Sticks and Stones May Break Bones, but Words…

“I’m garbage, I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m a blockhead.  I’m bad luck; I’m a one-leaf clover. I’m only worth a penny.  I’m ugly.  I don’t make good decisions.  It’s so hard.  You deserve a perfect child.  I’m not perfect.  I’m garbage.”

My daughter has had a full meltdown tonight, and a terrifying jumble of dark, frightening words spilled out of her.  She is right.  She does not make good decisions because it is so hard for her.  She is wrong. About everything else. After I accused her of treating me unkindly, she agreed too readily after a day of crossed arms and haughtily practiced glares.  But her repentance is so broken and sincere, her sobs so wrenching, that I felt I had stumbled over a trip wire, leaving an explosion in my wake.  Her despair at feeling so broken, so imperfect, spill out of her in almost poetic self-hatred.

My daughter’s attitude, like many a pre-adolescent, is frequently less than lovely, but she herself is worryingly beautiful. Her words, repeated like a sick mantra, tell me something darker is amiss: “I’m ugly, I’m stupid, I’m dumb, I’m ugly, I’m stupid…” They scare me.  I grab her, pull her in and try rocking her ever expanding frame.

“Baby, you are NOT ugly, you are NOT stupid.  You are BEAUTIFUL, you are SMART, you passed tests in two languages!  You are fun and funny, friendly and good at so many things.  Who TOLD you such wicked lies?” Because I know they did not come from home.

And she spills the well-guarded beans.  The kids, at school.

“Which kid baby, which kid said such a terrible thing?

“Not the kid, the KIDS,” she corrects me, so clear on the topic.  “They told me, twice a week, twice a day.  That I’m ugly. That I’m stupid.”

But baby!  You don’t BELIEVE such terrible lies?

“I do, yes I do,” she saws with raw feeling.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me before?” I ask, feeling like a failure.

“Because I was embarrassed,” she admits.  I try to erase the ugly words that have accumulated in her ribcage, reaching her heart.  I want a psychic eraser.  I want to squeeze my hands slowly around a few puny necks, and set fire to the school breeding them.  My beautiful, brave child.  Who has been dragged through 3 countries, gone to 4 schools, and tried so bravely to get along in all of them, in spite of focus and impulse problems.

The wicked wickedness of cruel words.  They are scratched into her psyche.  They are splashed across the mirror, so that she cannot see her own beautiful face.  They are voices in her ear, so she cannot believe in her own intelligence.  It will take so, so many more kind words and hours of scrubbing to cover and clean the graffiti they have scrawled across her soul.  Who said words will never break me?  What foolishness.  What can cause more permanent damage than a few well-placed serpent words? Image

We spent the day today with a little boy who has apparently gotten a paper route to save money, so he cross continents and propose one day when H is 19.  He has been planning this for about 3 years, so the kid has staying power.  And even after a day spent with such an ardent admirer, she will not believe that she is a treasure.  I happened to make the comment to this little boy’s mother just today that H threw me off, because she was my only good luck in a long string of bad luck.  She is the fairy tale that came true. But a pack of dwarves offered her a poisonous apple, and she took a few bites.  I am so afraid for her.  I know what caused the symptoms, but I’m not very confident I can expel it from her system.  Sticks and stones may break bones, but words will break hearts.  So much harder to heal.  I am reminded of a poster I have that cautions “speak words of kindness.  Every word matters.” So do me a favor this week, and tell a kid you know that she’s beautiful, that she’s smart, that she’s marvelous for just being her.  That he’s kind, that he’s funny, that he’s marvelous for just being him.  Maybe even after a bad attitude.  Maybe it’s an S.O.S. for redeeming a scratched up soul. As a lyric I have had on repeat the last few days goes, “Who will love me for me? Not for what I’ll do or what I’ll become?” Paint a mural on someone’s heart that says “you, wonderful you, no matter what you do or become.” Let me be the first.

