Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stockholm Syndrome in Media

You can imagine that the sexed up photos Vanity Fair published of Miley Cyrus have been a topic of discussion at New Moon, just as on this blog. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments so far on the topic - they're well worth reading.

Kathleen Kvern and I were talking about how the prevalence of sexualized images of girls in our public culture creates an atmosphere of impersonal, silent, constant harassment for girls.

Like an iron grip in a velvet glove, the hypersexualization of girls in the media holds actual girls hostage under the pretense of entertaining and informing them. And, like in the Stockholm Syndrome, it's not surprising when girls start to identify with the all-powerful culture that's holding them hostage.

It feels more subtle than verbal or physical harassment, but that's part of its stealthy effect. It's like a neverending buzz in the background that you try to ignore but can't. Gradually, sub-consciously, more and more of your energy and attention is spent on trying to ignore the buzz.

Girls are barraged by sexualized images all around them and everyone they come into contact with in daily life is also surrounded by those images. The images viscerally teach "the importance of being sexy" if you are female. The images teach all of us that acting sexy is how girls/women can have power without being rejected as domineering or bitchy (see media coverage of Hillary Clinton for the way "non-sexy" female power is conveyed).

Now imagine the extreme confusion girls feel when they are surrounded by images promoting the power of female sexiness and at the same time are told that it's bad for girls to be interested in sex, to act sexy themselves, to dress sexy, etc. The real message being conveyed, of course, is that girls shouldn't want to be powerful.

The conflicting messages about personal power create an epic inner struggle for girls that stays with us into adulthood, sapping creative energy and focus that would be better used in changing the culture and making our world a better place for everyone.

I believe media oppression of girls and women via hypersexualiztion is one of the most serious barriers standing between us and full equality. We need to break that barrier down and release the power it's holding back. That's why I work with girls' media and bringing girls' voices to the world at New Moon.

How would you do it?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who's the Grown Up Here?

Sunday evening and I'm feeling refreshed from a swim at the YW.

Which is a good thing, because I just checked the HuffPost and what did I find but a distressing and depressing story about another teen girl star being "sex-potted" by the media. Apparently, semi-nude photos (by Annie Liebovitz) of 15 year old Miley Cyrus are in this week's Vanity Fair.


You no doubt know that Miley plays Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel's most-watched show. She and her character are beloved and idolized by millions of tween girls (on the Hannah Montana website emails from fans give ages from 8 to 12). Many parents have been relieved there's a teen star who didn't follow in the hyper-sexualized footsteps of Lindsay, Britney, Paris and countless others. Guess it's time to re-think that relief.

I don't blame Miley - she's a media star in our oh-so-tired popular culture that still values women (and increasingly younger girls) for sex appeal and little else (no matter what it says, the images tell the truth). And she's at an age when exploration of her sexuality is appropriate and important.

But her exploration shouldn't be fodder for Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair or anyone else. That's called voyeurism and it's creepy. Which is exactly the feeling I got looking at the photo. Not only does it look like she's been surprised in bed, her posture and expression make her look even younger than 15, giving the photo a very disturbing whiff of child porn.

Cyrus has already issued a statement saying she's "embarrassed" about the photo and the story.
For my part, I wonder why her parents didn't issue that statement - in Vanity's Fair's "behind the scenes" slide show of the photo shoot, they were there when the pictures were being taken. A great deal has been made of her "common sense" parents in previous coverage of Miley. And what about Annie Leibovitz? Is she embarrassed? What about Vanity Fair?

Seems like there's more than enough embarrassment to go around and yet only the 15 year old is expressing it. Something's wrong with that! Who are the adults in this scenario anyway?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

The younger girls I know (like the Girls Editorial Board of New Moon in the photo at left) have a finely tuned sense of what's fair and unfair. They don't need to consult a mirror (or anyone else) to know what is fair. They understand justice directly and haven't reached an age when they begin to question the validity of their own perceptions.

Imagine what they will think about the blocked U.S. Senate vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (already passed by the house) to once again make employers responsible for pay discrimination for longer than 180 days after the first discriminatory paycheck is received.

They'll know right away that it's not fair. Younger girls don't hesitate to speak up for fair treatment of themselves and others. They expect to be treated fairly until society teaches them that it's "unrealistic" to expect that.

Many women, on the other hand, have trouble speaking up for our own needs and fair treatment until pushed to or over the brink by unfairness. We often find it easier to empathize with and speak up for others more than for ourselves.

