Friday, December 21, 2012

Dumping the Santa Myth

My three year old is a fan of the book series Angelina Ballerina, about a little girl mouse who is very talented and passionate about ballet dancing We've been taking the books in the series out one by one from the public library, and as the holidays loomed nearer, I saw that, of course, there is one in the series titled Angelina's Christmas. My first impulse as a secular humanist mom was to ignore it. But I decided to read it first and see if there was any religious content other than the word "Christmas" (which arguably is used in a secular way as often as it is used to refer to the birth of the Christian savior). There's wasn't. In fact, I immediately approved of the book's unique message, checked it out, and was thrilled when a friend gave a copy of it to my daughter to keep. 

What is the message of Angelina's Christmas? Well, the more overt message was the usual holidays are a time to show care and concern for others. In the story, Angelina notices that an elderly man in her neighborhood is all alone, so she and her family make him cookies and get him involved at her school's holiday celebrations. 

But the side story is what really interested me. Angelina's younger cousin, Henry, makes a special cookie just for Santa Claus. Henry is brought to tears when he's told that he cannot give it to Santa in person because Santa only comes when people are sleeping. Henry keeps the cookie in his pocket when they visit the old man. The old man turns out to be a retired postman. He notices Henry's sad mood, and puts on a Santa outfit to cheer him up. Then he tells Henry a story about how he used to deliver presents to families on Christmas even in terrible weather. Henry enjoys the company and story so much that he is moved to give the postman the special cookie, instead of saving it for Santa. 

The implication is that real people bring joy and good to the world. Such people might embody the symbolism of Santa through their actions, but Santa Claus as a person is not real. So if we want to express gratitude for good works, we should express it to those who actually do good works. 

I don't tell my daughter that Santa is real. She knows about Santa (mostly from the Korean cartoon Pucca where Santa Claus is a main character, and incidentally also a ninja and former thief.) In fact, we have conversations about how Santa is a character, and compare him to other characters she knows are fictional. She enjoys the concept of Santa, but she knows that the guys she meets wearing red suits are regular people in costume. This hasn't become an issue yet with peers who believe in Santa and whose parents want to encourage that belief, but I suspect that at some point it might be. Either way, I'm sticking to my guns and refusing to lie to my own child. 

Over a decade ago, and then again 2 years ago, I heard Tom Flynn, notorious secular humanist and "Anti-Claus" speak about why non-Christians shouldn't celebrate Christmas. The full expression of his opinions and support for them are outlined in his book The Trouble With Christmas. Included in Flynn's talks was a harsh critique of "The Santa Myth" and the many dark and unintended consequences of teaching children that Santa Claus is a real person, opposed to a fictional character. 

A decade ago I came to my own conclusions. I think celebrating the holiday season in a variety of secular ways is both fun and beneficial for humanists who want to celebrate, so long as it is done in a way that emphasizes charity, generosity, and family togetherness, downplays the grotesque materialism, and ignores the baby Jesus.  

However, I was then and now totally persuaded by Flynn's anti-Santa arguments. In fact, I found his arguments relieving. I had been one of those kids who believed longer than I really should have, and letting belief in Santa go was emotionally painful, humiliating (because most of my peers had figured it out at much younger ages) and made me trust adults, including my own parents, less. As Flynn argues, and I agree, parents and other adults lie to kids about Santa. People try to dress it up as something else. Something about celebrating innocence, indulging in a fun fantasy, or whatever. The the problem is that it's one sided. When a kid asks if Santa is real, that means the kid has enough of an understanding about what is real and what is fictional. That kid is asking if Santa is literally real, or merely a character like Clifford or Curious George. When adults say that Santa is real, they are in every sense of the word, lying

