  Why must all Legos be placed in the boys’ section?

Meanwhile, I’m asking an entirely different set of questions.

Why can’t boys own a full set of My Little Pony figurines?  Why doesn’t Batman say, “Give me a hug!” when you press a button?  Why isn’t it okay for a boy to be featured on the toy stove box, even if it is pink?

We’ve gotten very comfortable asking why the girls’ aisle is hosed in pink and frills while the boys get action and adventure.  We intentionally choose to shop for our daughters among the Legos and Monster Trucks and superheroes.  We’re okay with urging our daughters to try out sports and climb trees and wear any damn thing they want to.

We’re getting better at it with boys, but often it’s coupled with speculations about their future sexuality.  Hardly anyone talks about how much they will still love their football-playing daughter if she turns out to be a lesbian; it’s assumed that even if she is still sporty as an adult, she will at least marry a sporty Prince Charming and ride off into the WifeMommy sunset.**  But should a boy show an interest in ballet, pink, and Cher’s greatest hits, suddenly parents take to their blogs to assure the world that they will still love their obviously gay sons.***

When it’s not tied to our sons’ orientation, then it’s tied to the color-coding.  We demand the same “girl” toys for them, only we want them in blue and orange instead of pink and purple.  God forbid little Johnny play with a pink toy microwave or drink from a pink teacup.  We also rarely encourage boys to play with toys that we associate with relational skills.  It’s okay to own not-pink cookware, but the world might end if we purchase the latest Fisher-Price dollhouse for our boys.  I mean, they don’t actually need to learn the skills associated with caring for home and family.

It seems to me that the reason for this is that we like the erasure of cultural femininity more than we like the erasure of cultural masculinity.

Cultural femininity is seen as weak and bad.  How many of us have gone from feeling stifled by the lack of options to feeling guilty that we still want some (or most) of those feminine things?  How many men feel like they are less, somehow, because they have traits usually associated with women?

It took me a long time to accept that I like the color pink and that I like stories with a little romance.  I sort of felt like I couldn’t even enjoy a Disney princess movie without having to examine its problematic elements first.  This erasure of anything culturally feminine means that in order to survive, I must become more like a man.  But if I become more like a man, not only do I destroy that which is considered feminine in myself, I also end up being told that I actually want to be a man!  Or I’m a bitch or a ball-buster or some other negative term for a woman who isn’t “woman” enough.  Yet if I give up and go home, then my femininity makes me invisible again.  We often don’t have the option of being both culturally feminine and strong.

This erasure is part of what drives parents to ponder their sons’ sexuality.  It’s a grudging acceptance that if our sons want to play at being girly, we will then convince ourselves that it’s okay if they don’t live up to our expectations of what real men are like–that is, virile heterosexuals.  That is both misogynistic and homophobic, and it certainly doesn’t do any favors for straight men who are naturally more culturally feminine.  (Don’t even get me started on the erasure of bisexual men and gay men who are perceived as stereotypically masculine; they often get shit from all sides.)

I would like to see this all just go the eff away.  I see a lot–and I do mean a lot–of anti-pink snark.  But what is so wrong with pink?  Or girls liking pink and playing with pink things?  I understand the concern that we don’t want our daughters (or, hopefully, our sons) to be limited by the color-coding in the toy aisles.  I certainly understand that we don’t want to limit our children to one idea or another about what makes a “good” girl or boy.  But what if we rearranged our thoughts a little?

What if instead of changing the color-coding, we simply expanded our options?  Maybe it would be okay to associate pink with home and family if we stopped assigning the math as

Pink = Girls

Home and family = Girls

Therefore, Home and family + Pink = Not for Boys

I don’t think manufacturers, advertisers, or stores are going to change the way they deliver to consumers.  If we want change, it has to come from us.  We need to be the ones willing to say, “Eh, screw it.  I’m buying the pink stove for my son” or “My daughter would love that Hulk action figure” or “Hmm…I think my kid would like to wear this Snow White costume while building this robotic car” or “Superhero cape and an Easy Bake Oven? I think yes!”  We can’t expect the world to change for us–we have to change the world ourselves.

_________________________

*My son gets very chapped hands in the winter, and his teacher has been sharing her lotion with him.  He loves the scent, so she got him his own.

**Lesbian erasure is also a real thing and very bad.  So are assumptions that women will all be happier if they are married with kids.  No woman was ever happy being single, and all women–being such natural nurturers–want children, right?

***I could write a whole blog post on why I think speculating about our kids’ sexual orientation is a really, really terrible move on the part of parents.  Perhaps I will.

Bare down there

Warning: This post is about pubic hair.  If you don’t want to read about that, you may prefer to go look at this lovely video of a cute lamby instead.

A bunch of people shared this post about Instagram censorship.  I’m not going to post the picture for several reasons: It’s not mine; Everyone’s seen it already; I don’t need my blog censored (just in case).  To sum up, apparently, artist Petra Collins had her Instagram account deleted.  According to her*, it was because of her bikini-clad, waist-down selfie in which her unaltered pubic hair is clearly visible, both above the waistband and around the legs.  If you are one of the six people who haven’t read the post, be sure to read it.

After reading this, I had several thoughts.  First, I don’t really care what Petra Collins puts on Instagram.  I don’t care if she wears a bikini and you can see her pubes.  I probably wouldn’t even wear a bikini at all, so good for her that she feels confident in her body like that.

