Everyone's lives seem to be so busy. I sometimes fall in to bed at night wondering what even happened that morning - the days are so full of lovely friends, inspiring work, and of course the mundane stuff such as washing the clothes, the dishes...
Today I realised the ability that children have to help one forget about all the concerns and deadlines in the world and focus on the 'real stuff'. This morning my son and I danced in the beautiful autumn leaves for the first time together. It was such bliss to run through a carpet of crunchy orange leaves and throw them up in the air and feel them falling on our heads. Moments like that I will treasure for ever. Although it did make me realise: that was the first time I had done that since I was a child.
This morning my friend Alice shared a true story with me and it made me stop and think about how busy and rushed so many of us are, and how in the busy-ness of everything we can so easily forget about beauty and 'life'. I wanted to share it with more people. (Thanks Alice!)
In Washington , DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.
This experiment raised several questions:
(The full story, with video clips, can be viewed here.)
The part of this that really touched me was the image of the mother hurrying her child along. I have been that mother! I am going to try and remember this story whenever I have the urge to hurry my child along. I need to appreciate and love that children don't follow deadlines, and this is the beauty of childhood.
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.
Thanks to Dannielle Miller for pointing me to this video. A powerful statement on the media's portrayal of women. It sent chills down my spine and tears to my eyes.
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.
It’s not often (ever?!) that I am heard uttering the words “Good on you Britney”, but today, I think Britney Spears has done good. She agreed to let the UK's Daily Mail release un-airbrushed images of herself next to the digitally-altered versions. They say "the 29-year-old singer made the extraordinary move in order to highlight the pressure exerted on women to look perfect".
I spent some time looking at these photos, comparing the 'before' and 'after' shots and am amazed at how extensively every blemish and "not perfect" aspect is corrected. The dry skin is covered, the bruises are banished. Even Brit's muscles have been smoothed over and 'minimised', and the *ahem* 'camel toe' dealt to. With glossy magazines and bill boards taunting women with impossible beauty it is great to actually see the full extent of how we are being deceived by the use of digital enhancement.
On a conscious level, I know that most magazine and advertisements featuring scantily clad women are airbrushed. On a subconscious level, I still find myself marvelling at the petite bottoms, incredibly long legs and flawless bellies.
I am long past aiming for such “flawless perfection” and have even come to love my belly that always has and always will have a slightly-pregnant pose to it. But as a teenager facing these billboards and glossy pictures, I remember having such a distorted view of my body. At 14, I went bikini shopping and spent hours in front of shop mirrors in countless numbers of size 8 bikinis grabbing every piece of “fat” (read: skin fold), only to finally conclude that I was definitely too fat to wear a bikini and went home empty handed. It makes me sad to think that I, age 14, incredibly fit and swim training up to 16 hours a week, was so sucked in by the media portrayal of ‘beauty’ to think of myself as too fat to wear a bikini. (But it also makes me smile when I throw on my a-few-sizes-bigger-than-an-8 bikini now!)
My heart goes out to the girls growing up now, in a society so much more saturated by mass media and commercialism than it was in my childhood. Countless studies have shown a direct link between the media’s portrayal of beauty and body image disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. These disorders are increasing at a disturbing rate. We need to get real about the unrealistic images of “beauty” that are so prevalent in the media.
So I thank you Britney for showing the world that in fact you do have dimply thighs. You don’t have a concave belly or shiny skin and you even get bruises on your legs like the rest of us. I hope more celeb’s follow suit. In fact, I hope this starts the tide of people demanding that we see REAL people in our magazines and advertisements. Getting rid of digital enhancement is an unrealistic request, but what I want to see alongside all future airbrushed images is a statement like this:
“This woman’s body has been digitally enhanced. She really has dimply thighs, a cute sticky-outy belly and a small scar on her knee, but we were worried you wouldn’t buy our product if you saw those humanising features”
To be an effective educator, I need to be constantly learning, so an important part of ‘what I do’ is reading. People often ask me for book recommendations, and I like to be able to help out here – we are all busy people, if I can help people short-cut the path to some fabulous resources, then that makes me happy.
I have recently read an wonderful book by an inspiring Australian woman, Danielle Miller. Miller’s passion is “to empower girls to grow into the bright, shiny adults they have the potential to be”. She is the founder of Enlighten Education, an organisation that offers workshops to girls in New Zealand and Australia promoting self-awareness, esteem, communication and acceptance.
So much media attention is directed towards the downfall of youth today and the pressures and dangers present in the lives of our children. In moments of rage directed at soul-destroying music or childhood-ruining marketing, I have been heard to announce, “Right, that’s it. We’re running away to an isolated commune with no access to all this!”. But I don’t run away: I fight. (In the most positive non-aggressive way of fighting!). These moments of rage are why I am doing what I am doing. But I know that as a parent, it is easy to become despondent. And that’s exactly why I love Miller’s new book, 'The Butterfly Effect'. It brings me back to how we can all make a stand against the sexualised, commercialised, celebrity-focussed, fake barrage of images and noise thrust at our children.
