Posts Tagged ‘Living News’
I was driving my 6th grade daughter to her last day of school this morning. It was 7:29.
She immediately turned the radio from NPR to the mainstream station she and all her friends listen to.
I love music and am one of those moms who sings along and car dances whether I’m alone or with a gaggle of girls. My daughter loves music too, plays the viola and has a fine reverence for The Beatles. However, I have to say most of the playlist on this small Connecticut station is to me simply mind numbing. I tease my daughter with my critiques of these singers, telling her I would like so and so, if they had any, you know, talent. I complain that they’re overproduced, and when their lyrics are too big girl, off goes the station.
Anyway, a dreadful song had just wrapped up and a new one began. But lo and behold this one had an interesting beat, and I said, “Ah! Thank God. Finally a fresh sound!” The words were still leaving my lips as the artist produced this lyric: “She goes down like she never wanna breathe.”
Rise and shine.
I paused, cocked my head the way a dog does when it appears confused, and quick, clicked us back to Morning Edition. My daughter, because turn about is fair play, proceeded to tease me by singing her interpretation of the intro music to NPR shows, little ditties she makes up that are a cross between those plucked Law and Order punctuations and the Mission Impossible theme.
I realize that in my last post I went on a tear on this very same topic over a beer ad, and yet here I find myself again, which is the whole point of going on this second tear.
My ire doesn’t come from prudishness. It’s that I’m disheartened by the ridiculous quality of it all and the dulling influence it has on us, especially our kids. These visual and auditory messages don’t even convey what they intend, they’re not sexy or sexual, erotic or arousing; they’re laughable and they provide us with nothing. They’re so removed from the real thing they lead us to believe sexuality comes from a can.
I contrast this with the shopping expedition my daughter and I went on yesterday, which involved buying her some special pieces to accommodate the ways she’s getting older. As I watched her trying things on, she looked so quietly proud, and I felt celebratory for this emerging sense of her dignity.
Thursday, the Living section editors favorably featured the 56 seconds in which Dr. Christiane Northrup spoke about the importance of masturbation during an hour of Oprah devoted exclusively to issues of women’s physical and mental well being.
The responses it received revealed the anxiety female masturbation still provokes in men and women, as indicated by the high number of comments that saw it as fodder for jokes.
Finding humor in sexual tension isn’t harmful. Sex and the City did a great episode on masturbation in which Charlotte, who isn’t pro vibrator, is urged by her friends to try the Rabbit. At first she resists, but then becomes so enamored of her experiences with it that she falls into an erotic haze and stops leaving her apartment. To help her kick her growing addiction Carrie and Miranda bang down her door and perform an intervention. In the show Charlotte isn’t maligned or debased.
By contrast, many of the responses to the Oprah clip were more mean spirited in humor, showing it’s often easier to reduce masturbation (and the women discussing it) to a dirty joke rather than to value it as a component of female vitality, a vitality which for many women is hard fought.
Northrup and Winfrey were performing a function that’s long overdue: educating women on the benefits of feeling sexually alive, and calling attention to masturbation’s role, biochemically and emotionally, to that end. This has been available to women in book form, but not during daytime TV, where one can always find an abundance of idiocy and violence.
Doctors paying attention to the quality of women’s sex lives is a fairly new dynamic. Why use humor to tear down two women imparting sexual health information to an audience of adult women? I recall no controversy when the male Dr. Oz imparted sexual information to an all male audience.
So far, in my Women’s Realities Study, which allows women to anonymously respond to any of the 63 questionnaires on the major themes of being female, the Masturbation questionnaire has had the third highest response rate. It’s been outdone only by the topics Menstruation, and Relationship with Your Mother. And almost every single woman who chose to complete this questionnaire confessed that she did so in spite of the fact that it made her uncomfortable. These were women from 18-53. They didn’t do it because it was easy. They did it because it was important to them.
This fall I gave a lecture on “Women and Girls, and Their Sexuality” based on these responses, and it was supported and attended by the former Chief Resident of New York Hospital, Cornell Weill Medical Center, now a cardiologist there; and a well-respected pediatrician of the same hospital affiliation. After the lecture during the Q & A, they book-ended my material with their own to illuminate the lifelong function of this integral component of human sexuality. The cardiologist spoke of the importance of masturbation to elderly women, many of whom have had unsatisfying sex lives, and the pediatrician spoke of different cultural attitudes toward children’s presexual masturbation and how they can incur shame.
