Something I believe in strongly is changing the default dialogue around birthing. Perhaps it's our innate love of the dramatic, but when I was pregnant for the first time I kept hearing birth horror stories. We need to ensure that people are talking about positive birthing experiences as well.
We had a wonderful home birth recently and I want to share our story, as my little part of changing that dialogue.When we learnt that I was pregnant with our much-awaited-for second child, we were ecstatic.
I had had a lovely hospital birth with my son Sol (now 4.5), but I hated the hospital environment post-partum. Before this pregnancy we had decided to have a home birth and I was already excited about the birth. My siblings and I were all born at home and I grew up in a world where birth was always discussed in positive ways. I remember Mum saying on numerous occaisions that the best three days of her life were the days we were born.
A close friend had attended ‘hypnobirthing’ classes and raved about them – I turned to Ms Google and what read sounded fascinating. Women using words such as ‘euphoric’, “pain-free” and “joyous”. These words were a far cry from the usual language associated with birth in our culture. Soon after, I was introduced to the amazing Aileen Devonshire of The Holistic Birth Company. She was happy to offer a course just for Leif and I. We spent five lovely evenings with Aileen discussing our thoughts on birthing, learning techniques for enjoying the birth and understanding what our roles were during labour and what we could do to prepare. In the latter stages of the pregnancy we set time aside to practice the relaxation and visualisation techniques.
My belly in the early stages of labour.
I had brought Sol home from kindergarten and just felt really exhausted. I had been working on an article that was on deadline but exhaustion washed over me and I lay down to sleep on the couch for about an hour. When I awoke at 3.45pm I continued to lie there for a few moments and then I felt a ‘pop’ of my waters breaking. In one swift movement I grabbed a towelfrom the pile of laundry beside me, threw it in the floor and rolled off the couch and on to the towel. I was impressed with myself – the towel was soaked, but not a drop anywhere else! Sol looked at me oddly, but just nodded nonchalantly when I told him my waters had broken. He’d watched numerous birth videos with me so knew what this meant.
I called Leif who had just finished teaching for the day and also let my midwife Cheryl Benn know that things were underway. Sol’s birth had proceeded gradually throughout the day, so I thought I had hours to go before things really started. At this point I was having very mild contractions, spaced well apart. I was really excited but very calm, knowing everything was in place for our dream birth. I also was aware of the article I hadn't finished, so decided to get that done right away as knew that pretty soon I wouldn't have much spare time. I felt super-alert and was writing well, then all of a sudden it was like a part of my brain switched off. I decided that then was the time to email the draft to the editor and explain that was about as complete as it was going to get!
4 year old Sol helping me through contractions.
Leif arrived home and started getting the room prepared. We’d instructed our baby to be born at night, and it seemed like she was going to comply. We had the fire burning and Leif hung up fairy lights and lit candles. The birthing pool was by the fire. Both grandmothers called in on their way home from work, but I had decided I wanted one last dinner together with just the three of us.
After dinner I lounged over on the Swiss ball, and Sol stood beside me and rubbed my back (and occasionally climbed on me!). A really beautiful peaceful time. I realised my labour was progressing much faster than I had anticipated, so I asked Leif if he could put Sol to bed then, as I knew that pretty soon I would need all of Leif’s attention.
I stayed on the swiss ball, enjoying the peace and listening to Sol’s familiar bed routine and bedtime stories. I went to kiss Sol goodnight and to make sure he knew what was happening. He had been very involved in my pregnancy and knew the drill. A few weeks earlier he had told us that he wanted to be there when the baby was being born, but he didn’t want to see her head come out. Since my waters had broken he had reminded me of this numerous times! So I was reminded of this once more, and Sol knew that when the baby was nearly being born Leif would wake him up.
Crying with happiness!
As soon as Sol was in bed it was like my body allowed my labour to progress. I continued to labour on the swiss ball while Leif started filling the pool as I felt like it wouldn’t be too long until I wanted to be weightless in the water.
I usually have an active mind that is hard to quieten – I have tried meditation a number of times, but always end up sitting there with a loud chatterbox in my head. I had been concerned that that would be the case whilst birthing, however I could feel myself slipping into a really deep relaxation and became only dimly aware of what was going on in the room. Love those birthing hormones! The room was warm and cosy and lit with candles, the light of the fire and fairy lights. I recall telling Leif that it would be impossible to be stressed out in that environment! It was blissful.
