I would like you to stop for a moment an imagine a self-esteem workshop for a group of pre-teen boys. What types of activities do you think might be planned? What would the boys do? Really think about this for a moment before I go on. What comes to mind when you think of boys and self-esteem building?
Now, I want to tell you about a workshop called “Boys Unstoppable!” The workshop is put together by a company in the personal care industry. The boys arrive with their dads. They sit down at tables and find paper and magic markers.
The leader, known as a “Self-esteem Ambassador” first asks the boys to think about their dad and his appearance. The Ambassador asks each boy to write down anything he has heard his dad say about his looks. Then the boys create a second column, and they write down how those statements made them feel.
One boy, Tommy, starts to fidget in his chair. Why do they have to think so much about their feelings? It’s a nice day out. Can’t they go out and do something?
The Ambassador smiles like a salesman or a Ken doll. He introduces the next exercise. The boys are asked to think about all of the good things about themselves. Then the Ambassador hands out “confidence cards.”
The cards say “I have a beautiful________”
The Ambassador tells them to fill out as many cards as they want.
Tommy stares at the cards. “I have a beautiful face?” he thinks. Not really, he thinks, but he writes it down anyway.
The exercise is kind of hard. It’s hard to fit what he is good at into that sentence without it sounding weird.
“I have beautiful math skill.”
Tommy thinks about last week when he won the 100 yard dash. He was proud of that. “I have beautiful running skill” is awkward. So he writes “I have beautiful feet.”
That’s not right. He gives up and looks out the window.
“What’s wrong?” asks the Ambassador with a kind of cheery sympathy.
“I can’t think of anything,” Tommy says.
The Ambassador tilts his head. Tommy can tell he is thinking that the boy is a real hard case. He must have no confidence at all. It’s worse than he thought.
“Come on,” The Ambassador says, “There are lots of beautiful things about you. You have a great smile. Great eyes.”
“Yeah, but…” Tommy is thinking about how his dad taught him to change the oil on the car. He is proud that he knows how to fix stuff in a car, but that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that’s important in this exercise. He tells that to the Ambassador.
“Of course it is!” the Ambassador says. “You see, you’re talented. That will make you very attractive to girls. So write that down on the card. ‘I have beautiful repair skills.”
Tommy does as he is told, but he isn’t feeling what he thinks he is supposed to be feeling.
“You’re unstoppable!” The Ambassador croons. “You are an amazing, beautiful, talented young man.”
The attention pleases Tommy and he feels vaguely flattered for a few minutes, but he wonders if this guy has been listening to him at all. Does he know anything about him?
“Of course it’s important,” The Ambassador tells the dads, “to compliment the boys on their intelligence too, not just to tell them they are cute.”
“You are unstoppable if you just believe in yourself,” he tells the group.
Tommy is not listening. He is looking out the window wondering when they will let him actually do something.
I wrote this little scenario after reading an article on The Huffington Post about an empowerment workshop for girls called “Girls Unstoppable.” It is essentially as I have described it above except with girls. I discovered the story through my Facebook feed where one of my friends had posted it for inspiration and as a reminder of what is important. I did not feel at all inspired by what I read. My reaction, in contrast to most people apparently, was bleech.
Something about the nature of the workshop and the way it was described bothered me. I had a feeling that something underlying all that empowerment talk that was not empowering at all, in fact it was the opposite. It was not until I tried to envision the same workshop given to a group of boys that I was able to put my finger on what my discomfort was.
I have been like Tommy. I may not have been in a Dove empowerment workshop, but I’ve had the same types of messages presented to me as inspiration and empowerment on talk shows, in magazines and by friends for years.
At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound. Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had. In short, they do.
When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty. If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.
The article features a slide show with images of the “confidence cards.” Beauty is the most frequent positive quality mentioned. Other qualities also appear, sometimes described in terms of beauty. Strength makes an appearance along with uniqueness, grace, unspecified “talent” and positive thinking which is phrased in various ways. “You are beautiful when you look at the positive things in life.”
The message is not to get angry or frustrated. But sometimes anger is warranted and is the basis for action. Being unhappy is a sign that something is wrong, and that it is time to go out and make a change.
The aspirational vision in this workshop is not to take action. It is to look on the bright side of everything, even if you have to lie to achieve that beautiful inner confidence. Indeed, we are asked to lie to ourselves, for example, by pretending not to notice which girl in the room is the prettiest by current standards. “Look how beautiful we all are!” OK.
