I often send emails to people when I am concerned about something that is happening, when I want to point something out that is not right, or feel that my words may make a difference in the world. I have decided that I am going to start publishing emails like this on my blog. This is in the hope that perhaps someone reading my blog may be in the same situation and me, and reading my words may help them make the time/energy available to send a similar letter. Small steps to social change!
(I am going through my archives, and this letter was sent to a Principal of a primary school following Robin Thicke's song 'Blurred Lines' being played at a junior school disco (children aged 5 - 7) last year.)
First of all, thanks so much to you and the teachers for spending your Friday night entertaining children! You time is really appreciated.
I just wanted to comment on some of the music played at the disco tonight. I realise it is an issue I am hyper-sensitive to, given my line of work, but I think it is an important issue that needs to be addressed. (The portrayal of sex and sexuality in music is one of the topics I speak about in seminars).
This week there has been quite a bit of media attention given to Robin Thicke’s song ‘Blurred Lines’, (and the parody of it done by the Auckland Law Review) and it has widely been described as a song supporting rape culture, sexist attitudes and as being overwhelmingly misogynistic. I was therefore very surprised when it was played at the junior school disco this evening. This is the song here.
Watching five year olds dance to the lines “I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two” left me feeling deeply uncomfortable.
Others will sum it up the issues in this song far more eloquently than me – in particular this article.
Children should not be exposed to music that they are not capable of critically deconstructing. We discuss many things in our home, but [my five year old son] is not ready for a discussion on rape culture. I know that some people will say “the kids don’t understand the lyrics anyway”. However if we send the message that this song is OK now, how do we then tell them it isn't right when they do understand?
I propose that for future events, all songs are thoroughly vetted before going on the playlist.
* The Principal responded immediately, agreeing with my concerns.
I was privileged to spend some time with some gorgeous girls in Samoa last year. As my blog posting has been sporadic-at-best as of late, this has sat in my 'drafts' way too long!
In 2013 I was planning a family holiday to Samoa. As someone passionate about social justice, I like to ‘give back’ to the communities I live in and visit. I had helped organised an aid package to go to Samoa Victim Support Group previously, and I thought I may be able to offer a workshop to the girls at their residential shelter. Wellington-based charity SpinningTop connected me to their President Lina and we organised for me to provide a workshop for them.
What I Did
When we arrived in Apia I met with Lina at the SVSG offices and she gave me more background on their organisation. We discussed what I would be teaching the girls and I gave Lina a couple of boxes of supplies I had brought with me – Air NZ had kindly agreed to transport these for free. The boxes contained some donated stationery items, disposable sanitary pads donated by Kotex, as well as re-usable packs from Days For Girls NZ (containing underwear, cloth pads, and a wash cloth).
I spent a morning with approximately 30 girls - the girls were fantastic and really engaged, and the staff were very supportive. The girls were gorgeous, so full of smiles and laughter. They are survivors for whom I have the utmost of respect for. Lina had told me some of their stories, and these girls have all been on traumatic and heartbreaking journeys. Most of them are with SVSG because they are survivors of sexual violence, for many of them this is incest. Many of them have been pregnant as a result of this violence. Tragically in many cases these girls have been disowned and blamed for bringing shame on the family. SVSG provides safety, education and a home for these girls. SVSG also manages the legal process to bring justice for these children.
The girls had lots of questions and I felt like we could have spent a lot more time together. The level of knowledge and understanding of how their bodies work was very low. Most knew very little about the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and childbirth - despite there being pregnant girls and girls who had already birthed in the group. My (then 10 month old) daughter Nina accompanied me and I found that having her there was a good ‘icebreaker’ with the girls. The girls enjoyed chatting and playing with Nina as they warmed up to me. As it turned out Nina ended up sleeping in my front-pack for most of the morning as I taught - it was more than 30 degrees in the classroom so we were rather sweaty by the end of it!
I was a little taken aback when TV cameras arrived just as we were starting. They filmed the introductory part of my session and then in the middle of the session I was called out for an interview. I was a little anxious about this as had had no warning and I wasn't sure what angle they were going to take, but I kept it very neutral and emphasised the importance of all people having a good understanding of their bodies and sexuality. It came across well on the news that night.
I left SVSG feeling like what I had done that day with the girls was but a drop in the ocean. I felt like I had empowered the the girls with knowledge of their bodies, but also knew there was so much information we didn't cover. SVSG were hugely grateful for the workshop, but I wanted to do more. These girls really touched my heart. There is a huge need for ongoing body/sexuality education as well as antenatal education for the pregnant girls. SVSG has been on my mind a lot since.
Earlier this year SpinningTop approached me to see if I would be interested in offering a more comprehensive programme for the girls at SVSG. With SpinningTop's support, I am returning to provide a one-week programme in August 2014. I am currently fundraising for supplies (food, baby formula, educational supplies) for SVSG and am hugely appreciative of any donations. For more details on this project, please click here.
My story is part of the Blog carnival organised by World Milksharing Week, to celebrate World Milksharing Week 2013. Click here to read more stories about milksharing. If you’d like to participate too, please visit this page.
When I was pregnant with my first child I learnt about how amazing breastmilk was. It’s pretty much liquid gold. I was determined to breastfeed. To my distress, things didn't go as planned. Due to many factors, my son Sol was given formula within 6 hours of birth, and although I did everything within my knowledge at the time Sol was fully formula-fed from six weeks. Failure to breastfeed long-term traumatised me on many levels. Many people didn't understand this – I was told by many “formula’s fine, he’ll be fine”, which of course it was, and he is. But this attitude undermined and invalidated my grief. Yes, formula’s “fine”, but it is not what babies were born to consume, and science indicates that the detrimental effects are numerous. (For example, it is estimated that the U.S. might save $13 billion in healthcare and other costs annually, and save over 900 babies a year if 90% if babies were exclusively breastfed for six months.) Breast isn't best, it's normal.
When I was pregnant with my daughter last year I devoured every book I could find on breastfeeding. I spent a lot of time researching, understanding and finding support in my community so that I knew I had done everything I could to breastfeed my next baby. I learnt about the many things that did and did not happen in Sol’s first few days and weeks that contributed to him not being a breastfed baby. During this time I also learnt about breastmilk sharing. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF support donor human milk as the first alternative where mother's milk is not available. I decided that should I need to supplement my milk, I would do my best to find my baby human milk.
Everything about Nina’s birth was wonderful (birth story here). She even did a breast crawl and latched herself on. I was in awe of her, my amazing beautiful baby. But after that first feed, I had a painful blister on my nipple. Luckily I had a fantastic midwife and she diagnosed a tongue-tie immediately. (I was later to find out Sol is also tongue-tied, which goes a long way in explaining why he never suckled and had trouble with a bottle). Thus began a journey that involved much blood (my nipples), travel (Wellington and Hamilton for Nina’s tongue laser surgery), many many sleepless nights as poor Nina tried to drink with severely restricted tongue mobility, and many many tears (hers and mine in equal parts!). By day 10 Nina had not gained enough weight and we were faced with the prospect of formula. In tears, I told my midwife that I wanted to try and find human milk for Nina. I knew the effects of non-human milk on an infant gut, and I wanted to do all I could to avoid that. My wonderful midwife fully supported this decision.