At about 7.30pm I got in to the pool and Mum, and my midwives Cheryl and Annie Kinloch arrived soon after. I was surprised at how fast my body was moving towards birthing and the contractions were lasting a long time and coming about every three minutes.
I had a relaxation birthing CD playing and the atmosphere was just beautiful. The contractions were intense but I felt so relaxed and wonderful. I could feel our baby moving and descending and I was so overwhelmed by how perfect it was that I started crying with happiness.
Notes from my midwives:
8.13pm “I can definitely feel her pushing down”
8.14pm “This is so lovely”. Rachel and Leif laughing together.
8.21pm Rachel verbalising the last contraction is beginning to give her a sense of breathing her baby out.
8.28pm Rachel moving in to a hands and knees position in birth pool.
Rachel looking beautiful and feeling relaxed on endorphins.
9pm Birth pool filled deeper. Rachel semi-reclined. CD finished and Rachel enjoying the quiet.
I was feeling the baby descending lower and every so often started feeling that the birth was not that far away. I continued to labour in the pool, but started feeling really exhausted. My body started feeling really heavy. My contractions had slowed a little and I decided to have Cheryl examine me. My cervix was 7cm dilated.
I said that I was really tired and that I wanted to have a sleep. At about the same point in Sol’s labour I felt exactly the same way, but I was in the hospital for his birth and I recall being told that it certainly wasn’t the time for a nap! I loved my midwives when they simply responded to my request by asking where I wanted to sleep. I wanted to rest on the couch, so my lovely helpers made a bed up for me and I snuggled in, Leif sitting right beside me. It was so peaceful and quiet, and it was as if Leif and I were the only people in the house. I quickly fell into a deep relaxation, whereby I was having big beautiful dreams, then I would come back to ‘real’ for each contraction, gripping Leif’s hand tightly. Immediately following each contraction I feel back in to dreamland. It was a beautiful rest. Like being on a boat in slow-motion, the peaks and troughs of the sea movement. I stayed in this zone for about 40 minutes, and then all of a sudden was ready to continue.
10.10pm Rachel needing to get up off the couch as contractions more intense.
10.14 Back in birth pool. Rachel still feeling baby move.
10.18 “She is doing lots of kicking”
10:20 Rachel groaning through a string contraction “It’s a big opening one”.
10.51 Rachel breathing through some very pushy contractions.
Rachel feeling baby moving down a bit further.
I was in a deeply relaxed state, just as we had discussed with Aileen, only vaguely aware of the people in the room and just so focused on my body and it opening up to allow our daughter to be born. As I laboured in the pool I was having beautiful dreams and my body felt so powerful but so relaxed.
During the classes with Aileen we had discussed the distinction between the analytical mind and the intuitive mind: with all the medical intervention in many births, we had moved so far from the intuitive mind being the dominant one in a labour.
All evening my analytical mind had been switched off. Yet at this point as I drifted between dreamland and contractions, suddenly my analytical mind popped up. It was very clearly like another voice, and it is the first time I have experienced such a dichotomy within my mind. Very clearly this other voice spoke over the dreamland that I was in:
“Oh my goodness Rachel, here you are, you are supposed to be having a baby, pushing a baby out, all these people are here, waiting for you to do something, and all you can do is laze about in this pool sleeping, for christs sake stop being so lazy and push this baby out!”
I listened to this other voice. What the hell was I doing?! A contraction hit and suddenly my body began pushing, an all-consuming effort to PUSH this baby out. I felt my whole body contract almost involuntarily and it was a scary, out-of-control feeling. I felt the baby descend a lot and I suddenly realised I could push this baby out right there and then. I panicked, because that was certainly not what I had planned, nor what I wanted. In that split second I knew that baby could arrive right then, and it would be a painful and fast entrance and I would likely tear. I cried out to Leif to calm me down – in my memory I was screaming this in panic, but having viewed the video it wasn’t as violent as it felt. Leif did one of the relaxation exercises we had practiced and the soothing words of the midwives put me back in control and I resumed breathing and found that calm place again.
10.58 Sol woken by Leif for the birth.
11.01 Rachel supported by Leif to breathe through intense contractions.
I was in a particularly deep sleep when a really intense contraction happened and I knew that our baby was nearly ready to be born.
