Friday, October 26, 2012

Costuming Our Daughters

Last night I took my kids to a local grocery store's annual Halloween celebration. After circling the store to trick-or-treat (Hooray! Boxes of oatmeal!), we gathered near the entrance for a dance party. A hyped-up DJ tossed Mardi Gras beads at the kids who danced the fastest, acted the weirdest, and screamed the loudest. The kids bounced around like Whack-a-Mole rats while their plainclothes parents stood on the sidelines—except for one mother. Directly to my left, a woman in a sexy schoolgirl costume busted a move and periodically nudged her modestly clad daughter back onto the dance floor. The girl, who looked to be about seven, kept glancing around to see if anyone was watching.

That scene was fresh in my mind this morning when I came across a Huffington Post article about the evolution of girls' Halloween costumes. The article explains that girls' costumes have evolved over the last 20 years from silly and scary to sexy. A slideshow accompanying the article illustrates this trend, contrasting modest old-school costumes with barely-there contemporary counterparts. A floor-length fairy godmother gown becomes a laced corset above a short tutu. A baggy clown costume becomes a polka-dot cami above a short tutu. Full-body prison garb becomes a black-and-white striped tank top above, you guessed it, a short tutu.

I have no argument with HuffPo writer Jessica Samakow's claim that "girls are being fed sexualized identities at younger ages." But my observation contradicts Samakow's assessment that, though parents are trying to resist dressing their daughters in sexy costumes, "it's a battle most parents seem to be losing." The mere existence of trashy costumes for young girls is abhorrent, but parents seem more capable of avoiding them than Samakow acknowledges. Maybe it's because I live in Minnesota where you'd freeze your tookus off in a short tutu, but the only sexualized costume I spotted last night was on the mother next to me. (That could be the subject of another blog post, if I had any idea what to make of it.) It's worth noting that the HuffPo slideshow compares decades-old photographs of real children with contemporary images from costume packaging. A tutu looks provocative on a heavily made-up child posing like a pin-up girl, but it becomes innocent worn over leggings with the back tag hanging out and topped with a long-sleeved t-shirt that doesn't match except for the glitter.

Sexy costumes are like those misogynistic t-shirts that raise an outcry every season. (Remember J.C. Penney's "Too pretty to do homework" shirt?) Or like Howard Stern. They're repulsive, and they represent a tolerance for misogyny that seems to be increasing. But they're also designed to shock, and they gain power when we pay them too much attention. As parents, I think most of us are managing to navigate the costume and clothing aisles without debasing our children. The challenge, as indicated perhaps by a mother shaking her booty at a kids' event, is helping our children navigate these things themselves as they grow older.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Article Puts Focus on Kids' Health, Not Weight

Bravo to Utne for reprinting Dawn Friedman's excellent article on childhood obesity, originally published in Brain, Child magazine. Friedman analyzes the war on childhood obesity and its tactics—blaming parents, shaming children, and promoting restrictive diets. These reactions are misguided, she argues, because they assume body size is a choice and they equate weight with health.

Friedman devotes much of her article to illustrating how a blame-and-shame response to obesity does more harm than good. For example:

Shaming promotes unhealthy eating. Friedman herself developed chaotic eating habits after her parents sat her down to tell her she was too fat. She starved, binged, and exercised her way to a smaller size and lost her ability to recognize hunger. Friedman interviews another woman who developed an eating disorder after her father and a family friend chided her about her weight. While still hospitalized for her disorder, the woman was told she needed to lose weight again because she'd rebounded so quickly when she resumed eating. This woman has regained her health and developed a peaceful relationship with food and her body. She now speaks to schoolkids about health and physical activity, pointing out that body shame also prevents kids from exercising.

Equating weight with health ignores the importance of nutrition. A Minnesota-based pediatrician admits she doled out nutritional advice with virtually no relevant training and assumed parents were lying when their children didn't lose weight on restrictive diets. It wasn't until she had a child herself that she researched the medical literature and learned that statistically, fat kids and lean kids don't eat any differently. "I used to see some fat kid walk by with a Starbucks drink with a bunch of whipped cream and think, 'Oh my gosh, what is that parent thinking?'" she told Friedman. "What I didn't see was that his skinny brother was drinking the same thing."