In the episode of South Park titled "Crack Baby Athletic Association" the writers make the point that Santa is really just a lie adults tell children. In the episode, all the kids know and like Slash (who actually is a real guitarist who used to be in the band Guns and Roses) and he apparently plays at many of their birthday parties and other events. Some of the kids try to get Slash to play for a benefit they are organizing, and in the process they discover that Slash isn't real, but a lie their parents have told them, and that whenever they've seen him play it was really one of their parents dressed up in costume. One of the kids, bewildered by this information, calls his father and asks him directly if Slash is real, and his dad says something about the spirit of Slash being real in our hearts or something like that (think "Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus".) The kids then express annoyance and disappointment that their parents have lied to them. They don't interpret what has happened as anything other than being deceived. In the end, the writers parody the end of Miracle on 34th Street (probably the most anti-critical thinking holiday movie ever); a mysterious donation has built a center for the crack babies (I'm not explaining that, you have to see the whole episode) and the kids notice a guitar that looks just like Slash's in the corner. 

The whole Santa Myth often puts teachers in a precarious position. Students will ask if Santa is real. Teachers can risk getting in trouble with parents who want to perpetuate the myth by telling the kids the truth, or they can participate in the lie. When I was a teacher in a school with young children I chose to treat it like I treated religious beliefs - I told them to ask their parents. But it felt weird to do that. Once I watched a second grade boy stand up in front of the entire school and lecture all the kids about how Santa was really real, and how he knew because his grandfather had taken him to the North Pole to see the toy factory, and so they'd better be good and believe in Santa or else they would get coal for Christmas. As he went on this tirade, other students giggled and rolled their eyes, and teachers flashed each other looks and awkward smiles, but of course nobody was going to correct this kid, because the Santa Myth is one of our sacred cows. Events such as this poor 8 year old kid's lecture (which likely resulted in teasing and humiliation when he discovered Santa's fictional nature) show how out of control this whole Santa Myth can get. 

While working as a babysitter, I had a lovely afternoon with a 5 year old girl. We had gotten onto the subject of the continents, and from there we got online and were looking at maps of the globe. It was so much fun to be teaching a young child about the earth, and feel in awe of how much humans have come to understand and document about the geography of our planet. All of the sudden, she jumped up and asked, "Hey, where's the North Pole?" I pointed it out. This is what we saw: 

You might notice that the North Pole is smack in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. There's no land, only constantly shifting ice. So unless Santa's a very cold merman, there isn't any home or factory of his there. The girl looked at the spot on the map. I could see she recognized that it was water, not land, and looked confused. "Where's Santa's house?"  I sort of panicked. I hadn't expected this to suddenly come up. And I hate lying to kids. I told her to ask her parents. 

Now these are just some personal experiences I've shared on this blog. There are actually a whole list of fully fleshed out arguments as to why the Santa Myth is a bad idea that shouldn't be perpetuated, but instead of going into all that here, I'll direct you to this article by Austin Cline. And for those who find visuals more persuasive, check out some of the endless parade of pictures of not-so-happy kids on Santa's lap

Happy HumanLight! 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Baby Food: Saving Money, Reducing Waste

I've recently noticed that the little pouches of baby food which squeeze out of a little opening only slightly larger than the opening on a tube of toothpaste have exploded on the market. I first noticed them from companies such as Happy Baby in health and specialty food marts. But now it seems that every baby food company is making them and countless varieties now line the shelves of every grocery store's baby section.

These products are marketing genius. Babies and toddlers can suck the food down with little mess. The problem is that the packaging produces a lot of waste and the price is pretty steep for a mere 40-60 calories of pureed fruit and veggies. The obvious solution is to just puree fruits and veggies at home and put them in some sort of re-usable pouch. I did a Google search and so far haven't found any reusable pouches for sale. The closest I've found is baby spoons with attached food dispensers, but that really isn't any less messier than spooning baby food out of a jar; it's more of a travel convenience. 

My mother suggested using a pastry pouch. I did happen to have one at home which I could try out on my 8-month-old. It was the type of pouch with an open back, but I took care of that with a giant chip clip. And huzzah - it worked! But if you try this at home, just make sure the baby food you puree is thick enough, or else it'll just spill out all over the kiddo's face and clothing.