11.07 “She is coming, I can feel her head moving down”
I knew I didn’t want to rush her out and just let my body and my baby take over and let them do what they needed to do. I just kept breathing through each contraction and felt no urge to push. In my mind I could almost “see” our baby making her way out, it was such a clear vision and it really felt like she was doing it rather than me. There was no searing pain when her head emerged as I had experienced with Sol’s birth. It was such an amazing feeling as I felt more of her making her way out. I started giggling – I could feel her legs kicking inside me as they made their way down. I felt absolutely euphoric.
11.13 Rachel birthed her baby so gently in water and was caught by Leif.
Leif guided baby between Rachel’s legs and Rachel lifted baby to her chest.
11.14 Baby cried. Cord loosened around neck.
11.16 Sol meeting his baby sister while being cuddled by Dad.
11.27 Baby so alert, gazing at Mum
These were just amazing moments, clearly etched in my mind forever. Our little girl in my arms, surrounded by peace and love. Sol meeting his little sister for the first time. We had already decided that we would leave the cord attached as long as possible, and certainly until I had naturally birthed the placenta.
11.28 Cord still pulsating strongly
11.29 Placenta birthed
11.32 Cord clamped by Leif and cut, watched by Sol
11.40 Rachel and baby assisted out of pool. Dried and covered with warm towels.
I had read about babies doing a
’ immediately after birth, and wanted to give our baby that opportunity. Our little baby was placed on my chest and she immediately started snuffling round. I was mesmerised as she started inching her way to my right breast. It was so hard to resist the urge to guide her, but equally fascinating knowing she was capable of finding the nipple herself. In a very short space of time she had expertly found the nipple and started her first feast!
12.02am Baby sucking at breast after latching herself at 49 minutes old.
We were all hungry so the food was brought out and we all tucked into a midnight feast round the coffee table as we chatted about the evening. A perfect, relaxing way to finish off an amazing evening. As I sat there on the couch in the comfort of my own home, with my baby suckling at my breast I was so content. Our baby slept on my chest all night and I got very little sleep, gazing at my family all snuggled in our bed together. I awoke before them all and enjoyed some moments of peace, looking at wonder at what we had created and thinking I was the luckiest person in the world.
Once we had got to know her, we named our wee baby Nina Kowhai Hansen. The kowhai will always be blooming on her birthday.
This guest post is by Dannielle Miller. Dannielle is a highly respected and experienced educator, author and media commentator on issues affecting teenage girls. She is CEO of Enlighten Education and this post originally appeared on her blog.
I had a revealing conversation with a single parent of a 12-year-old girl the other day. His daughter had been feeling particularly moody, he said, as she was just about to menstruate. I asked if she had had this premenstrual phase of her cycle explained to her. “Yes, she knows all about her periods” was his response.
Yet I suspected after talking with him further that, as it is for many young girls who are given “the talk”, this conversation was reduced to an explanation of how to care for herself physically during her period. In its most simplistic form, it is often a chat about pads versus tampons, and tends to come with the dire warning that if they are not “careful” they could now fall pregnant.
The fact is, once our girls menstruate, we don’t tend to be very helpful in advising them beyond sanitation, abstinence and, if we are particularly switched on, contraception options. Rarely do we discuss how to deal with the fact that for many girls and women emotions may be heightened during the premenstrual phase and behaviour altered.
And even if we do allude to premenstrual tension (PMT), it tends to be in terms that promote and reinforce the archetypal “crazy lady” myth, which would have us reduce everything a woman expresses during this time to hysterical ramblings. It is particularly apt that women are often referred to as being “hysterical” during this stage in their cycle, as the term derives from the Greek word meaning “womb” (hence the term “hysterectomy”). Historically, society would have us believe some deep flaw within our wombs is literally making us insane!"One day she is all smiles and gladness. A stranger in the house seeing her will sing her praise . . . But the next day she is dangerous to look at or approach: She is in a wild frenzy . . . savage to all alike, friend or foe . .." Semonides, Greek philosopher (c. 556–468 BC)
Premenstrual tension has been recognised as a medical condition since 1953 and has even controversially been used as a defence for murder—hence the headline to this post, which comes from a newspaper report chronicling a 1980s court case in London in which PMT was raised (unsuccessfully, I might add) as a defence for homicide.
