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Archive for the ‘Body image’ Category

Dove reports that according to its global research, only 11% of girls worldwide are comfortable using the word “beautiful” to describe themselves.  Even worse, when girls feel bad about their looks, more than 70% avoid normal daily activities, such as attending school, going to the doctor, or even giving their opinion.

Feeling “beautiful” has come to mean feeling good: comfortable, powerful, competent.

Girls learn very young that the main way they have value and interact with the world is through their appearance. We can do a better job intervening.

Here are some tips on what you can do right now.

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After JCPenney’s  “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother had to do it for me,” shirt for girls incited a protest that went viral, Pigtail Pals, a site that creates clothing empowering to girls, put out a best-selling shirt that reads “Pretty’s got nothing to do with it.”

Now Reel Girl talks to Pigtail Pals’ awesome founder, Melissa Wardy:

Why did you create Pigtail Pals?

I created Pigtail Pals in honor of my daughter, Amelia, named after Amelia Earhart, when I was looking for a cute outfit for her as an infant and could find only pink and princess. Not a single onesie in all of humankind had a little girl and an airplane on it. I thought girls deserved more empowering and diverse messages than just sparkles and tiaras.

What are your best-sellers?

This fall the best sellers have been my “Pretty’s Got Nothing To Do With It” and “Full of Awesome” designs that I just released in September. Traditional favorites are the astronaut, pilot, carpenter, doctor, military, and scientist designs. And the entire Whimsy Bee line is a hit with its colorful and imaginative designs.

It’s smart of Pigtail Pals to be a for profit instead of a nonprofit! The more successful your company is, the more you can help girls. You call yourself a “mompreneur.” What is that? Who were you inspired by?

Exactly, I want to show other businesses that this is the message parents and girls want, and that a business can be successful doing this. I want to change the way the marketplace looks for young girls. And since Dora has gone the way of the ballerina princess, there is room for the smart and adventurous Pigtail Pals designs to take over. Pigtail Pals has, since the very beginning, made donations to organizations that support girls, and we will continue to do so as our success grows.

A mompreneur is a mother who sees a hole in the marketplace for children, and creates her own product to fill that void. At the time I created Pigtail Pals, there were no other apparel lines on the market that showed girls doing smart, daring, and adventurous things. There were a couple of lines that had empowering phrases, but my preschooler can’t read, so that didn’t mean anything to her. I wanted something in pictures that would really speak to little girls. Girl empowerment is something our daughters need to be raised with, not just something they are introduced to once they are finally old enough to be a Girl Scout or participate in some of the other national programs that only focus on older girls. My girl can’t wait, she needs these messages now.

What do you teach in your workshops? What kind of excercises do you do? Can you see the change before and after or is it more gradual? Do you find parents, teachers, or kids more willing or more resistant?

I teach media literacy in my workshops – a tangible way for parents to digest and parent through all the crap that is out there. I teach how to specifically deal with the highly inappropriate birthday gift, or mother-in-law that bestows makeup and tiny high heels with every visit, or the song that just played on the radio talking about casual or violent sex. Our culture is saturated with this stuff. I find most folks are eager to learn about this, and I see those light bulb moments flash across everyone’s face about 15mintues into every workshop.

The exercises I use are just common sense stuff. For example – I take a box of crayons, and dump it out, but it is full of only pink and purple crayons. I ask the parents, if they had purchased this as a school supply, would they find something wrong with it? Would they return it to the store? I ask them what is missing, and then I ask them to close their eyes and picture their daughter’s closet and toy box. I see little sheepish smiles creep across their face. And they get it – they get how incredibly limiting choices are for girls, and that they bought into it. There is nothing wrong with pink, or purple, but when a girl’s world is full of that and only that, we need to think about what messages that sends. Childhood should be a time full of vibrant, amazing color and learning experiences.

What are your future plans for the company?

In the near future, I’m going to release a line of tee designs that show boys and girls playing together, having great adventures. Also, I’m going to build out the new line of Full of Awesome products. That blog post was such a runaway hit, it is really inspiring to me.

