Category Archives: review

On pink and other toy segregation

Review of Chapter 3, Pinked! of Orenstein, Peggy, 2011, Cinderella ate my daughter. Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture, New York:  HarperCollins Publishers

If you want to read a general summary of the book read here, chapter 1 here and chapter 2 here.

The problem with pink, this author argues, is not obviously the colour itself but how little a portion it is of the rainbow. This is representative to her of how limiting a range available there is for the creation of female identity in the mainstream toys and colours for children.

In a way, one could be happy for the celebration of girlhood through all things pink. But she argues that this celebration of girlhood, just as with princesses, celebrates a very limiting and limited portion of what it means to be a girl/woman. It essentially fuses girl identity with appearance. 

Orenstein traces the history of the use of pink and blue for girls and boys and shows that until recently children weren’t colour coded –white was used for all as it made sense for better cleaning and saving. When it did start, pink was actually for boys – sublimated red- and blue for girls- which related to the colours of the Virgin Mary. In any case, what she shows is how strong is the power of marketing to impose these colours, and also in the ways in which more and more they create different developmental stages. She shows how people in the retail business invented the ‘toddler’ phase rather than child developmental research, for instance. The same goes with ‘tween and all the different separations that now exist. The bottom line is: separating (in age and sex) boosts profits. Pink makes business sense.

She shows next how toys have fallen into this game of prettifying themselves to sell. Sesame street had trouble with finding a girl figure that was successful, until they made a ‘pretty’ one (there are very few girls in the programme, one which has addressed many issues such as race and disability, but gender…it still struggles). The same with Dora the explorer, the one aimed at 5-8 years old: is suddenly tall and elongated, more ‘pretty’. The excuse of manufacturers is always the same ‘we are honouring children’s pattern of play’. But are they honouring or imposing? Where’s the line?

The author ponders about the importance of toys for children, can’t we just say ‘oh this are just toys, let’s not worry about it’? You could, of course, but she argues, again, that what we have, own and wear says a lot about ourselves, these things in many ways reflect who we are. So she asks then:

‘What do the toys we give our girls, the pinkness in which they are steeped, tell us about what we are telling them? What do they say about who we think they are and ought to be?’

So, if we buy our children these toys: what are we telling them about who they are, what they should value, and what it means to be female?

With this in mind, she analyses the evolution of dolls. From dolls that were meant to boost the ‘flagging maternal instinct’, to Barbie, who entered the scene in the 60s, toys reflected parental values and/or societal values. She shows how Barbie was, in the 60s, a moment when gender values were in flux, in a way revolutionary, as it reflected a whole new idea of what women could be that differed in some ways from the washing machine and irons that came with other dolls. Barbie was single, fun, free to hang out with boyfriends. But Barbie has changed over the years, its features softened, its palette of colours reduced, it was made more ‘pretty’ as its public changed – instead of the 8-12 year old market, more and more its consumers are in the 3-6 market.  And older girls, in rejection to anything babyish, look for ‘cool’. In this case Barbie is left for Bratz. Bratz are dolls that exude ‘sassiness and attitude’, which in another words means sexy. From pretty to sexy, that’s the line to walk on for girls.

So the ‘innocence’ of princesses’ and even of Barbie now fades away to give way to what was behind it more clearly: narcissism and materialism. And Bratz more bluntly clearly define appearance and consumption as hallmarks of female identity. And Bratz were very successful, taking up to 40% of the doll market.

She states that she does not think that these companies have a plan to brainwash our children…but that they do it because it works, and in a way parents pay for it. So the question becomes then ‘why does it work and why parents pay for it?’

What she asks is:

‘why do parents need to apply such difference between male and female?

 ‘what is the anxiety that accounts for the surge of the pink and pretty?’

She answers with more questions.

She shows how what it seems is that the more freedom women have, the more polarised a culture’s ideas about the sexes becomes. But, how is this to be interpreted?  Is it fear of sameness? Or is it that now we can enjoy difference without fear? Or is the segregation biologically driven?  Even if so, she asks herself what is the impact of separate but equal might make on children’s perceptions of themselves. This is the next chapter theme: nature and nurture.

This chapter is one in which I agree with loads of what she says, and the dilemmas she struggles with, but one in which I would have liked to have been analysed more in depth.. or let’s say I would have liekd more ammunition towards corporate practices :).

 This chapter is supposed to show the transition from the innocence of princesses to the ‘coolness’ of sexy. And in a way, it is clear through her description of the ‘dolls war’ that there was something here in that transition that worked, if not Bratz would not have been such a phenomenon. So it is a phenomenon. The more popular toys are ones who encourage first prettiness and now sexiness for girls. And as she says, when we buy these toys we are telling them something about themselves, about what we think they should be.

