“Pretty” is the Wrong Question

imagesCASDTSYLWhen I was in fourth grade, the boys made a list of the ten prettiest girls in the class. My best friend was number one. Though I was not on the list at all, I don’t remember being terribly upset. Being one of three non-white girls in the class, I hadn’t expected to make the list. My parents told me that I was beautiful every day, but even at the age of nine, I understood that there were different standards of beauty in different environments. At home I might be beautiful, but at school pretty and me didn’t even fit in the same sentence. In some ways not being pretty freed me. I was able to be the funny one, the fast runner, the flexible gymnast, the one who wrote stories.

In other ways, though, it made me feel less than the girls who had made the list. The fact that there even was such a list made me start thinking about “pretty”—the thing I was not. In fact, this list may have been one little brick out of many that built my road to an eating disorder.

Today these boys would be considered bullies, now that the definition has expanded to include all those who put down and victimize in ways to which they themselves are not susceptible. At the time, however, they were only making “personal observations.” I like to think that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that they were simply oblivious to their power.

In any case, the list popped into my mind while I was reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times. It involved a girl with poor body image and a fragile sense of self, a YouTube video and some brutal comments from angry, mean-spirited people. The result wasn’t, but could well have been, tragic.

In the New York Times article, Tell Me What You See, Even if it Hurts Me,  by Douglas Quenqua, a thirteen-year-old girl turned to YouTube to answer a burning question: Am I Ugly or Pretty? The responses she got ranged from positive to brutally honest, to downright cruel. Another girl posting a similar video received a comment recommending suicide.

Thankfully, the girl didn’t take that dire advice, but another child might have. We all know that cyber bullying has led more than a few targets to take their own lives. The internet allows anyone—of any description, any position, any age—to be a co-conspirator.

In my day (we’re talking the 1970’s and 1980’s), you knew who the mean kids were. They name-called, stuck signs on people’s backs, sent notes with nasty messages, played tricks, and made crank phone calls. They tripped people the cafeteria or stole their clothes during gym. They made exclusive lists. These were awful things at the time, but they seem quaint and cliché—the stuff of John Hughes’s films—compared with what today’s bullies can dish out with the click of a mouse.

Pre-internet, anything a mean kid (or adult) did could be traced back to the perpetrator with minimal effort. Victims might keep quiet for fear of retaliation, but they knew the faces and names of those who picked on them. Today’s bullies have the luxury of total anonymity. A clever username, a cute cartoon character or slick silhouette image masks anyone’s identity. The comments section serves as an arena to tear down the self concept of anyone who dares venture in. The “haters” are a group anyone can join with no ID card, and more importantly, no consequences.

What hasn’t changed—despite our efforts, as parents, educators, therapists and bloggers, despite Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—is the abundance of young girls with poor self images, who seek approval from the most questionable sources.

I looked and found, as Quenqua reports, that there is a proliferation of “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube. Some of the girls look as young as nine, imploring viewers: “Be honest, I can take it.” While some comments are supportive—for example, “U R beautiful. It doesn’t matter what other people think”—other comments are pretty ruthless. One compares the subject to human excrement, another says, “Yes U R ugly, plz die.”

This directed at eight- to fifteen-year-old girls. You might ask, what did these kids expect? This kind of query, posed on the internet, is an open invitation to the most vile among us. Why would anyone post something like this? Because these girls are young, because they are afraid to ask people close to them—afraid to hear lies or truth from those whose faces they know—and because they think an objective opinion from strangers will reassure them, rather than feeding their fears of inadequacy.

I remember the self-doubt of being thirteen. By that time I’d moved beyond the list from fourth grade. For better or for worse, pretty no longer felt unattainable. But suddenly looks mattered more—for more reasons. I remember asking those questions. Do I look bad? Do I look fat? When you are a dancer, as I was, you stare in the mirror for hours each day, constantly checking for—and attempting to correct—flaws. What you see starts to play tricks on you. Whether you approve or disapprove of your image depends on your mood. How many times did I say to a friend—or have that friend say to me,

“I can’t tell what I look like any more. Am I hideous?”

Of course we knew we weren’t hideous but we needed constant reassurance. We were young and driven; our bodies were changing and so were our perceptions of ourselves and the world. We were also ashamed—not just of our bodies—but of this very need to hear that we were okay. That’s why “Am I pretty?” was the kind of question a self-worth-doubting young girl would pose only to a close, trusted friend. Maybe to her mother or sister.