In 2008 women still experience guilt and shame around masturbation. 70% of the respondents to my study felt guilty, and 80% of them were never taught about it as a normal aspect of human sexuality – with a surprising 4/5 of those women being under the age of 35 and raised by mothers of the post feminist era. 88% of them reported a strong desire to hear other women’s thoughts and feelings on masturbation, with most of them responding yes and absolutely emphasized with one to three exclamation points.
I’ll let some of the women speak for themselves on the guilt they feel, and their desire to learn more about masturbation:
“Sometimes randomly, I’ll feel a wave of guilt afterwards. I have no idea why, because in my head and heart, I don’t think it should provoke guilt.” -age 23
“Why should I feel guilt about doing something natural, that causes no harm or bad feeling. It’s relaxing and if we weren’t supposed to enjoy sexual pleasure then why do we have a clitoris?[But]Sometimes I feel weird, and then I feel weird about feeling weird. I hate how repressed I feel sexually by feeling uncomfortable talking about something natural.” – age 24
“I hope to feel physically good during [masturbation], not much else. After is more complicated because sometimes I feel like I just wasted time and energy and nothing came out of it. Like I should have been doing something else, anything else’productive’…I just feel guilty about feeling good in general, about things that are not necessary or productive.” –no age given
“[If I had a daughter I wouldn't teach her about masturbation because]I don’t know how without being a perv.” -age 19
“I wish I had known I could have an orgasm right off the bat. I wish that someone had told me it is a good way to know my body and my sensuality.” –age 40
“If my mother were an entirely different woman, I would like to have learned from her. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear specifics of her practices, but more about masturbation being a natural way to get to know my own body.” –age 44
And lastly these poignant responses from the Relationship with Adult Girlfriends questionnaire highlighting just two reasons women might further prioritize the meaning of masturbation in their lives:
“[The most private thing I ever confided in an adult girlfriend was] that I’d never had an orgasm. [The most private thing an adult girlfriend ever confided in me was]that she didn’t have sex when she was married. Was still a virgin when she got divorced.” –age 65
If we don’t learn from each other, we only perpetuate the discomfort, and hand it down to our daughters.
You know when NPR does its pledge drives and they entice you to give based on those NPR “driveway moments” when the story is so riveting you sit in your car until it’s over? I was just sitting in my car, tearing up in hearing the generous bravery of Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Joanna Connors as she talked about living with having been raped over 20 years ago. Listening to her, in addition to feeling jarred into factual sorrow, I felt relief because she will set profound healing in motion for millions of women.
At one point Connors said that prior to her attack she and other women had talked about rape as an issue, but never rape as an experience. As a therapist, I believe that women sharing their experiences with each other – not just the fact it happened, but in giving voice to how it feels to live with having been so terrorized – is one of the most important pieces in feeling better. Connors described how it feels in her day to day life, and it’s in including those qualities that we understand the realities of rape beyond being a noun or a verb we refer to in discussions from time to time.
I encourage you to listen to her interview, which includes callers’ stories, on NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook. You can also read her Cleveland Plain Dealer five part series An Epilogue to Beyond Rape: A Survivor’s Journey. Her words will blow open a new dialogue on this all too common situation, one that used to be kept in the petrification of silence.
The U.S. Department of Justice statistics say that between 1 in 6 to 1 in 4 women will be raped in her lifetime. Those statistics are based on rapes that are reported. Estimates are, the real incidence of rape might be 10 times this.
Three of my closest friends have been raped. Three that I know of.
Each of them had a different experience. One was raped by a school employee when she was a girl; one gang raped by strangers as a teenager; and one date raped in her 30s. We all know women who’ve been raped. They may not have confided in us, but they’re there in our families, friendships and communities.
I’ve also heard wrenching stories of sexual assault from my clients. This is how one of them, a woman I greatly admire, wrote about her rape in my study. She was in therapy with me for two years before she even brought it up and felt ready to talk about it, and I hope her eloquence moves you. If any of you feel it might help to write anonymously about your story, please feel welcome to complete my Women’s Realities Study rape questionnaire.
I was a virgin and was raped by a boyfriend I had been dating briefly…My sister saved me during the rape. We talked about it immediately following, but not since then. I have confided in boyfriends, but more for their benefit rather than my own – I told them in an effort to defend my inconsistent desire for a sexual relationship… I think I mostly kept it a secret because I still feel guilty that it happened to me and that it affected me – I don’t want to complicate the lives of my family or friends with yet another problem after having them deal with my anxiety disorder and depressions. * During the rape I felt suffocating terror. Abandonment from God. The deepest alone I have ever felt. I sometimes near this feeling during panic attacks…With some distance from the event, I came into a depression that led to a feeling of being disconnected from God and even from the human race…I felt abandoned and alone. I felt uncomfortable in my body and disconnected from myself. I know that might not make sense to everyone, but in a sense I became a stranger to myself. I want people to understand that rape causes the most potent loss there is. Not only did I lose my faith in God, but I lost my ability to trust my instincts and to follow my heart. That is a loss I deal with every day.