You, wonderful you!  Fearfully and wonderfully made.  Knit together in (someone’s!) womb.  God knows you full well. You are a marvelous, unreproducible original work of art. Your lifelines, your earlobes, your wonky pinky’s and funny toes. The shape of your lips and the way you walk, recognizable even in a dim light.  You fill a niche in your friend and family ecology that makes you valuable and beloved. You were born with an innate intelligence.  It may be for finding nests or describing sunsets, for laughter that breaks into a hundred pieces of happiness, rocking babies or planning parties. It may be for accosting strangers with your brand of warmth and kindness just when they needed it, or discovering a star.  And you are beautiful.  Not, of course, as beautiful as my daughter! But as beautiful as your sister’s sister, or you mother’s son, or your husband’s wife. You are most beautiful when you’re kind.

As Miss Piggy once sang for Kermit the Frog, insecure about being green:

“I like your eyes, I like your nose.  I like your mouth, your ears, your hands, your toes. I like your face, it’s really you. I like the things you say and do.  There’s not a single soul who sees the skies the way you see them through your eyes.  And aren’t you glad? I’m really glad there’s no one, no one, exactly like you.”

And really, what would the world be like without loveable Kermie?  We love him, not for what he did or became (he was once a tadpole;), but for being him. For being green.

And to my daughter, I quote our new favorite, the boat song, by J.J. Heller:

If you were a boat, my darling
A boat, my darling
I’d be the wind at your back
If you were afraid, my darling
Afraid, my darling
I’d be the courage you lack

If you were a bird, then I’d be a tree
And you would come home, my darling, to me
If you were asleep, then I’d be a dream
Wherever you are, that’s where my heart will be
Oh, do you know we belong together?
Oh, do you know my heart is yours?

If you were the ocean, I’d be the sand
If you were a song, I’d be the band
If you were the stars, then I’d be the moon
A light in the dark, my darling, for you

Oh, do you know we belong together?
Oh, do you know my heart is yours?

Oh, do you know we belong together?
Oh, do you know my heart is yours?
Oh, do you know we belong together?
Oh, do you know my heart is yours?

What Girls Are Good For

Today, a 10 year old boy in one of my English classes got called out by my 26 year old aid, God bless her.  I still do not have  a good handle on the slippery slang and particular pronunciation of my elementary school students, and have been able to take particular glee in her ability to translate for me the contents of all their covert conversation.  Today it was about “manzas”-which apparently is slang for what we’d call “big jugs”.  She was offended, and made sure he knew it, which is a credit to her.  He blushed, which is a credit to him.  What is my point?  It gives me a step right onto one of my favorite soap boxes.

This boy is 10.  It is a good age for him to learn what girls are good for.  An attachment to large breasts should not be on his list.  Sadly, it may already be number 1.  Why do I care?  My daughter is 10.  It gets me thinking about what world waits for her, and if we are inoculating her properly.  We live in a city where asses are in our face.  On beach towels doubling as wall decorations, on billboards and Keno machines, on walls and the weather section of the paper, on mainstream television, and most obviously, at the beach.  She has already asked me “why does everyone show their bum at the beach mommy?”  What answer can I give her?  What conclusion will she draw, no matter what my answer.

That this is what girls are good for.  To be a pair of breasts and an ass to admire.  To be consumed.  We live in the era of a porn for all. There are no limits, there is no shame.  And yet we pretend to value women and women’s rights.  I would greatly appreciate the right to live in a time and place when I would hold my daughter’s hand and walk her anywhere, without the not so subliminal message being advertised that THIS is what girls are good for.  Imagine a world where in the place of every half or 3/4 naked girl, there was a poster or picture of a healthy, happy, normal sized fully clothed girl doing something that brought her pleasure.  Not as the giver, but the taker.  Not a product, but a producer.  I would like the right to live in a world where I didn’t wonder what obscene private movie reel plays through the head of every man I meet.  A world where woman are valued for the content of their heads, not the packaging.  Every sexually graphic magazine, naked billboard, strip club and porn video steals a piece of that world from women everywhere.  In a great post particular to the theme of porn, BJ Stockman quotes a researcher from Texas A & M, who said:

‘Softcore pornography has a very negative effect on men as well. The problem with softcore pornography is that it’s voyeurism teaches men to view women as objects rather than to be in relationships with women as human beings.’ According to Brooks, pornography gives men the false impression that sex and pleasure are entirely divorced from relationships. In other words, pornography is inherently self-centered–something a man does by himself, for himself–by using another women as the means to pleasure, as yet another product to consume.’