Premenstrual tension may include physical symptoms such as leg cramps, bloating and headaches; emotional changes such as increased depression and anxiety and lower self-esteem; and behavioural changes including increased irritability, social isolation and being accident prone.
I have been known to suffer from particularly bad PMT at various points in my life. Leg cramps? Check. Bloating? Absolutely. Increased depression? I have been known to weep at the thought of making yet another school lunch. Irritability? My ex-husband used to always joke that I would threaten to divorce him once every month.
Despite knowing my feelings at this time are certainly heightened, I also believe they are valid. In fact, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learnt to be very attentive to them, as I can often more clearly see, for example, what is wrong in my relationships at this stage. Usually I tend to repress these darker feelings. In a sense, my inner voice stops whispering and starts screaming at me (okay, okay, and often at others) that week!
I am no longer so quick to silence my womb and my female intuition.
Rachel Hansen, a colleague and sexual health educator, offered me her insights:
"In my 20s, I used to dismiss PMT as that time of the month when I was particularly irrational, but I now think of this as a time when I actually allow myself to acknowledge and express the full range of my emotions. Talk about liberating! Menstruation has traditionally been associated with craziness and all things negative. I think that we women have to reclaim this time in our lives, to reclaim it as a particularly special, empowered time – heck, perhaps the closest we get to being Superwoman each month!"
A friend who is a mum to two girls explained to me how she supports her eldest daughter to not ignore, but rather manage, her mood swings:
"She would get so emotional and fiery, to the point where she was confused and didn’t know what was ‘wrong’ with her and why she kept arguing with us. I sat her down and explained that it’s very normal to feel the way she does and that her feelings are legitimate, but that in the midst of those more out-of-control moments around period time, we need a word to remind her, and us, as to why she’s struggling to articulate herself. I told her to choose a word that reminds her of something calm and happy that she could use, so that she can just say the word, and then that will be our signal to just stop and hug her, to show her that we care about her feelings, but that we need to pick up the conversation later. (Most of the time, what worried her so much is forgotten later anyway.) Her word is ‘unicorns’. This works really well for us and for her, and has made a huge difference."
Psychologist Jacqui Manning offered me the following really practical tips for girls (and women) to help them better understand and manage this stage:
- Talk and/or read. You might think you’re the only one who feels moody or down, but chances are there are some good female friends and/or family members who feel similarly at this time of the month. Remember they are different to you, they might not experience everything you’re talking about, but chances are you’ll have some common ground. Knowing you’re not alone can really help!
- Download an app to your smartphone that logs your periods so you’ll be able to check dates and know whether your impending period might be having an effect on you. Set a reminder a few days before your period is due so you know that if you’re suddenly feeling really down on yourself or upset for no reason it might just be related to your changing hormones.
- Try to surround yourself with positive people that make you feel good about yourself and be kind to yourself during your most vulnerable days. Rest more, listen to uplifting music, don’t attempt too many challenges at once, don’t drink (alcohol is a depressant on your system), eat healthily.
- Take it one day at a time and realise that just as quickly as your moods have taken you into a dark state, they will swing just as quickly up again to return you to what’s normal for you. Say to yourself, “All I need to do is get through today/the next class; that’s all I need to focus on.” And remember that as bad as it feels at that moment, you won’t remember it in a year (or hopefully a week!).
Of course, it’s also important to distinguish the feelings that really are worth listening to during this period (pardon the pun) from those that are okay to merely let wash over us. A good friend offered me this when I asked for her thoughts on PMT last week:
"Danni, it’s all a bit too close to home for me today given that I’ve spent the morning in bed feeling bloated and crying for no clear reason at all. Based on the thought processes I was having, it has something to do with a letter that was sent about me in high school, a sad movie I once saw, and the fact that my boyfriend doesn’t have time to go out to lunch today. The TRIFECTA!"
Certainly our womb-words can seem somewhat confused and irrelevant, but they can also be deeply insightful. I’m choosing to embrace the journey and help my daughters embrace it too.
I have fond memories of my collection of childhood toys - wooden blocks, Big Ted, My Little Pony, the Cindy doll my parents bought me (instead of the Barbie I REALLY wanted), Lego, railway tracks... And nowadays I enjoy sometimes escaping into the imaginary world with my four-year-old boy and his collection of treasured toys. I read about the toys on offer for kids, I see kids playing with toys and the students I work with tell me about the toys that are and were important in their lives.
