The panel was called: Mirrors: Ours, The Media’s, Our Cultures’ and Our Kids’. It was held at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, 7/18 at BlogHer in San Francisco.
Laurie introduces herself. We all want to do our best with our kids in a very hard time around these issues. We want to talk about how we feel about it and what we can do. We’re all not going to agree, and that’s fine; it’s part of understanding each other.
Laurie asks the panelists to talk about issues that are up for them right now.
Tracee: I write about empowering girls, specifically daughters. How girls internalize the media and what we as parents can do to give them tools to fight that. Daughters inherit our emotions about our bodies. So many women self-deprecate for humor; I used to do it all the time. When my 4-year-old said “I hate my fat thighs,” I said “What have I done?” Women use this to bond–I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect. I was joking, but my daughter couldn’t tell it was a joke. Daughters feel that when you criticize yourself you’re criticizing their DNA.
Kelly. “I love my thighs!” My daughter’s here, and she has those same thighs. The things I have to explore in body image are about race, and being underrepresented in media. I never had any magazines growing up because no one looked like me. I thought my parents were being cruel, I wanted my Tiger Beat. Then I realized they were doing a positive thing for me. “You’re not going to find yourself in that.” I think the important thing is raising children to be positive about themselves, and what they think is positive about themselves. My children are so different: my daughter looks exactly like me and my son has red hair, pale skin, and freckles. We call him “Opie.” He identifies so much about being black and doesn’t look it. We’re going to explore that with him. My dad made a joke about how my son had “slave feet”; as white as my child is, he identified with the family in that moment. That’s a strange thing to feel good about, but I understood it immediately. Nothing in the media can understand that.
Glennia: I’m half-Korean, half-Caucasian. I’ve always straddled the two different cultures. My Caucasian family lives in Kentucky; they’re sort of mountain folk. The idea of body image to me doesn’t just talk about how big we are, how small we are. It also goes to issues of race and culture. I’ve always considered myself a woman of color; it’s a very different experience to how my son will experience in the world. It’s important to raise him so that as a member of that privileged class, he doesn’t look down on people who don’t look like him, because he has a mother who doesn’t look like him.
Laurie: I was going to talk about something else. This is as much about boys as it is about girls. Our society says body image = women, but it absolutely affects boys as much as girl. Body image turned me into a social change photographer. My older daughter had body image issues in junior high school because she was a small girl with large breasts. She got teased mercilessly, but she was a socially successful being and we worked with it and talked about it. I didn’t have this sense of larger body image issues in the culture. My younger daughter, who wasn’t fat, got teased about getting fat all the time. anorexia epidemic 5th grade. fat activist movement in the Bay Area; going to performances.
“Fat is not evil” was really what was important for her. (Books: real bodies are beautiful.) If it had not been for my younger daughter’s stuff, this never would have happened.
Kelly: Difference in culture. None of my black women friends sit around and lament their weight. It does not happen in that culture, because there is a difference in black men. White girlfriends say “How come you never talk about what you don’t like about yourself?” Number one, I wasn’t raised that way,and number two, “My ass is revered in that culture!”
Tracee: I heard a woman in a restroom saying “My ass is so big!” and I thought, “She wasn’t saying that in a bad way.” How come we white girls don’t get to have that?
Audience 1: I have a boy and a girl. They just know everyone comes in different shapes and sizes. We try not to joke about it. My son at 6 is getting very aware of how he looks compared to other people. My daughter is just a princess and doesn’t think about how she looks in the clothes, but my son worries about the gap in his teeth, and says it will make him look like a nerd. No matter how strong you are, it’s in the culture. He’s a white boy, he’s supposed to have everything for him, but he’s worreida bout what he looks like.
Audience 2: My daughter’s tall and athletic; she’s never going to be mistaken for a small skinny girl. We do all the stuff you’re supposed to do. More than once, a friend has come over and said “Well, you’re fat.” Part of me wants to take back that word and say “It’s not a bad word; it shouldn’t be used as an insult.” But how do you deal with it, both for your own child and for the other child. I had a conversation with her, but I didn’t want to — I once used something I didn’t know was a racial slur
Tracee: It’s a huge risk. You can offend the other parent. I say “In our house, here’s the house rule.We don’t use words like that in our house, because it would make you feel bad when you heard it.” I also told my daughter, “You don’t have to hang out with people who treat you like that.” I want her to have clear boundaries; if the girl down the street is calling you names, she can leave.