Now, girls turn to the internet—the anonymous, opinionated majority—with their most intimate questions and confessions. The sharks are ready and waiting.

As a therapist and writer, I always seek to understand the motivation behind bad behavior. I do not believe that anyone is innately evil. Nevertheless, there are some people out there who are always in the market for a victim on whom to work out their own personal rage against the world. The internet empowers the inventive cruelty of these cowards. Again and again their victims are young, vulnerable girls.

It’s up to all of us—parents, teachers, therapists, all responsible adults—to stop the cycle of damage. That means teaching our children to love who they are—which sounds hokey, but it’s essential—not what they look like.  I’d love to take each of these self-flagellating video-makers aside and ask her, “Who are you really? What matters to you besides how you look? What do you love to do? Do you play sports? Music? Write poems? Make your friends laugh?”

Those are the questions we need to encourage these girls to ponder. Not “Am I pretty?”

I’m not saying appearance doesn’t matter. I know there have been numerous studies suggesting that good-looking people have better lives—get treated better, make more money—than so-called unattractive people. But are those studies—which measure inborn physical gifts as opposed to aspects of ourselves that we can control—helpful to anyone? Instead of encouraging our daughters to present themselves nicely, let’s teach them to embrace who they are as individuals. Let’s take time to learn who they are for ourselves while we’re at it.

Here are some ideas to get your daughter’s mind off “pretty”:

  • Don’t fuss over your daughter’s clothes or hair more than she does. (It took me years to learn this. I think I got there in time. I could fill a whole post with that lesson, but I am honoring my daughter’s request that I stop blogging about her.)
  • Encourage activities that capitalize on something other than the physical: coding, robotics, music, writing.
  • Encourage sports, which emphasize what the body can do more than how it looks doing it.
  • If she dances, or acts, or does anything stage-related, compliment her on the achievement; don’t focus on her appearance. (With dance, you can say, “you danced beautifully,” which celebrates the images she creates with her body, but not her body itself. It’s a fine but important line).
  • If your daughter asks you if she is pretty, tell her she is beautiful inside and out.
  • Then ask why she is asking. It could open the door to an important conversation. Is someone bullying her—cyber or otherwise? Did someone make a hurtful list? Did someone criticize her in a deeply painful way? Open the floodgates. Have the discussion. It just might save her years of self doubt. It might save her life.

Not Everyone will Like You–and That’s OK.

Yesterday, which happened to be Father’s Day, I was invited to give the keynote address at the Annual Empowerment Celebration at a wonderful organization called Sister to Sister, which provides professional women in my town with an opportunity to mentor teenage girls aspiring to college and careers 

I decided to post the body of my talk because even though it was aimed at high school girls, I think it fits here. The theme is knowing and liking who you are, regardless of how others may feel about you.

 

??????????????????????????????????????This is June, a season of moving up, moving on, graduating, saying good bye—if only for the summer. It’s a good time to say to yourself—so what is next? What is next for me and how can I make the best of it without getting sidetracked by negative influences, without listening to people who might bring me down and stand in my way?

So in the spirit of father’s day, I’m going to share with you a piece of wisdom my dad gave me.

I was about ten at the time, and I had a lot of friends. Kids liked me, because I was silly and made them laugh. Grown ups liked me because I knew when to stop being silly and at least look like I was paying attention. Things went along pretty well until I went to Gymnastics camp and I had to room with two of my teammates who were a little older than me. These girls, Cece and Lila, they didn’t let me hang out with them, they made fun of me for being homesick, and when I finally made another friend, they made fun of her voice and made us both feel bad. Since I’d made another friend, camp got okay, but I still lived with Cece and Lila; I still dealt with their meanness every day.

Well, when I got home, I didn’t say anything to my parents about it at first. Then one night, in tears, I told my dad. We’d been talking about something else and I just unloaded on him. I didn’t usually talk to him about social drama, that was mom’s area. I don’t remember why I used him as a sounding board this time, but I did. Anyway, Dad listened carefully to my story, thought it over, and finally laid one on me.

“Not everyone,” he said, “is going to like you.”

