Friday, May 4, 2012

Helping Boys in a Sex-Soaked Society

Yesterday, my six-year-old -- my innocent, cherubic-faced 6-year-old -- told me that his "rich, secret life" would include lots of tractors. And 1000 girls.

The tractors were no surprise. This boy has loved John Deere tractors and all kinds of heavy construction equipment from day one. 1000 girls, though? That surprised me.

What kind of girls, I asked?

He motioned me closer and whispered in my ear: "Sexy."

Then added: "Not fat."


My son is six-years-old, and already he has completely internalized the American ideal of female beauty. (By they way, he further added, "No glasses" to his list of requirements for the girls. When I pointed out that I wear glasses, at least on occasion, he told me I'm "not sexy.")

Six. Years. Old!

As a woman, I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed and disgusted that our society's version of beauty is so narrow and pervasive that even our prepubescent boys know exactly what flavor of eye candy should be hanging on their arms. As a mom, I'm disturbed. Is it my fault? Have I let him see too much? Because we do watch TV, and I'm not exactly strict about limiting his screen time to material best suited for kids 6 and under. Don't get me wrong; I do keep tabs on what he watches, and more often than not, he's watching something on PBS. (Wild Kratts, for  instance, is his favorite show.) But somehow, some way, my little boy has gotten the message that sexy women are desirable, and that sexy = not fat.

Yet is it surprising? Is there any way at all to miss that message in our culture?

The question is, how do we, as parents of boys, help our boys see past the stereotypes? How do we help them understand that women are for more than sex, and that a person's worth does not depend on their physical appearance?

It's tough. Our boys are clearly growing up in a sex-saturated culture that tells them that girls are good for one thing. (Or maybe more. Clearly, sex appeal is useful for selling cars also. And beer. And, well, Internet hosting companies. Did you see the GoDaddy ads during the SuperBowl?)

But I want my boys to know that women and girls are multi-faceted human beings, just like men and boys. I want my boys to value character, intelligence and integrity, not chest and ass and face. And sometimes, I feel like I'm fighting a losing battle.

Then I remember that the real world always holds more power than the fictional world held up by the media. And I remember that my boys are surrounded by many examples of strong, intelligent, capable women. And I think that, perhaps, that is the answer, that exposing my boys to all kinds of wonderful women will somehow broaden their definition of "woman." Every day, my boys see complex, three-dimensional women, and I hope that they will gradually understand that a real woman is much more wonderful than the one-dimensional sex symbols flaunted in the media.

That's one piece. The other piece of the puzzle involves combating the negative media images of women. I want my sons to know that what they see on TV and in magazines is not real, that even the women in the ads don't look that way. So I show them videos like Dove's Evolution video, which vividly shows the transformation of a woman into a flawless work of art. And we talk about photoshopping and unrealistic expectations and eating disorders. (Actually, we need to talk about these things some more.)

The next step is working toward a more positive and realistic representation of women in the media. Yesterday, I signed 8th grader Julia Bluhm's petition to ask Seventeen magazine to include at least one un-photoshopped image in each issue. (Sad, isn't it, that asking for once such photo is a major step!)

It's a start.

What are you doing to help your sons sort through the negative messages they receive about women from the media?


29 comments:

  1. Great post. I totally agree with your concerns and work hard to combat stereotypes of women so that my boys don't get too influenced by the shallow portrayals of women in media. It's not easy, but as you say, their real-life experiences with strong, smart women will go much further than a one-dimensional screen.
    Danielle (Fellow 2012 blogathoner)

    ReplyDelete
  2. We just don't watch tv or read magazines. My kids (8 and under) know about girls, and they hear some things at school (ess - eee - ex they spell). We do watch movies and cartoons sometimes, but I don't like the ones where girls are helpless all the time and need to be saved. I'm a little shocked that a six year old already has those preferences, but that's why I don't consume advertising, either myself or for my family. Save myself some stereotype fighting that way I think.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We don't allow our kids to watch TV or surf the web alone. We homeschool. I have a seven-year-old son and there is no way he has any idea what the word sexy even is. I'm curious about how much media your kids are exposed to? Although the media does show us a very skewed and almost gross portrayal of 'the perfect woman' or what sex is all about.. it's our responsibility to protect our kids from these images and messages, isn't it?

      Delete
  3. Your post is spot on. The current culture portrayed by the media denigrates both men and women into sex-starved animals. We are much more than that. This not only marginalizes women, but it also debases men. In addition to seeing portrayals of strong women, I believe it is important for boys to see men treating women with the respect and dignity they deserve.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I couldn't of said it any better don. Thank u

      Delete
  4. I cannot even print some of the conversations I had to have with my teenage son -- to point out how some of his jokes, some of his comments to girls were inappropriate and hurtful to the girl. Boys are a tough lot for women to raise. But well worth doing a good job of it, as you are.