Eventually I want to move into toys and room décor, and I would love to open really special retail spaces.

How do you protect your daughter’s imagination?

We tell stories all the time in the car while driving around town. We create some story to act out while we play outside. My home looks like a preschool with all of the art supplies and learning toys in this place. We take lots of family adventures to educational places like children’s museums and fairs and performances. We read and read and read.

Are there books, TV shows, clothing lines or products you recommend for girls?

There is a lot of good stuff out there, you just have to know where to find it. My daughter is 5 years old, so right now we are really into the Ramona and Judy Moody books. This winter we’re going to start reading the Little House on the Prairie series. Amelia has checked out every single whale and dolphin book our public library offers.  For TV, she loves Animal Planet, SciGirls (PBS), National Geographic, Diego, Wild Kratts (they have two female sci/tech assistants that rock the show), Word World, Peppa Pig, and Scooby Doo.

For other clothing lines, I really like Be A Girl Today (http://www.beagirlblog.com/) for awesome girls sports tees. And the Girl Scouts offer great tees, too.
For other products, a few other mompreneur small businesses I love to promote are Cutie Patutus for dress up clothes, Sophie & Lili for wonderful cloth dolls, and Go! Go! Sports Girls for sports-themed dolls. Every girl should have a doctor kit, a tool box, a wooden train, giant floor puzzles, and Legos by the bucket.

On my blog Reel Girl, which is all about  imagining gender equality in the fantasy world, people sometimes complain that issues I care about don’t matter because the characters I write about are imaginary. Or that I am limiting imagination by imposing PC dogma on artists. How do you respond to comments like that?

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” –Marie Wilson, the White House Project. Sexualization is an enormous problem, most specifically in the media. The stats on the representation of girls in the media in a non-sexualized manner are so miniscule, I would argue this isn’t ‘PC dogma’, it is a matter of civil rights. Girls get a seat at the table.

In the past year or so, various sites and movements have cropped up to help defend girls from sexist media or at the very least, educate parents about the negative influences out there, so ubiquitous they are ironically invisible. There was Peggy Orenstein’s best seller  Cinderella Ate My Daughter, The Geena Davis Institute has been doing studies and releasing statistics about the lack of girl characters in animation, author Lyn Mikel Brown and other founded SPARK and advocated for more girl balloons in the Macy Day Parade. And its great news that parents and advocates got so upset about the JCPenney T shirt and got it off the shelves. At the same time, Disney announced its not doing anymore princess movies which translates to even fewer movies starring girls since girls are mostly only allowed to star if they are princesses. Disney also announced this year that is shifting its tween programming to boy based animated cartoons. Do you see the media and more awareness about the media going in a positive or negative direction? Are there other sites or movements that you know of that support girls and girl media?

I think parents and girls need to be very aware that the media is a long ways off from them content that is fair to girls. Like I said, there is good stuff out there, but in reality it is few and far between. Disney is the very last place I would look for positive girl media. As parents become more aware and more savvy, they will start to demand products and media that reflect that. So Pixar is making “Brave”, and that is tremendous, and that will only fill our appetite for so long. They will need to give us more if they want us to keep consuming.

You mentioned SPARK Summit and the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media. I love the work they do. I also really admire my colleagues Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth, Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker of Operation Transformation, and New Moon Girls is doing awesome work right now with their Girl Caught program. Other favorites are Princess Free Zone and Hardy Girls Healthy Women. In the UK I love Pink Stinks, and over in Australia Collective Shout and the Butterfly Effect do amazing work.

One under-reported issue is that when girls go missing in kids films, and the toys, clothing, and other products based on and derived from those films, both genders learn that girls are less important than boys. This is a problem with sites and orgs that focus on girls, in some ways, that continue this polarized segregation. Parents are a huge force here– they should be reading their kids stories about girls, taking them to movies with strong girl parts (if they can find any) and encouraging cross gender friendships. What do you think about this issue? Are there sites, movements, blogs that you know of or like that help educate boys also?