Other money-saving must-haves for parents with babies and young toddlers are a mini-food processor/chopper/blender (which can be purchased for as little as $15.) and mini steamer (which can be purchased new for as low as $5.) With that parents can make all the baby food they want for way cheap and with very little waste. Save the jars and disposable pouches for traveling.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Do Americans Respect Mothers?

I'm moved to comment on the media firestorm sparked by Hilary Rosen's comment that Ann Romney, a housewife, "never worked a day in her life" and therefore we can disregard her opinions on economic issues. I have little interest in defending or criticizing Rosen's comment itself. Although I will say that since all members of American society are impacted by economic issues, none of our opinions should be disregarded outright. But I'm more interested in how conservative pundits have seized on Rosen's gaff to flaunt how much they supposedly respect motherhood.

Like a lot of people, as this controversy began, I wondered if Ann Romney had a lot of help raising her children from nannies and maids. As it turns out, despite her husband's considerable wealth she apparently didn't rely on much help at all. Although it seems her choice to manage most of the household duties herself came more out of a sense of personal gratification than anything else. If indeed that is the case, good for her for finding a career that she loves, is good at, and being lucky enough to find a man willing and able to support her doing it for her entire life. I have no doubt that she's worked hard. But that's hardly the point when addressing women and economic issues in America.

Certainly plenty of affluent wives choose to both not work and not do most of the childcare or household chores, an option few if any men get. If a man were to do the same thing he'd be demeaned by society as a good-for-nothing houseboy. Few wives would respect such a husband. But mothers are supposed to believe that there's something inherently special about us. That we simply have children supposedly gives us automatic status, no matter what we actually do with our time. It doesn't and it shouldn't.

Stay-at-home-moms whose husbands are rich can at least take comfort in the belief that if they divorce they will get half of all shared possessions and perhaps a few years of considerable alimony payments (although that is also no guarantee. Guys financially smart enough to get rich are also smart enough to hide assets.) A fireman's housewife whose husband leaves her when she's 50 years old can pretty much expect to work low-wage jobs until she's dead or unable. Her ex-husband, on the other hand, is likely to continue growing his income and retirement benefits as he has been for decades.

It is taboo to attack motherhood in America because it is typical for mothers to give up careers to stay home, despite the serious financial risks that come with that choice. It is also common for them to work part time to devote more time to the children and household, or to even work full time while devoting more time than their husbands do to child care and housework. Women earn less than men partially because mothers are more likely to sacrifice time and effort at their jobs so they can put in more at home. Women also earn less than men because employers often discriminate against mothers, expecting them to sacrifice work for duties at home. We live in a society where it is considered a woman's responsibility to do most of the child care and housework, whether she has a career or not. The very term "motherhood" is associated with domestic tasks, opposed to "fatherhood" which conjures up images of working "providers" perhaps playing with their kids on the weekend.

Given certain economic realities, America's traditional attitude toward motherhood is disrespectful. Until our society also compensates women for this extra set of unpaid, domestic tasks, it is not okay to insist that those tasks are disproportionately our responsibilities. It's perfectly fine to go on about the nobility of a mother maintaining a home and being on hand as her children's tutor, chaperon, driver, cook, and primary emotional support system, so long as she gets something of equal worth back for it (so more than an annual holiday and a lot of lip service.) But that only happens for mothers such as Ann Romney who are lucky enough to be in lasting marriages with high-salaried husbands. All the rest are getting the short end of the stick.

Of course the other half of the solution is to encourage a major shift in our society's thinking about both motherhood and fatherhood. We'd have to get to the point where employers and co-workers expect that fathers as well as mothers will take off more time from their jobs to tend to their children. In addition, those employers would not discriminate against parents in hiring and giving out raises and promotions, and child-free co-workers would be willing to pick up the slack out of respect for these parents who have taken on the additional job of raising the next generation. All of which happens to run counter to traditional attitudes.

