You may be aware of the controversy over a mother painting her five-year-old son’s toenails neon pink in a recent J. Crew ad. One pundit called it “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.” Psychologist and author Keith Ablow advises the mother to put money aside for her son’s future psychotherapy. Here, Jon Stewart weighs in on The Daily Show:
I wrote a post a couple of years ago about this topic (“Pink is for Girls“) but even then I didn’t seriously consider that people would cry “Transgender!” if a boy painted his toenails. (Or is it that they’re pink that’s the problem?) And what’s with all the blame being heaped on the mother for seeming to encourage this behavior?
One of my readers directed me to an article in Mother Jones about the “pink problem.” In it, the author points out that until the 1920s, the gender-assigned colors were reversed: pink was for boys and blue for girls. And boys used to be dressed like girls (long hair and all) until they graduated into short pants.
The fact is, there are many strands in the process of gender socialization and color is probably the least significant. How we talk to, handle and play with our children has more to do with how they perceive their gender. That’s why many parents with children who prefer to “cross-dress” don’t seem to be unduly concerned. Do a Google search on boys loving pink and you’ll be surprised at how many parents report that their perfectly normal boys are enamored with the color. There’s even a Facebook page titled “My Son Likes Pink.” Sarah Hoffman writes about her son looking great in a dress in a Salon.com article.
Why are we so concerned about little boys dressing like girls and not the reverse? (Although there has been some media speculation about Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and her tomboy ways.) A woman has to go really butch to get people second-guessing her sexual identity, but all a man has to do is wear hot pink.
And these assumptions are buried deep. It’s the rare person who doesn’t feel discomfort at a man in a skirt, for instance. I once attended a blues concert where the performer wore a long pleated skirt throughout the entire show and I honestly didn’t know what to think of it. I’m still puzzled. (The performer never mentioned his attire.) But why should I be? Women wear pants, don’t they?
An alternate question might be, what harm does gender socialization do anyway? Isn’t it important for a child to be clear about his or her sexual identity? For one thing, small children might “know” their gender, but don’t view it as set in stone. Many children wish they were the opposite sex at some point in their development. Some even think they will change at a later date or that they’re free to choose. It’s not until a child hits preadolescence (ages 8-12) that his or her gender identification— and adjustment to it — becomes critically important.
Caring which way your child goes has more to do with discomfort about transgender and homosexuality than anything. Because the bottom line is, so what if your child identifies as the opposite sex, or is only attracted to the same sex? We do our children a great disservice when we force them into boxes they may not feel comfortable in. (See tomorrow’s video, “The Man Box.”)
We’re all aware of how our notions of beauty are shaped by what we see on TV and in movies and ads. But what if all that beauty was artificial? Oh, wait…it is.
When I wrote the post “What Does a Powerful Woman Look Like?,” one word I managed to avoid was “culture,” even though what I was ultimately trying to say was that you can tell a powerful person by the influence she has had on her culture.
I might have avoided the word because “culture” is hard to define. It’s not synonymous with history, although events do help to shape it. It’s more than the shared set of values of politics or religion. And although the word is often used as a blanket term for the arts, in its broadest sense it encompasses much more. Wikipedia defines culture in three ways:
- Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture
- An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
- The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group
In my opinion, culture is what identifies us, as individuals and as groups. Your culture is the milieu in which you exist. When forced out of your milieu, or natural habitat, you experience “culture shock.” You don’t know how to relate to the world, to other people, or even to yourself. Culture provides you with your points of reference so that you know how to navigate the world.
Some men think that they are the shapers of culture because they’re given most of the credit for making history. They see themselves as the movers and shakers, the ones who set policy, enact and enforce laws, fight battles and govern countries. Although there have always been women who have also done these things, it has been men’s accomplishments that are seen as carrying more weight.
But it would be a mistake to overlook the role that women play in the shaping of culture. While men provide the broad brush strokes of a society’s culture, it is women who fill in the details. And more than that, women are also the ones who are primarily responsible for transmitting culture from one generation to the next.
To get at what I mean, let’s look at a typical family: The husband’s job determines the socioeconomic level of the family but it is the wife who decorates the home, plans the meals, picks out the clothes, and spends most of the disposable income. She is also the one who writes thank-you notes, invites the in-laws over for Thanksgiving and makes most of the decisions about family rituals. Because she is the primary child caretaker, she picks out the books the children read, decides what television will be watched and buys the toys the children play with.