I have a three year old son, so this is an equally important issue for me. My colleague Crystal Smith of Achilles Effect (and author of a great book with same name) is awesome. The work of Jackson Katz is like no other when it comes to boys and media. The blog The Mamafesto writes about her son and his adventures through boyhood.

My work focuses on girls, because the crush for them with sexism and sexualization is immense, and it comes at them as soon as they are born. I don’t necessarily think it is easier for boys, but it is different. I think we need to get back to some common sense childhood. Let’s allow our kids the space to play and explore without limitations based on gender. Pigtail Pals also offers a line for young boys called Curious Crickets, meant to honor the creativity and wonder in boyhood.

Both of my children enjoy and thrive in cross gender friendships. These are crucial for the socialization with the opposite sex in their tween/teen years and beyond. We try to find positive media that equally respects boys and girls. My kids will see my husband wash dishes and fold laundry, and they will see me wrestle with the dogs and use tools and run my business. It is all about balance.

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 After reading ReelGirl’s ‘Notes to the babysitter‘  post on my ‘let them eat cake’ (for breakfast) approach to feeding my three daughters, Babble.com’s Madeline Holler blogs on strollerderby:

No bad food, no bad food, no bad food. Come on! Oreos are bad food!

But, she’s got an open mind:

I remember when my daughter was 3, a child development expert talked about how important that kids be able to have a food shelf that they have unfettered access to. I tried it, but (1) we lived in a super small place then, too — couldn’t spare a low drawer in the cabinets and (2) I copped out and put “good” crap in there that she wasn’t all that jazzed about (which I’m sure was exactly my plan!).

I know I need to share my kitchen, my shopping list and my food, and let my kids drive their own eating. We have very little junk in the house and lots of fresh stuff, which they like. Sure, my kids rave about junky sweets, etc., but they also ask for fruit to snack on, don’t blanch at whole grain pasta or bread and one even orders up lentils whenever she gets to pick what’s for dinner. All good!

So it’s really me who is in the way. I’m not particularly worried about eating disorders — whether or not I change my ways — but I think it can’t be anything but infantalizing for older kids to have to ask if they can have a popsicle. It’s got to start sometime. It might as well be now.

Like every parent, I’d love to see into the future and know if I’m making the right choices for my kids. All I know is that my decisions about food feel right for our family. Our meal times are peaceful, my kids eat lots of ‘healthy’ food, and are adventurous eaters. (My seven year old’s absolute favorite food is kimbap– do you know what that is? Read about it here.)

For me, it comes down to this: Can you imagine being told what to eat? And how much? What if you were in the mood for a crunchy salad but someone forced you to eat roasted chicken? What we choose to eat is so personal with many factors involved including how hungry we are, what we ate last, if it’s hot or cold outside, the list goes on. How could anyone possibly know what you ‘should’ eat but you?

I suppose following someone else’s orders about what to eat is exactly what a diet is. But could that be why we’re so screwed up about food? Because since day one we’ve been trained to have no clue how to listen and respond to our own bodies?

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Why write fiction?

I’ve always loved to, but I also felt like it didn’t matter as much. Writing about politics and culture is important. If you write about ‘issues,’ you can use your writing to change the world. Or try to. Making up stories might be fun but what’s the point?

Then I had three kids. Of course, I read my daughters stories, watch movies with them, and also, TV shows. I witness how the stories they listen to shape their imaginary play, how they dress, who their heroes are, the language they repeat, the art they make, and their own creative writing.

In her best-selling book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes extensively about children’s brain development, how babies don’t come into the world with fully formed minds that we, parents, are just supposed to observe and discover. Their brains are constantly being formed, rapidly growing and changing as they take in language, pictures, adult reactions, and all kinds of stimuli. Neurons fire in reaction, neural pathways are formed, and connections are created, assimilating the outside world to create the internal one.