Second, I get why it’s provocative–I know some won’t agree with me, but I think there is more sensuality implied with just-barely-exposed pubic hair than with no hair or full exposure.  I think it’s actually artistic and interesting and beautiful, but it’s definitely suggestive.  I don’t know that I think it violates any Instagram terms, however; it’s not what I would call “nudity” by any stretch.

Third, I think she’s right in her assessments about a culture that simultaneously wants to possess and reject female sexuality.  Songs about “dubious” or no consent (you know, what I just call rape) clash violently with the film industry’s policing of female sexual pleasure.  (For more on this, you really ought to watch the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.)

Finally, and the point I’m most interested in, is the expectations for beauty and sexuality placed on women by our society.  Culturally, even twenty years ago it wasn’t the norm to have a completely shaven pubic area.  I remember back in college having that conversation with some of my dorm-mates.  Most of us admitted to not shaving anything (hey, when you’re part of modesty culture, you don’t wear bikinis anyway, so no need to wax the bikini line).  We all giggled about the girl who kept things neat with a pair of tiny sewing scissors.  But we didn’t shell out money to have everything waxed bare.  Well, other than my one classmate who told us about going on her honeymoon to Mexico and seeing–oh my god–A STRAY PUBE!  We all thought she was a little odd anyway.

These days, it’s the norm for young women to take it all off.  It’s becoming increasingly common for young men to do the same, though there doesn’t seem to be the same pressure on them.  Although there are people who say sex is better for them when they and/or their partners are bare, the cultural trend is absolutely not about pleasure.  Young teens, barely into puberty and already trying to remove their hair, are not doing it because they think they’re going to have better sex, and neither are the young adults who are not currently (or not yet) sexually active.

It’s all about beauty standards.

What are we teaching these young girls?  How are they learning that their pubic hair is so unacceptable that it must be removed partially or fully?  I’m not sure I agree that it’s about looking like children, although that is a disturbing thought (and I’m sure that there are people out there who prefer that).  It’s about the monitoring of our bodies.  We cannot go anywhere without seeing at least one thing that tells us what we should look like, how we should dress, and what makes us acceptable.  Models in magazines.  Internet porn.  “Health”-related ads.  Television and movies.

I don’t know about you all, but I’m sick of being told what is or isn’t acceptable about my body.  As if it weren’t enough to be told I need a thin figure, big boobs, and flawless skin, now I also need to shave off my pubes, or spend thousands of dollars either waxing or having treatments to prevent the hair from growing?  No.

I’m not interested in having anyone tell me what to do with my pubic hair, whether it’s media or friends or the person I’m having sex with.  I’m grateful that I’m not married to someone who believes he has the right to tell me what to shave.  If you want to shave/wax/whatever because you like it, go right ahead.  But please don’t do it just because someone else said they don’t like what’s naturally there.  There’s no problem with couples determining what’s best for them, but no one but me decides what I will do with my body.  No one should feel pressured to change for a partner, and if you do, then perhaps that person isn’t right for you.

You know what else I don’t need?  I don’t need other people to tell me what I should find sexy.  As much as I despise being told that my own body hair (or anything else about my body) is “unsightly” or “unappealing,” I also detest being told that I should agree with that perspective.  Hey, if you are having awesome bare-crotch sex, that’s great–for you.  It’s pretty important, though, that you don’t spout off about it as though the rest of us are somehow lacking in intimacy because we either don’t care or actively dislike the idea.  When someone says that it’s “more” or “better” in some way, without qualifying that they mean personal preference, implicit in the statement is that it’s “less” or “worse” for the rest of us.   It’s just another way to shame and police others, and it needs to stop.  That’s like saying you’re having better sex because of your size (body, breasts, penis–whatever).

It’s important that we understand the distinction between an individual or couple’s preference and a cultural trend.  The former is only the business of the people directly involved, whereas the latter affects all of us.  We should also be aware of the degree to which we are influenced by societal pressure.  I’m not convinced that most of the people who remove their pubic hair are doing so because they genuinely prefer themselves that way.  Too many of us have been shamed about our bodies for me to believe it’s all about feeling or being “confident” and “sexy.”  I’m also not convinced that the vast majority of people care all that deeply about having their partners be bare.

When will we as a society reach a point when we stop referring to pubic hair as “dirty” (yes, that’s a thing) and removing it?  Maybe it’ll happen around the same time we stop referring to our vulvas as “down there.”  Hopefully, that will be when we can also stop looking to photoshopped models as the measuring stick for our own beauty.

______________________________

*I have no idea if that’s the real reason the account was deleted.  I have only one acquaintance who ever had an account deleted anywhere, and he was given warning.  When he refused to comply with the request to remove certain images, he was asked to delete his account–which he did.  So I’m not sure why Instagram would randomly delete an account without first giving a warning or asking for the photo to be removed.  I don’t think that matters, though, with regard to the larger point being made here.

 

Stay-at-home moms don’t need a defense

A Day in the Life of a Wartime Housewife. By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All day yesterday, I kept seeing this post cropping up.  It’s essentially yet another defense of stay-at-home motherhood, complete with elevating the role of Wife and Mother to a status nearly equal to the heavenly host.  There is nothing more guaranteed to make my blood boil than some misguided person thinking the answer to disparaging stay-at-home moms is to do just the opposite.

Before I get to what’s wrong here, I do want to point out what Matt Walsh got right.  I could die happy if I never again had to hear either of these phrases:

What do you DO all day?

and

I would be SO BORED!

