The Mommy Vortex: Sticks and Stones
The other night, my son casually asked me, “Mom, what does it mean if a boy calls a girl a ‘sexy Barbie’?” I caught myself before telling him that if he said it, it means he will never see the outside of his room again.—Deep breaths.—Casually, gently, I asked him, “Where did you hear that? And what do you think it means?” He answered me very matter of fact: another boy said it about a girl they both knew; he thought it had to do with how she looked because the boy compared the girl to a Barbie doll.
These kids are only seven, by the way.
I knew I had a teaching moment at my doorstep, but I really needed to collect myself first. I was appalled—on so many levels—that my son had heard this, that another boy his age had said it, that someone might say that to my own daughter one day, and that I now had to deal with it.
For a moment, I really wished he was seven months old instead of seven years old, when my most pressing concern was covering the electrical outlets as he crawled around.
I looked at him square in the eye and explained to him that the term was not a compliment, and that while it could mean you think a girl is pretty, it actually doesn’t mean that in a nice way. “Why? What’s sexy mean?” he asked, pressing me further. I was not ready to have that talk with him yet. I struggled to further explain that some words and references are considered impolite and inappropriate, even if they mean the same thing as another, more appropriate word. In a moment of panic, in a moment of sheer desperation (and admittedly, in a moment of poor parenting), I gave him an example using the two very different words for the product of a bowel movement: one appropriate, one not. He knew he was only allowed to use one of those words. He giggled, and got the idea.
I was off the hook.
And yet, the discussion stayed with me for days—I knew I didn’t really address the situation fully (or even completely appropriately). I knew, deep down, that the issue wasn’t just merely about words. There was the connotation to deal with, yes, but it was more than that.
How could I effectively explain to my not-even-a-tween son that labeling a girl based on the way she looked was demeaning and superficial, without getting into the speakers’ intent to, perhaps, want a physical relationship with her?
Could I even tell him that I don’t allow Barbie dolls in my house because, as a child, I hated seeing this unnaturally thin blonde woman that looked nothing like me? I needed to get the message across that labeling girls—labeling anyone, really —for reasons related to how they looked or acted was wrong and unnecessary.
I wasn’t quite sure how to do this. In one of my many moments of feeling inadequate as a mother, I thought about how if I were in an office, dealing with a complex legal issue, I’d be much better equipped to handle the situation. I was completely unprepared for this, and I was feeling uncomfortable myself. All the insecurities of trying (and fear of failing) to be a good mother flooded me, but I fought back, drawing on all those moments throughout my life when I felt others judging me on how I looked rather than who I was.
And that was the message I eventually communicated to him. He needed to know that labeling, judging, and cataloging other people—especially girls—based on their looks was wrong, unjust, and (in my opinion), inherently unethical. I didn’t focus on Barbie (judging her on her looks is wrong, too, I’ll admit). I didn’t focus on sex (I still think he’s too young to understand the nuances of that yet). Instead, I tried my best to focus on how words can harm, and how they can be used to make others feel badly, if those words are used as labels or intended as judgments, even if the words themselves may seem harmless.
I’m fairly sure my son won’t use or repeat that phrase anytime soon. I’m also fairly sure he didn’t fully comprehend everything I was trying to explain to him. If he were older, the discussion would have been very different, I imagine. But hopefully my guidance now will ensure he won’t be a teenager who uses words hurtfully and inappropriately. Given that his peers are already calling seven year old girls “sexy” while comparing them to Barbie dolls, I have no choice but to keep trying.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.