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I emailed this to the editor of the New York Times piece “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress” today, though so far the New York Times email isn’t working for me and the one I made up, last name @nytimes.com isn’t working for me either. I emailed something similar to the “corrections” department yesterday, which you send in the same way you post a comment.

Dear Ms. Titunik,

In the New York Times post “What’s So Bad About A Boy Who Wants To Wear A Dress,” journalist Ruth Padawer writes:

“Of course, had Alex been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no e-mail to parents would have been necessary; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt.”

Kids and adults do much more than “raise an eyebrow” when young girls stray from gender norms. Stories that received a great deal of media attention about pressuring  girls include Katie, the girl who was bullied for bringing her beloved Star Wars lunch box to school, “a boy thing;” and more recently, Our Lady of Sorrows baseball team forfeited a championship rather than play a girl. You can find the links to those stories on my blog Reel Girl which I created, as the mom of three young daughters, in response to that “raised eyebrow.”

As in those two stories above, the pressure for girls to conform often comes through bullying, but it can also be more subtle as well. That subtlety makes the sexism more insidious and harder to call out and change. For the New York Times to print “no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt,” in a story about gender no less, is untrue and irresponsible.

Margot Magowan
Reel Girl

The reason this is so important to me is because the gendering of childhood is everywhere.

Just today A Mighty Girl posted about boy and girl magnets/ words:

All we can say to this one is WOW — in case girls and boys had any confusion as to what their appropriate interests should be, these gender-divided magnet sets will help clarify matters. According to this toy manufacturer, “boy words” include bike, swinging, forest, caterpillar and swimming while “girl worlds” include lipstick, jewels, clothes, glitter and dancing. How very limiting for both girls and boys!

Children are segregated; without recognizing the Jim Crow in kidworld, it’s impossible to have a real discussion about gender.

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The New York Times piece on gender-fluid kids reinforces so many stereotypes, I’ve got to go through them.

Let’s start with sentence #1:

The night before Susan and Rob allowed their son to go to preschool in a dress, they sent an e-mail to parents of his classmates. Alex, they wrote, “has been gender-fluid for as long as we can remember, and at the moment he is equally passionate about and identified with soccer players and princesses, superheroes and ballerinas (not to mention lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows).”

Here, the writer, Ruth Padawer, sets up a series of stereotyped binary/ boy-girl opposites: soccer players and princesses, superheroes and ballerinas, lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows. I waited for her to explore any reasons why our culture promotes this symbology. Unfortunately, I waited for the whole article.

Why are princesses considered to be the epitome of femininity? Could it, perhaps, have little do with with genes and everything to do with the fact that perpetuating the image of a passive, “pretty” female  is popular in a patriarchal culture? Just maybe?

A few more sentences down:

Some days at home he wears dresses, paints his fingernails and plays with dolls; other days, he roughhouses, rams his toys together or pretends to be Spider-Man.

Most kids on Planet Earth would paint their fingernails if they weren’t told and shown by grown-ups that it’s a “girl thing.” Nail polish has nothing to do with penises or vulvas or genes, or even anything as deep and profound as “”gender fluidity.” To kids, nail polish is art play, brushes and paint. That’s it. Oh, right, art is for girls. Unless you’re a famous artist whose paintings sell for the most possible amount of money. Then art is for boys.

On an email that Alex’s parents sent to his school:

Of course, had Alex been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no e-mail to parents would have been necessary; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt.

What? Does this writer have young daughters? Has Padawer heard about the boy’s baseball team from Our Lady of Sorrows that recently forfeited rather than play a girl? Or what about Katie, the girl who was bullied just because she brought her Star Wars lunch box, a “boy thing,” to school?  Does Padawer know Katie’s experience isn’t unusual? How rare it is to find a girl today who isn’t concerned that a Spider-Man shirt (or any superhero shirt or outfit) is boyish and that she’ll be teased if she wears it? My whole blog, Reel Girl, is about that “raised eyebrow.” Has Padawer seen summer’s blockbuster movie “The Avengers” with just one female to five male superheroes? The typical female/ male ratio? Or how “The Avengers” movie poster features the female’s ass? Think that might have something to do with why females care more than males about how their asses are going to look?  You can see the poster here along with the pantless Wonder Woman. Does Padawer get or care that our kids are surrounded by these kinds of images in movies and toys and diapers and posters every day? How can Padawer practically leave sexism out of a New York Times piece 8 pages long on gender?

First sentence of paragraph 3: (Yes, we’re only there.)

There have always been people who defy gender norms.

No way! You’re kidding me. Like women who wanted to vote? Women who didn’t faint in the street?

Moving on to page 2:

Gender-nonconforming behavior of girls, however, is rarely studied, in part because departures from traditional femininity are so pervasive and accepted.