I’ve heard them before.  A lot.  And yes, it does make me feel small.  Unappreciated.  Undervalued.  It makes me think those people either didn’t put in much effort when they were home or like they think I lie on the sofa eating bonbons and watching The View (gross; as if) because I have nothing better to do with my time.  Yes, I do want desperately to tell every single person who has ever said those things to me to go fuck off.  I don’t (usually), but I’d like to.

You know what’s just as bad, though?

Telling women that they’re not spending enough time with their kids.  Telling women that being a WifeMommy is the most important thing she’ll ever do.  Telling women they need husbands and children to be happy, fulfilled, and productive.  Telling professional women that they are so expendable that no one will miss them at work if they leave.

Here are some of the things Matt Walsh got wrong:

1. Staying home is super hard work.

Unless your spouse thinks it’s the at-home parent’s job to do 100% of the housework, yard work, and childcare–24/7–there are definitely moments of down time.  When my kids were tiny, nap time was my best friend.  That’s not to say parenting and chores aren’t hard, just that it’s not some endless parade of labor.  Matt Walsh did comment that there’s some down time, as there is in many other jobs.  However, he also spend a fair number of paragraphs ranting about how “hard” staying home is.  Parenting and caring for the household do involve a lot of work, but there’s no need to go overboard and act like I’m doing heavy construction all day.

2. Parenting isn’t a “job.”

I need to vent for a moment about “words mean things.”  I could write an entire blog post–maybe even a series–on this craptastic view.  Words have the meaning we attach to them–not some platonic ideal meaning.  We use the word “job” in all sorts of ways.  “I have a job to do!” doesn’t necessarily mean for pay.  “That’s not my job!” doesn’t have anything to do with getting paid either.  So stop insisting that stay-at-home moms do not have  a “job” to do.  We do.  So do moms who work outside the home.  So do dads.  It’s just another way to make sure we separate people into the categories where we think they belong.  It’s another way to disparage both at-home parents and work-outside-the-home parents.

3. At-home moms belong on a pedestal.

We are not special.  We are not better.  I’m not interested in being elevated above anyone else.  It puts me in some untouchable place where I can’t have a shitty day when I don’t even have the energy to take a shower and I feed my child Ritz crackers and string cheese for lunch so I don’t have to cook.  Up on that pedestal is a magical fairy land where sick moms push through the pain to make sure that the laundry is done and the house sparkles and the kids look like glossies in a magazine.  In that land, the awesome craft project on page 9 of Family Fun always turns out just like the picture, and I sew my kids’ Halloween costumes by hand.  I don’t know about other stay-at-home moms, but I sure as hell don’t live in that place.

4. Moms are irreplaceable.

Well, okay, we’re not easily replaced.  But working outside the home is not the same thing as having a mother die or abandon her family.  What a horrid comparison.  I know lots and lots of women who have paid, outside-the-home jobs.  They are amazing moms!  They haven’t been “replaced” by anyone.  The other problem here is that it erases stay-at-home dads.  Please, tell me again how only mommy can take care of the kids.  I think I must have forgotten that daddies are just glorified babysitters.  Never mind families that have two daddies.  Or is this the universe where one of them must be pretending to be “the girl” in that relationship?

5. Someone, somewhere, has said it’s “ideal” for moms to spend less time with their kids.

I have never heard even one person say this.  Sure, I’ve heard the aforementioned comments about being home.  But no one has suggested that the world would be a better place if women just got off their asses and went to the office for a few hours a day.

My biggest problem with the whole post can be summed up with this quote:

Yes, she is just a mother. Which is sort of like looking at the sky and saying, “hey, it’s just the sun.”

What is implied here is that mothers, like the sun, are the center of everything.  A woman’s value becomes tied to her status as WifeMommy, the person around whom the entire family solar system revolves.  It ignores real women and real life in favor of an ideal, an image of the perfect family.  Central to this view is the belief that a true family looks a lot like a 1950s television show.  If WifeMommy is the Sun, then there isn’t any room for stay-at-home dads or same-sex couples or single parents or couples without children or unpartnered people without children or grandparents raising their grandkids.  Those family situations and structures fall outside the boundaries of what is good and right, and we can therefore justify denying help, care, or solutions when the need arises.

It’s time we stopped trying to make a case for a return to a rose-tinted view of a by-gone era.  This is the way individuals and families live in 2013.  It’s like going out in the rain without an umbrella and demanding that it stop raining because you’re getting wet.  Are there issues that can come up because of the changes in family structure?  Sure.  Not because those changes are bad but because they are different.  “Different” doesn’t require fixing; it requires new strategies.  Instead of arguing over who’s more deserving of a pedestal, let’s sit down together and figure out how we can do this thing called life together.

Being a woman of confidence (part 2)

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), French mathematician and physicist, via Wikimedia

The other day, I asked you to tell me what you’re good at, and you delivered.  Between comments here and on Twitter and Facebook, as well as private emails, I learned that we are amazingly good at all kinds of things.  So what are they?

We’re good at our jobs.

No matter what we do, we do it well!  You told me that you are writers, teachers, artists, doctors, nurses, lawyers, marketing professionals, dancers, accountants, bankers, childcare workers, librarians, pastors, engineers . . . the list goes on.  And you love your work!  You’re professional, and you do your jobs well.  One woman commented on my post that she’s published 3 novels.  Holy cow, what an accomplishment!  I mean, I think publishing just one novel would be pretty amazing.  A few weeks ago, my church celebrated the anniversary of our pastor’s ordination.  I was awed by all of her accomplishments.  Not once did she act like it was “no big deal” (as we’re sometimes taught to do).  She accepted the thanks and accolades with grace.  Way to go, professional women!

