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Archive for February 2011

Natural Bodies

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I wrote a paper recently on Susan Bordo’s concept of the natural body and how it relates to Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism. Essentially, Bordo argues that our idea of a “normal” female (or male) body can’t be accurate, because societal pressure to conform to that norm begins to influence us at such an early age.

It’s easy to recognize this cultural body manipulation historically; from foot binding to anorexia, circumcision to ritualistic tattooing, social history is replete with examples of this kind of developmental interference.

Our own culture’s insistence on body manipulation is often less dramatic than, saying, coining practices in Southeast Asia. However, the consequences of our forms of alteration are at least as far-reaching.

NPR ran an article in Feb. 2011 titled “Why Keeping Little Girls Squeaky Clean Could Make Them Sick. (Read it here: “http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/02/04/133371076/how-keeping-little-girls-squeaky-clean-could-make-them-sick) The article discusses how our cultural obsession with keeping little girls clean and pretty may explain why women are three times more likely than men to develop autoimmune disorders later in life. Raising our daughters in a more or less sterile environment literally prohibits their natural immune systems from developing, and leads to an adulthood characterized by illness and fragility -otherwise known as femininity.

This issue became very personal to me recently when I announced to my friends and family members that our most recent ultrasound had revealed that we should expect to be cuddling with a precious baby daughter sometime in late June. We, her parents, are mainly thrilled about the CUDDLING. Everyone else saw the word “daughter” and started piling on well-intentioned advice, some of which I’ve been writing down just so I can show my daughter some day how close she came to leading a life of boredom and gossip magazines.

In particular, people have really taken an interest in cluing me in to how dramatically different it will be for me to raise a little girl after having successfully navigated three years of parenting a boy. Apparently, none of my old stand-bys will suffice with this kid; I’m going to need new toys, new clothes, and really just a whole new approach to daily living in order to adapt to her needs.

What really bothers me about these conversations is the way my own experiences and opinions are rendered moot by the sheer survival of these generationally-accepted “truths.” How can I expect to convince a woman that boys are not incapable of developing nutritive abilities, when that particular “truth” about masculinity has played a fundamental role in the parenting techniques for members of her family for perhaps hundreds of years?

I fully expect to see significant differences between my son and my daughter as they mature. Some of those differences may be related to their gender; some of them may be distinctive personality traits, distinctive because they are unique people and not just “kids” in a generic sense. And some of those differences will be due to social programming; I will never know what kind of a role these various factors played in shaping who my children become; all I can really control is the kind of influence I am in their lives.

Even if my son becomes a steroid-munching athlete and my daughter never outgrows tiaras, I know in my heart that they are both people, both capable of anger and aggressiveness, and both capable of tenderness and love. Society can condemn and discourage, but it can’t completely obliterate a person’s distinctive traits. We simply find more creative ways of expressing those traits that meet with cultural resistance.

And perhaps that explains why my son’s best friend, an adorable two year old girl with fluffy brown curls and a permanently runny nose, loves to kiss owies away, while my chubby-faced preschooler prefers to “fix” owies with a toy screw driver. I don’t know what variety of factors lead to his decision to involve a screw driver in the healing process, but I can see that he is expressing compassion and gentleness in a way that feels right to him. If he can retain that ability throughout his life, I will be happy.

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Written by GRSeim

February 25, 2011 at 1:58 am

Simply Smashing

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“I would not send a poor girl into the world, . . . ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself .” -Anne Bronte

I have never been what you might consider a mainstream individual; homeschooled through high school, raised in bizarre Westboro-esque fringe “home” churches and moving every two years, it is often a struggle to identify even vague similarities between myself and the people around me. Nothing has isolated me more from society, however, than my views on feminism; and in particular, the way those views shape my efforts to nurture and protect my son.

A recent rainy day found my son and I, accompanied by an adorable pint-sized friend, on a walk through our local wetland en route to the playground. The two kids sloshed through the mud ahead of me with tiny walking sticks, chattering away to one another in near-baby talk as I trailed behind, tuned in to the persistent kick-kick-kick of my daughter in utero.

The kids rounded a bend in the path just a few feet ahead of me, and I smiled to hear their squeals as they met up with a friendly dog walker. I was still smiling as I approached, and my son turned to beam back at me, his hands full of muddy dog. And then, still smiling beatifically, he turned and slammed his little friend off the trail into the shrubbery. No provocation, no reason- he is simply a toddler, and he is learning, and the process is often uncomfortable for an adult to watch.

The little girl, who is several months younger than my son, sat crying in the shrubbery while the dog owner attempted to simultaneously scold my son and verbally comfort the sobbing little girl.

I ignored the woman and stooped to lift the sobbing child out of the prickles and mud. I carried her back to her original place by my son, and then told her firmly, “I’m sorry you got hurt. That should never happen. You have the right to play safely. You tell Darren that he is not allowed to push you around!”

I could feel the dog walker stiffen.

Little Dorothy, who has been a regular visitor at our house for several months now, stiffened her tiny back and turned on my son ferociously.

“Bad!” she screamed. “Never, never okay, Darren! RAR!”

She curled her tiny dimpled baby hands into claws and lunged upward at my much larger son, growling menacingly.

“Dorothy is telling you to play nice,” I translated to my wide-eyed child. “She will not let anyone push her, because she is a tough cookie!”

“No pushing!” my son echoed, clearly a little shaken by Dorothy’s Godzilla impersonation. “Play nice!”

He reached his hand out tentatively, open palm, and waited for a moment while Dorothy eyed him suspiciously. The growling stopped, and she accepted his high five of apology before turning to continue her trek to the playground. Both children were laughing and cheerful again within seconds. The dog walker looked genuinely offended, but she is not my responsibility, and Dorothy and Darren are.