Um, wrong again. Been to a clothing store for little kids recently? Ever tried to buy a onesie for a girl with a female pilot on it? Or a female doing anything adventurous? Check out Pigtail Pals, one of the few companies that dares to stray from “pervasive and accepted” femininity. One of the few. And we’re talking toddlers here.

The studies that do exist indicate that tomboys are somewhat more likely than gender-typical girls to become bisexual, lesbian or male-identified, but most become heterosexual women.

Is the writer really writing a piece on gender fluid kids and using the word “tomboy” without irony?

Next page:

Still, it was hard not to wonder what Alex meant when he said he felt like a “boy” or a “girl.” When he acted in stereotypically “girl” ways, was it because he liked “girl” things, so figured he must be a girl? Or did he feel in those moments “like a girl” (whatever that feels like) and then consolidate that identity by choosing toys, clothes and movements culturally ascribed to girls?

Hard not to wonder. Exactly! Finally, the writer wonders. But, not for long. Here’s the next sentence:

Whatever the reasoning, was his obsession with particular clothes really any different than that of legions of young girls who insist on dresses even when they’re impractical?

Once again, I’ve got to ask: Does Padawer have a young daughter? Legions of young girls “insist on dresses” because like all kids, they want attention. Sadly, girls get a tremendous amount of attention from grown-ups for how they look. Today, my three year old daughter wanted to wear a princess dress to preschool, because she knew that if she did, the parents and teachers would say, “Wow, you’re so pretty! I love your dress.” And if it’s not a girl’s dress everyone focuses on, it could be her hair, or perhaps her shoes which are probably glittery or shiny or have giant flowers on them because that’s what they sell at Target and Stride Rite. Unfortunately, focusing on appearance is how most adults today make small talk with three year old girls.

The next two graphs are the best in the article so I will paste them in full, though notice the use of “tomboy” again with no irony.

Whatever biology’s influence, expressions of masculinity and femininity are culturally and historically specific. In the 19th century, both boys and girls often wore dresses and long hair until they were 7. Colors weren’t gendered consistently. At times pink was considered a strong, and therefore masculine, color, while blue was considered delicate. Children’s clothes for both sexes included lace, ruffles, flowers and kittens. That started to change in the early 20th century, writes Jo Paoletti, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America.” By then, some psychologists were arguing that boys who identified too closely with their mothers would become homosexuals. At the same time, suffragists were pushing for women’s advancement. In response to these threatening social shifts, clothes changed to differentiate boys from their mothers and from girls in general. By the 1940s, dainty trimming had been purged from boys’ clothing. So had much of the color spectrum.

Women, meanwhile, took to wearing pants, working outside the home and playing a wider array of sports. Domains once exclusively masculine became more neutral territory, especially for prepubescent girls, and the idea of a girl behaving “like a boy” lost its stigma. A 1998 study in the academic journal Sex Roles suggests just how ordinary it has become for girls to exist in the middle space: it found that 46 percent of senior citizens, 69 percent of baby boomers and 77 percent of Gen-X women reported having been tomboys.

The piece is riddled with more gender assumptions that aren’t questioned.

When Jose was a toddler, his father, Anthony, accepted his son’s gender fluidity, even agreeing to play “beauty shop.”

But why is beauty shop feminine? We all know beauty toys and products are marketed to girls, but why? Here’s that Avengers ass poster again. In a male dominated world, women are valued primarily for their appearance. They are taught to focus on how they look and that if they do so they can get power and prestige. Appearance is the area where girls are trained to channel their ambition and competition. Oh, sorry, girls aren’t competitive or ambitious. That’s a boy thing.

On gender fluid child, P.J., the author writes:

Most of the time, he chooses pants that are pink or purple.

Wait a minute, didn’t she write a few pages back about Jo Poletti’s book Pink and Blue? Remember, pink used to be a “boy” color; it’s only recently that it’s perceived as a “girl” color?

Here might be the most fucked up quote:

When a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender?

When Miss Representation posted that on its Facebook page  above the link to the the article, angry commenters immediately began to respond:

i am NOT the lesser gender!
why can’t people see how insulting that is? i mean, who would *openly* call a race or ability or sexual orientation “lesser” and not largely be considered a bigot?

It was that comment that inspired me to write this post, because the whole piece is insulting to girls and women. I hope it’s insulting to boys and men as well.

Read my email to the New York Times editor here.

Read my response to comments on this post here.

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The New York Times is reporting on it! It must be a serious issue, right?

From Cinderella Ate My Daughter’s awesome author Peggy Orenstein:

Every experience, every interaction, every activity — when they laugh, cry, learn, play — strengthens some neural circuits at the expense of others, and the younger the child the greater the effect. Consider: boys from more egalitarian homes are more nurturing toward babies. Meanwhile, in a study of more than 5,000 3-year-olds, girls with older brothers had stronger spatial skills than both girls and boys with older sisters.