In addition, the chapter showed clearly how the segregation of toys into boys or girls and ages, boosted profits enormously. As she says, pink makes business sense. She criticises the answer of most toy producers…but then at the end in a way it feels as if she lets corporations off the hook a bit.

As I desribed above, she ends up the chapter saying that she does not think there is a great conspiracy from these companies to brainwash our children, which we can probably agree with, but that they do it because it works. Because children want it and parents pay for it. But even though this is a very valid point, I would say that you don’t need a conspiracy to say that these companies should be responsible for what they produce. And although parents are a crucial factor here, putting the concluding focus on parents and culture more generally for buying these produce seemed to let the companies off the hook a bit.

In any case, as I said before, this book sparks more questions than gives many answers to in a way. It made me want to know more: but how are these toys used? How do parents justify their buy? How does peer pressure and gender policing have a role in this? TV? How does it differ in different contexts where the marketing machine is not so developed? What can we do about it?? Some of these questions she answers in other chapters, but some are left lingering.



Motherhood and nurturing in the age of obesity

Keenan, Julia and Stapleton, Helen, 2010,  Bonny babies? Motherhood and nurturing in the age of obesity, Health, Risk and Society, Vol. 12, No. 4, 369-383

 This article grabbed my attention as I am very interested in issues of feeding and nurturing as core activities of motherhood practice, as well as in body image issues. In this article, Keenan and Stapleton draw on women’s accounts of their interactions with health professional and families to see how the prevalent and powerful biomedical discourse around obesity plays out in practice. The authors describe the importance of this discourse for this study as involving the medicalisation and moralisation of large bodies in pregnancy as ‘obese’ and thus the creation of subjects ‘at risk’ to themselves and their foetus/infant.

This paper is based on findings from a qualitative research project, conducted from 2006-2008 in a city in the north of England, and this paper draws mainly on accounts and experiences told by  participants with large bodies.

First they discuss the World Health Organisation’s definition of obesity as ‘excessive fat accumulation that may impair health’. This definition is operationalised many times through the use of Body Mass Index (BMI), based on a height to weight relationship, which is a simple and cheap tool. A BMI of over 30 is most commonly seen as obese. For children, categories are based on the percentile position on ‘normal’ growth scales. Obese children are considered those which surpass the 95th or 98th percentile.

The authors discuss the different problems that the use of BMI to figure out risks brings, and show how critical studies of obesity question the link between BMI and health, which often are translated into policy in oversimplified ways that create definitions of certain bodies as fat and problematic.

The authors show how biomedical research links appropriate pre-pregnancy weight, weigh gain and nutrition in pregnancy with satisfactory foetal outcomes, and more and more with infant health over the life-course.

In the biomedical literature, a BMI over 30 is linked with

‘increased risks of miscarriage, gestational diabetes,  high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia,  blood clots, haemorrhage following birth, increased risk of induction and instrumental delivery, post-caesarean wound infection, genital and urine infections, giving birth to an infant with an abnormally high birth weight and problems with breastfeeding; obesity is significantly implicated in maternal deaths (CEMACH 2007). Babies born to ‘obese’ mothers are at increased risk from premature birth, still birth and birth abnormalities and are more susceptible to health problems, including obesity and diabetes in later life.’

However, as the authors point out, there is still debate about how much of an increased risk obesity brings, and these risks are not exclusive to women with BMI over 30. And there are contestations to the notion that adult health is predetermined by infant body size.

But this discourse comes strongly through social and cultural norms concerning the right way to prepare for pregnancy, and is framed in the media in this terms. This authors point out how health has increasingly moral connotations, and how being obese, this ‘risky’ bodily state is seen as an individual and moral failure.

However, given this atmosphere, the authors were surprised to find that women in antenatal interviews reported that health workers did not discuss ‘obesity’ with them. Very few were under consultant care due to their weight, and most of them were not aware of any of the risks listed above, apart from those few who were self-informed. In the UK, maternal weight in pregnancy is not monitored. So apart from a one-off measurement of weight and height at the beginning, weight is only informally monitored by midwives.  Women with a family history of diabetes, or with a BMI over 30, where tested for gestational diabetes, and monitored if the results were positive.

The authors argue that it is understandable that health workers were reluctant to broach the subject, as despite the urgency of the obesity debates, there are still no clear policy guidelines, support or resources, and health workers do not want to make women feel guilty, uncomfortable, or encourage them into weight regulation. Although the authors do not go into this in detail, they highlight that negative comments were always given by family, their social circle or the media.