There is a lot of writing about the highly gendered and also sexualised nature of many childhood toys these days, but on Friday I suddenly realised that I could count on one hand the number of times I have been in a toy store since entering adulthood. Inspired by other writers, I decided it was time to hit the front-line. What was on offer for New Zealand children? Was it as bad as it was in the USA? (where much of the research I read comes from) And what are the 'good' options out there?
Armed with my camera, I entered our local toy store (one of a nationwide chain). And thus began an hour of walking up and down every aisle, taking note and photographing the good, the bad and the plain downright ridiculous.
Into 'GIRL ZONE'
Upon entering the store, the first thing I noticed was that there was an area labelled ‘Girl’s Zone’, but the only other zone to be labelled was 'Pre-school'. Is this because all the other toys in the store are designed for boys (the default ‘normal’), or is it that all the other toys are for both boys AND girls but this wee corner is for girls only?
I headed over to investigate further and was nearly blinded by the pink-ness.
First up, the Barbie display...
"Hmmm, who do I want to be today?"
I had high hopes for the Barbie 'I Can Be..." range. I recall as a child in the 1980s Barbie was a real 'girls can do anything' kinda gal, so I thought that surely by 2012, any remnants of that 1952 original passive doll would be well and truly banished. Unfortunately it seems that Barbie's career options in 2012 are very limited to what she can do whilst still wearing form-fitting lycra and/or heels. And the ubiquitous pink of course. There were five career options in the character dolls (see below) - I challenge anyone to find me any real-life professional woman whose wardrobe resembles any of these outfits?! And as someone who spent my teen years as a surf lifeguard, it sure as hell didn't resemble this Barbie scene. A friend was telling me recently that she had relented and had promised her daughter a Barbie as long as she could find one doing 'normal' things - such as snowboarder Barbie. There wasn't a snowboarder Barbie in this shop, but I can envisage her ensemble already...
I can be... a Dentist!
I can be... a Baby Caregiver!
I can be... a Doctor!
I can be... a Pizza Chef!
I can be... a Lifeguard!
And if you wanted to simply give your exisiting Barbie a new career, you had six different outfits to choose from. As you would never guess the occupations from their outfits, let me label them top to bottom, left to right:
In the UK Barbie has launched a 'Barbie I Can Be' careers resource portal for schools, including a new career-themed game and sports-themed lesson plans. The mind boggles!
- A fire fighter
- A police officer
- A fire fighter
- A pilot
- A pilot
- An ice skater (?)
Next to Barbie was the much criticised new line of Lego, designed especially for girls - the 'Friends' range. Their catch-phrase is "The Beauty of Building" - because we wouldn't want girls to forget for a moment that regardless of the activity, it always comes down to beauty, right?
Pop star kit
Anyone for Disney Princess paraphernalia?
I personally dislike this range from Lego. I dislike the emphasis on beauty and I hate that the 'Friends' range have totally different bodies to the 'standard' range - they have boobs and makeup. There is no way one of the 'Friends' would EVER want to play with a standard Lego boy or girl! It's problematic that in creating a specific 'girls' range, by default the rest of the Lego range becomes a 'boys' range, thus limiting girls' options. And the narrow range of activities and colours offered to the girls drives me nuts. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to indicate that girls have a natural inclination towards pastel colours. Lego is just playing into the pinkification of girl-world that serves to further the gender gap amongst children and thus increase the profits of those marketing things to children.
Next up was the Disney Princess Zone. In a moment of marketing genius, this line was released in 2000 and now there are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items and many other companies have jumped on board to create Princess-mania in girl world. Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author of Packaging Girlhood, is concerned by the the sheer dominance of princess culture: “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice; it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”
Some of the Disney Princess range.
As I continued to wander round 'Girl's Zone' I found more and more pink washing, and more and more toys with come-hither eyes and sexy poses. What really struck me was how much some of these toys had changed since I was a girl. In my day 'My Little Pony' was a sweet chubby thing with demure eyes. Her latest incarnation is decidedly sexy, curvy and oh, those eyes.
A sexy little mermaid for preschool girls.
My Little Pony with her sexy come-hither eyes...
My Little Pony has certainly reached puberty since the 1980s, with those curves and provocative poses.
Finally, the epitome of success - a marriage proposal!
