Monday, October 26, 2009

What's Really Scary About Halloween

“I want it, Mommy, puhleeze . . . puhleeze!”
A little girl no older than six was sprawled across the aisle, clinging to a Halloween costume and screaming in a voice high-pitched enough to break glass. Shoppers bunched up around her, my daughter, Ali, and I among them. There were a few irritated murmurs and groans of exasperation.

It was one of those please-let-me-vanish-into-thin-air mothering moments. I could see the effort the mom was making to stay calm, bending over her daughter, reasoning quietly. But everything she did only resulted in more shrieking. “I want it!” “I want it!”
The man next to me covered his ears. Finally the mother, flushing with humiliation, peeled her daughter off the large plastic bag. Now we got to see what all the fuss was about.
I couldn’t believe it. A Naughty Nurse costume!

It was impossible not to stare. The large picture showed a young girl dressed in white fishnet stockings, high heels, and a satiny candy-stripper mini with a matching bustier. One hand was at her thrust-out hip, the other holding a syringe as if it were a sex toy.
I directed my gaze to the bottom row and took in the other costumes--Transylvania Temptress, Frisky French Maid, and Little Miss Handy Candy--all with shiny bright fabrics, lots of sparkles, knee-high boots, plunging necklines, and fluffy boas. How could these be for the six-year-old set? But there they were, and all in easy reach of little hands. A clash of parent-child wills just waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground was rapidly deteriorating. The little girl was writhing on the floor staging a level-five hissy fit. You could almost see the flashing words in the bubble over her mom’s head: “I’m not a bad mother. Really I’m not.” I watched her expression go from horrified to resigned. With rapid-fire motion, she yanked a fresh Naughty Nurse off the hook and scooped up her daughter. I gave her a sympathetic smile, but she’d already turned her head, anxiously looking for the checkout counter.

Other stores have pretty much the same selection. Pirate Wench, Instant Bunny (complete with the Playboy Bunny bowtie ) Major Flirt ( this year’s contribution to the military) and Little Bo Peep in a corset and lace petticoat. But what’s really scary are the pouty faces and beckoning thrust out hips of preteens ( and younger) modeling these clothes more rightfully belong in the window displays of seedy downtown sex shops..

“I wondered if I’d accidentally wondered into ‘Sluts R Us,’” Rachel Mosteller wrote on Blogging Baby about her search for her children’s Halloween costumes. She hoped her little ones would have no idea about the meaning behind names like Handy Candy--a sentiment widely shared by other moms who’d had similar experiences.

While Halloween for boys hasn’t changed much--the same blood-dripping masks and ghoulish garb--“costumes for girls have traded silly and sweet for skimpy and sexy.” “ It’s a strange time we live in when half the doctors are women, and half the lawyers are women, and all the little girls are prancing around in sexy costumes,” said Albany family therapist Lindy Guttman.

Her comment is right on target. Precisely because of the anxiety over women’s achievements, marketers are pushing marginalizing costumes on our daughters, reinforcing gender stereotypes. Instead of dressing up as a scientist, engineer, teacher or Dora the Explorer girls are parading around as chamber maids in a low-cut bodies and mini skirts. Tarty-tween costumes for Halloween are part of the sexualization of young women and girls—a trend going on for many years..

Unlike healthy sexuality, the sexualization of girls provides a very narrow definition of femaleness with a focus exclusively on appearance. This skewed identity “leads to a host of negative emotional consequences such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust,” says a recent report released by the American Psychological Association.

When sexual allure becomes the only path to power and self-worth, the role of achievement, talent, and being a decent person are diminished. Reduced concentration at school, eating disorders, depression, and unsafe and early sex are often the result. The onslaught of sexual images is encouraging a whole generation of girls to think about and treat their bodies as sexual objects, things for others’ use.

No parent wants to be Oscar the Grouch on Halloween and overrule a child’s choice of a costume, but if a group of parents get together and set up boundaries on what is and isn’t acceptable for dress-up, it will be a lot easier to steer your little goblin in the right direction. It’s also a good idea to organize an email blast to manufacturers and tell them why you’re not buying Miss Sexy Sergeant for your fifth grader. Or protest outside a store selling sexy costumes for the younger set and help to bring community-wide attention to issues of sexualizing girls and young women.

Women have a tremendous amount of power, but we have to use it to be effective.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sexism Kills...In America, Too

D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their new book, Half the Sky, present a horrific account of violence towards women around the world. By comparison, gender discrimination in richer nations, including the United States, is far more benign, according to the authors. It is simply a matter of not getting girls on male athletic teams, an unwanted sexual remark from a boss, the gender pay gap. While the brutality abroad certainly demands our attention, it shouldn’t obscure the potentially deadly dimensions of misogyny on our own shores.

The United States ranks 27th in the 2008 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, putting us behind Cuba and Lithuania. We’re only 37th in Health and Survival. Calculated by the World Health Organization, this category estimates how long men and women can expect to live in good health, considering the years lost to disease, malnutrition and violence.