I posted a request for breast milk on my local parenting group Facebook page and within 20 minutes I had offers of milk from a number of women. At that point I sat on the couch crying at the sheer generosity and amazingness of people. My husband sat with me and was similarly amazed and overwhelmed at this community of mamas. Within two hours a very special woman arrived with over a litre of breastmilk. That was a really emotional moment for me, and in fact every time we had a delivery of frozen bags of milk I got teary with gratitude. I also reached out to the Eats on Feets Aotearoa community, who were similarly incredibly supportive. A wonderful side-effect of milk sharing are the beautiful connections I made with many women.
Throughout the time we were supplementing with donor milk I was worried about “nipple confusion” so I avoided using a bottle and fed Nina the donor milk through a supplementary nursing system. This had the added bonus of extra time at my breast, further stimulating my milk supply. It took 13 weeks, and my milk combined with five superstar milk-mamas until we got the tongue-tie sorted and I was able to exclusively breastfeed Nina. We’re still going strong at 11.5 months and she has still never had any formula. Going beyond the nutritional benefits of breastmilk, I feel just so grateful to have experienced the simplicity and beauty of a breastfeeding dyad. My body responding to Nina and her needs in the most simple and perfect way. Watching her eyes roll back in pure drunken happiness as the milk fills her belly is one of my life’s most beautiful moments. Now that she is older, I love her ways of communicating to me that she needs milk, and the delighted grin on her face afterwards as she toddles away. She looks round the room grinning delightedly at everyone who will look at her, as if to say “that was DELICIOUS!”
People have started to ask me when we are going to stop breastfeeding. I tell them to ask Nina. She is still a huge fan, so I don’t think it will be any time soon. The World Health Organisation recommends that children are breastfed for a minimum of two years. I am immensely proud that we have made it this far together and I love the idea of full-term breastfeeding and Nina choosing when she is ready to wean. (Oddly enough I still feel anxious putting that dream out there in to the universe, as it I still can't quite believe we have made it this far!)
When I was receiving donor milk for Nina, I imagined one day being able to donate my milk to other babies in need. I am not sure I ever believed that day would come. But it has, and I feel so emotional packaging up my precious packs of frozen gold, ready to nurture another baby.
I am thankful for the vocal and passionate supporters of breastfeeding and breastmilk sharing. I am thankful for the oodles of research readily available showing the detrimental effects of non-human milk on babies. Knowing this meant I was that much more determined to fight the fight for Nina. I wish I had known this much when Sol was first born. I am thankful for my family and friends for their breastfeeding wisdom, support and cheerleading. I am grateful to my wonderful midwives and lactation consultants who believed in Nina and I, even when I didn’t, and gave me so much knowledge, skill and support. And most of all I am so grateful to Nina’s five Milk-Mamas who selflessly gave up their time and energy to pump their precious milk to nurture Nina. It is hard to put into words how much this meant to us. We love you! Milk-sharing absolutely epitomises the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”, and I know that Nina is growing up in one awesome village.
A few people have emailed me to ask about donating milk and how to go about doing this. If you are in a position to do this, I highly encourage you to do so. It's hard to put into words how much the donated milk meant to us, it is such a beautiful gift to give. Here are some links to check out:
I have fond memories of my collection of childhood toys - wooden blocks, Big Ted, My Little Pony, the Cindy doll my parents bought me (instead of the Barbie I REALLY wanted), Lego, railway tracks... And nowadays I enjoy sometimes escaping into the imaginary world with my four-year-old boy and his collection of treasured toys. I read about the toys on offer for kids, I see kids playing with toys and the students I work with tell me about the toys that are and were important in their lives.
There is a lot of writing about the highly gendered and also sexualised nature of many childhood toys these days, but on Friday I suddenly realised that I could count on one hand the number of times I have been in a toy store since entering adulthood. Inspired by other writers, I decided it was time to hit the front-line. What was on offer for New Zealand children? Was it as bad as it was in the USA? (where much of the research I read comes from) And what are the 'good' options out there?
Armed with my camera, I entered our local toy store (one of a nationwide chain). And thus began an hour of walking up and down every aisle, taking note and photographing the good, the bad and the plain downright ridiculous.
Into 'GIRL ZONE'
Upon entering the store, the first thing I noticed was that there was an area labelled ‘Girl’s Zone’, but the only other zone to be labelled was 'Pre-school'. Is this because all the other toys in the store are designed for boys (the default ‘normal’), or is it that all the other toys are for both boys AND girls but this wee corner is for girls only?
I headed over to investigate further and was nearly blinded by the pink-ness.
First up, the Barbie display...
"Hmmm, who do I want to be today?"
I had high hopes for the Barbie 'I Can Be..." range. I recall as a child in the 1980s Barbie was a real 'girls can do anything' kinda gal, so I thought that surely by 2012, any remnants of that 1952 original passive doll would be well and truly banished. Unfortunately it seems that Barbie's career options in 2012 are very limited to what she can do whilst still wearing form-fitting lycra and/or heels. And the ubiquitous pink of course. There were five career options in the character dolls (see below) - I challenge anyone to find me any real-life professional woman whose wardrobe resembles any of these outfits?! And as someone who spent my teen years as a surf lifeguard, it sure as hell didn't resemble this Barbie scene. A friend was telling me recently that she had relented and had promised her daughter a Barbie as long as she could find one doing 'normal' things - such as snowboarder Barbie. There wasn't a snowboarder Barbie in this shop, but I can envisage her ensemble already...
And if you wanted to simply give your exisiting Barbie a new career, you had six different outfits to choose from. As you would never guess the occupations from their outfits, let me label them top to bottom, left to right:
Next to Barbie was the much criticised new line of Lego, designed especially for girls - the 'Friends' range. Their catch-phrase is "The Beauty of Building" - because we wouldn't want girls to forget for a moment that regardless of the activity, it always comes down to beauty, right?
Anyone for Disney Princess paraphernalia?
I personally dislike this range from Lego. I dislike the emphasis on beauty and I hate that the 'Friends' range have totally different bodies to the 'standard' range - they have boobs and makeup. There is no way one of the 'Friends' would EVER want to play with a standard Lego boy or girl! It's problematic that in creating a specific 'girls' range, by default the rest of the Lego range becomes a 'boys' range, thus limiting girls' options. And the narrow range of activities and colours offered to the girls drives me nuts. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to indicate that girls have a natural inclination towards pastel colours. Lego is just playing into the pinkification of girl-world that serves to further the gender gap amongst children and thus increase the profits of those marketing things to children.