So I’ve got to wonder: How might kids’ brains (and then, of course, adult brains) be different if the stories they were exposed to weren’t so dramatically and predominantly shaped by men?

If you ever doubt fiction is important in forming our deepest reality, beliefs, and actions, look at the most influential historical novel of all time: the Bible- not known for its female authors or kindness to women. We’re still fighting wars based on these ancient, repeated, and recycled stories.

One reason the stereotypes in kidlit are so sad is because we’re supposed to be experiencing fantasy, magical worlds. Yet, what we see, way too often, is the same sexism, depicted in cartoonlike proportions, that exists in the real world.

What would our world look like if most great artists, film directors, and novelists were women? And had been for thousands of years?

Here’s just one modern example of how reality shapes fiction and fiction shapes reality. Every year, Forbes Magazine does a survey on the richest imaginary characters. This year, the list includes tycoons like Scrooge McDuck, Richie Rich, Smaug (the dragon from J. R. R. Tolkein) Bruce Wayne (of Batman) and Mr. Monopoly.

Of the gender gap on the list, Forbes‘ Michale Noer writes:

“There are 14 male characters on the list and one female character on this year’s Fictional 15. Sadly, that’s not unusual. There are always women on the list, but too often, only one.

The highest-ranked woman ever was ‘Mom’ from the television show Futurama, who placed fourth in 2007, with a fictional net worth of 15.7 billion. Lara Croft, star of the Tomb Raider video games and movies has appeared on the Fictional 15 three times since 2005. There have never been more than two women on the list in a single year.

Our fictional reporters- the best in the business- have worked hard to rectify this gender imbalance, even breaking the Fictional 15 rules against folkloric characters (the Tooth Fairy appeared in 2010.) But the gap persists.

Some female characters are perennial candidates. Miss Havisham, the well-off spinster from Great Expectations, is considered every year and dismissed on the grounds that she simply isn’t rich enough. And at every fictional story meeting, someone is sure to nominate one of Disney’s princesses, usually Snow White or Ariel. One problem here is that you need to infer their wealth from the fact they live in castes and wear fancy dresses. They aren’t known for being rich within their fictional worlds the same way as C. Montgomery Burns or Bruce Wayne.”

Forbes‘ Caroline Howard gives this explanation:

“Why so few? The answer is quite simple: a small pool of candidates. For some reason, authors, screenwriters, directors, and comic book artists haven’t been creating many ultarich female characters. that is equally true for writers of yore, present and those tackling future or fantasy.

Kind like the real world. Look at the Forbes Worlds Billionaires list. A paltry 1.5 % are self-made women- 19 out of 1,210. And if we include heiresses and widows, that makes 103 ladies, or just 8.5%.”

Obviously, a crucial step towards ever achieving gender equality is imagining what it would look like. Does anyone know what that would be?

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Sugar In My Bowl, edited by Erica Jong, is a collection of essays and short fiction about female sexuality by writers like Julie Klam, Fay Weldon, Jennifer Weiner, and many others including me. The book is coming out June 14, but you can preorder it on Amazon.

Sugar In My Bowl

Gail Collins, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has a hilarious essay in the book that describes how her Catholic education warped her perceptions of sex.

She writes: “I was possibly one of the least sophisticated teenagers in the United States outside of Amish country, and although I knew the mechanics of how babies were made, I had not yet really come around to imagining that people actually did that kind of thing voluntarily.”

Until Collins was well past puberty, she believed that virginity was the same thing as being unmarried and was completely mystified by whatever was going on between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She warns that’s what can happen to a girl when she’s “taught about sex by women who didn’t have any.” That would be nuns, who, apparently, had all kinds of special insight into gender differences:

“Boys were not much more than little sex robots, and they could not be held responsible for their actions. Once, we were all called to assembly to hear Charles Keating, the head of the Citizens for Decent Literature (and future star of a huge savings-and-loan scandal), who told us the story of a young mother who went walking down the road with her two small children while she was wearing shorts. The sight of her naked legs so overwhelmed a passing motorist that he swerved off the road and killed both the kids. And it was all their mother’s fault. We were then asked to sign a pledge never to wear any kind of shorts, including the long Bermuda ones.”