Until Americans have universal health care and free day and after school care for our children, Americans' supposed respect for mothers is nothing more than a smokescreen. If we respect motherhood so much, why don't we prove it?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Of Sexism and Supermoms: Review of "Feminine Mistake" by Leslie Bennetts

In 2007 I heard an interview with journalist Leslie Bennetts. She had just published her book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? It advocates that moms maintain a career. At the time I hadn't yet had my first child, but was planning a family. Bennetts spoke passionately about what a risk it is to be financially dependent on a spouse (especially considering the high divorce rate). She warned how the lack of enough women in positions of great power makes it more difficult for young women and working mothers to climb their way up, not to mention the difficulty of breaking back into the work force after being out of it for 5-20 years. She also lamented the waste of education and professional potential when bright, young women finish degrees in law, business, and medical fields, often from Ivy League universities, only to drop out of the workforce before they even get their careers started.

I remember nodding my head and thinking, "Yes, of course!" My mom has a deeply satisfying career as an English teacher, and my mother-in-law is a nurse. Most of my aunts have college degrees and have worked full time or almost full time their whole lives. Their jobs energize them, give them confidence, and are interesting topics of conversation. Now granted, none of them really had a choice since a one income household was financially insecure and produced a much lower standard of living. But I get the impression that the women in my family don't just do it for the money. They like their jobs.

I admit, I'm a little appalled when I read or hear about affluent women who choose not to work because their husbands earn hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars, and then hire nannies and maids. It pisses me off that these women who are in such a powerful position to make society work better for all working parents (including overworked fathers) are apparently playing tennis and getting manicures, while trying to ignore the fact that they are at the financial mercy of their husbands.

Now to be clear, I do not have a high powered career. I'm a fine art printmaker and teaching artist. I make my money stringing together a mess of part time, freelance positions teaching and selling a pitifully small amount of artwork. I haven't had a single full-time job since I taught ESL in South Korea on an adventurous whim in between college and graduate school. I wish I earned more so as to ease the pressure on my husband and to have a more secure future for me and my children. But I always knew art wasn't a big money-maker. Despite the drawbacks, it's a legitimate path and I love it.

The first year of my older daughter's life changed nothing about my career. At the time I had a part time, work-from-home gig as an administrator and I was literally doing work on my laptop in the hospital bed after my c-section. My daughter was born September 4th and I was back to teaching after school art classes the first week of October. Thankfully, my husband worked third shift at the time, so he could be home when I went to teach. Also, my job was flexible enough that I could get away with bringing the baby along in an infant carrier if her dad wasn't available. When summer came I took a six week summer job and my mom (who has summers off) was able to watch the baby for a good chunk of the time. At first continuing work in my studio seemed impossible. I was always exhausted and it seemed like every time I tried the baby would cry. But eventually she got on a predictable schedule, and I found I was more inspired and motivated to make art than before because I wanted my daughter to see her mom doing more than housework.

Things were working out just fine, and I was as fulfilled and confident as I've ever been, until my husband got a promotion that came along with a day shift. My daughter was getting too big and aware to bring along to my after school classes, and her dad was no longer at home that time of day to take care of her. The most inexpensive day care centers would have eaten up 80% of my paychecks, and we couldn't afford to take that much of a reduction in income. So I quit my steady part-time teaching jobs and started babysitting out of my home to earn the money we needed. It seemed like the perfect solution; I had ample experience working with young children, clearances, training in first aid, and it would allow me to spend more time with my daughter.

Now I've been doing that for 18 months, and for the most part, it has been an adequate, albeit temporary solution. I really love children and I think I'd go nuts only hanging out with my own. It is nice to talk, however briefly, to my clients' parents when they get dropped off and picked up. Best of all, my daughter has benefited socially. It also made it easy to be pregnant again and have my second child. But I have no sick days or vacation pay. I and my children are dependent on my husband's health insurance. Perhaps worst of all, doing child care out of my home has put me less in touch with the people and institutions that would further my career as an artist and teacher. Fearing this from the start, I have continued to offer classes and workshops through a local art center. I also started an art blog and have put greater effort into online social networking and sales.