Next up was the Disney Princess Zone. In a moment of marketing genius, this line was released in 2000 and now there are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items and many other companies have jumped on board to create Princess-mania in girl world. Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author of Packaging Girlhood, is concerned by the the sheer dominance of princess culture: “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice; it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”
As I continued to wander round 'Girl's Zone' I found more and more pink washing, and more and more toys with come-hither eyes and sexy poses. What really struck me was how much some of these toys had changed since I was a girl. In my day 'My Little Pony' was a sweet chubby thing with demure eyes. Her latest incarnation is decidedly sexy, curvy and oh, those eyes.
There were a few brands in 'Girl's Zone' that really stood out in a positive way:
Venturing out of 'Girl Zone', I headed towards the 'Pre-school' zone...
I was pleased to see the gender-neutral 'preschooler' sign, although interested in the offerings as many of the toys in the 'Girl's Zone' were aimed at the pre-school age group. This section gave the impression of being very gender-neutral, but upon closer inspection, many of the toys revealed themselves to be playing into tired gender stereotypes:
However, there were also some great non-gender-limiting options:
(No other 'zones' were labelled, so the following categories are ones that I have used)
Puzzles and games
Of all the different types of toys, I would have thought that this genre would have the least need to be gendered. Apparently not. I think the biggest issue with gendering things like this is that it strongly discourages cross-gender play. Unfortunately I feel that few four year old boys would want to play with the pinkified versions of these games. By then, for many boys the gender message has been well and truly absorbed.
A WINNER from Little Tikes! Gender neutral packaging PLUS an image of a boy and a girl playing together!
*calm down Rachel, keep in mind how ODD it is that this is so rare!*
Building and Science Sets
These were located in the area I think a child would describe as the 'Boys' Zone' (although there were no actual signs to indicate this). Alongside these sets seemed to be an overwhelming collection of toys based around themes of fighting and violence. As the mother of a little boy, I am disturbed by the messages these toys give him about what it means to be a man. I could not find a single toy in this area that depicted a boy or a man in a caring or nurturing role. Play is one way children learn about what it means to be an adult as they role-play with the toys provided to them. What are the consequences of raising a generation of boys whose understanding of manhood is based on ninjas, soldiers and Avengers?
My little adventure into the toy store was both depressing and comforting.
Depressing because of the overwhelming number of gender-limiting options out there. I imagined my four year old son Sol being let loose in that store to explore and admire the toys available to him. He would be confronted with SO MANY gender-limiting stereotypes. He would be presented with a very clear picture of what it is to be a girl, and what it is to be a boy. Both of these definitions are very narrow, and he would quickly realise it was high time he dumped all of his female friends.
I would label very few of the toys in this shop inherently "bad or "wrong", but it's the overwhelming message they present en masse, and also the stark reality of what is missing. I managed to find three images of girls and boys playing together IN THE WHOLE STORE. Research shows that cross-gender play in childhood increases the likelihood of more healthy romantic relationships in the teen years, yet it seems that marketers are doing all they can to prevent this.
Comforting because I realised that, if I searched hard enough I could find toys and games that were not gender-limiting. There are options out there for parents willing to take the time to find them. Some companies are still marketing their product to both genders, and although many had fallen into the highly-gendered trap, a number still offered a 'gender neutral' option alongside their gendered stuff. For this, I am heartened, and this quote comes to mind: "Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what they are." - James W. Frick
Childhood lasts for such a precious short time, let's not shorten this further by placing limitations on who and what our children can be. Let's not allow the financial motivations of toy companies have any part in how our children define themselves. Let's give our children the time and the space to explore and experience their world without being limited to what pop culture dictates is "right" for their gender.
As soon as we found out that I was pregnant we told our three-year-old son Sol about the pregnancy and he has been involved in the midwife appointments and lots of excited talk about our new baby. He recently accompanied us to the 20-week ultrasound scan.
After the radiographer had done all the important measurements and observations, she got to the least important part – finding the vulva or the penis. While she was looking for that part of our baby’s body she said to me:
“Ouhhh, you’ll soon know if you’ll have to be buying a pink tutu!”
(I am sure my husband smothered a laugh at this point. I refrained from launching into a tirade about gender stereotyping and the findings of various neurological studies on babies and gender.)
As it turns out, we spotted a vulva.
And I realised that, at 20 weeks gestation this wee girl had already experienced her first gender stereotyping.
It isn’t that pink tutus violently offend me, it’s that there was an assumption that if my baby had a vulva, then a pink tutu would be the most important thing on my mind, and that her vulva would automatically predispose her to an uncontrollable urge to wear pink tutus.
Who knows, she could be an absolute ballet fanatic, in which case I am sure our house will be loaded with tutus of all description. Or she could be a soccer player, a hip-hop dancer, a chess-genius, a swimmer... - in which case we may have no pink tutus at all. Or maybe she’ll have stages of being all of the above, and our already-cluttered house will have a collection of all sorts of outfits in all sorts of colours.
All I know is that I will do everything in my Mama-Bear power to protect her from the tirade of gender-limiting stereotypes that I know will attempt to surround her from birth (and before!). All of a sudden I am deeply grateful on a personal level for the amazing work done to counter such attitude by individuals and organisations such as Enlighten Education, Pigtail Pals, Pink Stinks and 7Wonderlicious.
And I will leave you with the wisdom of little Riley, who articulates the craziness of all this stuff just so so well:
This is the update of the Diva/Playboy situation from Suzanne Culph at Change.org. See my earlier blog post for some background on the issue.
"Huge news! Reports are coming in from supporters in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide that Diva staff have been removing some Playboy products from display.
The campaign is working - but Diva management continue to dig in their heels and are refusing to withdraw Playboy nationwide.
Diva’s brand is taking a beating - both online and offline. They’re monitoring what their customers are saying about them online every moment. Taking a respectful message about why you signed the petition directly to Diva right now could tip the balance.
Click here to post a personal message on Diva’s Facebook page.
It’s important you speak from the heart about why this campaign matters - but if you need some help, here are some ideas on what to say:
• Why you’re personally against promoting a porn brand like Playboy to girls.
• As a parent and customer how it will influence your shopping decisions.
• The impact of the porn industry on women and perceptions of women.
The petition started by Collective Shout on Change.org has transformed into a movement of parents and shoppers, determined to hold Diva to account for pushing Playboy products on to young girls. And we’ve been phenomenally successful, some Playboy merchandise has been shoved under the counter “because of the controversy.”
Diva’s General Manager Bianca Ginns continues to say they’re just following a fashion trend. Let’s make sure Diva know that selling the porn industry to young girls will never be fashionable - click here to share with Diva why you support the petition by posting on their Facebook wall.
Thanks for all that you’re doing,
Suzanne, for the Change.org team."
Diva is a budget Australian jewellery company popular with young girls - their ranges include Winnie the Pooh charm bracelets, Disney Princess pendants and Cute Cupcakes Best Friends necklaces. Recently they launched a range of Playboy jewellery - necklaces, rings, bowties, earrings – all come adorned with the popular Playboy bunny symbol. Suddenly Diva’s shop windows were plastered with Hugh Heffner’s porn symbol .
Australian bloggers, activists, media commentators, TV and newspapers erupted in anger and controversy over Diva’s Playboy paraphernalia.