Well. As you can imagine, this piece of information came as quite a shock. I was not accustomed to this kind of candor. I was used to my mom, who would have reassured me that no one meant me any harm, that I must have misunderstood their intentions. Not Dad. He got it. These girls did not like me and I would have to live with that, because sometimes there is just no changing someone’s view of who they think you are.

Dad wanted me to understand that who Cece and Lila thought I was didn’t matter. Cece and Lila themselves didn’t matter. What did matter was who I thought I was and those girls should have no bearing on that. I would never have Cece and Lila for friends, but I did have me. And as long as I liked who I was, I was going to be okay.

The thing is, to like who you are, you have to know who you are. What does that mean—to know who you are? It’s more than, hi I’m Jessica, I’m from Montclair, my mother’s family is from Trinidad and my father is African American and Irish. It’s more than I play the cello and I’m allergic to peanuts and I’m with T.J.. It’s way, way more than I’m with T.J. Sure, those things are part of it, part of who you are, but they don’t define you unless you want them to.

Who you are is what you love, what matters most to you, what you won’t stand for, and what you will always stand up for. It’s what you are passionate about, what you dream of, but also the little parts of your personal reality. I don’t like crowds, I get insomnia if I drink coffee, chocolate makes me happy. No one can change those parts of you unless you want to change them.

Who you are comes from within (that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true). How you feel inside, what you want in your heart, that sixth sense you have when something is not right for you. That voice that helps you decide between what feels good right now—like someone else’s approval—and what is going to lead to something good for you long term, like working hard in school.

A girl once came to me for therapy. This was about ten years ago. She was in a pretty good state over all. Got along with family, did well in school, but she was lonely. She liked going out and meeting new people, she loved to dance at parties, but since she didn’t drink or smoke weed, she never got invited to any. She did have friends at school, girls who didn’t drink or smoke, but they had no interest in parties. So her choices were either start drinking or else be bored. I’d like to say she joined a club where she found kids who were like her, but she didn’t find that until college. MHS is bit—you don’t always find everyone who is there. She dealt with parties where kids made fun of her for not drinking, or she hung out with the girls who didn’t like to dance. Still, she remained true to herself, and found ways to be happy in this. She knew who she was and had to be true to that.

More recently, I knew another girl who really liked this guy. They got together at a party and sort of became a couple. I say sort of, because in my day, you were going out, but I know the rules and definitions are different now. Anyway, she was with him for a while—just hanging out, kissing, but no sex. He wasn’t pressuring her at first, but after a few months, he started to and she started to feel like she should. And did, though she didn’t feel she was ready. What she didn’t know was that he had been giving his friends updates on his conquest of her. What she also didn’t know what that he had found a way to film what they were doing. What she didn’t know was that it was all over Youtube before she got home. And she hadn’t even wanted to do it.

She learned the hard way how important it is to be true to yourself. You know deep down when something or someone isn’t right for you. You owe it to yourself to listen to yourself.

Some people will pressure you to do things you don’t believe in. Others will judge you for holding those beliefs. Not everyone will like you. You have to be able to hold your head up and be proud and happy with yourself even when others are not. Never be afraid to stand out, never be afraid to take a stand.

This is a women’s organization, but in honor of father’s day I will close with a fatherly quote by Dr. Seuss (who, by the way, never had any kids of his own): Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

Guest Post: Stella Padnos-Shea, “You in Our Bed”

Though I am not a frequent a blogger these days, I continue to be amazed at the power of the blogosphere. Some months back, I reconnected with a former colleague, Stella Padnos-Shea, a published poet and licensed social worker, who reached out to me out of the blue–through this blog, of all places. Today, I am happy to announce that she has agreed to a guest blog! (Read on.)

Stella’s theme of motherhood–its impact on a woman’s identity and sexual self-image–is one that I believe resonates for countless women with children of all ages. So, without further ado, here is Stella, in her own words.

You In Our Bed

by Stella Padnos

Tonight, like last night, husband tempted by the couch’s quiet:

that plush other woman, slightly concave in the middle

like my body once was, since expanded, shrunk, starved and fed–

Nothing between us but you in our bed.

 

The most pleasure I’ve felt has been the absence of pain.

I’d cheat on my husband again with an epidural.

Your debut: messy, requiring containment. Parts of my body

bagged and discarded.

