Helping kids notice sexuality and sexualization.

Spring weather.  I love it. Flip-flops are here and people are striping off their winter clothes and are showing more skin. Getting rid of the Michelin Man look of winter apparel is something that I’ve always really liked.  I like seeing the shapes of bodies.  I like seeing shoulders. I like seeing tattoos. I like seeing how people express themselves, and hold themselves, with fewer layers covering them.

With the warm weather, the way people physically expose themselves is guaranteed to sometime conflict with my own sense of decency.  How much is too much? When is something an act of empowerment or undue influence from a hyper-sexualized culture?  How do I explain my sense of decorum to my kids without judging those around me?  How do I communicate freedom of choice, expressing our sexuality while still helping to tease out ideas of sexualization and the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations that bodies perpetually meet a level of ‘sexy’ no matter what we are doing?  How do I message that sexy is bigger than how much skin we expose?  Or that sexy need not be about bodies at all?

Stories of teenagers being sent home from school for dressing a certain way, or yearbook pictures being photo-shopped to add clothing and coverage are outrageous to me.  These stories are commonplace and, for me, are examples of policing (mostly) women around what they look like.  Still, I might not particularly like the choices people make.  I don’t want to impose rules on others but do want to share my values with my kids.  How do I do that?

The answer: slowly.  It’s not a one shot deal.  A friend of mine was exasperated by a Betty and Veronica Digest cover showing a close up of B + V lying on the beach, with their bikini-clad chests prominantly featured.  IMG_3462Her kids didn’t get her response.  They didn’t understand her anger because they didn’t have the context and couldn’t see what she saw.  They hadn’t yet been taught to question the images around them.  We might feel disgust or disappointment at the ways cartoon characters are sexualized, or how there is chronically a subtext of sex being foisted on us in many advertisements (and throughout pop culture), but our kids won’t see that unless we make them aware of the larger story being told.  From there, we can hope they feel some fire in their belly and help to shift the cultural norms around them.

Recently I was with my kids walking along the sea wall.  Lots of people were out.  It was a gorgeous sunny day here but still not quite the warm season.  It was one of those days that people run to put on their summer clothes even though they might be cold all day.  The anticipation of summer is overwhelming.  The expectation for summer heat is palpable.   There were many runners putting some miles behind them – no doubt doubly glad for the warmth and dryness of the day. At one point, I noticed a young and very slight woman who was jogging in almost nothing.

There was absolutely no practical reason why she was dressed the way she was dressed.  The tiny sports bra and shorts that hardly covered her backside was her chosen ensemble for her athletic pursuits. I don’t get it but power to her.

I watched my nine-year-old look at her carefully. Not in any kind of sexual way but maybe in a similar way that I looked at her.  Which was with some curiosity about her wardrobe choice.  That and perhaps my motherly response to think ‘she must be cold’.

Even though my kid didn’t say anything, I want to help him interpret the things he sees in the world around him.  If he sees violence, I’d want to debrief it.  If he sees an injustice, I’d want to articulate it to him.  Where there is an act of kindness, I want to verbalize our bearing witness.  When I see my kid noticing things that have a relationship to sex and sexuality, I  want to talk to him about it. (Not always, there are just too too many.) But even where the connection is tangential, I want to help him see that relationship.

In this case I remarked with the question ‘do you think she’s cold?’

He said something like ‘ya, I mean, she’s hardly wearing anything!’

I responded with something like ‘I know.  It’s kind of strange to me that she chose that outfit but some people really like to show off their bodies – even when it’s impractical.  Which is okay and there are a lot of messages in ads and stuff that lead people to believe that showing a lot of skin, or wearing tight clothing, makes them more attractive or sexier.  I don’t like those messages and I don’t think they’re true in the least.’

He said ‘me neither’.

Mission accomplished.  And now I’ve got to go and pull out my tank tops.

Tips for talking to kids:

  • Make the early conversations short.  Notice, comment and get out. Perhaps there will be some good musing that will add richness to the next conversations.
  • Be concrete.  Don’t start in the abstract. Use the world around you and your kids to identify relevant examples of what you think and feel.
  • Be critical of the system but try not to judge people.  Along those lines, while many (young) kids take cues from popular culture around dress, don’t make the earliest lessons personal.
  • Be curious with your child. Notice things with them. Ask questions like ‘why do you think the brand/advertiser/person chose x? How might it be different if they had chosen y?
  • Avoid ranting.  It often has the opposite effect that you wish.  Make the early goals noticing and considering.  Awareness is critical – and developing a particular perspective will come.  Hopefully aligned with your own.
  • These are not simple issues with black and white responses.  They are nuanced and very individual.  Be sure to let your kid know that there are lots of different ways to think about the issue, that people often need time to understand and sometime change their minds.  All of which is fine.
  •   If you feel disappointment, digust or exasperation, try and highlight those feelings while keeping your emotions in check.  Emotional investment is good, but early conversations that emphasize rational thought, I think, will best allow your child to invest in the issues in a real way and with respect.

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