Collective Shout explains Playboy’s marketing strategy:
Playboy has succeeded in embedding its bunny logo on pencil cases, bed linen, cosmetics, jewellery, wallets, slippers and key chains, normalizing and sanitizing the Playboy insignia to children and young people. Playboy deliberately markets its brand to girls as cool fashion chic. Diva has become a willing participant in pimping the brand and its values to its young customers. Many of the Playboy products the company sells are decorated with sparkling diamantes or are in the shape of love hearts. There are ‘Playmate’ pendants and Playmate of the month necklaces (‘Miss January’, ‘Miss February’ etc), which invite girls to think of themselves as porn stars. One necklace depicts a Playboy bunny from her backside down. Her upper body, including her head, is missing.
No longer merely a ‘soft-porn’ magazine, Playboy is now a billion dollar global brand profiting from the exploitation and subordination of women. Playboy Enterprises pornographic film titles include “Cum Drinking Sluts”, “Barely 18 Anal Virgins”, “Fresh Juicy Lolitas”, “Double Entry”, “Wait your turn, bitch!” These films and others depict women enduring body punishing and violent sexual acts for men’s sexual pleasure. Diva pretends this doesn’t matter.
The Diva Facebook wall was overwhelmed with passionate arguments from both sides of the case. I want to share with you Dannielle Miller's case for what Playboy really means.
1. Playboy is not harmless, mainstream fun. It is not a cute little bunny.
2. Playboy is Hugh Hefner. He is 85. He lives in the Playboy mansion with his girlfriends, all at the same time. It’s not so much that he could be their father, more like their grandfather. Or great-grandfather. He ain’t that cool really, is he?
3. Playboy isn’t harmless or soft porn. As Collective Shout notes, some of Playboy’s films “depict women enduring body punishing and violent sexual acts for men’s sexual pleasure”. Some of their films have titles that are sickeningly degrading of teen girls and women... It is clear from the titles alone that this brand sells material that denigrates women and treats them as objects.
4. Criticism of Playboy isn’t a new thing. Writer and feminist Gloria Steinem exposed the truth of the Playboy Bunny’s life when she wrote a magazine article after going undercover to work at the Playboy Club almost 50 years ago. It wasn’t glamorous. It was badly paid, exploitative and denigrating. She pretended to the woman interviewing her for the bunny job that she had been a secretary. The interviewer looked at her and said, “Honey, if you can type, why would you want to work here?”
5. Playboy is not about women expressing their sexuality. It’s not about liberation. It’s about making money from women’s bodies. This marketing line on the Playboy site sums it up, really: “Get all these girls for 1 low price!”
I lent my support to the various Australian individuals and groups voicing outrage and I signed Collective Shout’s petition for Diva to remove their Playboy range. I visited Diva’s Facebook page and voiced my dismay. As far as I was aware, Diva was an Australian company selling products in Australia and I wanted to support my Australian colleagues in their protest. Not a word about Diva was mentioned in the New Zealand media, or by any New Zealand blogger or commentator.
Imagine my shock when walking down Wellington's Lambton Quay at lunchtime to be greeted by this sight:
Yes, Diva and their Playboy bling are alive and well in New Zealand with 21 stores across the country. These are some products from their New Zealand website:
It suddenly struck me: I had heard the Australian voices loud and clear – but where are the New Zealand voices standing up for New Zealand girls? Is it OK that Hugh Heffner’s failing porn company is being propped up by kiwi girls, some not even in their teens? What does a father say when their 10-year-old daughter delightedly shows them the new Playboy bowtie they bought at Diva with their pocket money? Do we want a company that exploits and degrades women to be developing brand loyalty in our little girls? I say no. Anyone else with me?
**NB: I am not anti-porn or anti-sex - I am anti-exploitation. I welcome comments and love to debate, but will cheerfully delete any comments that make personal attacks on anyone. Check out my comments policy if you need clarification.
With the media furore over school sexuality education over the past week, many parents have been asking what their expectations of their child’s school sexuality education should be... So here it is, Part One of the non-official Concise Guide to School Sexuality Education in NZ...
The sexuality education prescribed in the current curriculum is a far cry from the sex ed most parents would have received when they were at school. For many, this “education” now serves as a hilarious dinner party story, for others sex ed barely existed or was so terrible that all memories have been banished. Indeed, my own high school sex ed was taught by a very embarrassed science teacher who managed to get through the entire 'reproduction' unit without once mentioning the word ‘penis’ – he simply referred to that thing as a "John Thomas”. And we were told we must always make sure we put the Johnny Condom on the John Thomas. The standout memory from the ‘period talk’ at primary school was the horror of the “pad burner” - a raging inferno in the girls toilets with which we were instructed to put our used pads. I am not sure I ever raised the confidence to use that thing! (I am told they no longer have these at schools - phew!)
Today I want to address three main questions that I have been asked over the past week:
1. How much influence do I, as a parent, have on the sexuality education programme at my child’s school?
The most important thing for parents to keep in mind is that school sexuality education programmes are a partnership between the school and the community. As such, schools are obliged to consult with their community every two years on the content of their health education programme. According to Section 60B of the Education Act 1989, every school Board of Trustees is required to inform the school community about the content of the sexuality education programme and consult with members of the school community regarding the way in which the school should implement this education.
Following this consultation, a school sexuality education policy and programme are constructed. In reality, the definition of ‘consultation’ can be interpreted quite broadly. Some schools send out information in school newsletters, others organise information evenings. Some schools don’t do much consulting at all. This doesn’t mean they are ‘bad’ schools, it’s just that the reality for schools is that they are operating in a jam-packed curriculum in an environment focussed on literacy and numeracy. Sometimes sexuality lingers at the bottom of that ‘to do’ list. Some schools put a lot of effort in to the consultation, and many receive absolutely no feedback from their community.
2. What if I don’t want my child to participate in sexuality education?
There are many reasons why parents may consider withdrawing their child from the school sexuality education programme. Indeed, following the media frenzy last week over sex ed, I guess more parents will be considering this.
It’s been widely mis-reported in the media this week that parents need to sign a consent form for their children to participate in a school sexuality education programme. They don’t. Some schools choose to do this, but it is not required. Legally, every school is obliged to inform parents what the programme consists of and no contact from a parent conveys to the school that they are happy to have their child participate in sexuality education. There is provision under section 25AA of the Education Act 1989, for parents to write to the principal to request that their child be excluded from sexuality education. Note that this exclusion does not apply to other times during the school day when a teacher deals with a question raised by another student that relates to sexuality education.
3. But I don’t want my child learning about contraception!
If you feel this way, it’s important you discuss this with your Board of Trustees and Principal. If you do feel strongly about this issue you may decide to withdraw your child. However you need to know that the 1990 repeal of section 3 of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 removed all restrictions on the advice and supply of contraceptives to those under 16 years of age. Young people of any age now have the right to access information about contraception and to be supplied with contraceptive products without parental consent. In reality, this means that if your child wants information about contraceptives, the school is able to provide this, regardless of parental consent.