We’re good at storytelling.

I have to highlight this one because I’m a writer myself, and I’m biased towards using our words.  One woman commented that her school district has The Hunger Games on the required reading list.  More and more places are adding in great works by women.  It may not be enough yet, but it’s a start.  I just finished reading A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle to my kids, and they’re eager for more.  Another woman–a person of color–commented that her heritage has beauty and goodness too.  I’m excited to begin delving into this richness.  There is no truth to the idea that books by women or featuring women are only for women.  My own son emotionally identifies just as strongly with Meg Murray as he does with Harry Potter.  As it turns out, many of us say we’re pretty handy with words.  Quite a lot of us blog, and some of us have wide audiences.  We know how to write, and we’re not afraid to say it.

We’re good at inter- and intrapersonal skills.

Some of the great things women said they were good at:

  • Organization
  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Offering wise words
  • Time management
  • Caretaking
  • Encouragement
  • Prayer and meditation
  • Budgeting

Some of you said you were good at all of those!  One of the women I met in an online group has consistently said that something she’s determined to do is “show up.”  She didn’t say it in response to my plea for “what are you good at,” but I think it’s a good example of one of the ways in which women are sometimes fractured.  We’re spread so thin–especially in our churches–that we are no longer able to just “show up.”  When we can break out of that pattern, it’s amazing what we can do.

We’re good at sex.

I wonder why no one wanted to own this one publicly in the comments?  I got a few private emails from women telling me that they are, in fact, very good at sex–including one who said she’s good at giving head.  (No, they weren’t propositioning; just too shy to share it outright.)  I am dang proud of them for saying it!  We have this idea that men are sex fiends who think even really awful sex is good.  We also get this message that women are so hard to please that men ought to be focused on us in the bedroom.  (I realize I’m speaking in heterosexual terms here; I’m talking about the messages we get from society, which tend to ignore people who aren’t cis-het.)  It’s good to know there are women out there owning their between-the-sheets skills.  Woo hoo!

We’re good at being wives, partners, and mothers.

I’m hesitant to go there, since often we’re told that’s what we should be good at, even if we’re not.  A lot of us, though, seem to feel undervalued when it comes to family.  We may feel appreciated by our spouses and children, but we feel marginalized everywhere else.  Some women feel like their skills at nurturing are ridiculed by women who believe we’ve sold out by staying home.  Some women feel like they may be excellent wives and mothers, but since it’s expected, it doesn’t get any special attention.  Still others find it frustrating to only be seen as wives and mothers.  Yet it’s one of the things you listed as something you’re good at, and that has beauty and worth.

I don’t want this to be the end of the road for “what are we good at.”  Keep this going!  Today, I have two challenges for you.  First, find a woman or a girl and tell her one thing she’s good at.  Second, if you are a woman, think of one thing you do well and tell someone else your truth.  You can say, “You know what?  I am really good at _____!”  See what happens.  If you take my challenge, will you email me or comment here and tell me how it went?

Being a woman of confidence

This fantastic post, the words that choke me, sparked some interesting discussion among my online friends.  My favorite part:

Maybe the other half of the story is to learn to be equally vulnerable in identifying, owning, and sharing my strengths and my gifts to encourage and empower others to do the same. What a difference we could make in the world if we all embraced our light and let it shine forth unimpeded!

This is a difficult thing, isn’t it?  The one question we didn’t reach an answer to is why.  Why do so many women feel fearful–or even just strange–about owning our strengths?  Why are so many blogs, especially by and for women, devoted to admitting our weaknesses and nurturing the broken places in our lives?

I don’t believe this is entirely the fault of Christian culture.  It’s true that in many churches, we’re supposed to love being wives and mothers so much that those are the things we celebrate being good at.  It’s also true that in many churches women’s roles are limited, often to things similar to being wives and mothers–food and childcare duties.  That’s certainly one place where it can feel unsafe to speak about our strengths.

Another part of the problem is the “disease model” of salvation–that we are all horribly broken from birth and in desperate need to be rescued from hell.  For a good number of people (not just women), such a belief has done an incredible amount of damage to their self-worth.  If a person thinks she has nothing good inside her to offer, she isn’t going to speak about her strengths.

That’s not the whole picture, though.  It’s a systemic issue.  I’ve written before on my experience in school of reading very little literature written by women.  In all my time playing with my orchestra (more than 10 years total), I think we’ve played exactly one composition written by a woman.  When I brought that up with some friends, I got two equally bad reactions:

1. If you wanted to read things by women, why didn’t you just do it on your own?

and

2. Who cares who wrote it as long as it’s good?

Both of those are ways of silencing women.  If women have written books that are just as good as those written by men, then why aren’t we reading them in the classroom?  The idea that it doesn’t matter is ridiculous.  It matters because it sends the message that women may be able to write, but they don’t write the kinds of things everyone wants to read.  That may be an unintentional message, but it’s the one being sent whether intended or not.

How can we learn that we are good at these things if we’re never acknowledged as such?  How can women know that we are good and capable and that our work is desirable if we look around us and the vast majority of people being celebrated in history, art, literature, science, and music are men?

When people (okay, mostly men; sorry) dismiss that concern as irrelevant or untrue, it just serves to silence us further.  When we’re told that it doesn’t matter or that we’re exaggerating or that their experiences were different, it makes me angry.  None of those things matter when reality is that so many women continue to feel like we are fractured.