In this way, weight was not made an issue during pregnancy by health workers, and while attempts at discussing this issue by participants were met with reassurance, some women found this helpful, while others found it frustrating, as they would have liked some support and discussion. This was especially the case for women in terms of birth plans. Most of them were led to believe that they could just plan whatever birth they wanted, but they were unaware of the regulations that prohibit certain options for women with BMI over 30, and they felt that, at the last minute, they were snatched of their choices.

Furthermore, the lack of dialogue about the risks for women and their babies meant that when health professionals, especially higher rank ones, mentioned weight as the cause of ‘poor outcomes’, these were dismissed by women. The approaches that higher ranking health professionals used were crude, induced blame and were insensitive, and did not work in terms of the goals of these professionals – raising awareness about the risk of excess adiposity – but made women, quite rightly, discredit their comments.

In terms of infant size, the authors note that across their data as a whole, underweight or premature babies generated much more anxiety around their weight than a baby deemed to be ‘big’. The authors show that the much like the more traditional understandings of ‘bonny’ babies, bigness and a good appetite were seen positively, and not as a problem. The only exception to this unproblematised view of weight gain was done by women who managed diabetes through pregnancy.

The authors end up concluding that while they do not want to contest the studies that relate excess adiposity with increased risks for women and infants, they want to identify the problems that using a measure such as BMI can bring in terms of policy, or in its translation in the treatment of individual women to improve birth outcomes and health. This article shows the disparity between discourses and practices. At the moment, health workers do not encourage women to manage biomedical risks, within pregnancy, but there are many policy and guidelines in the pipeline that are probably going to change this. Moreover, this article underlines how it is not possible to understand the medicalisation and moralisation through the work of one type of actor, such as health workers, but other social actors need to be included.

I liked this article because it tackles a sticky issue: how to understand in a measured way the risks that ‘obesity’ might bring, while problematising deterministic studies and the individualisation and moralisation of this problem. At least I find it tricky. I am worried about what these studies are showing, and scared, frankly, but at the same time, am wary about how this might be translated. If I had to bet, I would say it will probably end up in blaming the mum, and not only for a difficult pregnancy and or birth, but for the health of their children now and forever. Which is not the outcome I would like to see, but it is one that is taking shape in the media for instance. But just because it is sticky does not mean we can ignore it, or act as if nothing happened….It is the same with women’s bodies and fat shaming. We don’t need more of that, and we do not need more women who are not happy in their bodies. In this case, how could there be support for women, without it being medicalising, moralising and individualising the problem? As I say, tricky.


Starting point

Each week I will examine one chapter of Orenstein’s book. The first one basically states her starting point, and I put it out here so we can all start in the same page. For those of you who are new to here and wonder what I am talking about, the general review of her book is here.

So, how important is that girls play as princesses? Does it really matter if their clothes and toys are pink and if they have mainly flowers and butterflies? Orenstein thinks about this, and acknowledges the temptation to give this a pass, to think that ‘it is just a phase’, but ends up arguing that it matters, a lot.

In the first chapter of Orenstein’s book, she sets out her aim. She wants to understand the impact of images and ideas that girls absorb as to what they should be, and what roles should they play, and what made them girls, in this mainstream girlie-girl culture. And she asks, what is the first thing she learnt in her ventures into mainstream culture?

‘Not that she is competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants  – or should want- to be the Fairest of them All’

She shows how studies done by the American Psychological Association show how

‘the emphasis on beauty and play sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behaviour’

Well, those are things I do fear.

She points out to some confusing signals: while there are more and more examples of girls’ successes, the push to make their appearance the centre of their identities , did not seem to have diminished, on the contrary, it seems to have intensified, and extended (to younger, and also older ages). And I have read many studies how teenage girls seem under so much pressure these days, much more than boys. Duties have piled up, and intensified.

(Does it not ring a bell with how the role of parents -and the invention of the verb to parent-, and especially mothers, has seemed to intensify in the last decades, just when women have more and more taken other roles?)

And this triggered in her questions about how to help our daughters navigate the contradictions they will inevitably face as girls. Her question is one I worry a lot about:

‘How do you instil pride and resilience in her?’

She gives examples of myriad moments in which we have to navigate the land of toys, clothes, of things. And she argues that answering this question, and navigating this world, is harder now, since the mid-1990s, than it was before. She explains that this is the moment where the Girl Power movement which celebrated ability over body, has its message turned around. Somehow, the body, the pursuit of physical perfection, became the source of empowerment.

This is her starting point. And in one way, much of mine too.