It is stressful to balance so many responsibilities, and after a while a little voice inside me started saying, "Just drop the art and teaching stuff you are doing. You love cooking and keeping the house all cozy, and playing with the kids. Just focus on that sort of stuff for the next few year. It'll be so much easier." But at the same time, another voice in me screamed "Are you kidding? You're an artist! You're a teacher! You can't just stop doing that stuff for a few years. What sort of example is that for the girls? Buck up and keep at it!" Then, while at the library, I stumbled on Bennetts's book and checked it out.

After the first few chapters I felt two frustrations with the book. First, while Bennetts insisted that she was addressing women across the class spectrum, it still seemed she was giving most attention to the upper classes. Then again, shouldn't she since those are the women who have the luxury of choosing not to work and who would be balancing out the power at the top if they all chose to work? Repeatedly Bennetts made the point that not just men, but men with housewives have an incredible career advantage over women and men with wives who also work. Such men are most likely to get into positions of great power because they are the ones who can most easily work the insane hours necessary to do so without worrying that the rest of their life will fall apart. Unfortunately, they are also the least likely to be sympathetic to the unique challenges of working parents who don't have a person at home managing the household. Thus, an unfair system perpetuates itself. Bennetts main tactic was trying scare affluent housewives by telling story after story of high-earning husbands who leave their wives for young hotties. These guys continue on with ever-increasing status and income while their forty, fifty, or sixty-some ex-wives are forced to work depressing, low-paying jobs or become dependent on their own children after child support and alimony (if they even get alimony) runs out. If the men in these stories sound like jerks, often the women aren't much better. Bennetts told the story of one especially despicable stay-at-home mom who gave up her dreams of being an actor and is now disappointed that her husband only earns enough for a stable middle class lifestyle, opposed to the luxurious lifestyle of her rich peers. When asked if she has any regrets, she says she would have married a different man! When asked what she would do if he left her, she says she would marry again! Any middle class reader is left with little sympathy for most of these people, and after a while the book feels more like a voyeuristic glimpse into the potential dysfunctions of the upper classes rather than a message for a broader audience.

My second frustration with the book at first was that it was making me depressed. That's because, despite the emphasis on the rich, I agreed with every word. Indeed, I feel trapped in a situation where I must stay home because my earning potential is (now that I have 2 kids) less than the cost of day care. That's right, if I were to get a day job as a barista or waitress full time (which is what most starving artists like me do) every penny plus some of my husband's paycheck would go to day care. I started to feel like an idiot for choosing a low-paying, unpredictable career in the arts and having two kids. Had my choices created a situation unfair for my husband and kids, and putting me in the cage of financial dependence?

I kept reading, and it got better. The book is not only an ominous warning to women who have quit or are considering quitting their careers to stay home. It is also a pep talk for women who are struggling to maintain careers during those difficult years when our children are young. While Bennetts's (reasonable) fear tactics and warnings were repeated throughout the book, eventually she focused on positives. Specifically, that work can be a joyful enterprise, providing confidence, a sense of purpose, and intellectual challenges, as well as a stable income.

Bennetts spent a good amount of the book attacking what she calls the false and sexist media image of "it's all or nothing." In other words, the false idea that women can be good at their professions, or they can be good moms, but not both. She points out the obvious double standard since men aren't sent these messages. Indeed, men should expect to make career sacrifices if they choose to have children, just like women do. For example, when I wanted our daughter to keep attending a gymfoolery class she enjoyed on Wednesday mornings, I asked my husband to go into work late those days to watch our new baby, and he agreed. Both working moms and dads need to pressure employers to be flexible regarding the family's needs. Neither parents should expect to be perfect in both their careers and parenting at the same time.