Restricting foods makes them more desirable and leads to overeating. Friedman describes a six-year-old child who "broke into a neighbor's house to get food the little girl wasn't allowed to eat at home." In another example, a poster hanging in a classroom reads THIS IS A NO SWEETS ZONE and pictures a giant cupcake with a red slash through it, reminding kids all day about the yummy foods they're not supposed to eat.

Blaming individuals can lead to discrimination and mistreatment. An ad campaign in Georgia depicts a severely overweight woman and her overweight son sitting across from each other in folding chairs. The boy asks, "Why am I fat?" and the mother hangs her head in shame. The screen cuts to text reading: "75% of parents of overweight kids ignore the problem." Such rhetoric, Friedman points out, can be seen as "a form of state-sanctioned bullying, which lays the groundwork for ostracizing fat kids." After all, if obesity is a shameful condition for which individuals are responsible, we can feel justified in condemning them.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire article. You won't find a pat answer for the obesity crisis, but Friedman will point you toward a clearheaded resource for addressing your own children's nutrition (Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility approach). More significantly, she removes condemnation from our plates so we can focus on the task of feeding our kids.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

You're a Sloth, I Sympathize, and Have I Got a Deal for You

Whenever I encounter something that provokes negative feelings about my body, I like to ask: What are they trying to sell me? For example, a "controversy" erupted recently (women's critiques of other women are always called controversies) when celebrity personal trainer Tracy Anderson told DuJour Magazine, "A lot of women use pregnancy as an excuse to let their bodies go, and that's the worst thing." It seems Anderson took some heat for her comment and felt compelled to clarify her statement on Good Morning America. "What I mean is that pregnancy is difficult," she told GMA's Lara Spencer. "I know that the journey of getting back to your best level of performance physically is very hard, but it's an incredibly empowering place to be."

Having eroded pregnant women's confidence and then reassured them that she understands their struggle, Anderson reveals that she's created a series of workout DVDs to help women achieve their "best level" of physical performance. Her postpartum DVD retails at $29.95 and has already sold a million copies. Her newest product, "The Pregnancy Project," is a series of nine workouts retailing at $49.95 and featuring interviews with Anderson's celebrity clients.

According to The Huffington Post, which seems as preoccupied with pregnancy weight gain as mothers-to-be themselves, several celebrity "momshells"* were on hand at a recent press event celebrating the launch of "The Pregnancy Project." In addition to shilling DVDs, the celebs offered advice with the self-assurance of veteran OB/GYNs. Gwyneth Paltrow, who is Anderson's business partner as well as her client, told HuffPo, "It's very important to move when you're long as you're okay to get up and at least walk and really try to keep blood circulating." Christy Turlington Burns, whose charity Every Mother Counts receives $5 for every "Pregnancy Project" sold, chimed in: "Pregnancy, as wonderful as it is, makes us very vulnerable...It makes us susceptible to gestational diabetes, preclampsia [sic], things that are harmful. So the better foundation you have going in, the more healthy you'll feel and the better outcome you'll have with the delivery and the baby."

Anderson's celeb friends aren't just experts. Presumably, they're also the gal pals we want to emulate, which is the point of including them in the video series. "You know, give yourself a break. Nobody knows what it's going to feel like as a mom until it happens," Turlington Burns reassures HuffPo readers. And for mothers of older kids, Paltrow shares how she makes fitness a family affair: "Every day after school, we have a little scrimmage together in the garden."