Women Law Professors: Negotiating and Transcending Gender Identities at Work

Wells, Celia: “Women Law Professors: Negotiating and Transcending Gender Identities at Work” Feminist Legal Studies, Vol. 10, 2002,
pp. 1-38

In this article Wells analyses and examines women law professors’ (WLP’s) complex feelings about gender in the workplace. Her hypothesis is that these experiences may change as they become senior members of a university. To conduct her research Wells relied on a self-reporting and interview methodology, analysing 37 cases via 29 questionnaires and 11 interviews.

It’s a fact that women are underrepresented in universities in the UK, especially at senior level. This is especially true in schools of law, where there are very few WLP and female heads of department. Wells concludes that while WLP in the UK are a diverse group, they are also quite homogenous in some aspects. For example, just two of the WLP come from a working class family, and up to two thirds went to private high schools. An overwhelming majority attended single-sex schools and a large proportion (13) attended what is called the “Golden Triangle”: that is to say Oxford, Cambridge or London University.

Three quarters of them are white. Most of these WLP work in areas identified as soft law (public international law or criminal law), whereas commercial law, property law, trust and equity or maritime law still remain boys’ clubs. The main reason for going into teaching law seem to be related to accessibility and flexibility in comparison to legal practice. Other reasons WLP mentioned were: “it was not for me” and “too stuffy”. It seems that for these women, academic life is more attractive than legal practice because of the possibility of a more harmonious intermarriage of their professional and personal life.

Wells reveals the following figures:

“While most have either one or two children, two of the women have five or more. In addition, a fifth of the women reported that they had responsibility for looking after parents or elderly relatives. A few of them referred to the fact that child care was shared equally with their partners but most of them took for granted (it seemed) that they would be the primary carers.” (p. 9)

Funnily enough, as Wells remarks, the elite universities that educated these women were reluctant to give them a job. Wells also mentions the number of years it took to be promoted to senior level. This varied from 3 to 20 years. Indeed, the average number of years spent as a lecturer was around 13 , and to rise from senior lecture to reader took between 1 and 14years. These data suggest that women spend most of their law career in junior positions.

Surprisingly, nearly a fifth of the sample did not think that gender played any role in their career. It is interesting that WLP saw gender as relevant but not necessarily a disadvantage:

“As far as my [undergraduate] experience is concerned I do not remember feeling or being treated any way but equal. I was President of my Hall of Residence (women only) and was a member of the Students’ Union and ran for President of the Union.” (17) “I cannot honestly say that my gender has caused many real difficulties in my work, though it has critically influenced my research field. I am about to become head of school and therefore do not know whether gender will prove relevant here. My suspicion is that I have been in my present surroundings so long that nobody really notices my gender any more!” (p. 11)

Other WLP commented that claiming gender bias at work might lead to victimization, which is not good for women at all:

“My philosophy . . . is the one I have consciously or subconsciously followed all my life, namely to behave as if equality between the sexes prevailed, to ignore barriers that may or may not exist, to forge ahead regardless, never to espouse the ‘victim mentality’, to believe that anything is possible, and to be robust in the face of alleged sexual and religious harassment . . . Younger women seem to belong to a different species altogether, of a more sensitive and victimised nature; and as I get older, I find their attitude more and more inexplicable and self-defeating.” (p. 11)

In the same tone:

“I remain opposed to gender studies for reasons I find hard to articulate (marginalisation, softness?); and I also think that the sexual harassment movement has gone much too far . . . I am a follower of the small group of women who believe that sexual harassment codes do women no good, in that they represent them as sensitive, prudish, obsessed with protection, vengeful, humourless, and totally inept in dealing with men.” (p. 27)

Wells did a very interesting follow-up on some of those WLP who had explicitly mentioned that their gender had not affected their career. Some of these women revealed contradictions in their self-reports and further interviews. For example, one of them mentioned later that she had been the object of sexual harassment by a senior member of the staff when she was at junior level. When later Wells inquired about it, she stated:

“Yeah, that’s interesting, but it didn’t affect anything, it was just, I think, a case of an older male senior person who was, sort of, going around, he tended to, you know, be sort of affectionate, but he was trying to bring out things that you were upset about and then go “there, there” and I just quickly moved off and said that was the end of that but it was interesting later, several years later, that other young female colleagues had had the same kind of experience, but, we hadn’t talked to each other about it.” (p. 12)

Gender was also reflected in women’s appearance. Some WLP reported that in schools of law women seem to be judged by their appearance far more than men:

“If a woman looks too attractive, she is not taken seriously; if, on the other hand, she is not stylish at all, she will not be popular. The trick is to strike a happy medium between the two extremes.” (p. 13)