It is true that the bar for parental sacrifices is set much lower for men. Bennetts mentioned this, and I was reminded of an episode of the television show Louie where comedian Louis C.K. waves away compliments about how he's a "good father" for showing up at his daughter's school event. He recognizes that the low expectations on fathers insulting to men. One of my professional goals as a wood block printmaker is to do a two month residency at the Nagasawa Art Park in Japan. When I mentioned my plans to apply when my girls are around 7 and 9 years old, another mother and artist acquaintance gave me a dark look and said, "Oh, I don't think you could leave them for that long." Why not? My father went to Mexico for three months on assignment when I was even younger. Sure I missed him terribly, but I also thought it was amazing that my daddy was doing something so interesting for his job.

Bennetts explored how mothers tend to be quiet and modest about their professional achievements and feel afraid to express excitement about them. These messages hit home with me. As I've invested more of my time and identity with babysitting and staying at home with the kids, my self image has suffered. Recently I took my girls to have lunch with their dad at work. When we went inside, my husband began proudly introducing his family to his co-workers. In addition to beaming over his daughters' adorableness, he eagerly told them about a group exhibition I had coming up and my teaching an art education class at a local university. My knee-jerk reaction to this was to sheepishly shrug and mumble "Oh, yeah." as if these were nothing important or special. On later reflection, I thought, "What is wrong with me? I never used to act like this!"

This passage from the book especially hit a chord with me:
Misguided ideals of perfection are the bane of women's existence, and their pursuit inadvertently encourages women to limit their ambitions. Instead of accepting that life is an inherently messy enterprise and that the vast, complex sweep of it is a large part of the joy, they think it's better to narrow their focus to small segments that can be tidied up and wrapped with a big bow, even as they turn their backs on most of the wondrous possibilities that might otherwise enrich their existence.
Bennetts book assures working mothers (and fathers) that we can be "good enough" at both. Especially since the time that we are intensely raising our children is for most a relatively small slice of time. The past two years my artwork shrunk to a smaller scale, and my projects are less ambitious and take longer to complete. I shouldn't feel bad about that. Instead I should feel proud that I'm consistently plugging away at it while raising two fantastic little girls. In fact, these years are helping me learn how to better manage my time, so after the girls are grown I can be a more productive artist than before I had them. Thinking about things that way helps me feel better when my living room is strewn with toys, I've burnt the bean soup, and forgot to change over the laundry I put in four hours ago. At least I posted my latest workshops to Craig's List and got some carving done during the kids' nap. Really, given the choice, what's more important, staying on top of the laundry all the time, or making a new work of art? Or as Bennetts put it: "it's better to be messy and creative than neat and uninspired."

To my joy, Bennetts also addressed the issue of husbands needing to change. It is true, if women are to succeed in altering our roles in society and at home, our male partners must also change. Bennetts mentioned an article I had read about how the hours that men and women work pretty much breaks even because even though mothers do spend more time on childcare and housework than fathers, fathers tend to spend an equal amount of extra time working on their careers. Reading that helped me appreciate my husband rather than fume at him for not cleaning the bathrooms or scooping the litter boxes often enough. However, Bennetts points out two important facts that prove such arrangements are still unfair. First, so long as a couple stays together, both can benefit from one partner's increased income over time. But if they ever separate, as half of couples do, the person who invested more in their career gets to reap the benefits of that investment, while the one who provided a supporting role is left high and dry. Second, Bennetts cites evidence that doing housework is associated with greater unhappiness and that housewives suffer from lowered self esteem. This might explain my sheepish response to my husband bragging about my professional achievements to his co-workers. So while the hours of work might even out, the overall benefits of paid work are greater.

So what's the solution? Just like women shouldn't give up on their careers, they also shouldn't give up on pressuring their husbands to do their fair share of housework. Bennetts admits that this alone isn't going to produce perfect equality right away since women are going up against a whole lot of socialization that compels both men and women to embrace traditional roles. We can be nice about it, but unless we continue to push against those forces, things will never change. In other words, I shouldn't let my annoyance at the stinky litter box eat me up inside, but I should kindly mention to my husband that it needs scooping instead of just doing it myself.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Two Spicy Meals

The other day my daughter's reaction to dinner reminded me of an important meal I had in Mexico in 1995.