(To read the rest of the article, follow this link:

http://theresurgence.com/2011/11/19/7-negative-effects-of-porn

In a postscript to this commentary, Pamela Paul, the author who originally quoted this researcher, made an additional observation about the power of porn.  She discovered that men and women who had been exposed to large amounts of porn were less likely to want daughters of their own.  There are so many conclusions you can draw from this observation alone, that I’ll just leave you the thought to ponder.

I was a social worker for years, and one of my jobs was working with kids coming through the juveline system for “first offences.”  This included shop lifting, possession of a controlled substance, and underage drinking.  You may think, as many people do, that the latter is no big deal.  This is something we call “normalization.”  Studies have been done about teenage alcohol use, particulary on college campuses, where binging is “normed.”  The idea of norming is that if someone believes “everyone else” is doing something, whether they are or not, they are much more likely to do it themselves.  Of course, the obvious conclusion is that this doesn’t just pertain to alcohol.  It pertains to dieting, sexual behaviors, our own eating habits, the shows we watch, the way we cut our hair and the clothing we wear; in a word-everything.  Case in point, a teenage boy I know wants a pair of pink tennis shoes.  When I asked his friend if Justin Beiber has a pair, the friend grinned, and it was all so clear.  As silly and immitated as hammer pants, which, in fact, Beiber seems to be reviving. How can you fight against the consumption of girls, when “everyone is doing it?”  That it is wrong is no defence.  Try explaining that to the kid who wants pink tennis shoes. Monkey see, monkey do.  More powerful than logic and morality are the pervasive images of our time.

In a small fiction book called “The Screwtape Letters,” written by C.S. Lewis in 1942, he imagines a correspondance between a senior and junior demon, in which the former gives the latter ideas for complicating a human life.  In one of these marvelous letters, he makes an observation that is still relevant today.

Thus we have now for many centuries triumphed over nature to the extent of making certain secondary characteristics of the male (such as the beard) disagreeable to nearly all the females-and there is more in that than you might suppose. As regards the male taste we have varied a good deal. At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires and encouraging the race to breed chiefly from the most arrogant and prodigal women. At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium. At present we are on the opposite tack. The age of jazz has succeeded the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children. And that is not all. We have engineered a great increase in the license which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be. Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being “frank” and “healthy” and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist-making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast!

Indeed, what has followed?  *Sigh* What hasn’t is perhaps a better question.  All his observations, true 70 years ago, are truer today.  Men of course are conditioned to want girls that don’t exist, and girls are conditioned to achieve impossible measurements and airbrushed beauty.  And, just as Lewis observed 70 years ago, attitudes toward the exhibition of these fantasy women are liberal; heaven forbid you do not embrace the “frank” and “healthy” nature of making these dream girls as available and ubiquitous as cars.

But back to that first question; what are girls good for?  They are good for hunting and fishing, writing and drawing, hiking and sitting on the roof at night, considering the stars.  They’re good for bike rides and belly laughs, for jam kisses and games of chess, for dinosaur bone excavation and bug examination.  They are good for telling stories and keeping secrets, tea parties and wrestling matches.  They are good for so many things, that there should be no room on their list left for dieting and worrying about the shape of their hips or the size of their breasts.  And if there is, turn off the tv, close the magazine, and take that girl outside.  Whatever you do, do NOT talk about your weight, or hers.  Tell her she’s beautiful, or smart, or you love her at least once a day.  By the time she’s 18, she’ll have heard it at least 6, 570 times, and maybe it will be enough that no one can convince her otherwise.