Kelly: I’m an educator. I would use that as a teachable moment. “What does fat mean? How do you use it?” I just sat down at the Cafe Press table to get my free t-shirt, and when the woman asked me what size I need, the gentleman covered his ears. I said, “No! I’ll tell you. I need a large.” Even with him, I used it as a teachable moment. I agree, it’s a risk. You be the first person to tell that parent what you think.
Glennia: My kid came home one day from day care. “They were calling me names!” “Well, what did they call you?” “Asian!” “Alex, you are Asian.” “No, I’m not.” “Well, your grandma’s from Korea” and we looked at the globe and I said “You should be proud that you’re Asian!” I asked him, “So the next time that girl calls you Asian, what are you going to say?” “I’m Asian and I’m proud!”
Laurie: With my daughter, we dealt with it that people of all sizes are beautiful. I just said, “You know, lots of fat people look really good. Is there anybody in your family that’s fat?” And they would say, “Yes, my grandma, or my aunt.” And I would say, “How does she look to you?” and they would say she looks just fine. That’s a good way to handle it, because you aren’t saying anything bad about anyone. One thing is “how to be man enough”; most men don’t feel like they ever measure up. When a 6-year-old says he feels like a nerd, he’s saying “I’m afraid I won’t measure up.”
Audience 2: We’ve been focusing on empowering girls and in my kids’ classes, I see the boys are less confident and we’ve gone over too far.
Glennia: I think that’s a cross-gender problem.
Laurie: I do too.
Audience 3: I wanted to go back to something on height, but I have a boy and a girl and I’m a little more worried about my daughter. I watch my son but he’s into sports and that’s measuring up. My daughter is lighter than me. I think that’s a whole issue she’s going to deal from Caucasian people and black people. Being light-skinned, just growing up and dealing with the way black people look at you. But height. I’m 5’11” and my husband’s tall.She’s going to be a tall girl. I don’t know what her weight’s going to be like. I was “big bird” and “sasquatch” and I was teased and I hated it. So I’m trying to instill in her that “you’re beautiful and you’re going to be tall and you can wear heels” (she’s only 5, so I’m not putting her in heels now).
Kelly: I’m the shortest girl in my family. My sister developed so young that she developed this aloofness. We were in Chicago and she got so paranoid about everyone staring at her: she was 6 feet tall in high school. We walked by this couple who was talking about her, and my sister did something really foolish–she just let them have it. And the woman says, “You know, I was giving you a compliment!” And she completely missed that because no one had ever given her a compliment about her height. I know because I’m tall, I can own a room.
Audience 3: I love my height now, but I want it to come sooner for her.
Glennia: If she can look like you, I think she’s going to feel good about that.
Laurie: Most of us are not raised to feel good about how we look. If you feel bad about how you look, that doesn’t make you a bad person. I want to talk about that and about how you were raised affects how you feel about your kids.
Audience 4: My son is only 2-1/2, so he doesn’t have much of a problem. I was anorexic for over 10 years, very skinny, very praised for my weight. My mother made a really big deal about it. When I healed myself, I gained a great deal of weight and I’ve never gone back to what she considered the ideal. And she has called me fat to my face. I’m not skinny, but god-damn, I’m not fat. So it’s very difficult for me with my son, even though he doesn’t have really a personal reaction to it yet, I find myself very defensive. People say, “Oh, he’s a big boy!” and I find myself going “He’s normal!.” I find myself worrying what effect my defensiveness and protectiveness on that subject is having on him.
Audience 5: I have three daughters, 10, 7, and 18 months. I married a very large football player. My oldest daughter is my husband’s body type; the middle one is a skinny little thing. I took my oldest daughter to Abercrombie & Fitch, and everything is small, small, extra-small, and I had to find a large and it barely fit her. She desperately wants to buy those clothes.
Tracee: The clothes made for little girls are way too small. I buy my6-year-old daughter “small” adult clothes. Clothing manufacturer sizes are just all wonky.
Audience 5: But she wants that label. I want her to have things that will make her be successful in middle school. Her peers value that. I want her to have the chips so she has the confidence. I bought her a large, but it’s tight, and I don’t want her to wear tight clothes either.
Kelly: My daughter and I have these conversations. We’ll see a woman and we’ll say to each other “She has no friends!” Because if she did, they would have told her. You see a woman wearing clothes and you say “She can’t breathe!” So we discuss what would look good on her. I don’t think you’re ever going to get her not to want Abercrombie & Fitch.
Tracee: Talk to her about the labels. What does “S” mean? Abercrombie & Fitch has dubious marketing; I’d also talk to her about Abercrombie & Fitch.