*My note: her anxiety, panic attacks and depression were all in response to the rape.
I had to riff on “The First Pregnant Man” article, because, well, I just couldn’t help myself.
Here’s what veterans from the front lines had to say in my study in response to the question: If men got pregnant instead of women, how do you imagine things would be different?
“The morning after pill would have been invented by the Ancient Greeks…”
“I think our species would become extinct! I don’t think men, in their current state, could handle all that comes with being pregnant!”
“Morning sickness would become a disability!”
“We’d have government paid maternity leave (more like Europe), breast feeding would not be a taboo thing since men like to brag about size. I bet men would be showing their goods to the world all the time.”
“There would be tons of research to find ways to make pregnancy painless, shorter, responsive to the needs of men. I think there would be a lot of surrogate fatherhood (paying someone else to do it), as men generally have more money than women.”
“There would be no pain. Poor babies would have to go to bed for nine months. I think the father should be hooked up to a machine and every time the mother had a labor pain, he would have one also. Or fill them full of laxatives and let them have cramps.”
“I think they would have designed an incubator to do things more efficiently. Which would be too bad, because pregnancy may not be entirely efficient, but it is powerful, beautiful and transforming.”
And to the question:
If men gave birth instead of women, how do you think things would be different?
“Better insurance. More screaming.”
“I think doctors wouldn’t be saying ‘it will not matter a year from now how your labor went.’ They would accept and believe that how you birth DOES matter.”
“Men would have more to say about what happened while they gave birth. They would tell the doctors and nurses in no uncertain terms how things were going to be done.”
“It would be the end of the human race.”
“There would be better maternity leave policies, more flexible work options, and tampax and contraception would be government subsidized.”
“No pain. Praise instead of insults. Information. Choices.”
“Birth would be valued and celebrated, and the pain of the event would have long been eliminated.”
“The power of creating life and the ability to give birth would not be hidden and undermined in societies. It would be completely revered and celebrated.”
“I think they would actually do a good job. I think it would become a sport. They would make it competitive and use it as a badge of honor. We would have much more favorable laws, too, regarding maternal health care.”
“It’s a pretty powerful experience to bring life into the world. I think men would value life more if they experienced it in their womb.”
(Women ranged in age from 24-66.)
You know what’s shocking? That we are shocked, again and again, by what with some learned degree of certainty could have been predicted. “Upstanding” citizens in the public eye impacted by sex outside their marriages? Well, of course they are. Because we all are.
We desperately want to believe that love will consistently beat logic to a pulp, much like we want to believe cigarettes won’t affect our health, and yet, there it is over and over: the reality of infidelity. In the ex-governor’s marriage, the new governor’s marriage, and I would bet many of the marriages of the political, custodial, and landscaping staffs of the entire state and federal government. And Hollywood. And academia. And so on.
7,239 men responded to Shere Hite’s anonymous questionnaires for her 1981 The Hite Report on Male Sexuality. Seventy-two% of them reported having sex outside their marriages, with the vast majority of them adding it was unknown to their wives. Some were men who loved their wives and had great sex with them; others were men who loved their wives and didn’t. Most liked being married, felt little to no guilt, and compartmentalized it enough to believe their extracurricular activity had no effect on their marriages.
I own that book, which is truly fascinating by the way, and when I began to consider writing this post, in the interest of fairness, I called all of the Barnes and Nobles in Manhattan to locate its predecessor, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, so I could quote her infidelity findings on women. There are about six million Barnes and Nobles in Manhattan (each serving as a beard for all those Starbucks they house) but none of them had the book. What I learned instead was that Barnes and Noble has the consumer demand to keep her book explaining male sexuality in stock, whereas none of them had the same demand for the one explaining female sexuality. Interesting.
In my Women’s Realities Study which is still ongoing and not nearly as comprehensive as Hite’s, 62% of the women who completed the Affair Questionnaire reported having kept the affairs from their husbands, with another 18% saying they didn’t disclose it, but their partners found out.
Monogamy is possible, just not probable. Infidelity has been around as long as commitment. Having no human role models for fidelity to look to for assurance, in the past we’ve had to turn to the bird community for hope. But according to Natalie Angier who culls a great Nora Ephron quote on swan monogamy from Heartburn, with the advent of DNA testing on eggs and chicks, we’ve learned that even our feathered friends are mixing it up and getting it on. Yet another fall from grace.