Nothing between us but you in our bed.

 

Husband’s afraid of my body’s lower half

and I’m afraid of his fear.

Does a girl have to go back to the hospital to get felt up, pricked?

Nothing between us but you in our bed.

 

And so, sometimes, it is three in the sack:

Not a kinky college stunt or swapper club

But snoring husband, my wet breast, your mouth, your bobbing head–

Nothing between us but you in our bed.

Stella and her little one

Stella and her little one

I wrote this poem about two months after giving birth to my daughter Mirabel; she is the “you in our bed.” The evolution of the marital bed, from pre- to post-children, could doubtlessly become its own blog post/ series of essays/ manifesto, but here it will have to suffice as a poetic theme.

Motherhood is a radical new dimension in a woman’s life. Nearly three years ago, I bore my first, and likely only, child. What a joy, what a gift, and, still, what a deeply ambivalent change. My relationship to my body has undergone some evolutions/ convolutions in these short (yet very long) years.

Initially, those first six or so months, my body was primarily a host, a conduit. A source of food, energy, heat, and deep well of unconscious for the babe. As one of my half-sisters told me early on– It feels like you’re constantly jet-lagged. That was a true psychic and somatic experience, of feeling lagged, constantly weighted, slowed, knowing something urgent needed to be done to care for the baby, but you’re so damn tired and it sure would be nice to brush your teeth.

Then, somewhere, sleep starts to creep in longer stretches. Our baby was incorporating formula, and then solid food, into her diet. I was no longer primarily an udder with legs and unwashed hair. A successive image of my physical identity involved the question– Do I look like a Mom? Simultaneously, I don’t know exactly what that means, yet we all have some idea (forgiving elastic-waisted jeans, scrunchy as couture hair). A Mother is defined by her relationship to her children; can a woman, the same Mother, just be herself, independently? I still want to look like a “woman”: my version is creative, sexual, yet often a loner. How can I begin to reconcile the selves of female-dom? Well, one straightforward way in which I do is that I still wear weird clothes. If anyone sees me tempted by a Lands End flannel big shirt, please talk me down. The way we are perceived by others does, whether we want it to or not, influence our self-perception. Being a Mom in celestial print pants helps me feel more vital. But, of course, looks aren’t everything. I want to continue to fascinate myself.

Some weeks ago, I uncharacteristically got dolled up. Took a shower, put on contacts and make-up, wore a cute little dress. I saw a woman I know who cares for her grandchildren during the day; we know each other from local playgroups where I bring my daughter. She told me– You don’t look like somebody’s Mom, you look like somebody’s girlfriend. That was… something. A huge compliment, yes. And also a reminder that once we become Mothers, that sexy and playful self is assumed to dissipate. The message seemed to be that we are purely caretakers now. What a shame.

Stella Padnos-Shea’s poems can be found in Chest medical journal, The Comstock ReviewLapetitezine.com, and ldyprts.tumblr.com, an online collaboration with jewelry artist Margaux Lange. She has participated in the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont and presented at the 4th Annual Creative Writing Festival in Long Island. In an early incarnation, one of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Stella has also regularly performed her work at Studio 26 Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Stella has been employed as a college English instructor, jewelry maker, and therapist, and currently serves as the organizer for the political action committee of the New York City Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She is currently embarked, though, on her greatest and most challenging project yet: raising her toddler, Mirabel, while sustaining a marriage. Please find her virtually at Stella.Padnos@gmail.com, or genuinely in Brooklyn.

Aside

images[10]I know it’s been ages since I’ve blogged. I’m not even going to look at the date of my last post. In any case, I’ve had a much needed hiatus, during which I’ve been building my private practice, working hard on my other writing, attending to a loved-one’s health crisis—now resolved—and enjoying the ongoing adventures of being a parent.

Which brings me to Mother’s Day—just two days away—on which we’ll honor our mothers , and (if mothers ourselves) be honored in turn. This year, I’m not going to write about my mother, though she deserves it, since this has been an especially wonderful and rich year for our relationship. I think I’ll save that for another post.

Today, I want to honor all the mothers out there who—through no fault of their own—are not doing much mothering of the kind they’d like. I am thinking of all the waiting mothers.

First, the expectant moms, who have weeks or months to go before holding their children for the first time. To you, I send a smile and one word: soon.

