I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Month: February, 2014

Making Peace With Barbie



Barbie is polarizing.  In case you’re not aware of the current debate, Mattel is paying Sports Illustrated to be part of the magazine’s 50th Anniversary “Legends” issue, on sale today, by featuring 55-year-old Barbie in a promotional campaign named, “Unapologetic.”  Get it?  Both brands have banded together in an aggressively defensive posture, proudly asserting that their objectification of women has been good for women – that the famous SI Swimsuit cover models are now legends and successful businesswomen, just as Barbie has provided amazing leadership roles models for girls.  Hmmph.

I was not allowed to play with Barbie.  My mother, an early feminist and charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine, scoffed at Barbie.  Blonde, with a ridiculously unrealistic figure, she was deemed a too-sexy airhead and not a good role model for a serious, smart, ambitious brunette.  She arguably spawned a whole generation of dumb blonde party girl jokes, some clean and some not-so-clean, but all presenting blondes as superficial, like:

Blonde Barbie 1, standing across the street from Neiman-Marcus couldn’t figure out how to get across the street to go shopping.  She spies another blonde Barbie coming out of the store.

Blonde Barbie 1:  “Yoo-hoo!  Hi! How do I get to the other side of the street?”

Blonde Barbie 2:  “You ARE on the other side of the street!”

Ha, Ha.  Makes me laugh every time.

While my mother’s judgment and scorn of Barbie seeped into my thinking, one of my favorite memories was playing with Barbie at a neighbor’s house.  There were a lot of kids in the family, a lot of built in playmates, and the girls had multiple Barbies and all the accessories:  a lot of cheap, pink, plastic stuff which I coveted.  Or maybe it was the built in playmates I coveted.  Even though Mattel dutifully introduced lots of alternative dolls who were not blonde, we all wanted to be the main event, the popular center of attention, the blonde Barbie who got Ken.  At least that’s what I remember wanting and squabbling over:  to be the popular girl who gets the boy.

So when my daughter was a little girl and wanted Barbie dolls, I paused.  The judgmental voice was still inside me.  Barbie!  What a misogynistic toy.  No way!  But there was another voice inside me.  I don’t want my daughter to feel embarrassed or ashamed for wanting to fit in with other girls, the way I felt ashamed.  Barbie is, at least potentially, a strong woman and embodies the imagination and the dreams of the girl who is playing with her.  Barbie is a way for a girl to imagine being a woman.  What do girls want to be?  Well, aside from princesses who rule, they want to be women, like their moms and the other grown women they see.  What better way to play out the kind of women they want to be than through play-acting scenarios with dolls and other girls?  The best part of playing with Barbie was styling her hair and changing her outfits.  Because what better way to play out the kind of woman you want to be than by trying on different outfits, different personas?  It’s how we learn, imagine, and grow.  And Ken?  Well, he’s a sexless accessory – very safe for a young girl.  You know there’s going to be men in your life, but you don’t quite know what their role will be.  It’s all about you and your Barbie avatar, represented by your hair and clothing and overall style.  Like the prom, it’s about the girl and her dress not the guy.  He comes later, or should come later, after she figures out more about who she is and who she wants to be.

Still, when we tackled a construction project on our house which required my daughter to move out of her room, I was not sorry to pack up a variety of partially clothed Barbies with tangled hairstyles into a bin and stick it in the attic.  When the construction project was over and she got her own room, she was not interested in her naked Barbies any more.  Or maybe she was, but I was happy to encourage her to forget about them and leave them languishing in the attic.  Several years later, she begged me for a baby doll, a real baby doll that drank a bottle, wet her diaper, and cried.  I was stunned.  Who is this girly girl of mine?  I tried to honor who she is and searched for the perfect baby doll.  But it was too late.  It was not the perfect baby doll she envisioned, she was now a teenager, and my judgmental voice had been too dominant. 

Around this time, my daughter and I watched Legally Blonde, the romantic comedy where blonde California girl Elle Woods shows up her superficial boyfriend and his more seemingly appropriate fiancé, the elite prep school East Coast brunette, Vivian, by using her life experience and her knowledge and intuition for a big courtroom win.  Blondes Have More Fun; They Have More Friends; And They Are Smart and Win!  I loved the movie.  Maybe you can be fun-loving and smart?  It softened my judgmental voice.