This morning when I went to interview the swan couple that lives on the East Hampton Village Pond, the male told me that at the advice of the swans who nest on Ron Perelman’s Georgica Pond property, he’d joined a class action suit to try and seal the records of the DNA results. He told me the fallout from the revelation has been just terrible, noting that no one brings their kids by to feed them bread any more. The female swan, who declined comment, just rolled her eyes and waddled back to the new single unit nest she constructed for herself when the genetic scandal originally broke.
We in this country always need to see things in black and white. Spitzer obviously let down more than his family, but on the grounds of being human, we need to assimilate this event into his history as well as ours. Is this week’s New York magazine cover funny? Yes, it is. But were the New York Times and Wall Street Journal cover stories of curtailing the Gambinos, and holding accountable Wall Street CEOs also compelling? Yes, they were.
The better we understand human nature the better we can address it, and the empathy required for this comes through understanding each one of us has a story that helps us make sense of who we’ve become, for good or ill. We’re responsible for our behavior, and not all of it can be condoned, but I think we need more acknowledgement that our realities are shared. We’re all in the same soup, and everything we do is driven by its personal meaning to us, and a desire for psychological balance. In last week’s blog, “Eliot Spitzer: Why?”, Dr. Mona Ackerman draws a great profile for such a balance.
Dealing with the heartache of betrayal is enough to manage. We make it harder on ourselves by lauding unrealistic expectations and shaming each other when we fall short. Each of us has the capacity to flounder and to be cruel, but we also have the capacity for bravery and compassion.
Grown daughters yearn to know how their mothers’ sexuality informed them as women when they were at the most important crossroads of their lives. They want to know these things because they want to understand their mothers as women, and let that understanding flow over how they see themselves in their own lives.
Daughters are driven to yearn because their mothers keep many of these things secret.
Here are some quotes representative of what women from my Women’s Realities Study are saying in response to the question: What do you want to know about your mother but would never ask?
If she questioned her sexuality. [I don't ask because] she would know I’m questioning mine.
Who is my father?
Did she ever love my father?
That I think she had an affair.
Why she never told us about my oldest brother’s birth and how she married my dad after he was born…why she was so ashamed.
I would most like to ask my mother: Why didn’t you date other men? Why did you allow grandma to push you into a marriage you weren’t sure was right?
When she lost her virginity.
I suspect that she had an abortion during my teenage years and I want to know for sure. I am definitely not comfortable enough with her to ask her that.
If she had sex before she was married. If she’s ever loved anyone as much as she loves my dad.
How she deals with the painful body memory of rape. She was raped as an 18 year old. That is how she lost her virginity. I wish I could kick that man in the balls. [I don't ask because] I don’t want to make her sad/or have to relive the trauma.”
From what little I know about it, to distill it to its simplest explanation, my parents divorced because dad liked sex and mom hated it, and this made them both miserable and led to other deal-breaking events. I’ve suspected for quite some time that she may have been abused or raped in her youth, because it would explain so many things about her. This is a question I don’t think I could ever ask her. We can’t even talk about sex in a POSTIVE way, not even about normal happy sex, not even about totally-sanctioned-by-”God”-married sex. I could never ask her about if she had been raped or molested. Because if it’s true, it is her deepest darkest secret that probably no one on earth knows about.
This is often what happens. A mother lives out life-altering experiences within her sexuality, or violation of it, then casts them off into a Bermuda Triangle, making all the information they contain forever unavailable to her daughter, who then has to find her own way through some of the very same challenges her mother faced, without benefit of her mother’s experience.
Every mother and daughter is entitled to her privacy and it’s important for each of them to determine for herself what her comfort zones are and what she requires to safeguard them, especially around sexual trauma. My concern is that mothers hold these things inside simply because their mothers did – because they don’t know any alternatives to the silence. Our mothers are our templates, and much of how we cope reflects that.
Since women still aren’t fully embraced as sexual creatures, which sexually-oriented secrets does a mother keep because she’s made a conscious decision to uphold her personal privacy, and which does she keep, more by default than consideration, out of shame?
There can be an automatic assumption that certain information isn’t appropriate for a daughter to have. But sometimes the mother’s shame can blind her to her to what her daughter might want to know. And sometimes the daughter senses and inherits her mother’s shame around these issues, and ends up keeping the very same secrets from her mother, for fear of being judged.