We need to do something about that.  I’m going to do something about that.  I want to know what we’re good at.  Everything we’re good at.  If you are a woman, what do you love to do that feels like a success?  How did you discover it?  Is it your profession?  A hobby?  Something with your family?

Maybe you’re a guy (hey, plenty of guys read this blog).  I’m willing to bet you know some pretty amazing women.  What makes them amazing?

Feel free to leave comments here.  You can also contact me.  I’m going to spend as long as it takes collecting stories about women and what we’re good at.  If you want your story here, let me know.  I’ll keep it anonymous if you prefer.  Let’s get the word out that we are more than our broken places.  Let’s do as Kenetha suggests and “[embrace] our light and let it shine forth unimpeded!”

6 reasons not to waste your money…

…because your daughter is just going to stay home and have babies anyway.

Little Housewife, Johan Georg Meyer (via Wikimedia)

Last week, several friends were kind enough to bring to my attention this awful piece on why parents shouldn’t send their daughters to college.  Go ahead and read it if you’d like some rage with your coffee this morning.  In case you prefer not to, here’s the list in brief:

  • Your poor daughter will end up with a–gasp–educated man.  No, wait, she’s just going to end up being the hard-working, intelligent wife with a lazy loser for a husband (kinda like all those sitcoms).
  • She’s going to have the opportunity to have sex.  Maybe a lot of sex.  Probably with lazy losers.  Once that happens, she’s not going to notice that her guy is bad for her because sex hormones.
  • She’s going to end up with a career, dammit.  She probably won’t want to play house anymore.  Maybe she won’t even want babies!
  • Since she’s just going to be a good wife and mommy, she won’t enjoy having the career that would have paid for her college education.  Also, it’s a total waste of money to go to college and then stay home, thus forcing your husband to pay for your loans with his money.
  • There is obviously only one way to be a feminist, and that is by going to college and having a career (which is dictated by your college education, of course) and not being a wife and mommy.  It’s a slippery slope, thinking she has to prove she’s a feminist by doing all this.  We can’t have that.
  • In order to pay for college, parents might plan ahead and not have all the babies God wants them to.  They might use birth control!  No worries that sending sons to college might make parents sin by preventing pregnancy, though.
  • Those young women are going to regret it someday when they are stuck in a cube somewhere wishing they could just stay home and luxuriate, eating bonbons and watching daytime television like the rest of us stay-at-home moms.
  • They won’t be able to go to seminary (at least, not a Catholic one) if they have debt.  Fine, that one might be real, especially since no woman called to vocational ministry ever knows that before she stupidly and blindly goes off to college to get a degree in chemical engineering first.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that I’m informed now.  It’s only about ten more years til I have to think about sending my own daughter off to college, and I sure as heck don’t want her to end up with a degree that keeps her from her duties as wife and mom.  Who cares if she’s ambitious and has talked for the better part of two years about wanting a career working with animals?  She should just squash those dreams right now before they get out of hand.

Meanwhile, I guess I’d better figure out a way to pay my husband back for using “his” money (that he worked super hard for!) to pay off my loans from undergraduate and graduate school.  After all, I’m just playing 1950s-television-style housewife here and not contributing financially.  On second though, never mind.  I’m just gonna go watch some television to alleviate my regrets.

“But we’re not all like that!” Part 2

Warning: Sexual harassment and assault

Yesterday, I wrote about how “not all like that” is often code for “I don’t like something about you but I’m trying not to be a jerk.”  Today I’m going to talk about a different sort of “not all like that”–the kind that gets defensive when there are people “like that.”

Every day, women put up with (often in silence) all manner of harassment–on the street, on public transportation, in the workplace, in church.  Catcalls, leers and jeers, whistles, groping, comments about our bodies, name-calling, angry retorts when we don’t respond.  We bear it, usually because someone has told us it isn’t a big deal or that we must have “been sexy that day” or we’re overreacting.  We’re made to feel alone, as though we’re the only ones who have ever experienced it, and we must somehow be responsible for it.

I’ve been there.  The boy who cornered me and grabbed my breasts until I screamed for help.  The classmate who ran his foot up my leg during study hall and whispered dirty things he was going to do to me.  The religious authority who forced me to feel his erection.  The student in my lab who gave me his assignments with “bitch” and “whore” scrawled at the top.  The kid who wrote in my year book his offer to “let” me give him a blow job.  The men who whistled at my sister and me on our way to the theater and called out,”Heyyyyy, ladies!”  The man in the bar who put his arm around me when I wouldn’t give him my attention.

The problem isn’t just that these men and boys exist.  It’s that whenever we talk about it, the automatic response from at least one man will always be, “But we’re not all like that” or “Well, I’m not like that” or “”Men get harassed too, you know.”  Well, cheers to you that you’re not like that, but don’t expect me to pat you on the back and give you a gold star for not being a dick to women.  Would you like to know some better responses?  Here you go:

My God. I’m so sorry that happened to you.

and

Next time I see someone doing that, I’ll speak up.

and

It’s wrong for anyone to be treated that way.

and even

It’s happened to me, too. (Because it does happen to men, and that’s just as shitty, and men shouldn’t be shamed into silence either.)

Unfortunately, too many people believe that these are isolated events perpetrated by a few folks with boundary issues.  It’s not, though.  Millions of us have experienced these things, and they happen everywhere.  I hope that when confronted with the facts, the denial and the shaming and the victim-blaming will unravel. The UK-based Everyday Sexism Project seeks to make that happen, fighting the lie that it’s not common or it’s the fault of the people on the receiving end.  I highly recommend following @EverydaySexism and the hashtag #SHOUTINGBACK on Twitter.

