girls, enlightened sexism, picture day

I’m reading Enlightened Sexism by Susan Douglas, to prep for my class.

Please read this book. Because 1. holy mother of god can this woman write. Favorite sentence in the whole book? “God, just putting the words ‘Limbaugh’ and ‘sex’ in the same sentence produces dry heaves.” (p. 182) and 2. She does NOT use the nerd voice!

I’m thinking of adding chapter 6 (“Sex ‘R’ Us”) to the reading list. It illuminates (among a great deal else) such phenomena as the shocking 90s Calvin Klein ads that appeared to be child pornography, JonBenet Ramsay, Bratz dolls, and the many other phenomena that are the product of sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages. Indeed, Douglas calls pageants for little girls and the TV shows about them “one of the creepiest triumphs of enlightened sexism” (p. 186)

I have particularly close exposure to this phenomenon. My dad made his living for 20+ years as a portrait photographer, going to dance studios during the spring, as recital time approached, and taking photos of girls aged 2 to 20 in their dance costumes.

I went with – we all did, my family. Helped parents fill out the envelopes with their order, shepherded groups of girls wearing identical “Shake Senora” mariachi costumes into the studio for their group picture, helped harried mothers find an intact pair of nude fishnets for their 12 year old, helped bewildered fathers find a chair and a Pepsi in the lobby.

Kids take dance lessons mostly for the same reasons they take horseback riding lessons or play soccer: for enrichment, for physical education, for social reasons, and for making their parents feel like they’ve done a good job.

But you would not BELIEVE the things parents will do to their children and not even blink, if they think that’s just what they’re supposed to do. Four year olds in full make up for a photograph. 11 year olds with bare midriffs, costumes not much more discrete than underwear.

Mommies are clearly NOT thinking about the implications of these choices, and when you see the children in real life you can kind of see why: the deeply unsexy way the girls wear the costumes and make up, the basic non-sexual display of it, makes it easy to forget that we’re training them in sexual display.

At 4, little girls want to be pretty; at 9, they want to look “right,” want to avoid looking stupid; and by 14 they have grasped that the goal is to look hot. They’re even beginning to grasp that there is a toll exacted for being too successful at it.

(Douglas quotes a 10th grade girl: “You are expected to be very sexy and attractive but but at the same time are condemned for the sexuality that you portray.” This from a girl only 15, 16 years old.)

And while mommies aren’t thinking about the sexual implications, because the kids don’t appear sexy to them, too many of them are obviously training their daughters to care a whole lot about their physical appearance, at the cost of their self-esteem, not noticing its relationship to sexual objectification.

I’m thinking about the mommy who runs onto the photo background toward her kid, crying, “WAITWAITWAIT!” so you think their kid is about to fall over bleeding – and when she gets there, she moves a strand – literally a strand – of hair. She breathes a sigh of relief and scurries off.

In most schools, my dad didn’t let moms into the room when pictures being taken, because of precisely this kind of behavior.

The mom who viciously rubs lipstick into the cheeks of her cranky 12 year old (who forgot to pack blush in her dance bag) while growling at her to “SMILE!” because the failure to smile would result in \$50 worth of photographs that makes mom look like she’s raised an unhappy, ugly, awkward pre-adolescent. See, if the 12 year old doesn’t smile in her picture, Mom looks like a failure.

Or this horror: the mother at the door whispering to her little girl with two missing front teeth, “Keep your mouth closed when you smile. Don’t wanna show your missing teeth.”

WHAT?!?! Of COURSE you wanna show your missing teeth! What a beautiful, memorable prize, to have a dance recital photo that shows off this singular time in a child’s life, when her front teeth are missing and she can make all kinds of noises and faces and do things to her food she’ll never be able to do again! What a TREAT to have a photo of a kid in all her laughing glory, tooth gap and all!

Saddest of all is the little girl – 6, 7 years old – who obediently and skillfully takes the pose my father gives her and, when Dad reaches the camera, instantly hoiks the corners of her mouth up and bares her teeth. She’s been trained to smile.

My dad was good at his job. He had this blue bear named “Otto” – pronounced, always, “Ott-toe.” “You see this blue bear? This is my friend Otto. And Otto has a trick, see he can sit on my head while I take your picture. I’ll just put him right here on my head while I take your picture and doesn’t he sit there real good?” The bear inevitably falls off, my dad clowns being shocked that Otto fell off, the girl laughs hilariously, bent over, mouth wide open, and my father skillfully waits until her laughter fades to a glittering smile, eyes bright and beaming at the camera, and click. He was good at his job.

There are a lot of pictures out there of little girls laughing at Otto the blue bear who couldn’t sit on my father’s head.

Or, “Look right here and say Purple.” “Purple.” “Say Pickle.” “Pickle.” “Say… purplepicklepeanutbutteprizza” “Purplepick-pea – ” Inevitable failure, inevitable giggle.

Or for the older girls who refused to smile, “Say ‘I’m ready!’” “I’m ready.”\ “Say, ‘I look really good!’” That worked for most of them, but if it didn’t “Say ‘Take my picture, big nose!’”

He did the bear trick for the teenage girls sometimes, too. Ironically, see. They knew it was a joke, and they believed he knew they knew it was a joke. But they laughed exactly the same. Well, not exactly they same. They close their eyes and pinch their laughter shut. By the time they’re in high school, girls don’t let themselves fold over and guffaw with laughter anymore, they way the little girls do. But if you wait, give them time and permission, they’ll relax into the same glittering smile.

For the 5 minutes it took to get their picture taken, their pretty costume and their pretty make up and their pretty hair and their pretty bodies didn’t matter as much. My dad’s job was to make them forget all the preening and effort that went into putting them in that room, on the backdrop. Make them laugh. Send them back out to their parents. Back with their parents where – too often – they were right back in it, and their bodies took up much more of their attention than a tongue twister, a silly man, and a blue bear named Otto.