So let's reevaluate that "controversy" sparked by Anderson's DuJour interview. Anderson's quote and follow-up remarks were reported by: Good Morning America, the Today show, The Huffington Post, ABC News, the New York Daily News, the International Business Times, and a slew of celebrity websites. Every one of those reports mentioned Anderson's new DVD series. The original outcry, on the other hand, seems to have been a single comment by MORE magazine editor Lesley Jane Seymour; it's not clear whether Seymour was responding to Anderson's statement or participating in a discussion generated by Good Morning America to hype Anderson's appearance on the show. The average media consumer will understand that Anderson is selling a product. But most consumers won't question whether the entire conversation was manufactured to sell DVDs, endorse Christy Turlington's charity, promote Gwyneth Paltrow's brand, and generate buzz for DuJour Magazine, which turns out to be a new publication targeting wealthy readers (the kind of readers who don't need Anderson's DVDs because they can afford to hire her as a trainer). It seems the only people who don't benefit from Anderson's media blitz are the pregnant and postpartum women she purports to help.

*For the uninitiated, momshell is a mash-up of mom and bombshell. It's the PG version of MILF, referring to a mother with sex appeal. The term is more transparent than it intends to be, acknowledging our regard for women as nothing more than containers.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Celebrate the NOW Foundation's Love Your Body Day by Talking Back

Today is the NOW Foundation's 15th annual Love Your Body Day, encouraging women and girls "to talk back to the media, to demand images that reflect the full spectrum of womanhood in all its many sizes, colors, ages, ethnicities, abilities and gender presentations." Apparently, across the country women are holding educational forums, protests, blogathons, and other events to challenge harmful media messages. Well, color me clueless. I'd never heard of NOW's Love Your Body Campaign before I recently stumbled across it while researching an article. I suspect many of today's events are occurring on college campuses where they escape the attention of mothers who might have a thing or two to tell the media, if we could find the time to string together a few sentences.

Let's make the time. Here are a few things I want to tell the media about its portrayals of mothers' bodies:

Enough with the stories about how the latest celebrity mom got her body back after pregnancy. If I didn't look like these women before I had children, I sure as spit-up can't look like them after. I don't have a personal trainer, a chef, a stylist, or a nanny.What I do have are two children who depend on me to meet their physical, mental, and emotional needs. That undertaking, while rewarding, is daunting enough without being measured against physical standards that are unrealistic and pointless.

Speaking of postnatal physical standards, lay off Jessica Simpson. She might accept the constant scrutiny as part of her profession. Heck, she seems to have embraced it, signing on as Weight Watchers' new spokesmother for a hefty $3 million. But condemning Simpson or Melissa Joan Hart or Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai for gaining weight during pregnancy is a disservice to all mothers. Weight gain is a necessary aspect of pregnancy and not a moral failure. Even excessive weight gain is a) not the public's business and b) not remedied by a heaping dose of shame. I don't know what motivates someone to comment on the weight of a person they've never met, but I don't believe it's genuine concern for that person's health or alarm over rising obesity rates. I suspect snarky comments are less about health than about commodification—assigning value to women's bodies as products to be consumed.

In that vein, let's lose the acronym MILF. I have an unseemly affinity for adolescent male humor, but there's nothing funny about reducing mothers to their ability to incite pubescent lust. Am I supposed to feel flattered that a teenage boy or his middle-aged clone declares me doable? Crestfallen that he doesn't? (While we're at it, let's stop calling women "doable.") It's bad enough that I worried about this stuff when I was a teenager. Back then I thought adulthood meant becoming more adult—in the growing up sense, not the film industry sense. I thought I'd graduate to a place where minds and hearts were valued above boobs and butts. Alas, I've arrived in a world where women emblazon the MILF label onto their own t-shirts, claiming it empowers them. Consider this reasoning from a New York Magazine column by Em and Lo: "And after all, the MILF might just represent a less uptight version of maternity, in which it's no longer considered selfish or unreasonable to protect that part of your identity that has nothing to do with scraped knees and runny noses." Is there no middle ground between sex and snot? There are many parts of my identity that have nothing to do with scraped knees and runny noses, and none of them are defined by someone else's lascivious gaze. Calling mothers MILFs doesn't empower us. It enmeshes us in the same misogynistic web we want our daughters to escape.

How about you? What do you want to tell the media about representations of mothers' bodies?