Part two coming up later this week. It will answer the question: "What SHOULD my child be receiving as part of a quality sexuality education programme?"
**Disclaimer – there are some schools and some teachers doing an absolutely fantastic job delivering sexuality education in New Zealand. I applaud these people. Those that are struggling with it are struggling because of a multitude of reasons, not easily addressed in a 200 word attention-grabbing newspaper article. If you are a parent and are concerned about the sexuality education in your school, I urge you to contact the Principal and your Board of Trustees to discuss your concerns.
In 2009 I was in a yoga class with the wonderful Nat from Zing. My mind was wandering to this seemingly far-off, unattainable goal of being a freelance educator - creating and delivering inspiring and empowering programmes that change people's lives. In a lightbulb moment I suddenly realised that I needed to start on that goal - NOW. There was never going to be a better time. By the time I got home from that class there was a plan in place. On reflection, I had been in great need of some destuckification and something about Nat's class got me on-track. (Thanks Nat!)
It's been quite a journey. I let go of the ridiculous notion that I would be a neglectful mother if my son spent time in a daycare (I compromised on two days a week and became a night owl. I also cried in the classroom the first morning I had to leave him). I created my own website on a $50 budget (yes, this one - it's nothing fancy, but don't think you need oodles of cash to get a website). I started writing again, and discovered I love it, and I started reading reading reading. And then I made sure I told the people who were writing the amazing stuff how great I thought it was. Most importantly I started to get out and about in the world telling people who I am and what I do. It took a fair amount of courage, because I don't think we live in a society where it's seen as admirable to 'think big'.
I was clear in my mission: To empower youth to build positive relationships based on respect, love and healthy choices. I knew how I was going to do this. But I was stuck on a name. What do I call what I do? I got myself a Facebook Page and connected with some amazing people, but I didn't want to just brand myself as 'me'. It's going to be bigger than that. I got a little stuck again, trying to define what it was that I was going to be doing.
Then I made a great decision: I would have this clarified by the end of these school holidays. The thing I love about deadlines is that it prompts me to action. I am one of those sorts of people who never reads the instruction manuals, but just jumps right in. It's not always a great result, and I admit I do break a LOT of stuff, but I am definitely a woman of action rather than contemplation. So, having set my deadline, I was ready to jump right in and could barely focus on anything else. (Warning: Hanging out with me can get monotonous if I am in a 'stuck on an idea' frame of mind).
Last night I told my mother that I wanted this name to incorporate the idea that I wanted to encourage people to start having conversations, to be authentic and real and honest - to encourage "good talks". And then I suddenly realised I had it - "Good Talks".
I couldn't sleep last night because I was too excited. This thing is launched already - I would love you to come and join the conversation.
On Saturday I got a text message from a friend tasking me for advice on car seats for their baby. Car seat safety is an issue I am very passionate about and I believe it is something that needs to be talked about MORE. So I decided that today I would post an email I sent to many of my friends this time last year, after being in a car accident.
6th April, 2010
Sol and I were recently in a car accident and this made me totally reassess his carseat situation. (We were fine, but both cars are written off). The shock at how easily a lovely sunny day could have turned so awful scared me. I spent a lot of time researching a replacement car seat. Frankly, I was horrified at what I discovered.
The current popular practice in NZ, Australia & the USA is that children rear-face until they are a year old. In following this ‘rule’, it was a lovely milestone for us when Sol started forward-facing at a year. I had no idea that in doing so, he was 75% more likely to be injured or killed if we were in an accident. Why? – mainly because the weight of the head in comparison to the body is so much higher in young children, and in a head-on collision children who are forward facing are likely to suffer from 'internal decapitation' of the head. In contrast, when a child is rear-facing, the whole body — head, neck, and torso — is cradled by the back of the safety seat in a frontal crash. The odds of severe injury to a forward-facing child are five times greater than a child in a rear-facing seat.
Our child restraint laws and recommendations are woefully inadequate. In Scandinavia many children are rear-facing until they start school. After researching this issue, I had no option but to get a seat that allowed Sol to rear-face as long as possible, hopefully until he is 4 years old.
The main comment I have got from people is “Oh, my child would HATE to go back to rear-facing” – I said exactly the same. As have most other parents I have spoken to about it. The funny thing is, I have not heard of one child who cared at all! I got Sol a big mirror, he was chuffed and couldn’t care less whether he faced forward or backward.
There has been quite a lot of media coverage in NZ regarding child safety restraints, after some horrific accidents over Easter. Campbell Live featured this issue this evening. The other important message from this is that car seat belts do not fit properly until children are 148cm tall – this means some 75% of nine and ten year olds still need to be in booster seats.
All young children should be rear-facing - if you need any more convincing, I highly recommend you view the videos of these crash test dummies (the crash test dummies part is at about 1min28). And here and here for information from NZ sites.
All I hope is that this email may make some people consider having their child rear-facing for longer. And that this in turn may save an injury/death. I would love you to forward this message to anyone you know with young children.
With love, Rachel
- Last month I was delighted to hear that the USA has revised their child car seat restraint guidelines so that children should now rear-face until they are two years old, children should be in boosters until they are 8 - 12 years and no children should sit in the front seat until they are 13 years old. This news clip is an excellent overview of these guideline changes and the reasons behind them.
- One year on, Sol turns three later this month and is still happily rear-facing...
- This article about a New Zealand two-year old in an car accident has a compelling comment at the end regarding rear-facing.
I am fascinated by the way media portrays gender. Particularly gender as it applies to children. The images, the colours, the words.
As the mother of an almost-three-year-old boy, I am becoming increasingly aware of the gender-limiting stereotypes he is surrounded by.
Many of my son's favourite past-times are what toy companies would tell me is "typical boy behaviour" - any random stick becomes a gun, he loves nothing more than rolling on the floor wrestling with his Dad, he is fearless of heights and water, and he is fiercely competitive. But what all toy marketers seem to ignore is that my boy also loves cooking, "helping" fold laundry, wearing jewellery, vaccuming, dressing up and painting his nails.
Yesterday I discovered that Canadian Chrystal Smith had created a word cloud comprising of the words used in television advertising for children's toys. Two word clouds were created - one for toys aimed at boys, and one for toys aimed at girls:
I stared at these two images for ages.
I love that 'fun', 'magic' and 'love' are the top words used for girls. I don't love it that these are closely followed by a whole lot of words pertaining to beauty and fashion.
I don't mind that 'battle' and 'power' dominate the words used for boy's toys - I enjoyed many hours immersed in imaginary wars as a child. But it really concerns me that I can't see any words relating to caring, nurturing or relationships.
I haven't stopped wondering since I saw these - will the TV advertisements in NZ show a similar picture? This is my homework this weekend. Watch this space!
The words we use create our reality and shape our perceptions. Today's children are the most marketed-to generation of all time and the words they hear have a huge impact on their values and beliefs. Looking at the words used to market prized possessions to them makes me very angry about the reality we are creating for our kids.
One of New Zealand's national headlines today was "Question after school puberty talk shocks granddad".