When I heard about the marketing campaign for Barbie within the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, the judgmental voice kicked in, aghast.  And then I realized that it’s not Barbie I object to.  I’ve made my peace with Barbie.  In fact, I admire Barbie.  She is adorable and accomplished and has created many hours of imaginary play for girls everywhere who deserve more credit for knowing that success is not just about unrealistic physical measurements and a come hither stance.  What I object to is that Mattel thinks that Barbie needs to pose for the SI Swimsuit issue, a magazine for men not for young girls, in order to gain publicity for the doll and presumably to sell more dolls.  Are these men going to buy Barbie dolls?  Barbie the lawyer, doctor, astronaut, teacher, corporate executive, artist, politician doesn’t need to model in a sex-lite magazine for men.  She is better than that.  Hey, what I’d really like to see is 55-year-old Barbie embarking on her meaningful midlife encore career while on her meaningful midlife spiritual journey for enlightenment, discovering that loving others is more fun than desperately seeking love from others.  I guess that wouldn’t sell very well.

Image shows the cover-wrap of Sports Illustrated magazine’s 50th anniversary annual swimsuit issue. (AP Photo/Sports Illustrated)

Sex and the Dorm Room


Sometimes Yes Means No

Buried on p.18 of the New York Times about two weeks ago was “Obama Seeks to Raise Awareness of Rape on Campus.”  President Obama is creating a task force charged with, among other things, recommending best practices for colleges to prevent and respond to assaults on campuses.  Rape is most common on college campuses and several deplorable statistics were cited in the article.  20% of college students (primarily women) have been assaulted, but only 12% of those students actually report the assault.  In one study, 7% of male students admitted to committing or attempting rape and 66% of those students said they had done so multiple times. 

I am terrified of violent rape by a stranger, as most women are.  It informs how I deal with strangers.  No eye contact.  Walk swiftly and confidently.  Pair up with someone for safety.  As I’ve become older, my concern is less for myself and more for my daughter.  Perhaps of more concern however, is how to talk to her and help her prepare for the variety of more nuanced sexual overtures she is bound to receive.  I have been thinking a lot about sex on college campuses, as I prepare to send her to college this fall and wonder how to talk to her about it in a loving and supportive way.  It’s not an easy conversation to have.  My mother certainly didn’t have it with me.  I found out about sex from boys who wanted to have sex with me.  Talk about a conflict of interest. 

While rape and sexual assault are of obvious concern, it is crucial that we teach our sons and daughters about navigating the murkier areas of sexual exploration and identifying some guidelines for consensual sex and nonconsensual sex.  Yale published a document at the beginning of the 2013/14 academic year tackling the question of sexual misconduct and presenting a variety of grayer scenarios and how the university would rule on whether or not the situation was consensual.  The goal is worthy but the tone was clinical and Gawker mocked the androgynous fictitious characters.  Perhaps Freshman Orientation should include small group discussions facilitated by trained upperclassmen that would role-play various scenarios, teaching men to be respectful and teaching women to trust their instincts and teaching both to not be afraid to slow the process down.  And to be aware of the disinhibiting effects of drinking alcohol.  Consider this familiar scenario:

Young woman goes to party and flirts with young man she finds handsome.  She is attracted to him.  She wants to please him.  After all, she has been brought up to be compliant and accommodating.  She wants him to like her and only her.  She is aroused and wants a physical encounter.  As well as a lasting relationship.  Young man wants to prove he is a player.  He gets off on the sexual conquest, adding another encounter to his tally.  The more sexual encounters he has the more likely he is to be considered popular and desirable.  The more sexual encounters she has the more likely she is to be disdained as a slut.  Not to mention she bears the risk of getting pregnant.  Or an STD.  It is in his best interest to get her to have sex with him.  As curious as she is, sex is a much more mixed bag for the woman.  Back in the dorm room with him, she may have second thoughts.  No, I just want to kiss, she says, I am not ready for sex.  Oh come on, he says, you led me on!  She reluctantly acquiesces.  After all, everyone else is doing it.  Maybe she enjoys it, maybe not.  Either way, she feels out of sorts about the encounter.  The boy gets his win.  It’s over.  Is that consensual?  No, it’s not.  But it happens.  All.  The.  Time.

It seems there is increasing pressure on girls (and boys) to go along and hook up casually, as if sex were just a physical need that must be met regularly with no emotional consequences.  Consensual sex has gotten more complicated.  Oh yeah, she pretends, I’m cool with sex and hooking up and comfortable with lots of experiences with different guys, with different girls, and all types of sex acts.  Huh?  Sexual contact is intimate and results in a range of emotional reactions.  Young women may be propositioned by other women as well, which can be confusing.  Is it trendy?  Is it taboo?  Female sexuality is more fluid and women form deep and intimate bonds with their friends which may lead to sexual intimacy.  But women should be encouraged to say no to other women as well as to men, if she doesn’t want to go down that path. 

Mother to daughter to granddaughter, it takes generations to change women’s attitudes and behavior toward men, sex, and intimacy.  My mother, whose second husband was abusive, imparted to me through non-communication that sex is better left undiscussed and to be wary of men.  The residue of her experience and its impact on her impacted me.  The essence of her being is at the core of my being which is at the core of my daughter’s being.  