Laurie: We live in a world where people are being told that everybody is a blonde size 2. And everybody isn’t. And people are making billions of dollars telling you that’s what makes you beautiful.
Audience 6: I’m interested in how we talk about children as little and bigger, and the influence peers have when they’re 8, 9, 10, and how that shapes their worldview. I had a mother who was severely eating disordered. She always told me how beautiful I was; she was never never critical and somehow I managed to escape that way of thinking. I have a daughter now and I’m hoping to instill the same values in full. Starting them strong and giving them a good foundation when they encounter people who don’t have the same values, and when they’re exposed to the magazines, is a good way to go.
Kelly: Queen Latifah, who is losing weight and not saying how much she’s losing.
Laurie: The mantra “It’s okay not to be thin.” I obviously think you can be beautiful at any size, but in this climate, sometimes that’s the best you can do.
[At this point, they started taking audience members’ names and blog names. I caught a few.]
Squid at The Adventures of Leelo and His Potty-Mouthed Mom: I have a 9-year-old daughter. I spend a lot of time around her being naked. This is my body. I’m not size 2, I’m not blue-eyed, I’m not any of those things.” Sometimes I wonder, she’s getting older, is this an okay thing to communicate to her? I’m just curious to see what other people think about that.
Tracee: I’m pro-naked around the kids; my husband’s not. I’m kind of happy with that gender difference. I think me being naked around my daughter is good; she feels free to ask me when she’s going to get boobs. I’ve been caught doing other things in the bathroom when my kids walk in; there’s not a lot of secrets in our household. My mother was never naked around me.
Glennia: Something I tell my son a lot if someone is making fun of him or if he hears kids making fun of other kids. I always tell him “if someone’s making fun of you, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you; it means there’s something wrong with them.” Even on your blog, if someone is unleashing on you, it means there’s something wrong with them. He’s internalizing that at a very young age.
Kelly: The last troll I had was criticizing me for putting up a picture of my daughter. He was like “You guys think you’re so beautiful,” and I was
Gina Garrubbo from BlogHer: I have an 8-year-old daughter and I’m paranoid about things like Barbie. I call her Barbie the Bimbo and I explain she was made by white men in the 50s and her feet are anatomically impossible, and we’re more an American Girl family. I wonder if I’m going too far, but I hate the way
Lots of agreement and audience discussion of Bratz vs. Barbies.
Tricia from Four Plus Four Equals Ten: In my house, we walk around and both of us are well-endowed. We go skinny-dipping and the kids are around it all the time. “You can call me fat, but we don’t call strangers fat. You’re big, you’re fat, that’s good, let’s go to find Macy’s and find one of those women who will shop for you.”
Gina: You can give her all the help at home, but her peers send other messages.
Tricia: It’s a different perspective from “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could fit in those clothes?”
“The Princess” from Flooded Lizard Kingdom: When I was pregnant last year, I was already gearing up for Barbie, and I had a son! I have no idea what I’m doing! I came up in feminism and I know all the stuff to do if you have a girl child and the messages they’re going to get. The only information I’ve ever been exposed to about men is in discussions where they attempt to hijack women’s issues, so I really don’t know where to start.
Laurie at Not Just About Cancer: I’m a feminist who’s been blessed with two beautiful boys. Until I had boys, I never thought about how body image could be for boys. My younger son comes down in the morning and says, “No, I want to wear this because Niko will think it’s cool.” My beautiful sensitive 10-year-old son has long curly hair and frequently gets mistaken for a girl. He doesn’t care and I don’t care. He gets very upset in class when kids use the term gay to put other people down. The other day, I went to get his hair trimmed and the hairdresser said “But boys don’t have long hair.” I said, “I’m fine with it, and his father is too.” We’ve talked about sexual orientation; he says, “I’m 10; I don’t know!” But when boys don’t fit that image of what a man is supposed to be its … I feel I’m going a bit by the seat of my pants except to tell them that they’re beautiful.
Glennia: When I saw the ultrasound, I thought “Oh, shit! What am I going to do with a boy?” But I think your son will teach you. You have to have faith in your son and in yourself. I’d like to know what it is to have a daughter.
Tracee: I think feminism helps to parent him because I think about what would make him a good husband to a feminist. He has a toy kitchen and he plays with dolls. He’s pretending to be a father, and that’s what I want him to do. He likes the trains, and he likes to rough and tumble, but he’s also allowed his feminine side.