Then there are the mothers-to-be-someday, those trying to conceive, some trying for a long time. Maybe you are not a mother yet, but you deserve to be. I know you think about your child as much as I think of mine. For you, I wish hope and the belief that someday, you will have a child. Infertility is not your whole story.  One way or another you will be a mom.

Then, the mothers-to-be who are in Home Study, or somewhere along the road to adoption, gathering paper work, awaiting word from a birth mother, awaiting a referral, or waiting to travel overseas to meet your child for the first time. For you, I wish patience. It will happen. It really, really will.

Next, I am thinking of mothers who spend their days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or in other hospital wards, entrusting the care of their children to medical professionals, awaiting word, awaiting news, awaiting a chance to touch and hold and parent their children. For you, I wish strength. For you, I wish love, and that you are not alone. For you, I wish good news.

And finally, I am thinking of the nearly three hundred Nigerian mothers whose daughters have been stolen away by the Boko Haram terrorist group. I can only imagine the pain and the rage you must feel toward your daughters’ captors, toward a world in which this horror can happen. For you, I wish relief from the nightmare of wondering where your girl is and what she is enduring. Most of all, I wish for you the swift, safe return of your child and the comfort of holding her in your arms again. To all: If you have not had a chance, please read Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article, Honoring the Missing Schoolgirls, in which he identifies several tangible ways to support women and girls in Africa as a tribute to the missing daughters.

Wishing you a peaceful Mother’s Day.

The House Fire Chronicles: Homecoming

images[3]Just over a year ago, I went for a walk out in the bright autumn sunshine to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Though the fall colors were still vivid, the trees’ angles were all wrong.  Trees should be vertical, yet most tilted; many lay horizontal—a fall against the road having crushed someone’s  wrought iron fence.  The horror of it was breathtaking: all these magnificent sycamores and sugar maples and oaks, felled overnight to be sliced up and carted away in chunks.

Today, as I drive my son to school, what I notice most about the trees that still stand are the colors themselves.  What is breathtaking is the way they’ve burst into fiery reds and oranges, gold against the sparkling sunlight.  Life, they tell us—the seasonal cycle of our corner of the planet—continues.  And just because it is the anniversary of that natural disaster, when lives were lost as well as trees, doesn’t mean the survivors won’t put on their annual splendor.

A year ago, I had just learned that my house had been mostly consumed by a fire.  I was trying to keep my children calm and recreate some new normal for them, while my husband dealt with the insurance company and the fire department, and we both searched for a place to live.

We were not alone.  Countless others in the region had their homes destroyed by winds and floods, as well as some fires.  Schools were closed for days.  Most everyone had lost power.  Even those whose homes were unscathed had to regroup as the rest of us figured out how to rebuild our lives.

We have been among the lucky ones.  Our insurance was sound.  Fire, I’m told, is insured more easily and completely than flood or wind damage.  There were three categories of coverage: non-use, which meant our rent was covered, when we found a temporary home—contents, which referred to everything that was lost that we’d need to replace—and lastly, construction, which meant the costs of fire/smoke remediation (which was extensive) as well as rebuilding and renovating.

The good news is that one year, less one day following our fire, we moved back home.  My children slept in their old-new rooms in their new beds.  Our home was beautiful to me before, though nothing had been changed or renovated since it was built in 1958, but now, renewed and polished, redecorated, with the gracious aid of our friend Gina (and do check out her site, By Design Interiors) it kind of blows me away.

Here is the dining room before:

IMG00303-20121111-1351

And here it is today:

IMG-20131103-00002[1]

The leaves are falling outside, but for us, it is the season of renewal.

On the eve of our homecoming, while I was shuttling our belongings from the rental to our “real” house, I had a moment of identity confusion, similar to what happened when I first saw the effects of the fire: where am I?  where do I belong?  Oh, yes, here.  Home.  For real.

There are so many still displaced by the hurricane.  Still homeless, still being shuffled from shelter to hotel and back again.  I listen to their stories on NPR while chauffeuring my kids around.  I know all those other mothers want for their kids what I wanted—what I have—for mine.  Normalcy.  Space to breathe and play, somewhere to put the donated items they’ve received during the course of the year.  This year we’ve been recipients of generosity but we’ve also done what we could to give back, making donations to the Red Cross and other organizations that help hurricane survivors, including those in Haiti (even harder hit than we were).  But we can’t give these families what they need most: Permanence.  I now have an inkling of what it’s like to crave that.