This might be worth doing if lies worked, but they don’t. A 2009 study published in Psychological Science backs me up on this. When people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. When people hear and affirmation they don’t believe, they adhere even more strongly to their original position.
The article on the workshop points out that six out of ten girls stop doing something they love because they are self-conscious about their looks. There is something wrong. It is not just a problem because it hurts their self-esteem, but because when a girl decides not to take woodshop because the protective glasses make her look ugly, we are all at risk of losing a fantastic future architect, builder or engineer. This is an issue we should take seriously.
But when our response to the problem is to “coo over how beautiful she is” (a line from the article) we do little to set her back on her natural course. The very messages we compose to soothe girls’ feelings are telling them that action is not valuable and that the only way for action to become valuable is if it can be defined in terms of feelings and looks.
Feeling good about yourself for no particular reason is not of much value. If you want to really make girls feel stronger, happier and more talented give them a challenge, give them tasks to master, goals to achieve. Let them be who they are, and celebrate what they do.
When the TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first aired on a major U.S. network, the executives decided that it was a bit crude for delicate American sensibilities and it should be censored in several places. In one instance, the original soundtrack said: “They washed their arms, they washed their legs and they washed their naughty bits.”
The U.S. censors felt it was prudent to bleep the offensive term “naughty bits.” So the American audience heard “they washed their… bleep.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but my mind filled in the beep with something a bit more questionable than “naughty bits.”
I thought of this today when I came across a review for my Reader’s Digest book “Don’t Screw It Up.“ It was an overall positive review, which I appreciate. The only reservations the blogger had to the book were to what I shall term its “naughty bits.” She referred to this as “implied profanity.” I can tell you I’ll be dumbfounded if I can imagine what kind of profanity I implied in the book, but I wrote it a while ago and I haven’t read it recently.
It might be instructive here to give you an idea of what kind of book this is. Here is the publisher’s description:
Learning from failure is an effective—and entertaining—way to make information stick. This fun and engaging guide showcases hundreds of common screw-ups and how to avoid them. Do you know how to tie your shoe? Or do you just think you do but you’ve actually been screwing it up for decades like most people? This witty, light book takes a fresh spin on all the mistakes we make everyday that end up costing us big in our wallets, our health, our homes, and beyond. Topics covered are Yourself (appearance, skills, all things you), Your Home, Your Cooking, Your Money, Your Relationships & Family, and Your Health. This perfect combination of humor and wisdom entertains readers as they learn how to make their lives better by avoiding and remedying common screw-ups.
Is it possible that I or the editorial department in our quest to avoid the repetitive use of the term “screw-up” implied we were thinking of replacing the first word with one that started with f? That would be a fine cock-a-doodle-doo.
I’m having fun with the idea of implied naughtiness here, but that wouldn’t have inspired me to write. Here’s the quote from the review that caught my attention:
“The second (concern) was an entry on kissing; I’m sure that it’s not graphic by today’s standards, but I wouldn’t want my child reading it.”
This is what I wonder: “Don’t Screw It Up” is not in any way marketed as a book for kids. (If it were, dispensing advice to them on how to drive a stick shift or chop down a tree would be highly irresponsible.)
Does the reviewer believe that all books should be written with a child’s sensibilities in mind? Wouldn’t we all be a bit impoverished if our literature never tackled themes beyond the 6th grade level?
So, that’s why I wrote today, to pose this question. Now, just to avoid creating a “naughty bits” situation of my own and allowing you to imagine my kissing entry is much more racy than it is, I will share with you– from memory– the gist of its content.
The entry in question was based largely on a survey that asked men and women what they liked and disliked when their partners kissed them. It turns out there was a significant gender difference in the responses. Men seem to enjoy more tongue activity than women do. Thus, I recommend (along with some other tips) that if a boy-person and a girl-person want to kiss each other a certain amount of compromise is in order for both to finish with a warm glow.
I actually wrote a lot of entries that didn’t make it into the final book. At some point I might go through and figure out which ended up on the cutting room floor and post them here or on my non-fiction blog Broke is Beautiful.
I’m a full-time working writer and I rely on royalties from books (OK, advances really, I’ve only had one book that earned out beyond its advance) to feed myself and stay alive in order to write more books. That’s the basic deal I have with society. I write, I, in theory, get paid enough to write more as long as people want what I’m writing.
When I die, I plan to stop writing. At that point, no amount of money will persuade me to take up the pen.