Don't get me wrong - empathy is a valuable and too-rare quality in our world. I'm all for it. Let's just be sure we include ourselves in the list of those who deserve to be treated fairly. That's what Lilly Ledbetter did when she sued Goodyear after finding out she'd been paid less than men in the same job for 19 years.

There's obviously nothing fair about the widespread pay discrimination that women still contend with in great numbers. When women are underpaid for the work we do it hurts us and our entire families. And it has to change.

If the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is not passed by the U.S. Senate, our daughters won't even be able to stand up for their right to equal pay for equal work. Email your senators so they know how you feel about this and speak up for our daughters' futures, as well as your own.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My Earth Day

By coincidence, today is both Pay Equity Day and Earth Day. Can't really do them both justice in one post so let's talk Earth Day today and Pay Equity Day tomorrow.

I'm always inspired by people who are willing to try to change themselves to make the world a better place. Reading about No Impact Man Colin Beavan in the Sunday NY times put a smile on my face.

In honor of Earth Day, I decided to notice more than usual today how my daily habits balloon or shrink my carbon footprint.

This was my Earth Day:

  • Woke up in Florida where Joe & I were visiting my dad.
  • Breakfast was yogurt, a pear, oatmeal & dried fruit - probably none locally produced.
  • Checked email, then hibernated laptop.
  • Rode to the Melbourne, FL airport in dad's Jeep.
  • Started this blog post on laptop while waiting to board plane.
  • Flight to Atlanta (no direct flights from Melbourne to Minneapolis).
  • Ate store-bought salad on plane - threw away (no recycling on flight) empty plastic container.
  • Drank water in my own stainless steel bottle.
  • Had an iced decaf mocha from Starbucks in my stainless bottle (but the barista made it in a disposable cup anyway and then poured it into my bottle, saying it was "policy").
  • Ate the whipped cream topping with my sturdy new camping spork that I hope will save me from plastic spoons, forks & knives for years to come.
  • Used a straw I carry with me and re-use until it leaks.
  • Rode light rail from airport to bus and bused to our condo (all for only $1.50!).
  • Recycled the mail we didn't need and read the latest New Yorker by the light from floor to ceiling south-facing window.
  • Snacked on air-popped bulk popcorn from food co-op, with olive oil & sea salt. Wiped fingers on cloth napkin.
  • Joe did one load laundry (mixed colors & whites) in cold water with 1/8 c. Restore laundry soap in refillable jug & hung it to dry on hangers and drying rack.
  • Joe walked to co-op to get a few things we needed.
  • Went through emails from past several days.
  • Watched the Pennsylvania primary results while knitting a small afghan.
  • Flushed toilet after one poop or several pees.
  • Turned off power strip with TV & all other electronics attached.
  • Finished blogging and turned off power strip with computer, monitor & cell phone charger.
  • Went to sleep.
My day obviously had some proud moments as well as its less-prous (2 flights in one day). And as I lived these hours conscious of my effect on our earth, I thought of my daughters many, many times.

The disconnect between pervasive media and retailer tie-ins to Earth Day and the ways we actually live our daily lives is jarring. When will we change and will it be soon enough? Will our daughters and sons and their children have to pay the price for our disconnect and denial - it certainly looks that way.

When will we understand how much our personal choices matter in the earth our kids will inherit? Do the small things we do as individuals really matter? Michael Pollan argued in Sunday's NY Times magazine that our individual actions do matter and I agree.

What are the "small things" you do that help? I'm always looking for new ideas I can adopt. Share them by commenting.

Tomorrow, Pay Equity Day and how we can make change there, too.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Um, What?

Heather Parfitt, Managing Editor of New Moon magazine forwarded me a story today about the U.K. marketing of bras to girls as young as 7. The bras in this article are padded bras with plunging decolletage, not soft "starter bras"

My reaction was to see if/how bras are being marketed to girls that young in the U.S. A quick click on the "Girls Bras" ad-link at the end of the article netted an entire page of links, including Young Girls' Bras at Jockey, which start with a child's size 7. GapKids, Target, Maidenform, Vassarette, and Nordstrom's were also listed on the girls bras page of shopzilla. (Ironic name, eh?)

Now I can understand a young girl wanting to occasionally pretend to be older and more grown up, and enjoying playing dress up with her mom's & aunts' old clothes. That's creative and healthy. But the bras being marketed in sizes for very young girls are intended to be worn as daily underwear, like the undershirts often displayed on the same page.