For many of these women, having a female mentor or more women supporting them would have made a difference. In some cases, that lack of mentoring has been translated into a sort of denial, something like “If I know I can’t get it, better if I don’t need it”. As one of the WLP said:

“I have always been a very hard-working, over-achiever so didn’t need much from others – which is good because if I had needed it I might have been in trouble!” (p. 14)

This tough attitude is very characteristic of male-dominated environments in which women need to show that they are not too soft or needy. This is especially relevant in the field of law because our profession is very confrontational; it’s often about producing the best and most convincing arguments, those that make you feel powerful but which do not necessarily reflect the real situation or the whole of people’s point of view or emotions. Our profession is one of economising on affection and truth (– or perhaps masking affections and truth?) for the sake of good arguments and power.

In this sort of environment that women need to fit into there are various possibilities, according to Wells. Drawing on Margaret Thorton’s research on women lawyers in Australia, Wells portrays four different attitudes toward women: “the adoring acolyte, the body beautiful, the dutiful daughter, and the Queen Bee” (p. 15).

As in another review that I have posted here , Wells refers to “divided loyalties” and the feeling that once women have children they are perceived as less committed to their work. Another aspect repeatedly mentioned in the self-reports and interviews is that women do more pastoral work than their male colleagues. I found it interesting (maybe because I haven’t seen this so far) to read how teaching allocation in law schools can be driven by gender. For example:

“I wanted to teach conveyancing but was told I couldn’t because I did not have a practising certificate. I was then asked to teach family law ). Once I was instructed to teach family law (which I had never studied) ‘because I had a family’” (p. 15)

Most of the WLP expressed discomfort and stress about having to juggle their jobs and their roles as carers for children or older people. They also raised further gender issues when the topic of promotion was brought up. Promotion blockage was mentioned by many of the women, as also the subtle discrimination that women lawyers face.

“I am increasingly concerned how far attitudes among some colleagues, in law and the wider university, really have changed. Overt discrimination has largely disappeared. No-one would say, as was said to me, “you’re no competition, you’ll get married and go parttime” or “you ought to stay at home with that baby – children who are deprived of their mothers fail to thrive”. Yet such overt attitudes have their benefits. You can hit back. Other colleagues hear what is said and rally round. Today expression of such attitudes is more insidious. Colleagues wonder if “X is pulling her weight”. Requests to adjust teaching hours to meet childcare commitments are not met sympathetically. Yet requests to fit in with other external commitments are.” (p. 22)

Wells believes that women success does not change the organisation and once the agreements are made endure for a long time. In this regard, she quotes this hilarious statement from one of the WLP:

“A topic for discussion at the senior awayday was the reform of the University’s mission statement to remove the concept of working towards equal opportunities because the University has got there! And they really believe it.” (p. 24)

However, Wells point out that what seems to make a difference is having more women at the managerial level, something that I’m not fully convinced of. I think that it’s very important, but it doesn’t mean that women at managerial level are not going to end up doing the same thing. Wells make this interesting remark:

“Flattering successful women into believing they are exceptional justifies their being kept as a minority. They are recruited as ‘honorary males’ and by invitation join the dominant group of king bees. At the same time they may carry the dutiful (and therefore not exactly brilliant) image to prevent full admission or further progress. Only limited paths are available for women at this stage. Ascending the hierarchy will often mean for women an inevitable, tacit acceptance of the organisational culture. Gaining access to power for women may often be at the cost of their sense of identity as women, or their solidarity with others.” (p. 28)

The whole point, to me, comes down to what sort of change WLP can bring to the teaching and researching of law, and whether this change can be made only from a managerial position or also from other angles. Maybe we need to see more women in managerial positions to appreciate the change, but perhaps there are other alternatives.


Pink and pretty – how ‘innocent’ can harm

Orenstein, Peggy, 2011, Cinderella ate my daughter. Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture, New York:  HarperCollins Publishers

I explained before what moved me to grab this book. As the title of the book suggests, it studies and analyses the new incarnation of the girlie-girl culture.

I liked this book for several reasons.

First, because I could identify with the authors concerns for her daughter and the reasons she set out to study more in detail this phenomenon. She describes how she wants to encourage her daughter to be a healthy, happy, strong girl. The girlie-girl culture freaks her out, but at the same time she does not want to give her daughter the impression that feminine, or girly stuff is not good, that ‘boys’ things are better. She wants her daughter to find a way of exploring her sexuality in her own terms, and being able to understand her body, her desire, her needs. And thus, objects strongly to the early sexualisation of children, and to the models of coming of age that seem to follow the princes stage – that of modern human ‘princesses’ such as Hannah Montana or Britney, which ends up being about objectifying.  She wants her daughter to be strong and independent, to have a healthy body image and at the same time to fit in. She is worried about media, but also about social media. And more. 