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Alex -- I completely respect your no TV or magazine policy, and can absolutely see how that could be beneficial.

    @Don -- Love your comment re the importance of boys seeing men treating women with respect and dignity! That's so important, we moms of boys thank men like you for setting a good example for our sons.

    @Jackie & Danielle -- Besides your direct lessons and conversations with your sons, you're both real-world examples of vibrant, strong, intelligent women. Thanks for commenting!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I control what my sons watch and read to some extent, but I know they will encounter negative images of both sexes eventually, whether through the media or dialogue with other kids or adults. I talk with them regularly about what they see on TV, in books, or in toy ads. Since there is often a temptation to surround boys with stories about boys exclusively, subtly reinforcing the idea that girls are less interesting or less capable/worthy of being cast in leading roles, I have also made sure to read my sons books with strong and capable female characters and to include female characters in their imaginary play.

    ReplyDelete
  7. My God. Are you spying on me? Ha! I have these same observations, conversations and concerns. Luckily, I think my two boys are getting it. But it is a concerted effort to look beyond what we are bombarded with EVERYDAY.

    ReplyDelete
  8. It's kinda funny how degrading women actually also degrades men. Women are shown as objects and men as drooling idiots.
    One way fighting it is gender neutral upbringing (don't know if that's the proper term in english, sorry english isn't my native tongue). Although that too mostly feels like fighting against the windmills :/ It gives me hope to find like minded people in the internet.

    ReplyDelete
  9. As a mother of 6 boys, I share your concerns. I've had some really eye opening discussions with my teens lately. The things they come up with really leave me worried about where things are going.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Absolutely wonderful post! I have an 8 year old son who has come home with "interesting" comments as well. I try my best to teach him to value everybody, no matter what their shape, colour or size. My other huge concern is my daughter. Although she's only 4.5 months old, I will tell her several times a day, every day, for the rest of her life, that she is beautiful. I'm sickened by these poor girls who feel no self worth due to their size, acne, glasses etc. These poor girls have spent too much of their precious time trying to "fit in" and look "beautiful", not realizing that they ARE beautiful, for who they are, not for what people expect them to be. There's way too many young girls with eating disorders, wearing make-up WAY too young, wearing skirts so high that you can nearly see their private areas, letting their breasts hang out because they feel sexy! I breast feed in front of my son, and have taught him that breasts are for nurishing babies, hoping to God that he feels that way as a man and not valuing women on the size of their breasts. I could keep going here, but I wont, just needed to vent my thoughts on the matter!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Y'know... I've always believed that children understand when you TALK to them. I tell them they need to eat healthy (not that they need to be thin), I tell them HOW, and WHAT they are supposed to eat, and I also them them what they shouldn't eat and I also tell them why (and I get into detail, I explain thoroughly which benefits each food has, and I also tell them what chemicals they should avoid and why). Once you start healthy eating habits they weight comes right off, stays off and you feel and look great! I confess, I have told them "when you're trying to find a girlfriend, stay away from overweight girls, not because they're "fat and ugly" but because they're 'most likely' not into healthy eating habits. I've also told them, there are tons of skinny girls who don't have healthy eating habits, stay away from those, too. Look for a girl who eats fish and veggies and cooks at home... that's a keeper."

    ReplyDelete
  12. You can't check out of society, unfortunately. I've got one son, two step-sons and the best we can do is show them my worth as a mom and a woman and have them be respectful of me and their four sisters and other women we come into contact with. Most importantly, we try to instill a great sense of worth in THEM, our boys. If they feel like they are whole beings and are worthy of love and acceptance, they will freely give it.

    ReplyDelete
  13. My son is only 4 months old. But I have two daughters, and I worry for them, too. You can't even drive your minivan down the road without seeing photos of half-naked women on the billboards. It's awful. We are fighting a losing battle. As television and movies get worse and worse, our children are, unfortunately, exposed to "soft porn" at such young ages that it becomes the norm. We don't have cable (mostly because we can't afford it) and there are days I am SO GRATEFUL for that, because less garbage in=less garbage out! We surround our kids with Godly influences...strong, graceful women who have the character we want our children to possess one day, and strong male influences who view women as the treasures they are...not sexually, as nothing more than "eye candy". It seems these days that, even television that is considered "age appropriate" is far from appropriate on so many levels. It's sad that we have to be so careful, but it is unfortunately a fact of life. :( And, may I add, my children understand why women have breasts- God gave them to us so that we can feed our children! I had to step out of my comfort zone a bit myself at first, but it is SO important that they understand that, while they are attractive to men, breasts have a function. They're not created only for men to lust after! I think one step in winning the battle over our sons minds is exposure to such natural, healthy things.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I, like you, am also disappointed and saddened that our society's version of beauty is so narrow. More than that, I am sorry that the boys will grow up learning some REALLY HARSH lessons about their narrow view of girls and women.