Given my line of work, I was intrigued. Apparently, following a evening sexuality education evening, an 8 year old girl asked her grandfather about the size of his penis. After reading the article, I came to three conclusions:
1. This is ridiculous journalism
'Sex sells' and sexuality education portrayed as outrageous also sells. One man unhappy with one school's sexuality education evening does not constitute national headline news. Particularly when the public health nurse at the optional "mother and daughter" evening spoke only about puberty and the associated changes, and did not talk about penis size or go into any sexual detail.
A fantastic sexuality education programme wouldn't be considered 'newsworthy" by mainstream journalism. Imagine this: Happy parent comes home from sexuality education parent/child evening, calls up local journalist to report what a great evening it was and how they all feel so much better prepared/informed on how to face the questions and changes that will be happening in their child's life. I can't imagine that making ever making the national headlines.
(If any journalists disagree with me and would like to write a positive article on quality sexuality education I would be more than happy to help them out!)
2. Ridiculous journalism leads to inadequate sexuality education for our children.
With negative journalism such as this, it's no wonder that the Education Review Office (2007) report The Teaching of Sexuality Education in Years 7 to 13 found that "The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” In order to avoid potential negative publicity, today's headline makes it more desirable for schools to ignore the Ministry of Education's sexuality education requirements.
3. A teachable moment was lost
The child's question immediately had an adult's framework put on it. Children don't see sexual topics in the way adults do. For a child, asking about the length of a penis is akin to asking the length of your finger, how tall you are, how fat/thin you are. Kids are curious and are exploring their world and the least we can do is give them honest answers to questions. Even if you 'suspect' an ulterior motive to a question, the best way to diffuse it is to give it an honest answer. Students have certainly tried to 'catch me out' in class by posing explicit or weird questions - the way I respond to them determines the outcome.
Sure, kids will ask the adults in their lives questions that may embarrass them - but it's the adult's responsibility to respond maturely and with integrity.
Given that this grandfather went to the media about the question his granddaughter asked him lead me to assume that a HUGE deal was made out of her question. I think that right now this girl would be rather confused about things.
A real teachable moment was missed. The conversation could have just as easily gone like this:
Girl: "Grandad, are you worried that your penis is too small/big/short/long/fat/skinny?"
Adult: (smiles, because hey, it's an amusing question) "No Jane, I am not worried at all. Everyone's body parts come in all different sizes. Just like I am fatter/taller/skinnier than your Dad/uncle/brother, our penis' are all different shapes and sizes too."
Girl: "Oh, OK, I was just wondering. Can we go to the park now/eat dinner now/watch TV now?"
(The girl had a question, it was answered honestly without drama, and they moved on with their day).
Meanwhile, I applaud St Paul's School in West Auckland, for hosting a 'mother and daughter' evening. I hope that other schools see this type of journalism for what it is and are not put off offering their students quality and comprehensive sexuality education.
Thanks to Boganette for alerting me to this article. You can read her post on this issue here. After commenting on her blog I felt compelled to write more about this issue myself.
Image from www.childmatters.org.nz
This morning my 2 year old son:
Lead story: "A 24-year-old man has appeared in court on a charge of assault after the body of a five-year-old girl was found in her Napier home early this morning."
Another story: "Child advocacy organisations are calling on those that turned a blind eye to the systematic abuse of a nine-year-old Waitakere girl to be held accountable."
More statistics to add to New Zealand's appalling child abuse record.
After a morning delighting in the happiness of my toddler, this shocked me back to reality.
Far too many kiwi kids are not spending their Christmas holidays filled with care and love. Too many children have days full of fear and pain.
I am sick of reading about the deaths of innocent children, and subsequently of the individuals that turned a blind eye to the abuse. A number of people have already admitted that they knew about the horrifying situation the 9 year old girl in Waitakere had been enduring for two years. I am sure that right now there will be many people wrestling with the guilt of not saying anything that could have saved the life of the 5 year old girl in Napier.
I wish that every child in our community could enjoy a Christmas free of violence and anger. But domestic violence surges over the festive season. So I know I will read about more violence and possibly more deaths before this festive season is over.
We all need to take responsibility for this epidemic. People are working hard, very hard to address the problem. Child Matters is one such organisation. Visit this website, read the material, support their work. And in the midst of your Christmas celebrating, do think about the many kids in our communities for whom Christmas means a very different thing than the Disney fairytale.
Maybe we all need to consider what we each can do to help in the fight against this epidemic when we are pondering our 2011 resolutions.
Dressed in a slinky red evening gown with long blonde hair, lengthy dark eye-lashes, sultry eyes and immaculate make up, Sasha Bennington looks every bit the glamour model ready to strut down the catwalk or pose for a fashion magazine cover. But Sasha is eleven; strip away the makeup and the sexy clothes, she is a little girl lost.
Following on from Tuesday's 'Baby Beauty Queens' on 60 Minutes, last night 20/20 featured young Sasha and her family (from Manchester, UK). They were interviewed about Sasha’s “career” and their aspirations for her. It was a disturbing episode. With hundreds of dollars spent on her beauty regime every month, Sasha’s mother dreams of her daughter's future celebrity status – “I want Sasha to get every opportunity she can”. She seems to pay her daughter the ultimate compliment as she describes her looking “like one of those little Cindy dolls you play with”.
After Sasha's mother described her daughter as confident and talented, when asked to describe herself, Sasha says “Three words to describe myself? – pretty, blonde, dumb... I am stupid”, followed by inane laughing of mother and daughter. Sasha later points out that “I don’t need a brain”.
I acknowledge that such “current events” TV shows do often highlight the freaks and absurdities in our society, and I predict that the overwhelming majority of people who viewed this in NZ last night would share my views. Examples such as Sasha Bennington are the extreme: However, for many girls and young women growing up today, there is a similar pressure to achieve the looks and body of the models that surround us in magazines, TVs and billboards.
It seems in many circles, the backlash against beauty contests, begun by the feminists in the 70s has well and truly turned full-circle. With our society obsessed with reality TV shows, offering the average punter their chance of “fame” and “making it”, is it any wonder that we are now seeing a resurgence in the popularity of beauty contests? For parents, they are the ideal training ground for such shows as Next Top Model, Idol etc. Sasha's take on it: “Like, 20 years ago, people cared about careers and stuff, but now it’s what you look like”.
Such child beauty contests have not made it to NZ (that I am aware of), but a part of me thinks it is only a matter of time. I hope I am wrong.
In the words of Kahlil Gibran, “beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart”. Child beauty pageants and all that surround them kill that light in the heart.
We have mothers’ day, we have grandparents’ day, we have children’s day and we have teachers’ day. The proliferation of such days does get me a little cynical at times, but asides from the commercial aspect; they are all positive, loving days designed to honour a group in our community.
This Friday we have ‘Hug-a-Ginga’ day, which seems to me to be to be a radio station’s big marketing stunt. Not being a commercial radio station listener, or a red-head, I hadn’t given much attention to this day in previous years. But this year the ‘Hug-a-Ginga’ concept has attracted a bigger debate, and this got me thinking.
