Friday, September 20, 2013

Short and Sweet

Two books I read lately that I need to make mention of.  First is Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper.

I read The Forgotten Garden a few years ago, and upon reading this offering, I realized why I waited so long to read her again.  She’s a talented writer, but DAMN if it doesn’t take her 200 pages to get warmed up!  The last half of the book was excellent, though.  So if you don’t mind a plodding buildup, I would say it’s worth your time.

Also read recently is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. 

Set in London, it is a story told from the point-of-view of an autistic teenager, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone affected by autism, or anyone interested in reading a great book, really.  I found it on this list (one of the best book lists I’ve ever read), and it is simply beautiful.  Haddon is a genius at illustrating the way the boy’s mind works from the inside, and provides a completely original perspective on this affliction.  Fascinating.

I don’t have much time, so I wanted to leave you with this piece of perfection from Curious Incident:

And outside the window was like a map, except that it was in 3 dimensions and it was life-size because it was the thing it was a map of.

Brilliant, yes?

Monday, September 9, 2013

When Body Image Hits Home – Here I Go, Getting All Political and Stuff

Last week I read this and then this and of course this happened and then my eight-year-old daughter told me how she “couldn’t wait to have breasts because it was so pretty.”

This isn’t the first time she’s mentioned this, but in the wake of all that BUSINESS last week and what with my feminist ire being ON HIGH ALERT I decided it was time for a talk.

Eloise has never had Bratz dolls, nor do we have cable.  We limit her screen time, she’s not allowed internet access on her iPod, and she doesn’t listen to much popular music.  I honestly don’t think she’s seen a full episode of I, Carly or Hannah Montana.  (Sometimes I truly feel that I’m doing my kids a disservice – will they be able to relate to other kids their age, in middle school, for example?  Do I even want them to?  My friend Emily always says, “Your kids are screwed until college.”  Maybe I should homeschool.  HAHAHAHAHA NOT.

However, none of these restrictions come from a place of fear – I’d say they come more from a place of disdain (much of TV is stupid, and those Bratz dolls are butt-ugly) and laziness (do I really want to pre-screen hundreds of teeny-bopper pop songs and videos for appropriateness?  NO.  KILL ME).  Yet I don’t feel like she’s particularly sheltered, honestly – we read constantly, we watch movies as a family, we have tons of friends, we travel, we talk about everything.  Her best friend knows all about popular music and Justin Bieber, and so Eloise isn’t totally clueless.

I asked Eloise why she felt like this – why was she so interested in boobs, and why right now?

So she begins to talk about the Sailor Moon books (her current obsession), and explains how all the girls are so pretty.  She describes how their bodies look, and explains that she hopes to look similarly, someday.  And sooner rather than later, to be clear. 

Are you familiar with the series?  I’ve been a little conflicted about her reading them, but as we talk a lot about what she reads I figured it was ok.  (Prior to this conversation I was more concerned about Sailor Moon’s boyfriend, but apparently "they don’t go on dates or kiss or anything, they just see each other from far away sometimes.”  Huh.)  Plus I’m philosophically opposed to censoring her reading of something that she loves so much.  (Also, again with the laziness – I really do NOT want to spend my priceless free time reading manga.)  But I do realize that anime presents visuals of hyper-sexualized women, so it’s given me pause.  Simultaneously, I have respect for art and see this style of art as a fascinating and ground-breaking sub-genre.  Whether or not I exactly LIKE it isn’t the point – “liking” something is never the point, with art.  Art is supposed to make you uncomfortable.  I get it.  I respect it.

I asked her to bring me the books.  Here are examples of some of the graphics, for those of you not familiar.

Immediately I was reminded of this truth:  You can’t hide culture from the kids who grow up in it.  Whether you want to or not.  Eloise doesn’t notice Kim Kardashian flaunting a bikini on the cover of US Weekly in the checkout at the grocery store.  But she found that Sailor Moon series in the library and ATE THAT STUFF UP.  Culture is going to find your kid wherever she/he is, like it or not.  And furthermore, guess what?  Our kids are human.  Which means that they are sexual beings.  And for me to fight this and cover it and shrink it and trap it is a fight against the way we were made.  I’d rather use my energies toward teaching my kids how to look at their culture objectively and intelligently, and how to use the moral compass I’ve taught them to navigate their way responsibly.

My revelation was this:  I can do one of two things.  I can take the books away from her and not allow her to check them out, ever again, a la Mrs. Hall

Or, I can work with her, in an open and honest way, to teach her critical thinking.  I can look at the world with her, bravely, and help her to make sense of it by eliminating shame and embarrassment, and I can try to teach her to question what she sees. 

So I asked her why she thought the artist drew the women in this way.  Did she know anyone who looked like this, in real life?  (Present company excluded, obvs.  HAHAHA.)  But really, do I look like this?  Do her aunts or my friends or her grandmother or our neighbors look like this?  Does anyone who is a human look like this?

Note proportion of leg to body.

Is it right, morally, for an illustrator, or editor, or anyone to present such a skewed version of the female form to readers – male or female?  Why do you think the illustrator made this choice?  Do you think the illustrator is telling us women should look like this?

Then we talked about the eyes. 

I explained to her the idea of the disturbing “Caucasian Beauty Ideal” and told her that in Asia, statistics show that the most popular cosmetic surgery is blepharoplasty, or eyelid lifting, which is used to make Asian eyes look more Westernized. 

Knowing this, I then asked Eloise to consider the artist’s depiction of Sailor Moon’s eyes. 

I asked her why she thought the illustrator made this choice?  And how do you think the Japanese manga audience feels about this depiction?

Furthermore, should we look to TV, magazines, or media in any form as a guide to how women should look?  What messages are being sent to women through these vehicles?  (A quick aside:  As much as we hope to combat this stuff with Dr. Barbie or the Lego scientist minifigure (and as much as I applaud these efforts), it’s a drop in the ocean.  It's nowhere near enough.  Those efforts pale in comparison to the plethora of images assaulting our girls from every direction.)

Eloise couldn’t answer a lot of these.  She’s only an eight-year-old girl whose reading level outweighs her maturity level.  (This is both a blessing and a problem.  I’m going to have to work really hard to stay a step ahead of her.  She’s reading The Help now.  This morning we had to talk about a gory miscarriage, attempted rape, and alcoholism.  And that was before 8 AM.  God help me.) 

And look, I don’t have the answers, either.  I'm just trying to figure it out, like everybody else.  But I do know that we need to teach our daughters to ask the questions.