‘The Butterfly Effect’ is a captivating book, offering a positive approach to raising girls. The challenges and pressures faced by girls and their parents are explained and backed up with research as well as Miller’s own extensive experience. But far from adopting an ‘end of the world’ approach, Miller breaks down the different aspects of raising girls, and provides realistic solutions and advice. The book emphasises the impact of women as role models – particularly with regards to body image and diet. With the prevalence of eating disorders amongst our girls increasing at a disturbing rate, this is something that all women need to consider. How can your daughters/nieces/granddaughters learn to accept their bodies when the women in their lives are constantly dieting and are so critical of their own?
Miller’s approach to raising happy and empowered girls is based on forging deeper, more loving relationships – in Miller’s words: “When working with teenagers, it is important to engage them emotionally; if you can capture their hearts, their minds will follow.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, a book that kept me up far too late at night because I didn’t want to put it down. If you have girls, this is a book you simply must read.
“What do you do?”
I lose track of how many times I am asked this in a week. Maybe it has always been so, but I think previously my answer to this has been somewhat simpler, so I hadn’t noticed the regularity to which I was asked this. At various times I have answered with: I am studying. I am a management consultant. I am a recruitment consultant. I am a children’s party fairy. I am a surf lifeguard. I am a traveller. I am a counsellor. I am a teacher.I am trying to decide what I am going to be when I grow up.
But now, “what I do” is so much harder to define. A man asked me this question on Sunday. I mentioned a couple of things that I “do”, at which point he interrupted and said he didn’t need my CV. I was a little taken aback – I had only just started! : ) I think that for this man, the question was a superficial nicety, he didn’t really want to know. Particularly once I had uttered the word ‘sexuality’...
But it got me thinking – can I sum up “what I do” in a short, concise socially acceptable sentence? I thought long and hard, and decided “no”. But I did think that it was a good topic for a blog post. I am just getting started in the blogosphere and I thought it would be apt to define “what I do” at this early stage.
First and foremost, I am a mother. This is my most important role and the one that will always take priority – for the rest of my life. This is my grounding principal and I will never apologise to anyone if this role interrupts other things I am ‘supposed’ to be doing. Being a mother is a huge privilege and my child only has one of me. (NB. The value our society places on this role is a whole post in itself, coming soon!)
I provide education around sexuality - I teach in schools, I run workshops for parents and youth. I want every person to love, value, respect and understand their whole body.
I write. I am currently writing for Birthright NZ, redeveloping their website and increasing their profile. I love it that my work will help and raise awareness of the fantastic job that so many one-parent families are doing around the country.
I educate and empower local business women with their online presence and run workshops on social media. This was something that evolved, rather than a conscious decision to get involved in this area. It is so rewarding to see women who had shied away from such things become confident and innovative online networkers.
I mentor young women. This is a huge privilege and one of the most inspiring parts of any week.
I read. Current topics of interest are body image and the media... advertising to youth... the sexualisation of children... alcohol and pregnancy... how social media can help not-for-profits and small businesses... worm farming... sustainable living.
And now... I blog. Increasingly so. My goal is three posts a week. Help keep me honest ; )
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.
2010 has got off to a great start - I am inspired by the people I am meeting, the books, blogs and articles I am reading and the work I am doing. This blog will be a space for me to share my journey and motivate me to put in writing some of my thoughts, findings, research and musings.
I am delighted to launch my new website today. My old one had a dated feel to it and just didn't feel like 'me'. This one is far from complete/perfect, but I am so much happier with it. I have built it myself and as I keep learning, hopefully the site will come to reflect me and who I am more and more. (E.g. I don't think 'grey' is really my signature colour...)
I have also just gone 'international" with my domain name (.org, in addition to .co.nz - in theory they should both end up at the same destination in cyberspace...).
So, 'HELLO WORLD!!!' (as I was told one should always yell out in the inaugural post).
I would love you to mail me or post a comment to say hello, debate my opinions and add your own flavour.
(Technorati number is SFCKWUK8F8AK to get listed).
(This is me, at my desk, where all this blogging will be emanating from...)
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:
As soon as we knew I was pregnant, we told our son Sol and involved him in the pregnancy and the midwife appointments. He recently accompanied us to our 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 decided to refrain from launching into a tirade about gender stereotyping and the findings of various neurological studies on 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 pink tutus would be the most important thing I would be thinking about, and that her vulva would automatically predispose her to an uncontrollable urge to wear pink tutus.
Who knows, perhaps our daughter 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-club-member, a gymnast, 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 home will have a collection of all sorts of outfits in all sorts of colours.
The only thing I do know is that I will be doing everything in my Mama-Bear power to shelter our daughter from all the gender-limiting stereotypes all too persuasive in our culture. And I am grateful to the amazing people who campaign so hard on these issues - Enlighten Education, Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies, 7Wonderlicious and so many more.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.