Glennia: We had a policy that we were not going to have any guns or any swords or any violent toys. That went out the window the day he chewed his toast into a sword. It makes you think “Why do I have that bias?” That’s another way they teach you.
Cecily from Upper Case Woman: I was raised by a feminist and I wasn’t allowed to have Barbies. Now I have a two-year-old and I kind of feel that way, but mostly I resented the hell out of my mother. In a commune, the boys were allowed to have dolls, but we weren’t. “Have a truck!” I have a shitty body image anyway, so I don’t think it did me much good. I hear about not being allowed to use the word fat in public and I don’t agree with that. It’s like blue or green or short (Laurie: or thin): I saw a woman slap her kid once for calling me fine.
Someone: What would you say to that mother?
Cecily: I told the kid it was fine. “You’re black and I’m fat.” His mother was pretty angry.
Audience #7: You don’t describe someone by “fat” or “black” My daughter will say “the white Shannon and the — brown — or –tan– Shannon”
Kelly: It’s reducing people to the one thing.
Cecily: I’d rather be “the fat woman” than the one in the tattoos and the tan pants.
Tracee: I’m trying to teach my kids manners, too. I wouldn’t slap her in public, but I don’t …
Glennia: “fat” or “tall” are descriptors. It’s the overlay we put on it. You have to be taught and 5 or 6 year old kids don’t know that. If you’re teaching your kids that those aren’t bad things, but it’s different when you get out there in the world. Then their peers are teaching them what’s good and bad. You just have to continually reinforce to them that people are just perfect the way they are.
Laurie: I think it’s also nuanced. If you are fat, or in my case older, saying that about yourself in the world is a really important positive thing. But there are women who if you say they’re older would cringe. I think kids are perfectly capable of learning those nuances.
Laurie: Do we want to talk about the sexualization of children?
Tracee: I talk about sexualization of children in advertising a lot on my blog. A new e-trade commercial where a computerized infant boy makes a porn reference: why is there not a huge outcry about that? A girl baby emails him some porn, and he’s like “I gotta go now!” When did that become okay. Some serious boundaries are being crossed and they’re affecting our kids and they’re affecting us. I see Google ads where “girl” has turned into a 4-letter-word which is synonymous with porn. We’re more worried about our daughters because it’s not out of bounds to make a sexual reference to a young child any more. I’ll surf the net and it’s amazing how many sexual references I see to young girls.
Laurie: The first time I saw a six-year-old girl in a t-shirt that says “I’m a porn star,” and combined with earlier puberty in both boys and girls.
Audience 8: I have a 16 year old and a 12 year old. The 16-year-old just said to me, and we were watching a biography of Jenna Jameson, and my daughter said “What movie was she famous for?” I’m raising girls in a world that thinks that porn stars are celebrities. And my 12-year-old got her period at 11. It’s kind of what we were talking about before with the backlash. It can look like anything about sexuality and girls is wrong, and I see her trying to figure out about the body she’s got and the attention she’s going to get. I want her to feel good about that. I want to say “Your sexuality is good and it can be one of the most enriching parts of your life.”
Kelly: My daughter said she was surprised she liked a Happy Gilmour movie, which means it was an Adam Sandler movie, and I said “were there two Lesbians kissing in it?” because that’s what he’s known for. And I say, “Do our Lesbian friends look like that? And do they do that in front of us to try to turn us on?” I say we need to look at that
Audience 9: I don’t blog about my daughter’s sexuality, but she’s 10 turning 11 and it’s time to have conversations, only because I want to empower her and I don’t want to hit her with phrases like “blow jobs” that she doesn’t already know. I don’t want her to go unarmed. My husband is judging her clothing choices. I think that she’s a little girl, and I think little girls get to wear shorts. I don’t think little girls should be wearing a habit in the summer time when she’s hot. He has this way of messaging to her that that’s not okay, and I am very defensive of her right to be a little girl, and I don’t want her to be ashamed. “You’re a little girl, and you get to just be a little girl.” My husband and I go round and round about that.
Tracee: I have that same issue with my husband. We’ve been to therapy about some girl issues. We have to realize that their job is to protect little girls, but we as mothers sort of have to teach them … There’s this idea in society that if a girl covers up, nothing bad will happen to her, and that’s just plain fiction. Husbands want to do something, fathers want to do something, and we have to teach them. I don’t want her to wear the midriff not because I’m afraid of sexual predators but because I’m afraid you will judge me as a mother.
