Saturday, 28 February 2015

Porn, Sex, A* grades, Body Image, Selfies, Self-Harm, Sexting, Popularity Contests, Self-Worth, oh and Feminism

Apparently the heading tells you everything you need to be frightened of, and talking about, with your daughters.

This was a two-page listicle in The Times, in the Body + Soul section, written by parenting expert Tanith Carey, who has just written and is promoting a book called Girls Uninterrupted.

Actually, Ms Carey is not an expert in parenting, and, to her credit, does not call herself one on her own site. She is a journalist, with a degree in English and French, who has carved out a career in health, wellbeing, and the parenting markets. That does not constitute expertise, it constitutes being a journalist for a living. Writing a book does not make you an expert in a subject (I know, because I've done it, and know how much I don't know about my area of expertise).

My mother sent me this article, because she regularly sends me clippings of the dire things that are going to happen to me and my children if I don't (a) save more, (b) worry more, (c) enjoy life even less than I do now. I don't mind. It's because of my loving mum's repeated warnings that I have eventually managed to start my own SIPP, and have a will.

I read the article with horror, and felt shattered for several days afterwards, unable to collect my thoughts. I felt powerless, grief-stricken. That my child is going to be unable to sidestep the degradation of women, unwanted rough sex, low selfie-esteem, online pageants, cutting clubs, the bullying of the cool crowd, or feminism, filled me with hopelessness.

It seems I have accomplished nothing in my life. I have not been able, singlehandedly, to get rid of these scourges, around me, inside me, and will not be able to see them off for my beautiful child (obviously she's not just pretty, she's, like, really clever too!).

It's not that Carey's list or her advice is not sensible. She advocates conversation with your girls, not as a way to prevent things going wrong, but as a way to transmit tools to daughters that might help them prepare for the Sex Tsunami you know is coming their way. And as a way to build a bridge back if your daughter starts going the wrong way. What price jeunes filles en fleurs? Budding, blossoming, non — our girls are getting ready for the meat market.

Obviously, you should be having the same conversations with your sons, right? It's not in Carey's piece, but I fervently hope it's what she believes.

Because boys, too, should know that pornography doesn't reflect what happens in most people's bedrooms, and is made by an exploitative industry.

Boys should know that they will be unable to resist passing on saucy pics they have asked their girlfriends to send them, since boys, it seems, have no self-control and are just animals without hair.

Boys should probably know about the self-harm their female friends are inflicting on themselves. And that boys do it too.

Because otherwise, what you are doing, when you talk to your daughter about sex, is telling her that she alone is responsible for the penetrating male gaze, desire and actions. And it was ever thus.

He cannot, apparently, help himself.

Back in 1813, the same kind of parental horror was reserved for Lydia Bennett, who elopes with George Wickham and shows no remorse. How could a girl sully herself so, and throw away her chances of a good marriage, and hence, salvation? Today women are 'allowed', under the New Puritanism, to have relationships with men before marriage, but the anxiety about where women must draw the line has moved to scour their very flesh. The discourse is still all about patrolling what you look like and what you do with your sexual organs. Nothing in Carey's article mentions that young women might have desires of their own.

I was surprised not to see anorexia or bulimia (or indeed suicide, oh, and drugs) on the list. Hmmm. Perhaps these have had their journalistic day, now that Much More Sensational ideas of self-harm can pop up, like Teen Horror flicks, to bewilder parents.

It's funny, because when I was in my mid-teens, and developing an eating disorder as a response to the extreme pressure I put myself under to be perfect, to be the best, to come first, while remaining gracious at all times (yeah, right), I was surrounded by, shot through with, scare stories about the 'hidden scourge' of anorexia, the disorder that was invisibly plaguing our young girls. We hadn't heard of self-harm then.

The way anorexia was talked about (secret horror! Right under our noses!) made it much more attractive as a possible misery pathway to girls like me — over-achieving, anxious girls who thought they were ugly because they were nerds. Who thought they should be thin, even though they knew it was all rubbish. There was no internet, but if I wanted to see the degradation of women, all I needed to do was head into a newsagent, and look up at the top shelf. What's changed?

When I was an undergraduate, back in the late 1980s, still battling to overcome bulimia (I used to think of myself as a failed anorexic, because basically I liked food too much to starve myself), I once heard Susie Orbach talking about Fat is a Feminist Issue, and asked her whether she thought that eating disorders were romanticised by the media. She looked at me as if I'd pooped on the floor. She assumed I was making light of the situation. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

So-called 'parenting experts', who are essentially making a living out of frightening parents, are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Carey is not absolutely wrong to name ten issues in pubescent girls' lives. And her solution — to be open about the unpleasant parts of modern British and Western society — is not completely wrong either. I think it might have helped had I been able to talk to my mother more openly about sex. I think.

What is wrong is that newspapers think it's ok to package these issues up as a handy takeaway list, as though these ten items actually constitute reality for our girls, as if girls are responsible for male desire, as if girls will have no desires of their own, and as if there is literally nothing else in the female universe but a preoccupation with bodies, hardcore porn and self-worth.

What saved me in the end was falling in love with a kind boy at university, and learning to enjoy sex. There it is. Thank you, that boy.

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