Call me a prude (because I am), but casual hook-ups are not what I want for my daughter.   Nor do I want her to be afraid of physical intimacy.  Here’s what I want for my daughter as she becomes a woman and learns the difference between sex and making love.

Feel beautiful.  Because you are beautiful.

Enjoy your body.  Be comfortable with your naked body.

Have fun exploring your sexuality.  Unafraid, but safely.

Know that it is okay to wait until you are older.  Even if everyone else is doing it.  The older you are, the more self-awareness you will have and the more likely you are to have an emotionally mature experience with your partner.

I hope you will move slowly when you explore your sexuality with another person.  Get a sense of them as a respectful person who will appreciate you, body and soul.

I hope you have a number of fun and joyful sexual experiences that leave you confident and feeling loved.

I hope you have as few experiences as possible that leave you feeling bewildered, hurt, abandoned, violated, ashamed.

Remember that men may approach sex differently than you and that it may not serve you well to acquiesce.

You can say no.

You can ask for help.

You can talk to me.  There is absolutely nothing you can say to me that would surprise me.  I went to college.

You don’t have to talk to me.  Thank goodness for aunts and cousins and wise friends who love you.

I love you.

Don’t Know Much About Football Games


But I Like the Costumes

I am not a big fan of football.  I follow the news about traumatic brain injuries in football more than I keep up with who’s winning.  I was transfixed by the Penn State scandal about sexual assault and the cover up by university officials.  I am currently somewhat amused and dismayed by the latest UNC Chapel Hill scandal about bogus classes for the athletes where they all get “A’s” for not attending class.  To me, football is a violent game played by adrenaline and testosterone amped up “thugs” – to quote (or misquote) the highly charged word of the week.

My father would watch football every Sunday, a Redskins fan.  My mother did not.  Condescending of sports and stereotypically male activities, I absorbed her scorn, rolling my eyes at the ridiculous obsession of sports fanatics.  I never quite understood my father’s fascination.  After all, he was a violin-playing, slender and awkward physicist who had an equivalently condescending attitude toward popular entertainment and anything trendy.  But his father was a strapping man who did play football.  What an enigma his son must have been to him!  Sometimes, I would join my father and he would patiently explain the rules of football to me.  I absorbed his respect for the game.  The sound of whistle-blowing referees and cheering fans on the television on Sundays has become nostalgic for me.

In high school, our football team was noteworthy for not winning (though the players and the cheerleaders were at the top of the social hierarchy.)  When I went to the home games, it was purely social – to hang out with my friends, to enjoy chanting in the stands, and to support the marching band.  I don’t remember actually watching the games.  Football also was not part of my college experience, attending an all-women’s college.  I never dated someone who was a football fan, so it has always remained on the periphery of my life.  I’ve spent many a Super Bowl Sunday at the movies or knitting with girlfriends, alternating between grudging tolerance of the spectacle and hostile avoidance. 

Several years ago, my kids began clamoring to watch the Super Bowl.  What?!  Where did I go wrong?  I decided to humor them.  Why should they be saddled with my baggage?  Why should they belong to the weird family that shuns the Super Bowl?  Besides the commercials are funny and the half-time show is a spectacle in and of itself.  The Giants, our home team, were in it.  I actually watched the game.  I became interested in the strategy.  And awestruck by Eli Manning’s amazing pass and David Tyree’s amazing catch in the 2007 game.  The grace and choreography won me over. 

Now that sports journalism has broadened to include more player profiles, I can’t get enough of Super Bowl week.  This year, I’ve read up on the Nike-designed costumes.  Oops, I mean uniforms.  (I prefer the Sea Hawks blue and lime green costumes over the obnoxious orange of the Broncos.  Is that a good reason to root for the Sea Hawks?)  I’ve read up on Richard Sherman and his college career at Stanford.  Apparently, he is NOT a thug and appears to be more complicated than that incident makes him out to be.  I’ve read up on Russell Wilson and his multi-talented foray into baseball.  I am sympathetic with the aging Peyton Manning and would love to see the wisdom of experience beat out the brashness of youth.  (Is that a good reason to root for the Broncos?)  My favorite piece was on the Bronco’s offensive coach, Adam Gase, a brilliant and analytical non-player who is a creative play-maker and has established an astonishing synchronicity with Peyton Manning. 

Mainly though, I am happy to be able to have fun participating in a popular culture event with my family and without all the scornful judgment of my upbringing coloring the experience.  Go Sea Hawks!  I love your costumes.

Oh, and note to NFL:  Please address the mounting evidence of traumatic brain injury from football.

Photo credit:  New York Times

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