As a rule, I feed my now 30-month-old daughter whatever I make for myself and her dad. She doesn't have to eat everything, but she won't be offered any alternatives either. I try to mix it up with a lot of variety partially so I don't get bored and partially so she doesn't get stuck on a couple favorite foods.

The other night I was excited to try a new recipe for white beans, sausage, and kale over rice with a side of baked sweet potato strips. I used spicy Italian sausage - something Lysistrata had never tried. Dinner was running a bit late, so she was especially hungry by the time the food reached the table. She happily climbed onto her chair ready to chow-down. Looking into her bowl, she smiled and exclaimed, "Meatballs!" I explained to her that it was "sausage" and "a lot like meatballs". I also explained to her what the other bits were, which she rejected with a shake of her head. She took a big bite of just the sausage, and then things took a turn.

Lysistrata's face turned red as her mouth slowly opened and she simultaneously spit out the food and began to wail. "It's too hot!" I told her to drink some water, which she did. I also encouraged her to try the white beans, kale, rice, and sweet potatoes, but she refused. Instead she put another piece of sausage in her mouth. Her reaction was the same, only this time she swallowed the piece before wailing. She ate a third piece before shifting into full-on tantrum mode. She pushed the plate away, grabbed a huge handful of sweet potato strips, and screamed, "I don't want that!" I grabbed her hand just before she threw the sweet potatoes on the floor. She glared at me, then let out a primal scream. It reminded me of orc battle cries in Lord of the Rings.

On the surface, I remained calm. In as soothing a tone of voice as I could muster, I told her she needed to be in time out, and when she felt better she could come back to the table. Then I gently lifted her and placed her on the couch as she broke into tears. Inside I felt a wreck. Was I a terrible mother for expecting my toddler to eat spicy food? Should I break down and heat up some frozen meatballs? I kept reminding myself that she had eaten beans, rice, and sweet potatoes all before. There was plenty of "safe" foods for her to eat if she wasn't feeling adventurous about the kale and sausage. And she'd had kimchi for the first time at 18 months, and many other ethnic foods that have some heat, Besides, as far as spicy foods go, this sausage was relatively mild. I would stick to my guns and calmly wait for her to return to the table.

It took about five minutes for her to calm down and return. Her face streaked with dried tears, Lysistrata picked up her spoon and began to eat. As before, she started picking out the pieces of sausage to eat first, only this time she seemed to enjoy them. Then she added a piece of white bean or kale and rice to the spoonfuls, and when the sausage was gone, she kept eating the rest until the bowl was empty, at which point she reached for the sweet potatoes. Her mood shifted back to pleasant, and she told me dinner was "tasty." I quietly thanked her for the compliment, but inside I was doing a victory dance.

Witnessing this whole scenario unfold I was reminded of a meal pivotal to the development of my taste and enjoyment of food. As a child I avoided spicy foods, and I had to avoid them because my dad was a huge fan and they were frequently around. But when I was 17 and my family went to Mexico for part of the summer, avoiding spicy foods became much more challenging. I had managed to maintain my preferred mild diet rather well until the summer program I attended went on a field trip to a "traditional" bar-restaurant. A sign on the outer wall of the building read, "No women or children." We were, however, permitted to sit in the outside courtyard at rustic, wood tables with umbrellas to block the harsh sun. There was no menu. If you were hungry, you could order the meal. This turned out to be several courses of the hottest food I'd ever tasted. Of course not eating was an option, but it was late in the afternoon, and I was starving. My hunger far outweighed my aversion to spice, and I forced myself to eat. I wanted to whine and cry about it, beg my teacher and fellow students to go somewhere else to eat, but I was too old to act so sophomoric. The only beverages available were bottled water and carbonated soda, which provided little relief from the intensifying fire in my mouth. I just had to let it burn.