Take a few minutes to watch this video (it’s probably NSFW; there’s explicit mentions of specific kinds of harassment, including public masturbation).


Don’t excuse or minimize this behavior; don’t remind me that you don’t participate; don’t play the “what about the men” card.  Please just help make a difference.

Refelction, Not Influence

Courtesy of Lifejackets.com

Warnings: Mentions of rape, violence against women, objectification, and domestic abuse.  Description of a rape scene.

As some of you know, I do some unpaid work proofreading.  I love it, because I’ve been able to work on some incredible pieces.  I’ve also met some terrific authors (and even got a signed copy of a book out of the deal–win!).  It’s a way for me not only to make connections like that, but to improve my own writing as I learn what’s good–and what’s not.

Over the weekend, I had the misfortune to have a chapter land in my lap that made me feel sick and violated.  The writer sent what, on the surface, appeared to be an interesting combination of mystery and either urban fantasy or science fiction (this was the first chapter; it was hard to tell).  It turned out to be some kind of erotica, supposedly with “BDSM” themes.  Yeah, not quite.

After the first two pages, I started to feel uncomfortable, though I couldn’t pinpoint why.  At first, it just sounded like the main character was imagining what it would be like as a dom.  I’ve seen that before, but this just read…differently.  After a second read-through, I figured it out.  This guy wasn’t just thinking about being a dom in a particular relationship, he seemed to be applying this fantasy to all women.  That is, he liked the idea of women–not exclusively a partner–being incapable of movement and unable to speak.

I set that thought aside, though, because I’m not well-versed in BDSM lifestyle/culture and figured perhaps the writer was expressing things badly.  It’s been known to happen (ahem, Fifty Shades, anyone?).  That is, until I read further.  A strange woman appears at his door, looking for someone else.  In the process of “comforting” her, he begins to fantasize about what he wants to do with her.  Again, this made me uncomfortable, that a man would be incapable of meeting a woman without sexual interest.  Clearly this is a person who sees women as existing solely for the purpose of fulfilling his sexual fantasies.

In the last scene of the chapter, the main character is waiting in a reception area and begins fantasizing about the secretary (of course).  He imagines himself hauling her across her desk and assaulting her with a knife, slicing her nipples, and forcing her to have sex with him.  The way the scene is written, it’s clearly intended to be erotic rather than terrifying.  Let me tell you, it absolutely scares the shit out of me to think that a strange man would come into my workplace and imagine himself brutally assaulting me.

There are a number of people who will probably tell me that it’s “just fantasy” or that it’s okay because it’s fictional and no one’s really going to imitate that behavior just because they read it in a book.  I’ve heard the same arguments about Fifty Shades, and they don’t hold any water for the same reason.

Stories like Fifty Shades or the rapey fiction I read last weekend are not cultural influencers.  It’s probably true that no one’s going to first read the book and then act in the same fashion.  Rather, these books are a reflection of what’s already happening.  Women are already in abusive relationships, being manipulated and led to believe their partners love them or that they can “fix” their partners if they do all the right things.  Women are already being objectified and raped.  These are not things that are caused by reading a book.

The real problem is that books like these condone the behavior; they make it seem acceptable under certain circumstances.  When abuse is sold as romance, it makes the abuse appear to be acceptable.  Domestic abuse is okay, as long as a woman understands it’s because her partner only did it because he loved her.  When rape is sold as eroticism, it justifies a view of women that we are playthings.  It’s all right to fantasize about tying up and raping strangers at knife point, as long as one doesn’t actually do that in real life.  It isn’t a matter of life imitating art, it’s the other way around–and not in a way that points to the behavior and says, “This needs to stop.”

If either of these stories were clearly defining the abuse and fantasy-rape as Very Bad Things, I would champion them and demand everyone read them.  It’s entirely possible to point out societal ills in a manner that condemns the behavior, while still allowing the characters to see things differently than the readers.  To Kill a Mockingbird does this perfectly in the narrative of the rape trial woven throughout the story.  We can see the racism, but many of the town’s residents are incapable of such insight.  The important thing is that we’re not supposed to side with them.  We’re not supposed to see them as the heroes of the story, and we’re rightly indignant when people in real life also fail to understand why it’s wrong.

It’s a far, far different thing entirely to create characters who enforce violent, abusive behavior.  What a difference it would make in both of the stories I mentioned if the end result were for the abusers to be recognized for what they are.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and the consequence of both is reinforcement of a culture that is violent towards women.

Writers, this is my challenge to you: Don’t fall into the trap of believing your words have no subtext.  Words mean things, and not just individually.  Collectively, we can send messages that perhaps we don’t consciously intend.  Be purposeful with your words; examine yourself and your work for ways in which you’ve upheld stereotypes or reflected cultural norms that might be best left in the trash where they belong.  You, writers, are better than the ugly violence that some are selling as acceptable.

Breastfeeding and the Problem of Glitter

I really love the artwork of Mary Cassatt.

Last week, I ranted on Twitter about the sexualization of women’s breasts and how that relates to breastfeeding.  I want to expand on that, because I think this is an important part of the discussion about women’s bodies and objectification.

American culture has an obsession with breasts, in particular breasts as having explicitly sexual function.  It’s extreme enough that the attitude bleeds into our view of infant feeding and what is or isn’t appropriate.  The kinds of comments I’ve heard:

  • It’s gross the way your nipples get all pulled out of shape when you feed the baby.
  • I guess you can breastfeed past a year, but much beyond that and your kid shouldn’t be thinking about breasts anymore; that’s disgusting.
  • I wouldn’t feed a girl baby, only a boy, because having a girl suck on you is homosexual.
  • If you need to do that, go in the bathroom.  No one wants to see you whip it out in public.