I can’t in good conscience intervene on Dorothy’s behalf when her much larger, stronger, more coordinated friend picks on her, because in doing so I would be actively training this infant to view herself as a passive victim whose only recourse in life is to appeal to the strength (and hopefully the benevolence) of her authorities when her rights are threatened.

Dorothy’s femininity makes her vulnerable, but as she clearly demonstrated it does not render her helpless. She is a force to be reckoned with, a powerful person who only needs to be unleashed from society’s patronizing demands.

Conversely, I can’t stand back and watch my own son take advantage of his size and strength to abuse the vulnerable people in his life. As I see it, I have a window of about eight years before he hits puberty and becomes truly, permanently privileged by nature, large enough to intimidate and threaten or serve and protect. Before those final, terrifying growth spurts hit and my son takes on a stature that could make him real a threat even to me, I feel compelled to help him realize his own vulnerability and the true nature of the women he will one day decide to abuse or cherish. I want him to learn to see our fundamental similarities, our unifying traits, and not be swept away by our differing physical characteristics.

Certainly, it would be simpler to force a stubborn “sorry” out of him. Society would be far more understanding of that approach. I have a heart like anyone else, and it breaks like any other when I see a tiny little girl crying and forlorn. I want to scoop her up to comfort her, to take advantage of her sadness to get a little snuggle time. I want to play the hero and fix the situation myself so that I can claim ownership over her happiness. But I can’t do those things, because I will be damned before anyone takes advantage of my own moments of sorrow and vulnerability.

I am privileged, grateful to have heroes ranging from Simone de Beauvoir to Nancy Pelosi whose lives shine like beacons in history to help me and my sisters find our way through this often dangerous world. How can I turn my back on the lessons I have learned from Lucretia Coffin Mott, Benazir Bhutto, and Maysoon al-Hashemi? How can I withhold these lessons from the next generation of American women? It would be dangerous, as well as wrong. I will not put children at risk for the sake of my own comfort. I can’t rest comfortably on the backs of others.

Written by GRSeim

February 22, 2011 at 4:15 am

Ten things about Darren, age two and a half

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1. I enjoy least your obsession with all things technological. I spend hours carefully researching toys and activities for you and work my behind off to be able to afford said toys and activities. It makes me crazy that you’d rather stare absently at a calculator (or a book set on its side to make an imaginary laptop) than engage in any of these undeniably healthier pastimes I work so hard to provide you with. JUSTPLAYWITHTHEGODDAMTOYS!

2. I enjoy least your tendency to beat dead horses into the ground. Your fixation with arrows, for example. I know they’re cool and all, but we’ve stopped to observe, discuss and probably photograph every single arrow we’ve seen for the last four months, and frankly, it’s taking its toll on my relationships…particularly my relationships with stores like IKEA. If you’ve seen one arrow, you really have seen them all. Just take a deep breath, and let it go.

3. I enjoy least the way you always have a plan in mind for each and every day…but you never bother to tell me what’s on your agenda. No amount of crying at 11pm will turn back the hands of time to allow us to make a quick run to the beach.

4. I enjoy least the way you require my 100% undivided attention in order to watch a movie. We discuss the plot, guess what might happen next, sort out the good guys versus the bad guys and skip all the scary parts… and while I love to spend time with you and hear your thoughts about anything and everything, I have to admit, I only turned the movie on in the first place because I really, really needed a tiny break from the constant discussion and debate. You’ve got to cut me some slack somewhere, kid.

5. I enjoy least the way you are constantly sneaking my IPhone away from me, no matter where I hide it. Really, it wouldn’t be such a huge deal except that you can’t be content with the little collection of free games I’ve put together for you. Instead, you follow me around chanting “Down! Load! Down! Load!” until I am ready to acquiesce to nearly any demand you can come up with. But you know what? No matter how long you chant, I am not downloading “Sexy Alphabet Deluxe.

6. I enjoy most your powers of observation. I am completely in love with the way you dance with your shadow, how you observe and name the phases of the moon, and your recent discovery of parallax. You really are a super bright guy.

7. I enjoy most your moments of conscious bravery: when you square your tiny baby shoulders and march back into the fray of the playground to assert your right to slide along with the biggest and the best of them, and when you take a deep breath and respond politely to the strangers to invariably try to converse with you on the bus. I know how hard it is for you to put yourself out there like that, partially because of our constant pep talks and partially because I still feel like melting down in those situations myself, as an adult. Watching you take on the world doesn’t just make me proud, it inspires me.

8. I enjoy most your wacky aesthetic sensibilities. I don’t know where it came from, but from infancy you have gravitated to the weirdest, goofiest looking things. Green teddy bears with antennae, talking tractors, fuzzy pompom creatures, oversized glitter glasses… the day you discovered Dr. Seuss was the best day of both of our lives. Finally, finally, something outlandish enough to suit your tastes that I can buy with a relatively clean conscience! Compromise is a beautiful thing.

9. I enjoy most your nurturing side. I love the way you pat my cheek when I cry, hold my hand when we walk places together and roll your eyes and sigh when we both know that I’m being a little ridiculous. I love how you fall asleep each night while playing with my hair and humming. You’re way better at this mothering stuff than I am…but thanks to you, I’m picking up a few things here and there.

10. I enjoy most your appreciation of everyday adventures. An afternoon walk in our smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-the-city neighborhood park is a hike in the woods in your mind, and a you’ll talk for weeks about our “trip to the beach” after splashing our toes in a nondescript little stream for an hour before nap. I can’t wait to introduce you to some truly adventurous activities- gradually, of course. I want to stay the cool person in your world for as long as possible.

Written by GRSeim

February 9, 2011 at 7:34 am