To me, ‘Hug-a-Anybody’ day gives the notion that this group is not used to being hugged, that on this one day of the year we should try and extend some charity and bless them with our sympathy. Transpose ‘ginga’ with any of the following: Pakeha, Maori, Fattie, Asian, Gay... you see my point.
Is 'gingerism' the last acceptable prejudice?
My adult red-headed friends take this day in good nature and play along and enjoy the comedy aspect and the extra attention. And I think this was probably how the day was intended to be ‘celebrated’. But my concern is for children. Red-headed kids cop more than their fair share of teasing as it is. Children ostracise those with differences and it is made worse when adults (indeed, media celebrities) are sanctioning and encouraging this bullying.
This Friday, red-headed kids will have to play along with the ‘Hug-a-Ginga’ concept, or risk being further ostracised. I personally would feel violated if someone hugged me uninvited out of pity and charity. (And in schools, I can’t imagine many of these ‘Hug-a-Ginga’ acts will come from a position of love). With a bullying culture a real problem in most of our schools and a horrific youth suicide rate, is the promotion of prejudice based on genetics and the promotion of bullying based on hair colour really something to celebrate?
Last week a group of 9 & 10 year old girls gyrating their way through a sexy dance performance horrified many, me included.
The girls are obviously talented dancers, but the sexy skimpy black lacy outfits combined with the provacative dance moves amount to a degrading and totally inappropriate performance.
Facing widespread criticism, the girls parents have defended their daughters' performance:
"The costumes are designed for movement and to show bodylines..."
This interview makes the whole episode that much sadder for me. The parents seem to have missed the point entirely. As Danielle Miller, in the clip below points out, these girls are actually more scantily clad than Beyonce was in the original music video.
I think one issue that this interview with the parents raises is how public our lives have become. Whereever your children are, whatever they are doing, there is a chance that their activities are being videoed and that this video could end up on the world wide web.
If these girls had performed this dance a few years ago, it's highly unlikely anyone except the attendees would ever have seen it. However, it's 2010 and someone videoed the performance, put on YouTube and it went viral - it's now been viewed over 2 million times. The saturation of technology in our lives and the ease at which information can be spread across the world means that as parents we have to be ever more vigilant about protecting our children against exploitation.
Some people claim to have bad memories. But asked if there is one memory that sticks right there as vividly as it were yesterday, many people define it as that moment they learnt about sex. It's interesting asking adults about the moment they learnt what sex was. Everyone’s experience is so different and more often than not, it is a memory tinged with laughter and nostalgia. Unfortunately for others, it is surrounded by shame and secrecy. For me, I am lucky it is the former. And here is my story.
I grew up in the country and attended a wonderful little village school that was like an extended family. These were such happy days and the presence of media and advertising rarely penetrated. Multi-coloured king-fu shoes were about the height of fashion awareness: functional clothes ruled. We gained status from how fast we could run and how long we could reign champion at four square or padder tennis. My parents had grown up in the city and were determined to experience all manner of menagerie on our 3 acre block – chickens, donkeys, goats, sheep, calves, ducks... and we kids were witness to mating, births, deaths and even vet students castrating our pet donkey (the operation photographed in graphic detail by my Dad and placed in the family photo album). In light of this, my naivety around sex was astonishing.
When I was nine my parents casually gave me the seminal tome “Where Did I Come From?” and I duly opened the pages. The book is filled with pictures of a nude couple who bath and then hop into bed together. The text tells you that sex is a really tight hug that makes you wiggle. Then something happens that feels like a sneeze, "but much better." I was horrified. People do THAT with each other? I just couldn’t believe that this was how babies were made!. Even worse, I had a younger brother and sister, so my parents had done this THREE TIMES!
Later my parents and I sat down in the lounge to expand on the conversation. They were open and keen to chat, but I was gob-smacked: All I could express was disgust. I think my Dad found my horror amusing and possibly a bit over the top and must have attributed this to the fact that I actually knew all along what was happening. He kept telling me it was OK if I had known already – as I sat there shaking my head in horror. Dad even asked me what I thought was happening when we took our lady goats to the man goat every autumn – I replied that I just thought they loved to jump round with new goats for fun.
Not long after this discussion with my parents, the topic came up amongst my group of girlfriends at school. We had all recently found out about the ‘facts of life’, and im hushed tones we were discussing it amongst ourselves ior the first time. My main memory of this conversation was how we all agreed how awful the concept of sex was. Then one friend realised in horror: Oh but I want to have children but I could never ever ever do THAT! We all nodded in agreement, the weight of the world on our shoulders. With heavy hearts we all made a pact that we would all have to adopt. I am still in contact with many of these friends and luckily I think we have all since broken that pact!
I would love to hear your story!
Discussing relationships is an important part of the sexuality education I teach. Young people are always eager to discuss the different social norms and expectations. It is also a topic that most parents approach with trepidtation. I have just watched this instructional video from 1951 about "what to do on a date"...
I viewed this video with a smile on my face, sighs of "how sweet" and thoughts of how lovely and simple things were back then.... Back to reality: there were just as many nerves and broken hearts as there are now. Teen pregnancy was common, it was just hidden in barbaric ways. Or young people were forced into marriages they didn’t want. Sexually transmitted infections were present, they were just hugely stigmatised and rarely treated.
The risks of heartbreak, pregnancy and disease that were present in 1951 are still there now, but nearly fifty years on, these risks are magnified and that 'benchmark' age when children are exposed to these risks is becoming ever-lower. The concept of childhood is becoming increasingly short. - in 1951 the marketing concept of 'tween' had not been invented. The behavioural expectations of late-teens in 1951 are the behavioural expectations being thrust upon our pre-teens now.
The tween phenomena has children wearing makeup, high-heels and parents taking them along to waxing salons. They hear it on TV, YouTube and social networking sites. This sexualisation of our children naturally leads to an early curiosity about sex and relationships.
In order to be prepared for these pressures it is crucial that our young people are able to make safe decisions that will keep them happy and ensure their well-being. They need their parents support in this.
More than ever, parents need to have the knowledge and confidence to be able to discuss sexuality and relationships with their children. Many parents say to me “oh but my child has no interest/no idea/no awareness about anything to do with sexuality.” This may be true, but their classmates are, and their classmates are talking. I posit it to the parents: if your child is not talking to you, they are talking to someone else and getting their information from them. What would you prefer? It’s never too early to start this ongoing conversation: make sure you don’t leave it a moment longer.
I love playing dress-ups; putting on a costume and becoming someone else for a while. As a girl, I remember finding great delight stomping round the house in Mum’s high-heels, her flowery skirts billowing up under my arms and beads trailing on the floor. Sometimes we’d pull on her old swimsuits and sarongs and pretend to be ladies at the beach. We were playing: we knew that those clothes weren’t little girls’ clothes.