In another great essay, novelist Min-Jin Lee writes that it wasn’t until her husband pointed out to her that she’d left sex out of her writing that she realized she had. Re-examining her literary heroines (and their creators) including Emma Bovary, Jane Eyre, and Hetty Sorrel, all scandalous for their day, Lee writes: “Looking backward at my betters made me realize that I was shy at best, cowardly at most. Okay, I was terrified to write about sex. Why?”

Lee, a Korean-American, traced part of her reticence back to a disappointing class she took in college called “Women’s Studies and Asian-American History and Literature” that didn’t inspire her quite as she’d hoped:

“Alas. In print and visual media Asian women were often hookers, mail-order brides, masseuses, porn stars, dragon ladies, submissive sex slaves, and yes, cartoon characters with long black hair, red lips, and racially improbable bosoms. Asian men were sinister gangsters, inscrutable businessmen, angry nerds, and scheming eunuchs. If Asian women were oversexual, then their brothers were asexual.”

Twenty years later, after her conversation with her husband, Lee googled “Asian women” and got 14 million hits, mostly sexual references in the same genre as her college course.

“I may see myself as a forty-two-year-old writer, mother, wife, and former lawyer, but fourteen million hits trumped my subjective reality.” This distortion changed Lee as a writer. From then on, “When relevant, I wrote about sex, even Asian pornography and date rape, because I wanted to be honest about what was significant inside and outside my world. For most of my adult life, I had been uncomfortable with my body- my racial and sexual envelope. This time, in my pages, I thought, maybe I can talk about how it is for me, and I wrote it down. If I had been angry about the lack of self-determination of Asian women’s bodies and lives, I had been staging a feeble and arrogant protest by refusing to write about sex.”

One of my favorite pieces in the anthology is by critic, novelist, and New Yorker contributor Daphne Merkin. Her essay– about how she abandoned a prestigious literary fellowship to pursue the magnetic lust of a summer romance– shows how sexual obsession colonized “all the available mental space in my head.”

My story is called “Light Me Up.” I wrote it because so many love stories, especially those with female protagonists, end with ‘happily ever after,’ when the girl gets the ring. I wanted to introduce a newlywed couple and then throw some scary challenges– involving sex, money, and a new baby– their way.

You can read an excerpt from Sugar In My Bowl here.

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In response to the current national dialogue on media and products for girls, New York Times writer Lisa Belkin generated a list of books with strong female role models.

On her blog, pigtailpals, Melissa Wardy points out that Belkin’s suggestions are dominated by princesses; better strong than weak ones, but what about the radical idea of books about girls with no princesses in them at all? Wardy says, “can we PLEASE not LIMIT femininity to princesses, even the kind that scrape their knees?” Check out Wardy’s book recs here.

I agree with Wardy and have a similar argument about the so-called brave princesses in modern movies. These girls make elaborate shows of independence, refusing to marry the guy they’re supposed to, but marriage is still the basis of entire plotlines– rebellion within the safest possible framework. Yawn! Boys in movies get to go off and have adventures. Why can’t girls do that too? This is a fantasy world, after all. If girls are this limited in dreamland, what does that say about their options in reality?

But here’s the challenge: as I rate books and media, there are many great books, but I often have issues with them, even the best ones! Maybe this is because behavior, once rewarded, is hard to kick. When I wrote critically in school, found and analyzed the ‘flaw,’ I got an A. Or maybe, being cranky and critical is my own personality flaw. Or maybe the problem is just that books are personal. When you start reading one, you enter into a relationship with it. There are few ‘perfect’ books and media for everyone (except maybe Hayao Miyazaki)

For example, I absolutely love C. S. Lewis and the whole Narnia series. I love it so much, I named my first daughter Lucy after the protagonist in the books. But the Jesus stuff in Lewis can be distracting. Also, Susan, the older sister, stops believing in Narnia when she hits puberty, starting to only to care about boys. This transition does not happen to the males in the book.