Audience 9 again: I’m a rape crisis advocate, and I’ve taught my husband a lot. But it’s different to him when it’s a rape victim and when it’s her. It’s her god-given or whoever given right to wear what she wants. Though there’s sexualization in media, that’s not her. I don’t want to push it on her.
Tracee: Our brains are getting hardwired to certain images. When we see a Catholic girl, we have sexual thoughts. I don’t think girls are dressing more slutty.
Laurie: I actually disagree. Teens and tweens are dressing much more sexually. That’s a commercial thing. They discovered an enormous amount of money could be made by selling clothes to people younger and younger. That’s one reason the sexualization happens is that then people want certain types of clothes.
Tracee: I’m seeing a lot of halter tops and bikinis, and then I see kids getting sexually criticized for them. Those have been around a long time.
Dana from The Dana Files. I was raised in a very strict Catholic family. I couldn’t wear anything that looked too sexy or too revealing. You can’t have sex before marriage. I held to that. My father owns a bar and grille; when I turned 18, I worked for him. The first night he left me alone to manage the bar, I came to work in a tank top and shorts, and was stunned that men were attracted to me. Some of the things that men would say to me were revolting. I thought when I have a son, I want to teach him the proper way to treat women. How do we teach our sons? Do I do it myself? Do I get my husband to do it? I’m at a loss
Glennia: To go to your question, I think you have to have a continual dialogue with your kids about these things. If you’re open about it, they can ask you a question. If they can ask you what they think about something they saw, I think that’s going to help them when they go out in the world to apply those lessons. You have to look at all these things as opportunities.
Kelly: Not just thinking about the boy issue, but as an educator I’m all for a dress code, because I spent 50% of my day sometimes policing what kids wear. I ask girls, “What kind of image are you trying to portray?” If you’re trying to get a boyfriend by what you’re wearing, you have no right to complain if all he values you for is your body. You have to build up yourself in a completely different manner. Let’s talk about your brain because you do have one; nobody else took it home with them.” I love to see these girls thinking, “This is going to be gone someday, but my brain is going to be there forever.” As women, we do it backwards: we do not dress for men, we dress for each other. I don’t expect a man to tell you I have cute shoes: I expect you to do that.”
Tracee: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood putting boundaries around marketing (such as on report cards, and playgrounds, much of it sexually or gender inappropriate). The Normal Breasts Gallery if you have daughters who are maturing and seeing silicone everywhere.
Audience: Why not for sons?
Tracee: I agree! Our perspective of what people look like is distorted. When talking about sex, Third Base Ain’t What It Used To Be is a good balanced resource.
Laurie: Scarleteen. Really really good sexual information for teenagers. All About S.E.X.: The Scarleteen Book, by Heather Corinna. The best book I’ve ever seen for answering questions about teens and sexuality.
Tracee: Good books for tweens. Discovery Girls book series.
Audience 10: Our partners are so important. Our kids constantly look to us for nonverbal cues as to whether or not we approve. We have to be so aware that our kids are attending on every level.
Laurie: You just said something I wanted to say. Everything we’re talking about about talking to our kids is hard work. It’s like cockroaches. Sometimes you get tired of talking to your kids, but you just have to keep doing it and doing it. The most subtle messages are the ones kids see the most.
Audience: And misinterpret!
Laurie: But if you live with someone who thinks you’re beautiful and loves you and hugs you, it’s a message kids are going to get. If you really feel positive about their kids, they do know. I raised a woman who now talks back to the television for her whole life, because I did that. The reiteration works.
Mallory, Mocha Momma’s daughter. As someone who just came out of my graduation from college, and the end of my parenting: at the end of the day, no matter what they said to me, it was my choice. I was one of those A&F kids. I was multiracial and I could pass. But I appreciate that Mom never bought me those clothes; if I wanted them, I had to buy them myself. I remember thinking “I’m really uncomfortable in these size zero pants.” As much parenting as she did, there was some blockage that I put up. It really does start at good parenting, but when it was my choice, and I could make those decisions about the clothes, that’s when it really turned me on. So keep going; it helps.
Melanie at Left Coast Mom. When I was in high school, I had the same kind of thing. My parents didn’t have any money so I never had the right kind of clothes. So I developed this distaste on clothes. I heard my five-year-old say “Mommy doesn’t like [???]] and neither do I, because they’re tacky.”
Glennia: As parents, we always want our kids to have it easier than we did, but I don’t think those things are avoidable. As parents, we can tell our kids the right things, and then when there are these bumps in the road, you have to be there to catch him. For him to grow as a person, he has to go through those things.