Sometimes I think, what did I do to deserve to survive this so easily?  Of course the answer is nothing.  We have amazing friends; there aren’t enough words to express our gratitude.  We have good insurance.  As I said, we are lucky.   And lately I fall asleep at night with this phrase on my lips: Thank you.

The House Fire Chronicles: The Things I Wore

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

I don’t write about clothes.  I’m not a fashionista; I don’t think I’m qualified to give anyone wardrobe tips.  But I’ve had to think about clothing—my clothing—a whole lot in the little-less-than-a-year since our fire.

What a strange almost year it’s been.  Living in a house that isn’t mine, several blocks away from the house that is mine.  So close to home but not home at all.  Everyone asks about the house (it’s coming along nicely; we’ll move back very soon) and about the kids (doing great considering.) Everyone asks how our insurance has been (pretty good—not perfect) and of course how we all are.  We’re doing really well, given the whirlwind it’s been.  I haven’t written about the fire for months and months, mostly because after the first few posts, I couldn’t.  I was sick of hearing myself talk about it.  I just needed to live and take care of my family and make the best of the situation we were in.  We’ve been so lucky, to have insurance that really took care of us, for friends that helped in too many ways to count.  For the supportive schools my kids are in, both of which cushioned the blow.  We are beyond grateful for this community.  We are more than fine.  My family is whole and mostly healed and poised to move back into our new-old house.

I wrote early on about the mementos and pictures and trinkets we managed to save.  Enough of us for us to feel like ourselves.  As for the little things we no longer have, we think of wistfully of them from time to time and move on.  Things occur to us, like the wall where we’d marked off our children’s increasing heights over the years.  We’ll never get that back.  But for everything we lost, it seems like there are many more important things we recovered.  Pieces of our identity.

But for me, there’s something I realize I’m still mourning just a bit.  My clothes.  My boots and dresses and silly sweaters and jeans that might have been sort of out of date but who cared?  The things I put on every day that went into making me me.

There were the a-line skirts I’d bought in the 1990s at the Limited, which had held up for some reason.  There was the blazer I’d bought before my daughter was born, at a stoop sale in Brooklyn Heights, tweed, hip-length, by some German designer, which was just about the most flattering thing I’d ever owned.  It went with anything, could turn my casual-mom outfits into work-ready ensembles in the blink of an eye.  Utilitarian sweaters in abundance, one for every mood, every configuration of my body image, every kind of weather.  And dresses, little black ones, flowing, floral ones, more dresses than I needed, but a memory was tied to each.

Right after the fire, the insurance company gave us a lump sum that we were to use right away, a short term advance to replace what we needed immediately.  The fire took place right after Hurricane Sandy, on November 2nd.  Winter was coming, so what we needed were warm clothes.  For my kids, this meant replacing hoodies, easily done since the cut of zip-up sweatshirts doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year.  But I needed sweaters, and found nothing anywhere to replace a single one I’d lost.  (When I shop, first stop for me is always Target, then Kohl’s, before I’ll even consider moving up to Bloomingdales.)  All the sweaters I found were drape-y and thin: no buttons, not even a zipper to close and keep in the body heat.  Otherwise they were skimpy and low-cut with funny, asymmetrical ties.

Here’s the truth: I’d expected to show up at a store and find ALL MY OLD CLOTHES, waiting for me cheerfully from their racks, as if to say: Surprise!  Here we are!  We weren’t in the fire after all!  And there would be a big reunion.  Me and those amazing, quintessentially-Lisa wardrobe finds dating back to 1989.

Of course it wasn’t like that.  Nothing on the racks felt very much like me.  I spent the winter, and then the spring, in a few basics from the Gap and some hand-me-downs from a friend who is close to my size but way more fashionable.  It will take time to rebuild my closet, adapting what I have of a fashion sense to what there is out there now.  Slowly but surely I’m doing it.

I know I am very fortunate; our insurance company was good in terms of content loss.  This isn’t about money; it’s about missing old, faithful duds, my reluctance to replace them with strangers.  Almost a year later, I still remember how each piece felt, how it looked, what it went with.   Some of them I still see in the photographs we salvaged—not always flattering, but a record nonetheless of what I once wore.