I named my second daughter Alice after you know who. I love this book, but Lewis Carroll, as we all know, had his issues with girls. As far as I can tell, his pathology doesn’t seep into the book or does it?

I love Harriet the Spy, but Harriet treats her friends so badly that parts of the book were difficult to read to my kid. She’s never experienced that level of negative social interaction; Harriet called her friends names my daughter didn’t even know (and now does) and there are also a bunch of class issues in the book. Harriet is super rich, she has a cook who she treats badly and a nanny who she treats badly, though at least the nanny can stick up herself.

Right after Harriet, we read Danny the Champion of the World who is so poor in contrast to Harriet. He lives in a one room house with his dad. No mom in this book.  The author, Roald Dahl is probably my favorite kids writer, his writing is so good, but he has very few girl characters in his books. When he does have them, like The Witches, a funny and brilliant book, the story can be outright misogynistic.  Still, I’d rather read Roald Dahl than a badly written fairy series that’s all about girls.

The point is: books are personal and that lists, by nature, are limited. The most important thing is that our kids are reading and to have an open dialogue with them about whatever that book is. Remember, the goal is to teach her to think critically so she can get straight As and then grow up to complain about everything just like her mom.

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This week’s People Magazine has a story about Julie Schenecker who shot her two kids in the head for being mouthy:

Not long ago, Calyx Schenecker, 16, returned  from a shopping expedition near her home in Tampa with a new pair of shorts. “They were the shortest things ever, like you could see her butt sticking out,” says Cathy Vann, a friend of Calyx’s mom, Julie. “Julie was like ‘I hope you saved your receipt because those are going right back.'” Calyx’s response? “She was stomping around the house screaming, “You’re jealous that you can’t wear these,” says Vann who witnessed the fight at the Schenecker’s  3,300 ft upscale Ashington Reserve gated community. And Julie? She gave as good as she got, saying things like, ‘People are going to call you a slut.’ ” Yet Vann was hardly shocked. “Every mom of a teenage daughter has these fights.”

I’m not saying that this kind of dialogue is so rare and unusual that Vann should’ve suspected that Schenecker was about to murder her children. But arguing over who looks better in short shorts and slut-shaming is normal mother-daughter behavior? I don’t have teenagers yet, but if that’s true, it’s sad.

This argument between Calyx and her mom is not about sex but about power. A power struggle is a totally normal part of adolescent rites of passage. Unfortunately, because males are still mostly the ones with the power, females are allowed to acquire their own power– in an extremely limited way– through their sexuality. If you decipher the code here, Calyx is telling her mom that she is powerful and her mom is telling her that she is not.

Women of all ages would be so much healthier, as would America by the way, if we weren’t all so mired in these twisted perceptions of female sexuality and power. But tragically, we are. So mired, in fact, as feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray argues, we have no clue what female sexuality actually is.

Can you imagine a father angrily warning his son that, if he wears a certain outfit, he’s going to get called a slut? Any neighbor overhearing that would be on the phone with 911 in two seconds, claiming dangerous insanity next door.

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Are you a pussy?

Read this and find out.  I wrote it for Salon in 2001.

 

You pussy!

If ever there was a word in need of rehab, it is this feline expletive reserved for wimps.

“What a pussy!” shouted my friend Joe. He was complaining to me about a business partner who backed out of a deal at the last minute. Joe wanted sympathy, but I was snagged on the word “pussy.”

The night before Joe’s outburst, I’d been channel surfing and caught Barbara Walters interviewing Jane Fonda about her performance in Eve Ensler’s wildly successful play, “The Vagina Monologues.”

“You can’t talk about vaginas,” Fonda said to Walters, “and not talk about this remarkable ability they have to give birth. It’s awesome. If penises could do what vaginas could do, they’d be on postage stamps. I mean, vaginas are absolutely extraordinary.”