Some things I learned in grad school when doing my research on the topic:

  • The number one reason adolescent moms don’t breastfeed is body image concerns/sexuality.
  • Women in some parts of the world cover head to toe, but their breasts are exposed while breastfeeding, even in public markets.
  • Breast implants can, but don’t always, affect ability to breastfeed.
  • Breast reduction nearly always affects breastfeeding.

The thing all of those have in common is that they are, in some way, associated with sexuality.*  This idea that breasts are for pleasure and not for functionality contributes to the justification of ogling women’s bodies and then excusing it by saying she wasn’t properly covered.  After many of us objected to the framing of the arguments in both the chocolate cake post and the glittertits post, the response was nearly instant: “But they were exposed!  Of course they were going to have people stare!”

The problem with that is that there’s no line.  When does staring become acceptable?  When a woman has her breast out and there’s a flash of nipple as the baby latches on?  When she has large breasts, even though they’re completely covered with nary a cleavage line showing?  When she’s got a low-cut blouse and glitter?  When a man is confused about whether or not she ought to have her top button undone in church?  If we start saying that any of those are okay reasons to gawp, we give permission for all of them.  If the justification is that the breasts have something about them that’s “distracting,” then any kind of breast-related distraction becomes a reason to leer.

I’m not suggesting a slippery slope, actually–I’m laying out a poor argument.  Saying, “But her breasts were right there in my face, covered in glitter.  How could I not look?” is pretty nebulous.  It could be used in just about every situation:

  • “But she was feeding her baby right there!  How could I not look?”
  • “But her breasts are just so huge!  How could I not look?”
  • “But she had that button undone and I thought it should be fixed!  How could I not look?”

That’s not one thing leading to worse things; it’s finding ways to justify what men were already doing by blaming women for living their lives.

Let me share two stories with you about my experiences with breastfeeding.  When my son was a newborn, we struggled to adapt to the change.  I had a hard time breastfeeding, including poor latch (which was probably due to the epidural I had), infant reflux, and stubborn yeast infections.  We made it, though, and I’m glad we did.  Because of all the challenges, our church attendance was sporadic for a while.  I was nervous about breastfeeding anywhere but home, since it was still difficult to get my son to latch.  The first time I fed him at church, I went to the bride’s ready room in the outer part of the ladies room.  Before anyone gets all upset, it’s a gorgeous space with comfy chairs, and it’s quiet in there–I wasn’t sitting on the toilet to nurse.  It’s not a bad place to feed a baby, but the reality is that I was hiding in case anyone was offended.

A woman came in and asked why I was sneaking away to the bathroom.  I made noises about how the pew wasn’t a comfortable place to feed my son, and she asked why I didn’t go in the library where I could sit on a couch and listen to the service through the speakers.  The next week, I did just that.  I was mortified, though, when a group of men in their 40s and 50s decided to also sit in there.  You know what?  None of them were fussed at all about the breastfeeding mom on the couch.  They smiled, said hello, made eye contact, cooed over the baby, and sat down.  Not one of them stared at me.  Nor did they avoid me; they just carried on as usual.  I think one of them may have commented about how it brought back nice memories of his wife feeding their own newborn some thirty years prior, but that’s it.

Fast forward to my second story.  At the church we attended when our daughter was a baby, it seemed like no big deal.  The auditorium was dark, so I just fed her and let her doze off during the service.  Kept her quiet, she got her morning nap, and I got to enjoy church.  Win-win.  Once or twice, I had to take her out because she was fussy, so I would sit on the chairs in the foyer and watch the service on the screen.  I thought it wasn’t too bad, but the chairs weren’t comfortable; the pastor even joked about that once.

But there was a problem: the nursery.  I never fed her in the nursery because I was told I was required to sit behind a screen where we couldn’t even see the service on the closed-circuit television.  We were supposed to hide in the nursery, and then hide within it.  Not only that, one of the pastors gave a sermon in which he felt free to tell women how long they should breastfeed.  He said that beyond a year was inappropriate.  I was shocked and upset; I had already done extended breastfeeding with my first, at his doctor’s urging, in part because of his stomach issues.  I was planning on the same with my second.  It had nothing to do with breasts and everything to do with their health.

In that church, I learned that breasts were something to be covered and ashamed of.  There was a constant thrum of “if she dresses like that, it’s no wonder men treat her like an object.”  There was hiding to feed babies and being told how long we should do it.  There were men fixating on the buttons of my shirt.  And yes, there were smokin’ hot wives (even though the wording was different).  There was blame and there was shame when it came to women’s bodies and an unspoken rule that our bodies belonged to our men, in private, for them to enjoy.

As you can see from my first story, it is entirely possible for men–a whole group of them, even–to sit in the presence of a woman with her breasts at least partially exposed and not ogle her.  It’s possible to make eye contact instead of staring, to ooh and aah over babies instead of boobies, and to have a conversation that isn’t strained because of the presence of breasts.  I guarantee that if men can do it when nipple exposure is a certainty, they can do it when wardrobe malfunction is only a possibility.  There’s no reason for any church to police women’s bodies–not ever.  Men are capable of reining in their own behavior, and women are not responsible for causing or curing it.