These are the realities not exclusive to mothers: daughters might question their sexuality. Daughters can get pregnant under conditions that are less than optimal. Daughters might be uncertain if they’re with the right partner. Daughters do wonder how sex fits into all of the other complications of relationships or lack thereof. Daughters will likely come to see infidelity as the peanut butter to the jelly of supposed monogamy. Daughters do get molested. And 1 in 6 daughters will be the victim of rape in her lifetime.
Mothers pass down pot roast recipes to their daughters. But they’re reluctant to pass down crucial life content to help them and their daughters appreciate how women cope at those crossroads, and how that influences which way they move forward.
I wanted to devise a way for women to be there for each other to express the honest realities of their lives without having to risk anything; to be able to speak openly without worrying about losing, offending, or being judged by, anyone. So I created my anonymous Women’s Realities Study to that end.
I invite any woman who’s interested to participate. There are 63 open-ended questionnaires on the major themes of being female, and you can respond to as many or as few as you like, and write as much or as little as you want.
Here’s part of my motivation for this undertaking. Imagine you’re walking down the street and you witness two girlfriends who run into each other and do the polite social exchange thing:
“Hey! How are you?!”
“I’m great! How are you?”
“Fine thanks. Things are good. Things are really good.”
Now let’s imagine each of these women is on her way to therapy. I’ll give you a list of just four of the hundreds of completely feasible scenarios that might be played out in the ensuing sessions.
1. “I just ran into a friend on the street. She and her husband always look disgustingly happy together…I bet THEY have sex. Then there’s my marriage. When do you decide there isn’t enough there to make it work?”
2. “I just ran into a friend on the street…I felt really self conscious. I told her I was fine, but I worried she thought I looked like shit. I drank so much again last night.”
3. “I just ran into a friend on the street. She works with John, but she doesn’t know about the affair.”
4. “I just ran into a friend on the street, and it was all I could do to pretend I was fine. She thinks my life is perfect. She’d be blown away if she knew how depressed I am. I hide it so well no one would believe it.”
Many parts of our realities are fiercely protected by our choice to keep them private. This is usually the case when we fear we’re the only ones thinking, feeling or doing something, and when we anticipate being judged. These fears are standard fare in therapy, but because we keep them secret, just as our parents and grandparents did, the general public isn’t fully aware of their abundance. Consequently, we tend to operate under the illusion that just because someone hasn’t confided something in us, they’re not going through it, and it makes it easy for others to make the same assumption about us.
It shouldn’t be that only therapists and priests know what’s truly going on under the surface of people’s lives, because it’s information we could all use to deepen our understanding of what we have in common. We’re more alike than different but our secrets complicate our ability to be soothed by this.
Having a more realistic view of what takes place at the most authentic level of our lives would build empathy and reduce judgment by having the power to influence the way we see ourselves, and the way we perceive others. It would make it easier for us to work through whatever was going on in our own lives, as well as to make us more compassionate toward those we’d otherwise be likely to judge out of hand.
To address the dilemma inherent in the battle of the safety of privacy versus the freedom of honesty, my goal is to gather these anonymous stories, put their psychological and emotional meaning into context, and make them available to women so we can learn from each other. One of the mediums through which I can do this is my Huffington Post blog.
Here are some excerpts from what hundreds of women 18-105 have wanted to share so far. I’ve selected quotes that reflect the full range of human experience, from the light and humorous all the way to the tragic, to illustrate that no matter what you want to share, or what you hope to hear from other women, there’s a place for it.
(Both questions, same woman.)
Q: In your most intense moments of love, what are your thoughts about your partner?
A: That he is the most wonderful, caring, kind, passionate man I could have dreamed of.
Q: In your darkest moments of anything approaching hatred, what are your thoughts about your partner?
A: That he is an absolute ignorant asshole with no social skills.
Q: Do you think our culture draws a distinction between single women who have never been married and divorced women? If so, how, and what are your feelings about this?
A: Yes – for divorced women “it happens” but for single women, there’s more of “why is she still single?” I feel somewhat defensive, sometimes embarrassed that I’m single, like somehow I’m (for lack of a better word) a failure in this aspect of my life. It’s like there’s something not normal about it. I feel like if I were divorced, I, and other people would say that at least I managed to get married. I also feel like I’d rather be single than married to someone I want to divorce.
Q: Please describe in detail the physical and emotional experience of an incident of abuse that stands out to you to this very day. What is the quality of this memory that makes it stand out?
A: My ex-husband in a drunken rage told me I was a fat pig-fuck attorney. I remember it because it was an unusual insult.
Q: What did you feel about surrendering your body as you knew it to the pregnancy? Did you worry about weight gain, stretch marks, Caesarean scars, breast enlargement, etc.? How was this for you?