Listening to Fonda, I thought, “We have come a long way, baby.” Just a few years ago, producers forbade actress Cybill Shepherd to utter the V-word on her own TV show. It was, they said, obscene.

I noted the further progress of female genitalia in mainstream media when I spotted fresh-faced actress Claire Danes sporting a “V-Day” T-shirt on the cover of March’s issue of Marie Claire, in which women like Brooke Shields, Marisa Tomei and Calista Flockhart were asked, among other things: If your vagina could talk, what would it say, and if it could wear clothes, what would it wear?

So pussy power was in the air when Joe launched his diatribe. Suddenly it struck me as wrong that the word “pussy” is used to imply cowardice or ineffectiveness. Why must we equate weakness with the female sex organ? Why have we for so long?

I began to wonder how one — how we — might take the wussy out of pussy.

Is it possible to change the meaning of the word, to restore to “pussy” its deserved glory? Could we use pussy as a compliment? Could pussy denote someone or something as cool or heroic or impressive? “Rosa Parks — what a pussy!” or “John McCain is way pussy!” or “New York is a big ol’ pussy!”

At the moment, “pussy” isn’t even used to slight women directly. It is reserved for men, used among them to make fun of one another. It’s “sissy” for male heteros. It’s the politically correct big boy’s way of calling somebody a fag. And, please, don’t get me started on “pussy-whipped.”

People say “dick,” they say “asshole,” they say “prick,” but they do it with respect. Those words have power and punch, the way the word “cunt” has power. But “cunt” makes people shudder; they judge, perhaps wrongly, the user of the word. Meanwhile, poor “pussy” lies there limp, pathetic and, until this moment, defenseless.

Ensler does a fabulous soliloquy to “cunt” in “The Vagina Monologues.” Perched on a stool in her black cocktail dress, barefoot, throwing back her head, shaking her Louise Brooks haircut, she says the word “cunt” for about 10 minutes, obviously relishing each repetition. But what does she say about pussy? If she said anything, I couldn’t remember. Is pussy so forgettable?

To find answers — and to solicit allies in rehabilitating the word — I went to novelist and essayist Erica Jong, a pioneer in reclaiming language in her own writing, and a recent star of “The Vagina Monologues.”

Jong told me that there are, in fact, a couple of references to pussy in the “Monologues,” though they’re mostly humorous, such as “Don’t let him tell you it smells like roses when it’s supposed to smell like pussy!”

She thinks changing the popular meaning of the word is possible. “If we use it with positive intent, it will become positive,” she said. “I really don’t know how long it will take. Language changes, but changes slowly. It depends on the usage — whether the new connotation catches on.”

Jong warned it wouldn’t be easy. “My feeling is that we’re on the verge of reclaiming ‘cunt,’ a fine old Middle English word, but we’re not there yet with ‘pussy,'” said Jong. “Pussy remains humorous, if not insulting. At the moment pussy is a laugh word. It always gets them rolling on the floors in ‘Vagina.'”

Jong suggested I go to the vagina mama herself, Ensler, to ask her advice.

“I like the sound of ‘pussy,'” Ensler told me, smiling. “I think it’s a good word.”

She agreed that it’s different from cunt. “A cunt is someone who dreams the big dream. You are ambitious. You want to go the distance.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, she told me, is a cunt.

Pussy, she said, is more personal. “Pussy is wet, juicy and inviting. It could be used as a word of empowerment or honor. It’s a feisty word. There’s a little fear, a little danger there — you better be nice if you want my pussy.”

Pussy has so much potential, it’s a shame to limit it to the immature and derisive mocking of weak boys. Let’s give it a shot in the arm! I envision hit songs featuring “pussy” — “Who Let the Pussies Out?” or “The Real Slim Pussy” or “The Real Shady Pussy.” Hallmark-type cards that read “Thanks for being such a pussy!” Colloquial expressions: “You da pussy!” “Stand up and fight like a pussy!”

And when, and if, Joe consummates his next business deal, I’ll be there to toast him, saying, “You’re so pussy.”