In American society, even though over half of the work force is made up of women and 75% of those work full-time, it is still the woman who does all these things and more. Why? Is it because her husband refuses to help her? Or is it because she feels like it is her responsibility to fulfill this function?
It is commonly accepted that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands and their culture. But many Muslims, women included, counter by claiming that Western women are “oppressed” by the demands their society places on them to be sexy.
A Muslim woman can be alluring, too, which is why the whole modesty thing as a reason for covering is somewhat pointless. Men will fantasize about women no matter what. In fact, you could argue that the more covered a woman is, the more a man fantasizes about her. But no matter how a woman is dressed, a man should never be allowed to use the excuse that a woman enticed him by the way she was dressed.
My standards are looser than most Muslims. I’m not offended by bare arms, necks or legs (as long as the dress or shorts don’t expose more than the leg!).I am uncomfortable with cleavage and bare midriffs, not to mention bikinis. But I don’t think that a woman who is “uncovered” is bad or even wrong. What I do object to is the subtle ways that women (and even girls) are told that they must be desirable to men.
Perhaps it is biologically wired into women to try to attract men, but that doesn’t mean that we should be doing it all the time, at any age, and regardless of our relationship status. What reason does a married woman have to doll herself up in front of other men? Hasn’t she already attracted her mate?
Some say that women dress as much for other women as they do for men. But why are they trying to prove that they’re sexier if they’re already in a relationship? Others say that men like their women to be perceived as attractive, even sexy, by other men because it’s an ego boost for them. But isn’t it a little crass for men to put their women on display as if they’re mere possessions?
Many non-Muslims think that the reason Muslim women are “made” to cover is because their men don’t trust them. They think they’ll attract the attention of other men which might lead to infidelity. They also don’t trust other men to keep their hands off their women. Because they know what men are like, they believe that a woman shouldn’t do anything to make a man think about her sexually.
While this may be true for some men (Muslim and non-Muslim), the Qur’an makes it clear that women are to be honored and cherished. The implication is that dressing modestly helps men to hold them in high esteem, not because they would blame women for being sexy if they didn’t, but because they appreciate it when a woman knows her own value.
I reacted strongly when I saw this picture of Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover of Elle magazine. Why did she have to pose in nothing but a sweater (and at least a bra) with her one shoulder bared provocatively? Wouldn’t she have looked just as attractive if she had been wearing slacks or leggings and had kept her sweater all the way on? It’s not that I think she looks sluttish (for this type of picture, it’s fairly tasteful), but I can’t help but wonder why she felt she had to pose this way? Or why she was pressured to?
I think I know what motivates some women to agree to pictures like this: It’s because women are seeking affirmation that they are desirable. If they see themselves in a photograph or painting looking sexy, it reassures them that they are. I would guess that most women would like at least one photo of themselves looking sexy and beautiful. That’s one reason for the popularity of Glamour Shots®. What woman doesn’t want to be recorded as looking beautiful at least once in her life?
But why do they want these pictures on public display? Wouldn’t it be enough to have them at home? I can see Paltrow hanging this picture in her bedroom for her husband to enjoy. But what motivates her, and so many other women, to present themselves this way to the whole world?
I’m not saying that women shouldn’t try to be attractive. I think there is something in a woman’s makeup that makes her want to be beautiful. (One reason why some women wear the niqab or full burqa is because they’re trying to erase that desire from their psyches. They believe that it is only appropriate to glorify God, not themselves.)
But when women start feeling that they will enhance their careers or be treated better if they dress the way that men want them to, they have crossed the line between self-esteem and self-pandering. “Selling” the way that they look in return for favors. What’s that called? Oh, yeah, prostitution.
Cross-posted on I, Muslimah, a blog about my thoughts and experiences as a Muslim convert.
The Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis is an intelligent and thoughtful advocate for women. She started the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media because of her concern about gender equality in TV and film. In this Livestream video she discusses the problem, cites supporting statistics, explains her personal interest (she has an 8-year-old daughter, the film Thelma and Louise, etc.), the role of gender in family equality, and what she does and others can do to raise awareness about this issue.
While you’re on the site where the video is located, “Women and Hollywood,” take a look around. It has great information about women both in front of and behind the camera.