A: I fully surrendered and assumed that none of those things would happen to little ol’ me! I didn’t get stretch marks on my stomach…I got them on my ass!!! Both cheeks look like a cat tried to make a flying leap onto them – but slid down.
Q: What do you want others to understand about your experience of your affair/s?
A: That it’s not as simple as some would like you to believe. Not all men are philanderers who have an adoring wife at home who just doesn’t understand them. Not all other women are desperate lonely women willing to settle for anyone who comes along, or women who just want to prey on other women’s husbands. Often it is a case of two people finding each other too late in life. Obligations have arisen, i.e. children, that make it hard to leave. People say we are selfish…I think sometimes, it is more selfish to leave rather than to stay. As one who left, I sometimes feel selfish. My son would have preferred I’d stayed married…
(81% of respondents to this questionnaire report having suffered from depression for over 15 years; 90% of those report hiding it.)
Q: If you hide the extent of your depression, what influences you to do so? And what are your fantasies of what people will think?
A: I’m worried about people asking why, because I don’t actually know. And I’m terrified of being abandoned by my friends.
Q: Please describe in detail the physical and emotional experience of an incident of sexual abuse that stands out to you to this very day. What is the quality of this memory that makes it stand out?
A: My grandfather would get into bed and tell me stories about when he was a prisoner of war and then he would fondle me. I don’t remember everything. I would stare at the top bunk above me and disconnect from my body and kind of disappear. When I think about it, I either feel numb or I vomit.
***We are our greatest resource. I hope my study will help women maximize it at no personal cost, and if you decide to participate, I, along with the women who will benefit, thank you.
It needs to start in the home. Our daughters’ best defense against the skewed sexual saturation of our culture is for us to support them in the healthy development of their own sexuality.
As I wrote in “What Huff Post Women Had to Say” women still experience discomfort in educating their daughters about menstruation. If our own discomfort gets in the way of that, imagine the unspoken, often unconscious, fear of teaching them about their sexuality — which would by extension also be teaching them about ours. How can we expect our daughters to hold their own against unrealistic images of sexuality in the media when they sense our own impairments to being sexually comfortable in our mother/daughter relationships?
Maybe we’re so afraid of having to go into the “naughtiness” of sexual detail that we’re missing the simplicity of what our daughters most need from us: our blessing of their sexuality as normal and healthy.
Esther Perel, sex therapist and author of Mating in Captivity, a book exploring the sexual complications within marriage, wrote in her Huffington Post blog that it isn’t usually the mechanics of sex that bring couples to her for help, but rather their desire for “the poetics of sex.” I think as Americans, our fixation with the taboo of sexuality causes us to overlook its poetry and its greater meaning in our lives, and then we pass this limited view of sex onto our children.
It’s difficult for women to teach their girls how to celebrate being alive within their desire; but it’s commonplace for women to teach girls how to devalue their bodies in the quest for physical perfection. A mother, over the years, even in the most seemingly innocuous statements like “I was good today; I skipped lunch.” or “I was bad today; I had cake” erodes herself in front of her daughter, and in so doing, systematically erodes her daughter right along with her. This is the crisis. Why do we readily and consistently, consciously and unconsciously, dispense messages of self loathing that will harm them in every way by undermining their confidence, even as we shy away from teaching them how to protect, delight in, and express love with their bodies?
It will be harder for our girls if we only engage in seeing them as sexual once they’re adults. We need to be there with them from the beginning of the journey.
Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help us consider the possible impact of our reluctance to speak openly with our daughters.
We want our girls to grow into women who can be happy and experience love, but how do we imagine them arriving there? We want them to be in relationships, but do we really see our daughters as sexual? When we think of them being in love, do we stop at a love that’s more to do with friendship and reliable companionship? How do we hope our daughters learn and measure what they find sexually arousing? Do we indirectly hope our daughters have unfulfilling sex? Do we feel too embarrassed to somehow give them, and ourselves, the support needed to lead full, open lives?
If the sexual lessons don’t come from us girls will search elsewhere. This week it might be Vanity Fair’s tutorial on Miley Cyrus. While it’s healthy for girls to individuate from their mothers, does our fear of discussing sexuality push them even farther away than we intend? Do we inadvertently influence them to find other role models who unrealistically represent girls and women?
What of our sexuality do we allow them to know? Girls might come to learn through observation that “real” women can express their sexuality only through the smaller victories of erotic pleasure, such as finding it quite normal that women in restaurants or at the Thanksgiving table will openly tilt their heads back, close their eyes and moan unabashedly…over a piece of chocolate…with the full support and understanding of all onlookers.