This was the most physically painful meal I have ever endured. But it was probably also one of the best. After it I wasn't afraid of spicy food, and this has encouraged me to expand to a wider range of foods. The thing about spicy food is that it still has flavor to be enjoyed and substance to satisfy hunger. Over a decade later I still have specific memories of some of the wonderful flavors in the courses from that firey meal. Not to mention the many wonderful spicy foods I have been able to enjoy since then.

Watching Lysistrata shove piece by piece of that sausage into her mouth despite the heat, I realized that she was learning a valuable lesson - that there can be joy and pain, attraction and aversion, at the same time, and that sometimes enduring a little pain proves worth the effort.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Barefaced and Beautiful Campaign, a Lame Distraction

Today kicks off National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Certainly eating disorders are a point of concern for many western parents, especially if they have daughters. I have known three young women who suffered from rather severe eating disorders for a time, and have suspected it of quite a few other friends and acquaintances. I am abundantly aware that anorexia and bulimia can lead to serious health problems, including death. (No doubt I know this because of past awareness campaigns.) So continuing to raise public awareness for upcoming generations of body-conscious young people seems like a wise and reasonable idea.

What I don't get it what this has to do with makeup.

The Renfrew Center Foundation which treats and conducts research about eating disorders is using this week to present "Barefaced and Beautiful", a campaign where they encourage women to go without wearing makeup Monday, March 27, 2012, post pictures of their naked faces on Twitter and Facebook, and spread the word to family and friends.

This campaign is in response to a survey of women conducted by the Foundation that revealed that 44% of women experience negative feelings without their makeup on, such as insecurity or self-consciousness. Almost half use makeup to hide flaws in their skin. Also, more than a quarter of women who wear makeup began doing so between the ages of 11 and 13.

I read this and I think, ummm, so?

Makeup, like clothing and jewelry, is adornment, not disguise. I imagine lots of women would feel uncomfortable and less attractive walking around in public with bed head or without a bra, but that hardly means they think their hair or breasts are ugly. Of course women use makeup to hide flaws in the skin. I remember desperately trying to find the right color to conceal that occasional mega-zit in high school. It had no reflection on my sense of self worth. And of course girls often start trying on makeup around the age of 12; that's when puberty kicks in. They're getting breasts, their first period, and developing crushes.  It is obvious that girls going through such transformation will be interested in picking up some of the habits and rituals of grown women. What exactly is harmful about dabbling in makeup?

Nowhere in any press coverage of this campaign can I find mention (much less evidence) of how makeup is directly connected with unhealthy body image issues or eating disorders.

Whether a woman wears makeup or not is largely a choice of personal style, similar to deciding what sort of shoes to wear or purse to carry. Also, as with clothing and jewelry, makeup is highly personalized expression. Through its use a woman can choose to blend in with convention, but she can also rebel or align herself with a particular subculture (think Goth), or make a bold and memorable impression (think Tammy Faye.) A woman can choose to make a certain shade of lipstick her signature in the same way some women exclusively wear a certain scent.

On top of that, the social pressure to wear makeup isn't all that strong or overt. I write this as a woman who hasn't worn makeup since high school (and even then only a handful of times), and no one has ever said anything to me about it, or even seemed to notice. The women I know who wear makeup seems to relish "putting on their faces" in the same way I enjoy picking out a pair of earrings and a necklace to wear for the day.

This campaign suggests that women who wear makeup are both insecure and victimized by a culture that pressures them to not be themselves. It also suggests that women like me who don't wear makeup are somehow rebels, throwing off convention even if the consequence is that we'll be perceived as less beautiful by most people. This bothers me.

What bothers me more is that I fail to see any meaningful connection between wearing makeup and having an eating disorder. Of the three women I've known with diagnosed eating disorders, two didn't wear makeup. In both cases, they associated with a subculture of women who didn't wear makeup (one was the sort of hippie-vegan type, the other was a butch bisexual.) And finally, this campaign places the focus exclusively on women since men conventionally don't wear make up. However, many men do have body image issues and eating disorders. This whole Barefaced and Beautiful campaign strikes me as a distraction from the real problems women and men with eating disorders deal with, and that's a shame.