IMG_0281Ask any woman that likes herself why she does, and there’s a very good chance her dad spent time talking to her.  Ask any woman who hates her body why she does, and there’s a very good chance her mother spent time talking about her own.  Be careful with your words; little ears are listening.  I have one good friend who suffered for years with an eating disorder that she would describe as a voice, telling her all kinds of nasty things about her own self worth.  She was never skinny enough to feel “good enough”. The size of her body became a math equation.  Skinny = valuable.  How many girls suffer under the burden of this equation?  I have another friend who is a long distance runner.  She has far stricter eating patterns than I would even like to think about, and yet, she continually worries about her weight, because she spent her childhood watching her mother take pills and starve herself, worrying about her own.  I wish she would have grown up instead with the simple, inspired words of Mary Schmich in her memorialized column “Advice, like youth, is probably wasted on the young.”

And they are:

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Tell your girls that.  How powerful it is for a girl to use her body in ways that celebrate strength and resistance, not silicone and dimensions.  Dance with her in the living room.  Race with her in the streets.  My sister and I have two running jokes.  One is that our dad did a really good job with us, because we have bullet proof self esteem. He told us at least 6, 570 times that we were loved and beautiful before we hit 18, and almost that many times after.  Even now that we are adults, he sometimes he calls up for no other reason than to say these words. “Do you know I love you?  You’re the best.  You’re such a great person.”  When you have spent your whole life hearing someone near and dear say these things over and over, you start to believe them.  They are like reflective shields for the soul.  Anything anyone else might say to the contrary just bounces off those decades of words. Give them to your daughter, like a vaccine.  It’s like Julia Roberts said in My Best Friends Wedding, when she was feeling low;  “The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?” It’s true, I’m not sure why.  It’s why girls need to hear the good stuff so many times.  Enough that they’ll start to believe it. There are some funny studies out about the difference between men and women and their body image.  Not surprisingly, men have a much easier time believing the good stuff.  It’s girls that are prone to believing the bad.

The second joke my sister and I share is that, no matter if we are 5 or 10 pounds over the norm, feeling lumpy and bumpy, all we need is a jog to suddenly feel like we’re the bomb.  No matter what the mirror says.  The endorphins have their way with us, and there is no backlog of self loathing to disagree.  We know what we’re good for, and it’s not our big jugs.  This is in agreement with the research.  There’s actually such a thing as exercise “therapy” for people suffering from psychological problems regarding body image.  I’m not surprised.  It’s why it’s so important for girls to do sports.  It changes their paradigm of what their body is for; an instrument for getting things done, not for carving into submission for someone else’s pleasure.

In a very disheartening summary of the research on body image, Kate Fox observes that men are able to look in a mirror, and not even see “faults”, while women look in the mirror, and see faults that don’t exist.  It’s not just people suffering from anorexia that have body dysmorphic disorder. Woman without actual eating disorders commonly perceive themselves in a mirror as larger than they are in life.  And it’s no wonder, considering how the “ideal” body has changed over the century. Kate Fox puts it this way:

In 1917, the physically perfect woman was about 5ft 4in tall and weighed nearly 10 stone (140 lbs.). Even 25 years ago, top models and beauty queens weighed only 8% less than the average woman, now they weigh 23% less. The current media ideal for women is achievable by less than 5% of the female population – and that’s just in terms of weight and size. If you want the ideal shape, face etc., it’s probably more like 1%.

(Mirror, mirror http://www.sirc.org/publik/mirror.html)

There’s good reason to worry about our girls, and how they’ll see themselves in relation to the world.  It’s why it’s so crucial to reframe for them what they are good for.  Girls need to be convinced that it is not their job to look like someone else’s ideal.  They are fearfully and wonderfully made.  But they will only know if we tell them. And if the men they will someday fall in love with can see them through the same lens.

So please please, if you have sons, raise them well.  Make sure they too know what girls are good for.  Raise them to see a person when they look at a girl, not a product.  Start now.  My kidlink already has her fella picked out.  He will, she tells me, be funny like daddy, gentle like her uncle, and loving, like her grandpa.  I really hope he’s out there, when she’s old enough to find him.  I worry that he isn’t.  Mommy’s list has one extra condition.  That he will think she’s the bomb, EXACTLY like she is.

I leave you with Stewart Smalley’s words of inspiration (Saturday Night Live, c. 1990):
You’re good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you!

And the Baz Lurman classic, that you really can’t hear too many times!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTJ7AzBIJoI