But the line between women’s fashion and girls fashion is blurred these days as the fashion industry has realised that young children are ripe targets for their marketing. The ‘girls’ fashion’ industry has boomed and has resulted in girls’ fashion simply being smaller sized versions of what teenagers and women are wearing. At face value, this doesn’t seem something we need to be concerned about. However when this means that lacy lingerie, sexy jeans and high heels are now seen in the ‘girls’ clothes section, I feel horrified.
Yesterday, UK clothing chain store Primark withdrew from sale its range of padded bikini tops for girls as young as seven, following widespread criticism and outrage. The $4 bikini sets have been available in candy pink with gold stars and black with white polka dots. (Side note: Why do pre-pubescent girls need to wear bikinis anyway? In Europe I noticed most girls in similar swimming attire as boys until puberty – this made sense to me).
Primark has apologised to customers for "causing offence" and said it would donate profits to a children's charity. The company refused to discuss the bikini's padding but an anonymous source “familiar with the product said the extra fabric was designed to preserve a girl's modesty and prevent any signs of a developing breast from showing through”. ‘Preserve a girl’s modesty’!!! What an oxymoron. By tying a padded bra on them? Need I say more. Even more saddening, this comment furthers the attitude that somehow girls developing bodies are somehow shameful.
A number of UK politicians have condemned Primark for stocking such a bikini and several people have referred to the bikini as the “paedo-bikini.” But this phrase seems to be implicating girls for the behaviour of paedophiles, which in turn minimises the blame on the perpetrator. Girls and the clothes they wear are not to blame for paedophilia: paedophiles are to blame for paedophilia.
As the American Psychological Association (2007) report on the sexualisation of girls stated, "If girls purchase - or ask their parents to purchase - products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy, and if they style their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape, they are, in effect, sexualising themselves."
Mumsnet (UK) have launched a Let Girls Be Girls campaign. This campaign asks retailers to pledge not to sell products that prematurely sexualise children. They have an excellent list of reasons why we all should be worried about the sexualisation of girls clothing:
The upside to the Primark bikini debacle is that the media outrage has been universal. No one is suggesting that on any level are these bikinis acceptable. Let's take this opportunity to take a stand against the companies marketing sexualised clothing. On a personal level let's ensure that we all consciously clothe our children: they are children and they don't deserve to be sexualised.
I was navigating the supermarket yesterday, toddler in tow, chatting about all the products we were passing. A constant commentary of the products, decisions about what milk to buy, what colour the bananas are. Inane chatter to an outsider, but I love these outings with my son as he learns all about the world. We read the signs and I wonder aloud whether we need venture down that aisle. We see the ‘fish’ sign, we see the ‘beverages’ sign. We talk about the ‘baking goods’ sign and how we like to bake muffins at home. Then we come to the ‘feminine hygiene’ sign. I had passed such signs countless times before, but with a toddler soaking up all there is to learn, suddenly language has a whole new meaning and importance to me. My chatter is halted for a second - “feminine hygiene”? – and I am not sure how to explain these words.
To give my son a literal explanation, it seems that females must need products to sanitise themselves. Through a young child’s eyes, I look at the marketing – ahh, feminine hygiene products – these must make women don white leotards and dance, put on a skimpy bikini and run through waves, throw on high heels, skinny jeans and grab a microphone. And some have wings! Maybe women can fly after all! As I took a moment to ponder this, my son pointed at the ‘sanitary products’ and yelled out in delight “Mummy’s nappies!” I laughed and agreed - “Those are for women to use when they have their periods”. I could almost feel the man beside us scampering past all these ‘sanitary products’ reel in horror.
I was recently alerted to a new advertising campaign by US tampon brand ’Kotex’. According to Mr. Meurer, of Kotex - “We’re changing our brand equity to stand for truth and transparency and progressive vaginal care.” Wow, ‘progressive vaginal care’ – the mind boggles! But thumbs up to them for attempting to ‘get real' in their advertising for their products, by mocking the traditional way that menstruation products are advertised. The advertisement opens with a woman declaring she loves her period, followed by “Sometimes I just want to run on a beach... Usually, by the third day, I really just want to dance... The ads on TV are really helpful because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s supposed to happen.’ ” The dialogue is illustrated by clips that had been used in previous Kotex advertisements, furthering the irony of the whole thing.
But thumbs down to US television networks who, after viewing the original advertisement, barred the use of the word 'vagina'. Even a revised version, which referred to “down there” was deemed too explicit. To quote blogger Amanda Hess, "Now, the commercial contains no direct references to female genitalia—you know, the place where the fucking tampon goes."
The way society frames language shapes the way we feel about things, talk about things. The language we use imposes a particular view of the world. The view promoted by the language of ‘feminine sanitary products’ is that women are dirty and need to buy things to sanitise themselves. Are women’s bodies and their natural cycles really that scary? I am not advocating graphic photography here, but can we not at least acknowledge what the tampons are for? Is the word ‘vagina’ really that offensive? I hope Kodex’s new approach to tampon advertising marks the beginning of a change in the language we use around menstruation. I can't help but think of all the out-there products advertising 'penile erectile dysfunction'.
I think again of the world through my child’s eyes. If his sexuality education was left to the media, he’d grow up assuming that women need to buy ‘feminine hygiene products’ in order to wear tight white spandex and dance, or play beach volleyball in skimpy bikinis. He’d also think the ‘products’ were to clean up that funny blue stuff. But for now I am my son’s teacher, and I can filter most of this stuff for him. I dance most days, regardless of what day in my cycle it is, and I most certainly never wear white spandex.
As soon as we found out that I was pregnant, we told our three-year-old son Sol about my pregnancy and involved him in all the midwife appointments. He recently accompanied us to the 20-week scan.
After the radiographer had done all the important measurements and observations, she got to the least important part – finding the vulva or the penis. As she was looking for that part of our baby’s body she said to me “Ouhhh, you’ll soon know if you’ll have to be buying a pink tutu!”
(I am sure my husband smothered a laugh at this point. I refrained from launching into a tirade about gender stereotyping and the findings of various neurological studies on babies and gender.)
As it turns out, we spotted a vulva.
And I realised that, at 20 weeks gestation this wee girl had already experienced her first gender stereotyping.
It isn’t that pink tutus violently offend me. It's that there was an assumption that if my baby had a vulva, then buying a pink tutu would be the most important consideration and that her vulva would automatically predispose her to an uncontrollable urge to wear pink tutus. Who knows, perhaps she will be an absolute ballet fanatic, in which case I am sure our house will be loaded with tutus of all description. Or she could be a soccer player, a hip-hop dancer, a chess-genius, a swimmer... - in which case we may have no pink tutus at all. Or maybe she’ll have stages of being all of the above, and our already cluttered house will have a collection of all sorts of outfits in all sorts of colours.
All I do know is that I will do everything in my Mama-Bear power to protect my daughter from all the gender-limiting stereotypes that will attempt to smother her from birth (and before!). Suddenly I am hugely grateful on a personal level to those dedicated organisations and people who are out there campaigning on behalf of our girls - Enlighten Education, 7Wonderlicious, Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies, Pink Stinks and many more.
I will leave you with little Riley, who articulates my feelings just so well:
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.