At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.

Read the rest here.

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About-Face is a San Francisco based non-profit whose mission “is to equip women and girls with tools to understand and resist harmful media messages that affect self-esteem and body image.” About-Face has received all kinds of recognition for its great work. Most recently, as you can witness all around San Francisco, teenage girls in About-Face’s programs led a project to put “static-cling” stickers on dressing room mirrors with empowering messages such as “YOU: absolutely no Photoshopping necessary.” This effort is going national and was just featured in O The Oprah Magazine.

Jennifer Berger, Exceutive Director of About-Facehttp://www.sfgate.com 

Jennifer Berger, Executive Director of About-Face, “Quit Playing Barbie” shirt available at About-Face

Jennifer Berger is the Executive Director. This is my interview with her:

What is the main challenge for About-Face right now?

There’s awareness of media’s impact on girls and women’s sense of self-worth and some notable positive examples, but not enough action to really create change. And somehow most people seem to think that sexism is over. We can hear about celebrities who admit that they have had eating disorders, or that they feel pressure about their weight or appearance, but they aren’t going so far as encouraging an improvement of the system itself. And Lane Bryant’s lingerie commercial does something positive for women of size and challenges fatphobia. But that needs to be more than a one-off campaign here and there. About-Face is leading the charge in terms of actually changing culture. Awareness is awesome: action is better.

I blogged about Lane Bryant — I was happy to see another body image on TV and shocked that network executives were so offended by real breasts that they censored that commercial, but I was not so psyched about the whole idea that larger women can be exploited on TV too! Yay! Getting women of all sizes in the Victoria’s Secret show is not a goal of mine. I don’t get the whole fat women beauty contest thing, like Mo’Nique hosted a few years ago. I don’t think that’s empowering.

I have to agree with you. This need for women (and now men) to compete against each other around beauty is so ancient but so useless right now. I would like to see us all walk around, with both men and women finding beauty in each other’s diverse shapes and sizes. Another vision is for us to simply not be so concerned about outer beauty as a culture.

I love how About-Face is action based. Instead of just criticizing and reacting, About-Face is actually doing something to create change. What are some of your projects?

Our Gallery of Offenders, where we give addresses and tips on writing productive complaint letters, is the most visited part of our web site. It’s really interesting to look at and fun to put together.

Activism is at the heart of About-Face, so our major method of creating change is our Take Action groups, where we inspire and enable teenagers to take action in their own ways. The girls come up with all of the ideas for their action, and we help them make it happen. One group created these awesome static-cling decals for fitting rooms and then slapped them up all over San Francisco. There’s a great video on our web site.

Of course, that kind of brazen activism isn’t for everyone, and we introduce the idea of media-literacy and critical analysis in classrooms all school year long. This past school year, we worked with 1,200 young women and young men in schools and we’ve seen some fantastic results.

Panasonic ad from About-Face's Gallery of WinnersPanasonic ad from About-Face’s Gallery of Winners 

About-Face was recently mentioned in O The Oprah Magazine. What do you think of Oprah’s public battles with her weight and numerous talk shows on the topic?

As we all know, Oprah has had a problem with her feelings about her weight for years and years, probably brought on by the intense media scrutiny she experienced earlier in her career. She’s a woman whose natural weight is probably on the heavier side, but she’s in the spotlight constantly, so she feels the pressure so intensely. Every time there was a fashion designer on with models, she’d make a comment about how she could never fit into those clothes. It made it OK for women everywhere to hate their bodies because Oprah did.

Last year, in a show in January 2009, I think it all came to a head when she announced on her show that she had “fallen off the wagon” as far as controlling her weight. It was like she said, “I’ve been so bad, and if you’ve been bad too, you can understand, right?” Personally, I sat on the couch and cried while watching that show. Here was the most powerful woman in our culture, arguably, saying she STILL wasn’t good enough. And the cover of her magazine showed the current Oprah standing next to the skinny Oprah. It was like she smacked herself in the face!

But in a recent show in mid-May and in her magazine, she interviewed Geneen Roth, author of the book Women, Food, and God, and seemed to have a revelatory breakthrough around weight. Oprah blew me away when she said, “What I realize when I look at that cover is that I publicly shamed myself. And in that cover, what I was saying is that the thin me deserves all the praise and the accolades. The thin me deserves to be loved, but the fat me does not…It’s your own self-loathing that does that.”

I have hope for Oprah and her own healing. I support her all the way, but I would love to see her also help shape our culture in a way that incites us to accept ourselves as we are.

Ad for Element skateboard's from About-Face's gallery of WinnersAd for Element skateboard’s from About-Face’s Gallery of Winners 

What do you think about Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity campaign?