Women, don’t let cultural obsession stop you from nurturing your baby with your body or wearing that bikini or putting glitter anywhere you want to put it.  Men, you are not animals.  A lot of you behave decently, and while I’m not going to give you a prize for it, you should know that it’s appreciated.  And for those of you who have issues with breasts and what women do with them?  Find a hobby.  You’ve obviously got too much time on your hands.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

*Breast reduction isn’t always associated with sexuality; sometimes it’s health-related.  However, most women who have never given birth but plan to in the future are not told that the reduction can cause problems with breastfeeding because of the removal of some of the milk-producing tissue.  When a woman’s health is not immediately at risk and she intends to have biological children, if she wants to breastfeed it’s better to hold off on the surgery until afterward.  She should at least be informed of the risk.

Even the appearance of evil

By Josef Seibel (Portrait of two young women) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago, Stephanie Drury (Stuff Christian Culture Likes) posted a link to Set Apart Girl Magazine.  Nearly everything about it makes me cringe.  Even the title is awful.  I have a list of words that, as a woman, I do not want to be called.  At the top of the list is using female as a noun when referring to humans.  Second only to that is calling adult women girls.  Right off the bat this magazine has me wanting to punch something.

Feel free to read through the magazine if you want to, but bring boots and a shovel.  Meanwhile, I’m going to highlight the article that grabbed my attention: “Unnatural Affections.”  It’s about exactly what you think it is–and yet also not.

“Unnatural Affections” is the tragic tale of a friendship gone “too far.”  The young woman in the story, Sarah, has developed a friendship with one of her college classmates, Meredith.  The relationship is close, and it includes long talks, Bible studies, and physical affection.  And then the nightmare spiral into Meredith stalking and controlling Sarah . . . oh, wait. No, that’s not what happens.

What actually happens is that Sarah’s family and her boyfriend become “concerned” for her that she’s spending too much of the wrong kind of time with Meredith.  Her boyfriend, in a creepy-as-hell turn, even demands that she choose between him and her friendship.  In the end, Sarah caves and ditches Meredith so as not to hamper her future intimacy with her boyfriend (when they’re properly married, of course).  Just to prove what a parasite Meredith is, she apparently gloms onto another young woman to repeat her pattern.

This is a lovely little morality play, but there is so much wrong with it that I’m hardly sure where to start.  First, the relationship as described is not in any way abusive.  I’ve been in an abusive friendship, and it doesn’t look anything like that.  It looks like a friend who not only demands your time and attention but deliberately sabotages your other relationships.  It looks like an expectation to praise her every move.  It looks like her telling you that she thinks your boyfriend–who is well-liked by everyone else–is “condescending” and “too smart.”  It looks gossiping about you behind your back, cleverly disguising it as “prayer requests.”  It looks like demanding you give up friendships with people she doesn’t like.  It does not look like hugs and hair-braiding and long talks cuddling up while watching a movie.

Second, we women cannot win.  No matter what we do, we are seen as impure.  If we spend too much time with a boyfriend, we’re putting him before God.  If we spend too much time with another woman, we’re putting her before God.  If we have sex before we’re married, we’re “damaged goods.”  If we have a physically affection friendship, we’re failing to keep our bodies pure.  Essentially, young women are to be starved of loving touch until marriage, at which point it will magically become okay–as long as it’s only with our husbands.  What kind of sick joke is that?  It sounds like another variation of body = bad, soul = good.

Third, the whole thing is a clear example of why I’m still stubbornly writing about homophobia in the church.  See, here’s the thing.  A person doesn’t even have to actually be gay to find him- or herself victimized by the church.  One only has to give the appearance of doing something the church disapproves of.  In this case, the Big Bad was having a physically affectionate relationship with a friend; The article even refers to it as “subtly sensual.”

As a youth, I heard all about how I should “avoid even the appearance of evil” and “not cause my brothers to stumble.”  That meant I had to obsess over every single action I took, because I might somehow do something that could be interpreted as sinful.  I recall a youth leader explaining that it meant she didn’t drink wine when out at a restaurant because she couldn’t be sure there wasn’t a teenager or a recovering alcoholic in the restaurant, and she didn’t want to give the teen the wrong impression or tempt the alcoholic to drink.  That may sound extreme, but it’s another example of exactly what’s going on in the story of Sarah and Meredith.  It doesn’t matter one bit whether they were actually in a sexual relationship–what matters is that they appeared as though they were

I appreciate that some people may be hurt by having assumptions made about their sexuality (actually, no, I really don’t care about that at all; suck it up).   But I’m far more concerned about the message this sends to LGBTQ people: “You are so bad that we don’t even want anyone doing stuff that looks like you.”  Is there anything else the church believes to be sin that’s treated with such utter contempt?

Yesterday, some of the people I follow on Twitter were expressing the desire to stop coddling people who are not LGBTQ allies–to stop pretending that it’s just a difference of opinion and that it’s okay.  I’m all for that.  It’s not remotely okay to find every possible way to shame and humiliate people for who they are.  It’s not okay to tell lies about LGBTQ people from the pulpit.  It’s not okay to attach unnecessary subtext to a friendship based on those lies.  It’s not okay to sit back and tolerate other people doing it, either.

To the Sarahs and Merediths of the world, there is nothing wrong with you.  Whether it truly is just a friendship or whether you’ve discovered you’re in love with each other, take both as blessings.  You’ve found a valuable gift if you have a friend or a lover with whom you can talk about your love for God and the Bible.  Go find your joy in one another, and screw the loveless people who shame you for what you have.