It’s hard to feel genuine and alive when we’re taught to hide half of who we are. Being more open in revealing ourselves,mother to daughter, might offer our daughters a greater chance to feel more complete in an authentic sense of sexuality, as opposed to only donning the facade the media holds out to us.
Women of all ages in my study repeatedly reported wanting to know more about their sexuality, they just didn’t know how to go about it because guilt, shame, discomfort and propriety precluded their taking the risk. There were important things about sexuality that they hadn’t been taught by their mothers, and this gap in learning resulted in both a reluctance to confide in other women the sexual content of their lives, and an ambivalence about providing their daughters with a sexual contextualization of life.
What are we teaching our daughters about being female? And what are we withholding from them that might be useful for them to know?
If we choose not to ground their sexuality in a sense of home, they’re more at risk of grounding it wherever the media directs them.
Since the Relationship with Your Mother questionnaire draws such rich responses, this will be the first in a few posts teasing out some of its thicker themes, beginning with what women aged 20-88 referred to as the controlling/judgmental/martyring mother.
Here’s a fairly benign sample of that mishmosh from my own personal collection, one I catalogued with my mother about 18 years ago, yet was able to reference immediately. The scene: my mother wants me to come home for Easter, and I don’t want to go, but after weeks of really annoying internal deliberation I decide I will because it will make her happy.
Mother: I called to see what you’d like me to cook for Easter dinner.
Daughter: I don’t care. Anything but ham.
Mother: Oh…Ham was what I was going to make.
I think there’s a valiant social history to these undermining qualities that deserves our respect. It makes me think of the mental agility Edith Wharton and Jane Austen’s women use to indirectly express and protect themselves within the limitations of their society. Women scrambling to feel control and to secure their standing among each other used to come out of financial necessity. Now maybe we still deploy artifacts of that legacy, with quiet yet masterful pieces like, “Is that what you’re going to wear?”
Bullies are born out of an attempt to feel powerful in the face of powerlessness. Controlling and judging personalities are born of a desire to escape insecurities in order to feel safe. Elements of this can be seen in the responses in which daughters compare their mothers’ bullying of them, to their submission with their husbands. And daughters reveal how they carry on these destructive traditions with their own children.
This is what it feels like to daughters who’ve been hurt this way. What follows are responses to the questions: What pushes you farthest away from your mother? and What personality trait of your mother’s do you have that you hate or disrespect?
She can’t stop criticizing me.
She is very controlling and judgmental. I hate hearing her badmouth relatives she doesn’t like. I am sure she does the same thing with me behind my back.
Her incessant need to demean.
Her criticism. It seems no matter what I do she can always find something that should be done better, rather than focusing on the good aspects.
When she tries to tell me how or what to do…and the way she excuses everything her husband, my stepfather does. I feel judged when she tries to tell me what to do. Like what I’m doing isn’t good enough…and her opinion weighs heavy on me.
Her belligerence toward me. Her submission to my father. Her attempts to make me want to be someone I am not.
Guilt. My mother’s ability to make me feel guilty about anything and everything. I doubt even the smallest decisions because she has made me defer to her on everything and thrown it in my face when it does not work out.
She is catty and I can be too. I hate it about myself so it really rankles me when she does it.
I can say cutting things to my daughter that I know she said to me. She can always point out people’s flaws, it’s not judging them but she labels EVERYONE.
I am too critical of my children. Most times when I give my children constructive criticism, I can hear my mother’s voice and feel that my children hear me in the same way I heard my mother.
Judgments. Insensitivity to problems that I deem stupid or wrong or not like I would handle it.
Guilt. Sometimes I try to control my children with guilt. It stand out because my mother has a way of saying things that make me feel consumed with guilt and my negative feelings toward her. Especially because I love her.
I have a tendency to withhold approval or snidely criticize. I hate that in myself and struggle against that impulse.
We can continue this cycle of emotional corruption in the mother/daughter relationship, or we can raise free-range daughters who carry a sense of security within them wherever they go.
Of the 34% of women who described having fabulous relationships with their mothers, the qualities they esteemed as making that possible were: being seen for who they are; not being judged; not being criticized; and being listened to.
For those of us for whom it might be impossible to improve our relationships with our mothers, it’s important to seek out girlfriends who have no need to compete or criticize.
And for the mothers out there, let’s try not to drive our daughters into psychologically bankrupting themselves through ordering a continuous delivery of boxed “PERSONALITY DEFENSE KITS” from the Looney Tunes ACME Supply Co.