And she is brave to tackle head on these difficult issues. To do so, she immerses in the girlie-girl culture, by talking and interviewing different people, such as the mind behind the Disney Princess phenomenon, by analysing different products and toys – from Barbie, American Girl to Bratz, and all the z phenomenon-, by talking to mothers and children –including toddler pageants’ mothers- , by reviewing studies, and also weaving in personal stories. This book is mainly targeted at the general public, more than an academic audience. It is journalistic. And it is well-done in this sense as I found it not only informative, but also funny, and very engaging. I read it very quickly.

A thing I really appreciated about this book is that it is not written from a smug ‘know-it-all’ perspective. She questions herself, backtracks, starts again, moves in different directions around the issues and shows her personal struggles. It is like reading a funny, honest, on-going conversation of the author with herself, and with others, around the tricky issues parents and children face in contemporary girlhood. It is the type of conversation I would have myself. So in a way, I am glad she has done so much work that I can use, and also work with. Beware, if you are looking for a more ‘parental advice’ book, this book shows her journey, not a clear cut ‘solution’.

For me, this made the book meaty and engaging, but also particularly difficult to review properly, to summarise. And for this reason, I have decided that it would be more interesting to describe here briefly the issues the book touches on, and to, in the following weeks follow up with the different themes this book raises.

So here it goes:

Orenstein starts this book by arguing the importance of thinking about the girlie-girl culture, even though we might be tempted – with so many other issues to worry about- to give it a pass. She states that the emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase a girl’s vulnerability to the issues that most worry parents: depression, eating disorders, disordered body image, risky sexual behaviour, to name a few.

She argues that these issues don’t just magically appear during teenage years, but are slowly built throughout the years. And that these little decisions parents make all along, such as which toys, movies, clothes, children wear/use matter. Her aim is to understand ways in which we can help our daughters navigate the contradictions they will face as girls, and to show us how and what this culture has become and what has changed in the last years.

She deals with the question of why princesses appeal, not only to children and businesses, but to parents. And shows how these are appealing to parents many times for their ‘safety’, but that this is done through a consumer culture that encourages the opposite. In addition, she scrutinises the boom of ‘pink and pretty’ for girls, and for this explores the business sense in this strategy, and how limiting this turns out to be for creating a female identity. This leads her to tackle the issue of nature vs. nurture, and to show how even though there is phase where gender for children needs to be validated through exterior signs, which makes them more prone to seek reassurance from toys, clothes, colours, this is also a stage in which they are more malleable to long-term influences on abilities and roles that go with sex. Next, she looks at how exploration of femininity can lead to exploitation and how difficult to manoeuvre the land of sexually charged toys, dolls, clothes.

Furthermore, she discusses the need for violent play, and critiques how this has been thwarted by TV. She shows how, even if children use the same toys –such as guns – as older generations used, the marketing culture in which they are immersed means that the relationship that girls (and boys) have with this toys and the impact they have, is different. The author also explains how tame Disney fairytales can be detrimental to a child’s emotional development, and describes her successful experiments with more gory versions, which at least, she argues, give better models for coming on age than the real life princesses she goes on to examine.

Orenstein described how the passage, the coming of age, of real-life princesses, such as the Hannah Montana actress or Britney Spears, for instance, seems to invariably involve the shedding of clothes. Her struggle here is that these modern day princesses seem to express the struggle of girls more widely, but encourage girls to view self-objectification as a female rite of passage.

Next comes a related, and major, issue in all this girlie-girl culture:  the importance of body image. She describes here the history of fat, and how it became not only a health issue, but the moral issue it is today. Her advice, before having a daughter, to avoid eating disroders and a disordered body image was the usual: praise the actions not the body, involve her in group sports, in volunteerism, and make her media literate. But she shows how hard it is to counteract a message that is given by everything and everyone, and also one that you find hard modelling yourself. And how hard she finds it to give her daughter a sense of self-worth that was not contingent on her looks and clothes, but at the same time make her also stay allies with other girls.

Finally, she studies how the internet and social media is experienced and used by older children. She shows how social media has changed the ways children conceptualise their selves and their relationships, and that these are build in a similar way as ‘branding’. In addition, she shows how bad judgement was much less memorable before, and how forms of harassment and bullying have found new and wider forms of expression. The author points out how different ages bring different challenges, different abilities and development, and thus, different parental strategies need to follow. The author, however, reminds us that our role is that of preparing them, more than shielding them, from the world.  

