Friday, June 19, 2009

Like mother, like daughter

by Chloe Angyal

A few weeks ago, I was at the beach with some friends. As we lay on the sand reading and chatting, one of my friends sat up on her towel, looked down at her stomach and started poking it with her finger.

“Ugh,” she said, “I have to get rid of this.”

Changing the subject, I asked her about her navel piercing. We spoke about how we both came to have our belly buttons pierced, and I explained that, when I finally convinced my parents, my mother had come with me to get it done. After months of needling, cajoling and outright begging, she had finally conceded, partly, I think, because she hoped that a navel piercing might prevent, or at least postpone, my getting a tattoo (as always, she was right).

My mother was disgusted by the piercing procedure. Even I was a little taken aback upon learning how the piercing would be done. But I went through with it, partly because I wasn’t about to back down after months of pestering her. In retrospect, it was fitting that my mother was there—even if she did think I was mutilating myself. After all, it was by my navel that we were connected for nine crucial months. Today it’s just a simple knot decorated with a gold bar and a butterfly. And, as is often the case, my relationship with my mother has become far more complicated than it ever was in those first nine months.

Back at the beach, I looked down at my stomach and pierced navel, and thought about what my friend had said about her stomach. And I started thinking about body image and mothers and daughters, and about how a woman’s relationship with her body is so often the result of how her mother taught her, either overtly or by example, to think about her own body, and about women’s bodies in general.

Writing about young women and eating disorders in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney Martin wrote that, “Some girls starve themselves expressly to avoid growing into adult female bodies and inheriting their mothers’ lives. Some girls overeat and get fat to wound their weight-conscious mothers. Some girls become sports-obsessed, in part, to drive home the point that they will not be dainty and domestic like their powerless moms.”

One of my college classmates, Emma, had an obsession with her stomach, spending at least an hour every day doing exercises to keep it flat, and spending many more hours in an endless cycle of bingeing and purging that most women live out on some scale, even if they never do anything as extreme as making themselves throw up or abusing laxatives. It can be something as seemingly harmless as, “I shouldn’t have eaten that cheesecake” or “I’ll have to go for a run to make up for this,” but there’s no doubt that almost every woman lives this cycle every day.

As for Emma, I never understood her perpetual desire to lose weight—she looked fine to me—until I met her mother. As I watched them interact and listened to their endless conversations about calorie counts, my friend’s behavior began to make a lot more sense. Emma wasn’t born hating her body. No woman is. As Lieutenant Cable once sang of racial prejudice in South Pacific, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And before a girl is exposed to media images of incredibly thin women, before she is pressured into dieting by girlfriends, she is carefully taught that her body is always imperfect, but always perfectible, by the most influential woman in her life: her mother.

If our mothers set bad examples for us, they are hardly to blame. They were also taught to hate their bodies, not just by their own mothers, but by a society that told women then, like it tells us now, that their worth as people would be measured by the curve of their hips. If they passed that lesson on to us, it wasn’t because they wanted us to hate our bodies. It was because hating your body was, and is, a major part of being a woman in this culture.

Girls and young women learn much of how to be a woman from watching the women in their lives. When they see those women bemoaning a stomach that refuses to flatten or flagellating themselves when they step onto the scales, they learn that in order to be an adult woman, they too will have to hate their bodies, to constantly desire to be thinner or tanner or taller.

It is a mark of dangerous social dysfunction that 81 percent of American 10-year-olds and 46 percent of American nine-year-olds are dieting to lose weight. I’d be willing to bet that a good portion of those third and fourth graders aren’t dieting because they really think that they’d be happier or healthier a few pounds lighter. They’re dieting for the same reason that they stumble around in their sisters’ high heels and smear their mothers’ lipsticks all over their young faces: because that’s what grown up girls do.

As the first and arguably most influential teacher a girl will ever have, mothers can be the first line of defense against negative body image. Laura Rubinstein, a health educator at Princeton University who specializes in eating disorders, tells mothers that by accepting their daughters’ bodies and teaching their daughters to do the same, they serve as a tiny but important drop in the bucket. “For every time you tell her that her body’s just fine the way it is, there are a hundred outside voices telling her otherwise,” Rubinstein says. “Even if you think she should lose weight, she doesn’t need to hear it from you. She’s already hearing it everywhere else.”

It’s hard for women to shield their daughters from attitudes and behaviors they themselves have so thoroughly internalized, and sometimes it doesn’t work. As Martin writes, “We see that our mothers cannot love their own bodies, and this translates… to a lesson about femaleness.” But Martin and Rubinstein have faith, and so do I, that even mothers who have been carefully taught to hate their own bodies can ensure that they don’t teach that lesson to a new generation. Instead, they can teach their daughters that being a woman is about more than a constant desire to be thinner or prettier. They can ensure that their daughters grow up knowing that no matter what they see on television or read, their bodies are fine the way they are, because Mom said so.