Yeah, I’m glad you asked that, because I worry that my answer to the previous question sounds like I think health is not important. The concerns around the “obesity epidemic” are around health, and we are concerned about health, too. But physical health only comes from mental health. Self-acceptance leads to healthier behaviors, because you love yourself more and treat yourself with respect.

Our message is to encourage girls and women to see themselves from the inside out, not from the outside in. That is, eat and exercise healthily because you have respect for yourself and your body, not because you want to get thin or avoid being fat.

Did you see, a few weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times cover story on obese moms delivering unhealthy babies? I was thinking: that’s just what overweight women need to hear– you’re bad moms too!

I’m not an expert on OB/GYN issues, but when we see a statement like this, from the New York Times article, we should pick it apart and be fully informed:

“And medical evidence suggests that obesity might be contributing to record-high rates of Caesarean sections and leading to more birth defects and deaths for mothers and babies.”

And unfortunately, there could be some avoidance of fat women happening among doctors. I have heard more than one OB/GYN say to me directly that they don’t want to deal with an obese woman. Could the doctors be deciding to do C-sections because they don’t want to “deal” with a woman’s body that is unwieldy for the medical staff? That’s just a guess on my part, but my point is that we need to look at all sides of this issue and really challenge our own beliefs.

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Yesterday, The New York Times reported on an exciting, potential political candidate with a stellar resume. Which of these two photos do you think appeared on the paper’s front page?

Diana Taylor and Michael Bloomberghttp://www.nytimes.com 

Diana Taylor’s career began as an investment banker with Smith Barney; she then became superintendent of banking under Gov Pataki, emerging as a prescient watchdog who predicted the mortgage crisis; she was chair of Action, a leading microfinance lender which has distributed more than 23 million worldwide, and since last July, has been a member of the board of directors of Citigroup.

But New York Times readers don’t learn any of this information about Taylor’s credentials on the front page of the paper. Reading through this muddled article, whenever I found an actual fact on Taylor’s career, I felt the kind of joy of discovery I see my on my kids faces during a scavenger hunt.

It’s not only the cover photo of Taylor in evening wear with her boyfriend, the Mayor of New York, along with the late placement of her substantial qualifications, but the language of the article that continually sexualizes and trivializes Taylor’s ambition and her candidacy.

The headline reads: “She has the Mayor by her Side, But Politics is Wooing Her, Too.” When has politics ever “wooed” a male candidate? When considering a senatorial bid a few years ago, this dreamy lady “muses” what kind of “relationship” she’d have with then senator Chuck Schumer. Bill Paxon, former congressman, recalls a “previously undisclosed meeting…at the Ritz Carlton hotel,” but details of Taylor’s “flirtation” with the senate run have “remained hidden.” Is this a story about a tryst or a political career?

When The Times finally gets to reporting on Taylor’s professional history, page A-3, she “mixes” with global leaders, sounding as if she were flitting about various soirees. Describing her position as chair of Action, there is no quote from Taylor from that time, but instead rockstar, Bono, saying: “Diana, you know how I feel about you. But don’t tell the mayor.”

Isn’t the New York Times supposed to be a bastion of the liberal media elite and sensitive to sexism? I guess when it comes to reporting on women, the only party that matters is the kind you dress up for and running for office is just like dating.

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At first, it seems like just good news. Sunday’s New York Times reports that actresses with too much plastic surgery are losing parts in favor of more natural looking women.

In small but significant numbers, filmmakers and casting executives are beginning to re-examine Hollywood’s attitude toward breast implants, Botox, collagen-injected lips and all manner of plastic surgery.

Television executives at Fox Broadcasting, for example, say they have begun recruiting more natural looking actors from Australia and Britain because the amply endowed, freakishly young-looking crowd that shows up for auditions in Los Angeles suffers from too much sameness.”I think everyone either looks like a drag queen or a stripper,” said Marcia Shulman, who oversees casting for Fox’s scripted shows…

…Moviemakers prefer actresses with natural breasts for costume dramas and period films. So much so that when the Walt Disney Company recently advertised for extras for the new “Pirates” film, the casting call specified that only women with real breasts need apply. “

Without a doubt, it’s better for women if Hollywood is truly trending natural as opposed to favoring and rewarding rewarding pastic surgery victims like 23 year old Frankenwoman Heidi Montag (who was widely reported to have had 10 procedures in one day.)

But still, there’s something smug and disturbing about this NY Times article and the Hollywood casting agents quoted in it. Actresses are being advertised for and then cast based on their breasts. No one mentions that the underlying, unfortunate issue here isn’t really what kind of breasts happen to be stylish, fake or natural (and I’m not sure “costume” dramas and period pieces qualify as “in”), but Hollywood’s unrelenting focus on female body parts. Movies are a visual form, of course looks matter. But the literal dissection, “trendiness,” and evaluation of women’s bodies is unsettling. Whatever happened to talent?

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