As you can see, even with this brief summary of issues, there is plenty of stuff to dissect. I do recommend this book, and would love if you want to join me in reading and discussing it together…like a geeky book club, you know you want to 🙂

And if you don’t keep up, I will send you some pink toys and a princess DVD your way…


Note: I have not been sent or asked to review this book.

Is it good to have more public births?

Robyn Longhurst, 2009, You Tube: a new space for birth?, Feminist review, 93, 46-64

Robyn Longhurst analyses in this article the rise of a different space for birth, a more ‘public’ one at that: birth videos uploaded on You Tube. As she points out, women have long been expected to birth in particular ways, and in particular contexts. In the western contemporary world, birth is mainly done in private spaces, with only a few close members of family present, and it takes place in the hospital or (in a lesser number) in the home.  But now, there is also You Tube, where millions can watch videos of women giving birth at the click of a button. For this study, Longhurst analysed hundreds of videos and its comments, and concluded that while You Tube has the potential to open up new windows on birth, at the moment this is not realised. As she states,

‘You tube does not overcome or render insignificant material expressions of power, instead it typically privileges US centric view of births, reiterates discourses of ‘good’ mothering, and censors particular (mainly vaginal) representations of birth.’

I was interested in this article because I am curious about the spatiality of motherhood, that is, the spaces in which motherhood is performed.  And I am ever amazed at birth, love reading about it, and hearing birth stories. I am one of those people who can listen to your detailed birth story, without getting bored… yes, I know, weird. Reading this article was interesting as it figured a different space where motherhood, and in this case birth is done, which is complex, as it is at the same time, material but virtual, intimate but public, raw but edited. And of course, I had to go and have a look (hmmm, ‘interesting’ to see it from the other side…).

Coming back to the article, the author argues that bodies are always located, and what this means in this case, is that You Tube is not just a backdrop, but constitutes these birthing bodies too, as much as these bodies constitute You Tube. She shows how all the videos represented the birthing subjects as ‘good mothers’ –selfless, loving, kind, adoring – through words, images and music. Furthermore, a particular normativity of birth comes through, a particular way of ‘doing it right’, which includes feelings but also technologies (natural, induced and C-sections), positions, rituals (for example who cuts the cord) and places (hospital, birthing centre or home) of birth, and type of families too (hetero-normativity). This also reflects where the videos are being posted from, mainly, it seems, from the US. And who is posting these videos – people who obviously have enough resources (material and skills) to own a video camera, edit the video, and put it online. As much as You Tube is a technology that can be used to share videos globally, US users predominates and create a certain sense of what is normal, or expected. As the author points out, though there are examples of ‘other’ types of birth, most viewers will only see a narrow range of birthing experiences represented.

Finally, Longhurst analyses how certain types of videos are censored, especially vaginal births, and how also many are deemed inappropriate for minors, even though this is not the case for animal births, or even very graphic representation of c-sections. Objections to these videos do not come only because they cause abjection (as many comments make explicit) but she analyses how this has to do with vaginas being ‘eroticised orifices’. When women show their birthing bodies in public, instead of keeping them, modestly, in private, they are partly contesting mainstream notions of good mothers, even though at other times, it confirms these, as I described above.

Longhurst concludes this article with a cautious note. She shows how important it could be for birth videos to be more widely available, but also reminds us of the exclusivity of these virtual geographies, and of the ways that most of these videos reinforced normative western reproductive views of birth.

While this article had at the times the feel of being still a bit raw, it worked to give me tools to think about motherhood in more spatial ways as well as to remind me of the different ways in which images, spaces and bodies are co-constituted. The author ends with an interesting comment on the importance also of thinking about how these images will be seen, digested, used, which will probably depened on gender, on experience, on sexuality, class, culture and so on.

I remember midwives in the NHS prenatal day course were happy about being able to see some more real labours online, because before they only had some not so good 1970s videos only. I also think that visibility of birth practices, especially if it allows for difference, as Longhurst argues, can be beneficial. However, I was left wondering who would these videos benefit. Not that there is a need for beneficial outputs, I guess. But what I mean here is that I am not really sure if it is really that good for mums to be. Or more precisely, I am not sure it would have been so beneficial to watch these videos before ever having  a baby. Because now I know how it feels, looking at women giving  birth gives me less of a feeling of ‘otherness’. In other words, it would have probably been too far removed from my experience to be able to understand it (and not freak out). Also, because I was the person giving birth, the images I have are totally different from those that can be seen from a camera, and that were many times the object of these videos.