Violence against women is rampant in our society and popular culture. Everything from increasingly graphic and available pornography, to the lyrics of our many well known rappers, to “Hunting Bambi” videos in which men in combat dress driving jeeps hunt naked women with paint ball guns. Our most popular forms of entertainment—television and electronic gaming— feature new and ever-more ingenious ways of slaughtering women. Numerous studies have documented the high correlation between violent entertainment and real-life acts of aggression. And we’ve seen how mass killings in America have targeted girls: in the Amish school house and more recently in a Pittsburgh sports club. But what we haven’t seen is an outcry against the systematic murder. “Why Aren’t We Shocked?” the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert (the rare mainstream journalist to make this point) asks about the murder in the school? There would be an outcry, wrote Herbert, if it were black or white people, Jews or Christians or Muslims who were selectively killed. But because it was “only” women we barely notice it. It’s just the same-old, same old.

“I have been dragged up 36 iron steps by …my hair,” a woman said and this was far from the worst story I heard. She is one of the 4 to 6 million women abused in this country each year by their intimate partners. Unless it’s a celebrity, like the late swimsuit model Jasmine Fiore, murdered by her husband, we rarely get news of the 3 women every day killed by their present or former partners. And the numbers are increasing. “We’re not just seeing an uptick, but we’re seeing an uptick off the charts,” said Officer Steve Frazer, Commander of the St. Paul Family Violence Unit. American teens are also “experiencing alarmingly high levels of abuse in their dating relationships,” reports a June, 2009 study by the Family Violence Prevention Fund. The study concurs with experts in the field attributing the escalating violence to the poor economy: the laid-off abuser has more time on his hands, and with cutbacks in funds for shelters and hotlines his would-be victim has fewer avenues for escape.

Domestic violence, however, has been on the raise before the recession of 2008. The “soaring levels” of abuse are also a function of the aching male psyche. Already bruised by the terror attacks on our own soil and the seemingly unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our tarnished image aboard, the manly man is being further hammered by the economic meltdown. Beyond all the trappings of masculinity—being an ace athlete, a sound decision maker, a soldier—what really makes men feel like men? “Being a good family breadwinner,” says a two-decade long survey conducted by the Yankelovich Monitor, reinforcing numerous academic studies. Historically threats to feelings of masculinity result in greater subjugation and mistreatment of women. Buried under the myth of a post feminist society, sexism reigns in America.

The FBI estimates over 100,000 young American women and children are currently being “forced to trade sex for money,” girls like fifteen year old Debbie kidnapped in front of her Phoenix home, gang-raped, held at gunpoint, forced to have sex with approximately 50 men and kept locked in a dog crate until her rescue forty days after her abduction. But Debbie was fortunate to have a family that was able keep on top of the investigation until she was found.

But what happens to girls who flee dangerous home situations? Many of them end up as Prostitutes, virtual slaves to their pimps. They are branded, beaten and forced to turn tricks until they meet their quotas. These girls are considered “throwaways,” invisible to society, according to Rachel Lloyd founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. Her organization helps young women who have escaped commercial sexual exploitation—“the lucky ones.” A study by The American Journal of Epidemiology found the average age of death of prostitutes to be thirty-four.

And sexism is shortening women’s lives in other ways as well. For the first time since 1918, women’s life expectancy is dropping. Emphysema, kidney failure, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are taking a huge toll among poor women of all races. Not one state in fifty received a satisfactory grade in a women’s health report card issued by the National Women’s Law Center. And our infant mortality rates are appalling. Data released in October, 2008 from the Centers for Disease Control ranks the United States 29th globally, with Non-Hispanic black and American Indian women having the highest rates. In our nation’s Capital the death rate of black infants in 4 times the rate for white newborns. CDC researchers Marian F. Mac Dorman, PhD. and T.J. Mathews note, “The relative position of the United States in comparison to countries with the lowest infant mortality rates appears to be worsening.”

Women’s inability to receive adequate prenatal and medical care for themselves and for their babies is inexorably linked to gender discrimination. Startling new evidence has revealed a large gap in the cost of health insurance plans between what men and women pay, a difference amounting to hundreds of dollars more for women. Race isn’t allowed to be a factor in setting rates; neither should we allow sex to be a factor. And women have fewer employment and advancement opportunities than men, are more likely to work part time, less likely to have health benefits, pensions and unemployment insurance, and when they do work full time are paid only seventy-seven cents to the male dollar. Over the course of a lifetime, the gender wage gap of the average working woman results in a loss of $700,000— a huge sum that could have gone a long way towards assuring better nutrition and healthcare for a woman and her family.

And gender discrimination, long excluding women from clinical trials, has skewed the medical community’s understanding of serious, often fatal diseases. More women die each year from stroke and heart attacks than men, according to the American Heart Association and only 8% of doctors nationwide know this. It’s exceedingly common for women to be misdiagnosed and given inappropriate therapies because they may present symptoms unlike men’s and respond to dissimilar medications and dosages. “For too long women have been treated as ‘little men’…”said Phyllis Greenberger, president of the Society for Women’s Health Research, an organization committed to ensuring women’s inclusion and retention in clinical trails. “What it amounts to,” she said “is women’s health getting really short shrift.”

Sexism is killing women and their children here and aboard. The methods may differ but the horrendous outcome is the same. So yes, we must fight for justice for women worldwide, but we must also fight for it at home.