    ReplyDelete
  15. As a new mother of a son (10 months) and a proud feminist, this is something I have been thinking a lot about lately. I've been reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter and it's really opened my eyes even more to the problems. So far my husband and I try very hard to show him that both moms and dads can do every job (baby-care, cooking, lawn mowing, vacuum, etc.) equally. We don't limit his toy selection based on gender stereotypes. Also, no TV so far. As he becomes more aware of the world around him I know we'll be facing similar problems exactly as you have expressed so I only hope to be as prepared as I can be and continue to show him strong feminist values in his own home.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry for the shameless self-promotion here, but I am also a mother of sons and a feminist. I was so concerned about the images in media targeted to boys that I wrote a book about it. It's called The Achilles Effect: What Pop Culture is Teaching Young Boys about Masculinity. I think you'd find it similar in tone and intent to Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

      Delete
    2. @Crystal Smith -- Thanks for pointing me to your book! I just bought a copy for my Kindle. Can you contact me via email, FB or LinkedIn? I'd love to talk more about your book.

      Delete
  16. Wow Jen. Great blog. -MB

    ReplyDelete
  17. I have four sons, ages 22, 14, 12 and 3. I have three daughters, 22, 20 and 16. You are exactly right to be thinking how outside influences effect your children. I don't think there are any easy answers, but I do agree showing your little son the difference between what is artificial and contrived for a reaction versus the honest every day woman who is beautiful in her thoughts and behavior is the best example you can give. We can't live in a bubble, our children will grow up and become independent of us. We can lay a foundation grounded in truth. I have seen mother's obsessed with their figures and their daughters figures, I wonder what is being laid down self esteem wise. I can understand wanting to be healthy and making lifestyle choices towards that goal, that is honesty with yourself.
    I was shocked this spring when I went to my 16 year olds choir concert at the high school. The girls that were singing solos were wearing 5 inch heels and skin tight, low cut dresses. There was a lot of cleavage and I felt a lack of modesty. Does anyone even know what Modesty means anymore?
    I was sad they thought they had to dress like that to be perceived as sexy, rather than focusing on their talents with their singing.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Our children look to us parents as role-models and examples. If there is a respectful and loving relationship between husband and wife, I think it speaks worlds more than anything we may say to our boys. Make sure your marriage is something you would want for your sons someday. I hope to teach my 3 boys how to be a true gentleman, and that old-fashioned chivalry really isn't old-fashioned anymore. Treat every girl as a princess, because she is one.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I always read these types of articles and by the end of them just sigh at the generic rhetorical one sidededness I have come to expect from them. Don't get me wrong I do not disagree with anything I've read it's just important to me as a male to be aware of not only what boys see of the other sex but what images they are fed about themselves and their 'manliness' and how males are trained to act tough, put on a stiff upper lip and hide away when it comes to needing help.

    That said, I would also be concerned as in how to teach boys to deal with bad members of the opposite sex? This is something I rarely see among female-dominated environments. Which usually teaches girls to be strong, disciplined and speak their mind, and tell boys where to go when a boy is being bad to her. However, with boys it's a little naive to just assume he will not be walked over at some point in his life whether it be by a male or female. Yes this is probably seen as an anti-feminist statement, but it is a reality that feminism tries to teach girls to stand up for themselves but at the same time encourages boys to be feminine and submissive. In my view this is simply not practical. We need to teach boys to be caring and nice to persons who treat them well but also prepare them for the reality that life isn't sugar coated. Boys need to know how to deal with bad females in a diplomatic way and they will learn that when it comes to adulthood because currently when boys do feel treated badly by a male or female the solution is seen as aggression. We cannot delude society into thinking as long as a boy/man respects females he will be treated well. So my question is what to teach boys in dealing with bad people, especially females which is extremely tricky in our current society of PCness. This is the one-sided view I was referring to in my opening statement.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thanks for visiting and commenting, @Eric. I agree -- boys need to learn how to stand up for themselves in ways that are not necessarily aggressive. And boys (and men) have the right to be treated respectfully also.

    You might be interested in the two posts I recently wrote about boys & bullying:
    http://www.bloggingboutboys.blogspot.com/2012/04/boys-bullying.html
    http://www.bloggingboutboys.blogspot.com/2012/05/boy-bullying-take-2.html

    ReplyDelete
  21. Great post. I don't have sons and I'm a great believer in short posts, but I read every word of this one with great interest.

    ReplyDelete
  22. well society and all the images can do so much. this study points to the fact that blind men desire a certain waist to hip ratio. they aren't inundated with sexist images. it's biology. as these studies increase in number and size we'll see that there are norms ingrained in our dna. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/magazine/18fob-Bergner-t.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for pointing out an interesting study! I'm intrigued...

      Delete