But obviously, it is not the same for every person. And I do think that health workers, midwives, and mums probably get more out of these, and well, it could do some good for men to look, in order to get a bit more appreaciation here 😉  (though there was a story within this article about using videos of labour for a pornographic film – it seems pregnant women are already a hit…how about that?? I am suggesting here another type of appreciation…).

What do you think? Have you watched videos of birth? Were they useful? Would you film your own birth?


ps: I edited it again after I published it, sorry, it felt a bit incomplete!

I don’t want to mother this child: Ambivalence and mothering

Featherstone, Brid, “Taking mothers seriously: The implications for child protection”, Child and Family Social Work, Vol. 4, 1999, p. 43-53.

This is an interesting article by Brid Featherstone on how a feminist approach to social work can help in understanding the implications of working with mothers and children. The article starts with a note about the case of Ruth Neave, who was accused of killing her six-year-old son in 1996. The case resembles other, more recent ones in the UK such as that of Baby P., in which the media exploited and recreated the emotional and dramatic aspects of the story. By bringing this case to our attention Featherstone challenges the ideal picture of mothering based on endless love for their children.

Her point is that mothers change in the course of bring up their children. Motherhood changes women, and this change also affects their parenting. In her article Featherstone seems very concerned about the growing body of literature that holds that children are sacred creatures in need of all types of attention (something similar to the concept of “intensive mothering” developed by Douglas ). For this reason she tries to disentangle some feminist social workers’ ideas that children’s and women’s needs are always on the same side and that the main problem that social workers come up against is abusive behaviour by men.

The consequence of this literature’s approach is that the relationship between mothers and children is never explored. As Featherstone reminds us, feminism has been ambivalent about motherhood, characterising it in some cases as a place of oppression. Although she clearly disagrees with this approach, she sees something positive in it: “The importance of seeing mothers as people in their own right rather than just as wives, mothers and carers” (p. 45).

During the ’60s feminist literature opened up to a different approach which distinguishes motherhood was from mothering. Adrienne Rich was a pioneer in this field with her seminal work “Of Woman Born – Motherhood as Experience & Institution” . She associates motherhood with the institutional and patriarchal ways of organizing the mother experience, and mothering with the personal and experimental field of being a mother. For Featherstone, Rich exemplifies the above-mentioned tendency of perceiving mothers and children as on the same side, as merged identities, enhancing the fantasy of the perfect and loving mother. This tendency was followed by others such as Ruddick , who examines the maternal role “in the context of what children need to grow and develop” (p. 46).

To Featherstone, Ruddick’s work contributes to romanticizing motherhood, setting aside feelings and emotions such as rage, frustration and hatred that are not considered appropriate in the realm of mothering. In the ’80s, with postmodernism, mothers’ stories come to the fore. Disabled mothers, non-white mothers and working class mothers, among others, appeared to show their distinctness, but according to Featherstone these approaches were too personal to provide a complete picture of mothering. In her view, two important authors were able to capture the complexity of mothering: Jessica Benjamin and Rozsika Parker.

Benjamin highlights how a mother’s recognition of her own needs is very important for the child. She does not try to reconcile the mother’s and the child’s needs because they can be different. Instead, she points out the hidden tension between autonomy and dependence that characterises the mother-child relationship. Parker, for her part, works with the concept of ambivalence. She recognises the need to give space to all the feelings that mothering involves, from love to hate, as part of a journey that both the child and the mother experience. By allowing all these feelings to come into play it is more likely that different solutions and perspectives might arise in social work.

Turning to the case of Ruth Neaves again, Featherstone refers to the fact that Neaves explicitly asked that her child be removed from her, and wonders why this didn’t happen. She concludes that there was a combination of factors: Ruth was perceived as a difficult woman, but also the social workers were overburdened by their work. More to the point, many social workers are mothers themselves, and they might have found it difficult to believe that a woman wouldn’t want to mother her child.

To conclude her analysis, Featherstone depicts three concepts that support social work with mothers and children: diversity, autonomy and ambivalence. Diversity helps us to understand that mothers are different: what is good for one mother or child might not good for another. Secondly, she stresses the importance of autonomy. It’s good for a mother to be able to recognise her own needs. taken into consideration Mothers who struggle to love their children, or mothers who think that mothering implies an “unacceptable loss of the self” need to be heard (p. 51).

Featherstone’s analysis is important and interesting, not only for social workers but also for those interested in issues related to mothering. It reminds us that mothers relate to their children in different ways. There are no rules about it. Suppressing bad experiences and feelings about mothering does not help those struggling in difficult situations. More than anything, there is no perfect mothering; but most of all, the feelings of not being able to mother a child, or of not wanting to, need to be addressed and properly recognised in order to find the best solutions for the child and for the mother.