While I was reading through the Huffington Post women’s responses to my Physical Appearance questionnaire, I kept hearing Larry David’s agent Jeff from Curb Your Enthusiasm saying, “It’s just a big bowl of wrong.”
It’s wrong the unfair premium our culture places on women’s physical appearance, and how it makes for tough going out there. Some fare better under this pressure than others, depending on what we learned from our parents’ attitudes toward beauty, or whether we’ve been somehow traumatized by commentary on our looks, but none of us is immune to its impact on how we see ourselves.
One message that emerged from what women had to say is the need for us to recognize the power of our words and behavior. We underestimate the wounds they inflict, and we underplay their capacity to heal. They both change us. Harshness can turn our bodies into a minefield for self consciousness. Kindness can favorably reconfigure how we see ourselves. The opposite poles of this reality are reflected in these quotes.
What is the most negative experience you have had with regard to feeling physically unattractive?
I was upset because a man I liked did not have feelings for me. When I confided in my mother, she said, “Well, men don’t like overweight women.” I felt humiliated, worthless and angry.
I’m one of those people who’s either considered gorgeous or ugly. There are people who have told me that I am butt ugly to my face.
I put on a bit of weight for a while about ten years ago and I noticed my confidence drop through the floor. Made me realize how shallow I am and how unimpressive some other aspects of my life are, e.g. my career! By the way, there are also negative aspects to being attractive. I’ve had open hostility from women I don’t even know because they assume I think I’m hot.
Silly things from adolescence…not being popular because I wasn’t “pretty” and not being paid as much attention by boys for the same reason. Nobody likes to feel rejected.
Being ignored and feeling invisible.
I work in a retail store and a man and his grandson came through my line. I treated them as I would any other person asking, “How are we doing today?” “Did you find everything you were looking for?” and all with a smile. As I was handing the man his change and telling him to have a nice day he said “Honey, you’ve got too much shit through your lip.” I felt his comment was uncalled for. He and I had not had a conversation about piercings nor did I hear any conversation between him and his grandson about them. Just because I have them doesn’t mean that I don’t have feelings or that someone can talk to me any way they want.
For a whole year in junior high school, a boy continuously verbally and physically attacked me. He would call me ugly, burnt black, skinny bitch while his friends laughed. Oddly enough, he was an overweight, extremely dark-skinned boy whom, if not for the fear of his size and temper, would be made fun of by others for his lack of physical appeal. To him, I must have represented the worst of him and his only way to deal with it was to attack me.
What is the most positive experience you have had with regard to feeling physically attractive?
A friend once told me that I had beautiful golden brown eyes and I had always just thought of them as brown. Then I actually looked at them and sure enough they were golden brown. He was just a friend, but it made me feel beautiful.
Normally it is hard for me to believe people when they say I am attractive. At my mother’s second wedding, I was talking with an old family friend who I hadn’t seen in years. She said to me “You look beautiful. You always looked pretty, but now you’ve really come into your own.” I really appreciated it because I knew she was not only referring to my physical appearance, but also the person I’d become.
My husband still thinks I’m beautiful and tells me so.
I’ve had a lot of great compliments. Someone once said I looked like a panther, someone else a French film star. Queen of the Elves someone else said. Very nice. I don’t think I’m all that but it’s very generous of other people to say things…
I found out later that some of my friends (and a few strangers) developed crushes on me during my senior year of college. I was surprised and very flattered. I’d never been the hot girl before!
I had pink hair at one point, and my husband and I were walking out of a movie theatre and there was a little girl walking by with her mom. Really loud the girl says, “Look mommy, she’s got pink hair!” and the mother says “Yeah, isn’t that cool?” And the girl says “I want pink hair mommy.” I loved that the mother didn’t pull the girl away or say something rude about me.
Like Lilliputians pinning down Gulliver, the smallness of our efforts can be collectively powerful against the enormity of physical pressure. We could be more explicit with each other even when we notice the quirky parts of what we see as beautiful. Here’s some of the beauty I see in those I love in case I don’t say it out loud to them often enough:
The lyric quality of Anne’s fingers when she’s telling me a story.
The way the light catches in the dark of Nancy’s eyes and how they make me feel her enthusiasm.
The way one of Lisa’s teeth slightly overlaps the other making everything she says that much cooler.
Louisa’s sexy red hair and the way she wears the New York Times as an accessory.
The warmth in Jane’s face when she says “I love you sweetheart” whenever we say goodbye.
The way Olivia’s profile when she’s sleeping momentarily erases every bit of suffering I’ve ever done.