The Dilemma with Daughters

Munteha 5 mosAlas, parenting, for either a girl or a boy, cannot be encapsulated in the space of a blog.  The author here (http://hopeave.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/how-to-talk-to-your-daughter-about-her-body/) makes several valid points about how to extenuate a young girl’s buying in to the tsunami of hypersexual, looks-paramount media that dominates our culture.  Thousands of pictures every day define what she should look like, from hair line to pedicure. Videos like Miss Representation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyC2iWrSYJ8) bring the issue into our living rooms and send us scrambling for answers and preventions and protections. We want to raise our daughters to become their fully feminine and human selves without the weight of societal and media damage impeding that glorious path. Alas, while we have access to good medical care, vaccines, vitamin supplements, healthy activities, education, knowledge from books, life, and documentaries, there is no wall we can build to keep out the myriad  of “you aren’t enough as you are” messages.

In the days before the first wave of visual electronics arrived with the television, information on how a girl should look was confined to home grown models such as the ladies at church, or, more broadly, film and magazines drawings and photography. Like your great-great-Aunt Harriet’s Roman nose, “I want to look like her” is not a new invention.  It is not even a modern invention. Ads in the NY Times over 150 years ago, cautioned young women about the perils of imperfect skin. “Are you envious of beauty?  Are you desirous of possessing, in reality, skin as soft, as smooth, as a fair young child’s, free from speck, freckle, pimple, sallowness, chap, chafe, crack, or unseemly roughness. Try GOURAD’S world renowned ITALIAN MEDICATED SOAP.”  The beauty industry hasn’t changed much in the interim, and I am as guilty as millions of others in buying serums to soften my skin, foundation to even the tones, and various makeup products to embolden this and minimize that.  Long past the age of “I want to look like her,” I have slipped inexorably into the era of “I don’t want to look like her!”

Always a Wonder Woman 1982

“I want to look like her” may have changed in terms of dress size over the millennia, else Twiggy and Kate Moss would never have replaced Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as the look of the month, but the incantation has traversed the ages, all of them.  A Newsweek article from 1996 offers an expert challenge still relevant today, “Every culture is a “beauty culture’,” says Nancy Etcoff, a neuroscientist who was studying human attraction at the MIT Media Lab and writing a book on the subject. “I defy anyone to point to a society, any time in history or any place in the world, that wasn’t preoccupied with beauty.”  Today, like culture on crack, this hormonal directive has taken over the airwaves, films, print media, shopping malls, and even elementary school lunchtime conversation. Jean Kilbourne has written extensively on advertising and its impact. Her research (http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/beautyand-beast-advertising)  recounts a situation far too close to home to be ignored.   “A recent Wall Street Journal survey of students in four Chicago-area schools found that more than half the fourth-grade girls were dieting and three-quarters felt they were overweight. One student said, “We don’t expect boys to be that handsome. We take them as they are.” Another added, “But boys expect girls to be perfect and beautiful. And skinny.”

Ultimately, this biological Russian roulette is a type of compulsion that demands we scan the territory, focus on a member of the opposite sex (in heterosexual mating) and determine whether that man or woman is the bearer of quality genes. Would you want a child to have that nose, those eyes?  More critically, will offspring conceived with that person live? After all, regardless of technology, the specie must survive. Beauty is a factor in those unconscious but powerful decisions, because, anthropologically, beauty is a sign of health, and health is a core determinant of longevity.  So, telling a young girl that looks do not matter sets up an unrealistic paradigm.  Like our “fight or flight” instinct, noticing the opposite sex, and understanding that he is noticing you is a part of human biology. Looks do matter, but the gift we can give our daughters, nieces, and friends is an understanding and demonstration that they are not all that matters.

Fathers can talk to their girls about school work, careers, and science.  My own father took us rock hunting, hiking, and bird watching.  He even taught us how to shoot a gun and an air rifle.  Yet, darling Dad, a man of his times, would not read a female author.  Despite having 5, count them, five daughters, he didn’t think a woman writer could say anything he wanted to hear. Yet, he loved me and the biggest message I got from him was that I could do pretty much anything.  Parents can share values through discussion and modeling.   Likewise, they can offer healthy choices at the dinner table and for school lunches to mitigate the opportunities for overeating.  Walk with your daughter, take her on hikes.  Issues of weight don’t need to come up at all if parents construct activities that maximize health. All of us can and should talk to girls about those seductive ads, women and men’s roles in films and on television, and the almost laughable error of believing in the personas we see in those productions.  In this, Lindsey Lohan can serve as an admirable anti-role model.

The core issue that arises from ignoring beauty, weight, style, or attraction topics is that girls will not be protected by their omission, but perhaps react to their absence by hiding a secret interest in “I want to look like her.” No one is served by such a scenario, least of all a little girl who aspires to be a princess before she becomes the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

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2 thoughts on “The Dilemma with Daughters

  1. I use Jeanne Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly” in my classrooms. She is “awesome.” Well done, Barbara, well done.

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