That's real-life sexualization, not make-believe play. And it's not the least bit healthy for girls before puberty to get the message that they need to or should wear a bra on a daily basis, especially not a padded bra designed to look sexy. In fact, the American Psychological Association issued a report of its Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls last year and found that existing research points to many negative effects of sexualization in childhood.

From the report:

Research evidence shows that the sexualization of girls negatively affects girls and young women across a variety of health domains:

  • Cognitive and Emotional Consequences: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person’s confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, such as shame and anxiety.
  • Mental and Physical Health: Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women—eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
  • Sexual Development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.

The good news is that we parents hold many of the keys to helping our daughters resist the harmful effects of childhood sexualization. Check out the report and tell me what you think by clicking on the comment link.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hollywood Hears from a Dad - Anyone Listening?

I've heard a lot in the last week about NPR host Peter Sagal's commentary about the sexist sub-plot of the very popular new kids' movie, Horton Hears A Who.

It's so refreshing to hear a man with media clout go public with his anger over media sexism. And, in a delicious twist, he's host of NPR's witty weekly news quiz, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!," making it hard for pundits to tag him as a "humorless feminist," the way women with similar views often are.

Thank you, Peter, for caring so passionately and stepping up so articulately. Recognizing and portraying the equal value and potential of our girls and our boys as heroes, and as people deserving of notice, is a giant step that Hollywood needs to take now.

Sense & Sensibility

Last night Joe & I saw a play based on Sense & Sensibility, the novel by the incomparable Jane Austen. Put on by a tiny theater company with a shoestring budget, it was staged most improbably in the banquet room of a Twin Cities restaturant known for German food and beer.

As we walked in and saw that the set consisted of an area about 15 feet deep by 20 feet wide with only a single screen of fabric at the back (barely taller than the actors) and a few plain wooden chairs, my doubts started. How could this setting possibly do justice to the sublime writing and keen observations of one of my favorite authors?

I couldn't have been more wrong. The acting was outstanding and after only a few minutes I was completely immersed in Austen's witty piercing of the blisters of sexism and classism. Her extraordinary critique and appreciation of human nature shone through.

This morning I woke with thoughts of how those very same blisters still need piercing more than 200 years later. And today I'm feeling exhilarated (rather than daunted) by the thought of lending my energy to that work for the rest of my life. It feels positively fun with Jane Austen as a co-worker!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Character-Building by Mother Nature

Here in Minnesota, we think our weather builds strong character. Today was a case in point, with freezing temps, high winds, ice, and snow on April 11th! Lake Superior is just a few blocks from New Moon's Duluth home and it looked like this today. The buses even stopped running and that never happens.

Of course, our friend Jorge in sunny California couldn't resist telling us how warm and balmy it was there. But we don't hold it against him because we know our weather builds strong character.

I did feel just a bit upset when the power kept going out and there was no hot water to make another mug of hot chocolate. Really, if we must have snow in April we should at least be able to have some hot chocolate! Don't you agree?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Educating the Next Generation

From Autumn Libal of New Moon: A little while ago I wrote an email to some girls who are working with me in which I talked about us having a "We Can Do It!" attitude at New Moon. I was referring to J. Howard Miller's iconic World War II-era poster.

Some people thought I was talking about Bob the Builder. At first I felt mild amusement; it was a bit funny. Then I felt mild disappointment. I thought I was quite clever with my application of cultural iconography and believed the girls would appreciate my wit. Umm, a good reminder not to consider oneself too clever!

What does it mean when the first thing that jumps to girl's mind when reading the phrase "We Can Do It!" is Bob the Builder rather than a classic image of women's empowerment?

When a powerful idea or image becomes embedded in the cultural consciousness, it's easy to assume it will carry through to future generations. After all, so many things (gender inequity for one!) do pass down from age to age, seemingly organically and effortlessly.

But the mistaking of a classic women's empowerment slogan for a Bob the Builder quote reminded me not to take for granted the ground we have gained through the women's movement. Whether in subtle or obvious ways, our sociocultural values, principles, norms, and behaviors are taught and learned--from our families, our communities, our schools, our media. If we don't consciously pass the ideas we have and gains we make on to future generations, then they are in danger of being lost. This is especially so if one principle--in this case women's empowerment--is in competition with other long-standing cultural norms--like entrenched gender inequity.

And so today, when New Moon is celebrating another Parents' Choice Gold Award I am very thankful to be part of this organization. I am reminded , and I'm feeling renewed commitment to helping another generation of girls find their voices and use them in ways that matter in the world.

"We Can Do It!," far from being an obvious cultural reference, or worse yet, an overused cliche, is a vital message every girl still needs to hear.