Thursday, March 22, 2007

Creating sexpots

That title's probably going to get me some icky Google searches, but oh, well. I'm referring to the idea that moms (in addition to media and marketing) might play some role in oversexualizing their daugters, according to Judith Warner (Times Select, free for academics). I was going to do a great analysis, incorporating ideas from this post and this post. I find myself agreeing mostly with the first post and finding the second one a little too one-sided, but they both have points, and I'm too tired to elaborate, so instead, I'm going to tell a story.

I will preface this story by saying that I feel pretty lucky in the body department. I'm small, fairly well-proportioned and, until very recently, have stayed thin without really trying. I've pretty much always looked pretty good, I guess. But I really didn't think I looked good and still struggle with feeling like it's okay to not have the thin body or the smooth skin I had at 18.

When I was younger, this struggle was even harder. And I blame a lot of my body issues through my teenage and young adult years on my mother (who, in turn, had been influenced by society's determinations about what it meant to be attractive). When I went off to middle school, or somewhere thereabouts, my mother began harping on me about my appearance. She made fun of the fact that my hair hung in my eyes. She criticized my posture and the way my feet turned in. In fact, she insisted on buying me "hard shoes" through 6th grade. Still, she 'd show me fashions out of magazines and talk about how cute I might look in some of the outfits. She wanted me to get a subscription to Seventeen (I think I did.) In 7th grade, she told me I should start wearing makeup. All my other friends were begging their mothers to let them wear makeup and my mom was taking me to the Clinique counter for makeovers. In 7th grade, I had braces, glasses, and a very bad perm. People called me "Fido." My mom took me to a specialty petite clothing store and bought me all these preppy clothes. They looked okay, but I got teased for being "a little rich girl." I wanted to wear jeans and t-shirts and Nikes. My mom wanted me to look like I'd stepped out of Cosmo.

In high school, things got a little better as I started to separate from her and explore styles and hair and makeup on my own. But in college, when I decided to abandon style altogether, opting one year for a t-shirt and jeans uniform and another year for an all-black look, she started in again. And she and my father both commented on the weight I gained during my sophomore year.

The message I got was that I wasn't attractive and needed to be "cleaned up." With clothes. With makeup. With new hairstyles. But none of those worked that well because I couldn't just be me. I was always trying to look like someone else--mostly at my mother's insistence. And my father wasn't a whole lot better. He stayed out of it most of the time, but even he harped on hair in my eyes or the "saddle bags" I was carrying.

My point in the story is that mothers and fathers can and do have an effect on the way children feel about their bodies. I'm not in favor of putting undue burden on them, or making them feel overly guilty and worry about everything they say. But there are parents, even today, whom I've seen focused on their children's looks. I've seen women like the ones described in Warner's piece, and I've heard women comment on appearance, talking about how fat some people are or how skinny someone else is. But they're only part of the problem. The bigger problem is the one pointed out in the original study, and by Jill, that marketers still show women as eye candy and show women in sexualized ways that many women can't help but view themselves against these standards, can't help but think about and talk about how they and others measure up.