White Parents and Black Stereotypes

DadBabySilhouette[1]In this past Sunday’s New York Times, is an incredibly honest article entitled Purple Boots, Silver Stars … and White Parents, by Frank Ligtvoet, a white father about the budding racial identities of his two African American children: a daughter, aged seven and a son, aged eight.

Ligtvoet describes how the children—who have gone through various feelings about their identities, from “I’m not black,” to “I hate white people”—are beginning to emulate African Americans they see in their community, in various ways, from gait to style of dress.  The children, Ligtvoet explains have come to a place of accepting that they do not look like their parents (both white dads) and that they do look like others who are not part of their family at all.  Lately, both kids are trying to make sense of all that.

Ligtvoet describes a walk he takes with his children to the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn.  The children are wearing new clothes that they have chosen, in their father’s mind, to “assert their blackness”: purple canvas boots, tight jeans and a black t-shirt for the girl, low slung black and yellow basketball shorts and a cap turned backwards for the boy.  (Remember these kids are seven and eight).  Dad walks several respectful paces behind his children, amused by their independence, proud of their pride, and I imagine, at least a little proud of his own comfort with their experimentation.

The Fulton Mall, when I lived in Brooklyn, was shopping center frequented mostly by middle and lower income blacks and Latinos.  Though it was barely a hop, skip and jump from pricy, predominantly-white Brooklyn Heights, you were clearly in a different world here.  There were no posh bars or restaurants.  The smell of deep-fried fast food hung heavily in the air during all seasons.   The streets weren’t so clean either; garbage cans stayed full to overflowing and construction sites didn’t see much progress for months on end.  About once a week, I would take the long walk from our home in the Columbia Street Waterfront District over there, pushing my daughter in her stroller, aiming to check out the deals at the Macy’s of Downtown Brooklyn.

From the article, it sounds as if the Fulton Mall may have gentrified, like other parts of Brooklyn, but is still largely African American.  I can only imagine the reaction of two gaudily clad little ones being trailed by a white man.  (If he were walking by their sides, holding their hands, I don’t think they would get so many looks.  Brooklyn is fairly progressive.)

My first reaction to this article was: good for this dad, he is letting the children discover who they are, letting them explore and experiment with their identities.  I still think that, though after sitting with the article for a bit, I found myself hoping that Ligtvoet and his partner aren’t embracing stereotypes and confusing them with black culture.  For example I don’t think shorts pulled down to the hips are “pretty cool” on an eight-year-old.  Ditto tight pants on a seven-year-old girl—particularly if she is walking far ahead of a parent, appearing to be alone.

But I am not one to judge.  As a parent, you choose your battles and your priorities.  Every parent in a multicultural family has to strike his or her own balance, particularly when it comes to the culture that is not his or her own.

The comments following the article were also fascinating, some of them laudatory, but many others harsh and chastising.  Two examples:

 “…these children are emulating gangsters, not “black” people.  Hats need to be worn outside only by men and boys and brim should face forward, any other way is a gang symbol in the black community, same with the yellow(gold?) and black shorts.  Wake up before you get these kids killed.”

“As an African American who grew up in the ghetto …my mother would have never allowed us to wear pants partially sagged and tight jeans … Be the parents of your children regardless of skin color.”

These readers do have a point.  I cannot imagine any of the affluent, black parents I know allowing their children to wear the kind of clothes mentioned in the article, especially at such a young age.  These parents are all too aware of the stereotypes of blacks in the media as lazy, dumb, violent—even if that very image is celebrated by many white teens (and some adults) as “cool.”   Black parents do what they can, as soon as they can, to keep their children from emulating this image, pervasive as it is.  They know it is not just a “cool” costume their kids can remove when it’s time to apply to colleges and interview for jobs.

Nevertheless, I understand where Ligtvoet is coming from.   As parents, we’re supposed to smile when our kids let go of our hands and stand alone for the first time.  This is true whether our kids come to us genetically or through adoption, whether they resemble us or not.  What I think this dad is proud of is the fact that his children are safe enough with him and trust him enough to experiment.  They know, regardless of how far behind he walks, that he is truly in their corner and that his love is unconditional.