I would like to think that some of my work might still be relevant and available after I’m gone, but the more I read about long copyright terms (The Electronic Frontier Foundation had a nice article today on why Gatsby is not in the public domain), the more I believe that this is almost guaranteed not to happen, especially as more and more works are released largely in digital formats. This means there will be few fun discoveries of old books in used book stores.
Of course I have dreams, as any artist does. But as much as I would like to believe that I will attain the stature of Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Twain or Wilde or Hemmingway, I am realistic enough to know that most writers are lucky if they make it to “minor poet” status.
The fate of not-entirely-famous authors in an era of almost century long copyrights is predictable. The works will not keep selling in the kind of numbers that give publishers the economic incentive to keep printing.
Once they stop, no one else will have the ability to print it or to make it available in a digital format without permission from the copyright holder, and figuring out who that is, and who might sue someone who print or quote from it at length will be too costly and time consuming to contemplate. Works with only mild followings and interest, like mine, will be effectively killed. By the time they come out of copyright, almost no one alive will have had access to it or interest in it. (See The Atlantic’s article on the “missing 20th Century” in literature caused by copyright. I recommend it highly as well as the embedded video there if you have a bit of time to spare.)
I would like to avoid that fate, but I haven’t found any easy alternative. The only two choices for a modern author seem to be copyrighting work and having it locked up forever or granting a creative commons license which essentially means giving the work away for free in your lifetime. What I would like to have available to me is something like copyright as it existed before Sonny Bono’s Copyright Extension Act. Something that allows me to make a living and control my work today as an incentive to create, but which also gives it a chance of becoming part of the culture in the future.
If Disney could own Steamboat Willie forever without forcing the great mass of works out of existence, I say fine, let them. We could have two copyright options. One that goes on basically forever so that Chaz Bono can keep collecting royalties on “The Beat Goes On” as long as there are beats to go on and then old-fashioned limited copyright for the great mass of artists who are not all that famous. My guess is that such a system would preserve infinitely works that happen to be money makers today, like Fifty Shades of Gray, while leaving less commercial but probably more artistic works for the people of the future.
I assume that I can, as a copyright holder, draft a will that releases my works into the public domain on my death. (While still respecting the rights of any publishers I have contracts with) As a starving artist, hiring a lawyer is a bit off my radar at the moment. I do wish someone would come up a simple, easy to use solution for writers who do not want to just release their work to the public domain immediately but who do not want to have it locked up by copyright for the next two generations.
That is why the most popular entertainment– that which best reflects the taste of the day– is usually not what endures.
The artists who last were usually not the ones who sold well in their time.
It is because the poet does not fit her time that she is able to illuminate it by contrast.
I’ve been thinking about the expression “disreputable person.” It has come up in my reading about Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde. After Wilde was released from prison, he wished to be reunited with Alfred Douglas, but when the lawyer for his wife got wind of it they cut off Wilde’s allowance. A term of his divorce agreement was that she would pay him some support as long as he did not associate with “disreputable persons.”
“I do not deny that Alfred Douglas is a gilded pillar of infamy,” Wilde wrote to his agent, “but I do deny that he can be properly described in a legal document as a disreputable person.”
It struck me what a strange expression this is. It implies that being “disreputable” is a quality inherent to a person. In fact, it is other people’s gossip that gives someone a reputation. The person himself has little control over that. Only the people who accuse and judge have the ability to determine if someone is “disreputable” or not. By claiming Douglas was a disreputable person, they made him so. There was only one thing necessary for Douglas to stop being “disreputable” and that was for other people to shut up.
By the way, if you’d like to read some of my past posts where I mused on the words we use try this one about the word “lovers,” this one about the expression “struggling with” and this one about “the lifestyle.”
Oh, and another “by the way,” according to my word press logs, my most popular posts are the ones I’ve done that mention Lord Alfred Douglas. Not sure why.
There’s Silence in the Rain
there’s silence in the rain that pounds
against the tin roof
in our thoughts there’s silence
in the middle of all the clamor around us
sometimes were deep down in the heaviest silence
when suddenly a noise tears us away from our stillness
each voice is unbearable
everything that calls us tears us apart
on the other hand
we’re sometimes surrounded by silence
and seem to be filled with noise
our thoughts make a sound our hands make a sound
the air crackles and the sweetest face
is a shrill note
space becomes a huge sound box
where the hours beat away ceaselessly
yet at the same time what happens is that
the voice upon speaking doesn’t sound
even though what it thought to say
seems to be scratching at the windows
Translated by John Brandi