Flattered, he’ll smile.

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Just after tennis player Kim Clijsters beat her opponent in the Australian open, she scored a major victory for the women of the world.

After the game, when Clijsters went on camera with courtside interviewer Todd Woodbridge, she confronted him about a nasty text message he sent about her.

“You thought I was pregnant?” she said in front of 38,000 people, many more watching on TV. “I’m not.” Clijsters turned to the audience. “Let me say what was written in the message– she looks really grumpy and her boobs are bigger.”

Wow! Outside of bad reality TV, I’ve never seen a woman on camera directly confront a man for calling her fat! Not only that, when Clijsters was speaking she seemed happy, victorious, and beautiful. Instead of being humiliated by a guy making fun of her body, Clijsters turned the shame where it belonged, on the one who made the comment instead of the recipient and that is a huge win for women.

Whether you happen to be Hillary Clinton or a high school student, having someone make fun of your appearance, or even just the threat of it, has been an effective way to keep females quiet and in their place. The ‘ugly feminist’ and ‘dumb beauty queen’ are caricatures, flip sides of the same coin, both images relentlessly telling women: you can’t be strong and pretty, so make your choice. And, by the way girls, here’s a hint on which way you should go– women get power in our culture by being attractive to men, so if you risk trying to get powerful some other way, you may lose your power!

Another cool thing about this story– it was another female player who got the text from Woodbridge and exposed it to Clijsters. No catfight here. Most likely, not the reaction Woodbridge was expecting. What would happen if women refused to call each other fat? So often, we are are the ones acting out on our training to keep each other down by judging and rating each others appearances. Our competitive drives get funneled into socially acceptable and non-threatening to men stakes like beauty, boys, and popularity.

By calling out a ‘mean guy’ for his nasty gossip, Clijsters shook up stereotypes about women and men, also teaching us all a lesson: don’t trashtalk! Another cool thing about her– when she was actually pregnant, she ‘retired’ from tennis only to successfully return to competition a year later, showing the world that moms can be tennis stars.

Sometimes a victory speech isn’t just a victory speech. Here’s to hoping more women get the mike and change the world.

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Lots of comments on my last post about Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and that no matter how no matter how hard parents try, girls and boys adamantly refuse to be nudged out of their prescribed (marketed!) gender roles.

 

Orenstein elaborates on this challenge in her book: right around ages 2 -3, kids begin to understand that there’s something called a ‘boy’ and something thing called a ‘girl ‘and that something important differentiates between them. The problem is, they’re not sure what that is. Orenstein writes, “The whole penis-vagina thing does not hold quite the same cachet among the wee ones as it does among us.”

Orenstein recounts a story about a kid, Jeremy, who wore his favorite barrettes to school and was taunted by another kid who said, “You’re a girl!”

Jeremy denied it, arguing that he had a penis and testicles. The classmate replied, “Everyone has a penis, only girls wear barrettes.”

Orenstein asks: “If toting the standard equipment is not what makes you male or female, exactly what does? Well, duh, barrettes.”

Making things evermore complicated, kids at this age also don’t understand that identity is fixed, a girl might grow up to be a dad or a mom. All this ‘slippery stuff’ can make a kid nervous– if she cuts her hair too short, she could turn into a boy!

Orenstein quotes the neuroscientist, Lise Eliot, author ofPink Brain, Blue Brain: “The prefrontal cortex of the brain is what looks to the future, and that’s the slowest part to develop. Another example would be death: young children have a very hard time understanding that a pet or a person who has died is gone forever. They may listen to what you say and seem to get it, but secretly, they believe it can change.”

(Note: I feel the same way about death– eek!)

Orenstein says kids’ solution at this stage is often to “cling rigidly to the rules and hope for the best.” Lucky for them– the Disney Princess marketing machine is here to help! Orenstein writes, “Developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they’re girls.”

There’s no simple solution here, but plenty to think about, the main question being, when your child is looking for an identity, do you want the Disney executives to be the ones suggesting it to her?

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