It’s Starting

I’m a reader. I love being surrounded by books, and the library and Barnes and Noble happen to be two of my happiest places on earth. I have an Amazon app on my phone that is dangerous to the health of my bank account. I got an email today that Michael Pollan has a new book, and I’m trying to be good and waiting to check it out once it available at the library, but I’m shaking in anticipation. I have a book list a mile long and not enough time to read.

Reading during college was a strange time for me. In high school, I was usually reading two books along with the assigned books from whatever lit class I was taking. My lovely biochemistry major did all it could to suck the time and creativity out of my system. When I had time to read for pleasure, it was like I didn’t know how. I was over processing the content as if I had to write a paper. Sad. I took a lit class during a summer session just to be able to read.

After graduation, I suddenly had free time and didn’t know what to do with it. I tried reading. It worked, somewhat. I found a niche in feminist prose, both from the second wave of feminism and more recent works. I read Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, and also Jean Kilbourne and local author Mary Pipher, as well as others. I still read these works as if I were researching for a term paper or preparing a presentation, but at least my brain felt elastic again.

Fast forward about ten years later, and these books still resonate with me, though life experience has changed the frequency of resonance. Back then (when I knew it all) I had a perfect picture of what my career would look like, as well as what marriage and parenting would be like. I didn’t know then I would be a stay at home mom, quitting a job I loved for the sake of my family, nor a mother of a girl and two boys, one with special needs, and I certainly (maybe naively) didn’t anticipate going through a divorce.

Sometimes I want to go back and bitch slap 2003 Sara.

Through parenting, I was always going to instill in my children the value of everyone and their differences, not just race or gender issues, but more encompassing. I’ve tried my best and feel “successful” that they are accepting of differences. Who knows, they end up doing what they want anyway. I haven’t consciously tried to push gender stereotypes, nor tried to discourage them if they occurred “naturally” (the whole nature v. nurture discussion hurts my brain as much as when I ponder infinity).

From my feminist readings, I do try to set an example for how women are and can be. By that I mean my kids have seen me work, they’ve seen me in the home, they’ve seen me pay bills, cook, and mow the lawn. In marriage some responsibilities did fall upon typical gender lines, and since the separation it has blown my son’s mind of some of the things I could do. I’m not sure he equated this with what he thought of woman’s ability, or just because he never saw mom do it. I want all three to know they can do whatever they want. If Izzy wants to pee standing up, I won’t stop her. I will make her clean it up though.

One of my favorite feminist readings was Can’t Buy My Love by Jean Kilbourne, discussing the impact of how women are portrayed in advertisements. I was thrilled to hear her speak when she visited my college campus. Through my many psychology and women’s studies courses, her work continued to appear, which told me she must know what she’s talking about. What strikes me about this book now (and I need to find it and reread it for the fortieth time) is seeing how advertising is affecting my children, most notably Isabelle.

A few days ago she was watching cartoons and asks me “mom, can you get me this face clarifying lotion so my skin can look good?” And I about fell to the floor. She has always been the kid to see a series of commercials and NEED everything in each one. “Mom, we have to buy this, it only has 100 calories!!!” she cried out one day. I said, “Izzy, what’s a calorie?” and she replies “I don’t know but there’s only 100 of them!” She also is more likely to become a zombie while watching TV. I painfully monitor their screen time, nix certain TV shows, and change the radio station if I don’t want them to hear a song because of the lyrics. There’s a little Tipper Gore in me.

So here’s my beautiful five year old, who I want to stay a child for as long as possible, and she’s asking me for a product because she’s been told her skin isn’t just right and should be. Sure, I’ve seen the ad before and is aimed at women like me, and seemed fairly innocuous until it reached my daughter. We’ve all learned through some avenue that the aim of advertising is to make a consumer feel inadequate and somehow, that product is going to alleviate that.

After reading Kilbourne’s book I have paid attention to commercials, noting what time they are broadcast and who the target audience may be. She’s watching cartoons on a children’s television station, and the ad execs there and for the product certainly know stay at home moms are likely watching with their children and fit it right in there. I’m sure no one said “Let’s make five year old girls insecure about their skin tone!” At least, I hope not. But they hear the message. Kids remember ads and slogans better than any other demographic. My kids could recognize the McDonald’s golden arches before they could form a coherent sentence.

I’m seeing now that she’s paying attention to all ads thrown her way, not just the ones meant to entice her. I’ve long said to my kids that commercials can give us ideas of new products and things we may want, but they also try to sell us stuff we don’t need. That phrase is not working as well. Now my daughter’s appearance is being challenged, though she doesn’t realize it. My worry, stemming from my knowledge from my feminism books, is how this is going to affect how she sees herself. I don’t want her equating her appearance with her self worth, I don’t want her seeing negative images of women, and on and on and on.

My brain hurts right now. I don’t know if I’m over-thinking this or seeing something that isn’t there, but the worry is there. Parenting is hard.

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