Cross-posted from Splice

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why we need to talk about sexual assault

by Molly Borowitz

South Africa's Medical Research Council has just published a study about the prevalence of rape which found that roughly 1 in 4 South African men has probably raped a woman. The study surveyed 1,738 men, 25% of whom admitted to having committed rape in their lifetimes, and 5% of whom confessed that they had done so within the past twelve months. Even more disturbingly, 73% of the respondents who reported positively for rape said that they had committed their first assault before the age of 20, while fully half admitted to raping multiple women -- which means that 18.25% of South African men have raped a woman before their 20th birthday, while 12.5% have raped more than one woman. In addition, 3% of those surveyed admitted to coercing another man or boy into sex, while 10% said that they themselves had been raped by another man.

Study coordinator Rachel Jewkes, a professor at the Medical Research Council, told the BBC that she found the results "very shocking," but she also explained that she attributed rape's disturbingly high prevalence in South Africa to specific cultural factors, namely the nation's "incredibly disturbed past and the way that South African men over the centuries have been socialised into forms of masculinity that are predicated on the idea of being strong and tough and the use of force to assert dominance and control over women, as well as other men." Indeed, some of the survey respondents explained that practices like gang rape can function as exercises in male bonding.

This incredibly disturbing news reminds us that sexual assault remains one of the greatest challenges facing women (and men) across the globe. Jewkes insists that sociocultural change is absolutely imperative: "We have to change the underlying social attitudes that in a way have created a norm that coercing women into sex is on some level acceptable." We are lucky to have incredible organizations like SHARE and SpeakOut that promote campus-wide conversations to inform our community about the dangers of sexual assault. But even in the face of these frightening statistics, we can't forget that sexual assault is a very personal experience, one that we cannot and should not distinguish from the people who have lived through it. If you know a survivor, give her (or him) a hug today.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Vietnamese women: trapped in the kitchen?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

As I write this post, I'm sitting in a little cafe called "La Place," looking out over the square outside St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi. It's a peaceful Sunday afternoon - the motorbikes, which zip through Hanoi in droves and make street-crossings a daily adventure, are not out in full force, and I'm drinking (against my best judgment) lukewarm Diet Coke. The whole scene is very Westernized - and yet not, because the Vietnamese fight to hold on to their traditions in the face of globalization, modernization, and the accompanying "moral vices" that many feel are inextricably tied to these changes. Sadly, as desperate as the Vietnamese are to become economically modern (every lecture from a Vietnamese scholar or government official that we have attended has focused insistently on the need to "catch up" to Western countries), they see moral corruption as a terrifying accessory to progress. And moral corruption, for this very patriarchal society, almost always includes that little thing we call "women's rights."

Two nights ago, while cruising through Ha Long Bay (one of the most beautiful, physically striking places I have ever encountered) on a tourist boat, one of my professors suddenly began to talk about a dinner that he attended at the house of a Vietnamese professor who had helped to set our program up. The Vietnamese professor (male, of course) had invited all three of our Princeton professors to a sumptuous dinner, cooked by his wife. Oddly enough, however, none of my teachers actually met the woman who had prepared their meal. She stayed in the kitchen as each of the courses were carried out by the children, and the host chatted unconcernedly with his guests. The wife never emerged.

This is apparently not unusual. My professor spends a good deal of time in Vietnam, has Vietnamese friends, and says that for intelligent women, the situation is very bleak. Women who seek higher education are repeatedly warned that they won't find a husband - and this is actually not entirely false, because Vietnamese men's egos are fragile and easily bruised by women who challenge them intellectually. Apparently, though, as modernization continues and women are becoming less and less financially dependent on their husbands, domestic strife is becoming more common, and people are thrown into a moral tizzy by the increasing numbers of women who are opting to stay single. Case in point: the book I found in a Vietnamese bookstore, called The Crisis of Single Women. Apparently, the abundance of single women should be considered a national crisis - the author called for social supports and programs for women who have been "disadvantaged" by their own independence. Because clearly, however much of a choice single women may think they're making - especially if they have decided to have children on their own - they are violating the natural order, where men bring home the bacon and women cook it, and wives shut up and look pretty when their husband's friends come over.

I've been spending some time with three Vietnamese young women who are taking the seminar with us ("us" being the 14 other Princeton students who have accompanied me to Vietnam). They have fantastic English (way better than my completely nonexistent Vietnamese) and are clearly very smart, and I'm looking forward to talking to them about growing up intelligent, articulate, independent and female in a culture that at once ostensibly embraces equality for men and women (or at least the Communist party, in theory, does) but also condemns women who try to step out of its bounds. Not least here, I'm interested in learning about sex education and how you can teach about sex in a culture where daring to assume that unmarried people might be having sex is completely taboo. I'm volunteering part-time at Pathfinder International, a global reproductive health NGO, while I'm in Hanoi, and here there's another curious tension - contraceptive use is actually quite high among married women, and the birth rate is steadily going down, but young people have almost zero sex education, and so (surprise surprise!) the HIV rate is rising alarmingly. See a connection?

I'm going to keep exploring these issues with the people I meet and with Pathfinder, and posting them here, over the next five weeks, while I'm getting to know this wonderful, confusing place. What are you doing this summer? Equal Writes isn't going to be as active as we are during the school year, but that shouldn't stop you from letting us know about your "gender encounters," wherever you might be. Stay in touch through our comment boards!