There were a few brands in 'Girl's Zone' that really stood out in a positive way:
Sylvanian Families. They avoid pinkwashing (making them less gendered and thus more available to boys and encouraging of cross-gender play).
A baby doll without makeup on that could easily be given to a boy or to a girl.
Anatomically correct dolls that actually look like real babies. Contrast these with 'Baby Bratz'!
Venturing out of 'Girl Zone', I headed towards the 'Pre-school' zone...
I was pleased to see the gender-neutral 'preschooler' sign, although interested in the offerings as many of the toys in the 'Girl's Zone' were aimed at the pre-school age group. This section gave the impression of being very gender-neutral, but upon closer inspection, many of the toys revealed themselves to be playing into tired gender stereotypes:
The boy building with his tools, the girl with her tea set entertaining her guests.
Pink and flowery for girls, Thomas the train for boys.
Gender roles straight from the 1950s.
In the top two boxes the boy is the farmer, the girl drives a pink flowery convertible. In the lower boxes, the girl has a pink fluffy caravan and the boy drives a dump truck.
However, there were also some great non-gender-limiting options:
Playskool understands that boys and girls can practice walking on the same toys - no need to gender this.
A girl dressed up as a medical Doctor with no pinkification! (Thus 'allowing' both boys and girls to play with this set).
Points for Playdoh. All their packaging is gender-neutral and portrays both boys and girls in a variety of activities.
A boy and a girl playing together - an image that was very rare to see on toy packaging.
(No other 'zones' were labelled, so the following categories are ones that I have used)
Puzzles and games
Of all the different types of toys, I would have thought that this genre would have the least need to be gendered. Apparently not. I think the biggest issue with gendering things like this is that it strongly discourages cross-gender play. Unfortunately I feel that few four year old boys would want to play with the pinkified versions of these games. By then, for many boys the gender message has been well and truly absorbed.
Games: One pink, two blue. Party Party Party: "Pick up your handbag and race to the party!" Walk The Plank: "All the pirates race together to raid the treasure chest" What's The Time Me Wolf: "Race through the forest, but watch out for the hungry wolf! A fun strategy game"
Games: One green, one pink. On Safari: Three jungle friends to make and play. Pretty Ponies: "Three cute ponies to style and show".
Games: One pink, one blue. Little Mermaids: Sparkle and shimmer your way to the mermaid party". Pesky Pirates: "Fill your pirate chest with the most treasure".
A classic board game, that now apparently needs to be split between boys and girls.
Barbie Snakes & Ladders. Another classic board game, although this version should be more accurately called "Pearls and Bows". "Climb the bows! Slide down the pearls!"
Fishing rods: Transformers for your son, Barbie for your daughter.
Of all the genius marketing ideas throughout time, ensuring all bikes are obviously gendered has to be one of the best. Bike companies do all they can to ensure that parents have to fork out money for a new bike for each child of a different gender.
A WINNER from Little Tikes! Gender neutral packaging PLUS an image of a boy and a girl playing together!
*calm down Rachel, keep in mind how ODD it is that this is so rare!*
Building and Science Sets
These were located in the area I think a child would describe as the 'Boys' Zone' (although there were no actual signs to indicate this). Alongside these sets seemed to be an overwhelming collection of toys based around themes of fighting and violence. As the mother of a little boy, I am disturbed by the messages these toys give him about what it means to be a man. I could not find a single toy in this area that depicted a boy or a man in a caring or nurturing role. Play is one way children learn about what it means to be an adult as they role-play with the toys provided to them. What are the consequences of raising a generation of boys whose understanding of manhood is based on ninjas, soldiers and Avengers?
Duplo for preschoolers. It comes in packaging that appears to be either for girls, boys and gender-neutral.
Meccano. Interesting to note the different contents of the packaging. What is it with pinkified things and flowery convertible cars?!
Lego display. This is their non-gendered display (as opposed to the 'Friends collection mentioned earlier). I can't help but think through the mere existence of the 'Friends' collection, if I was a little girl I would describe this Lego display as 'for boys'.
A clearly gendered display of science sets.
My little adventure into the toy store was both depressing and comforting.
Depressing because of the overwhelming number of gender-limiting options out there. I imagined my four year old son Sol being let loose in that store to explore and admire the toys available to him. He would be confronted with SO MANY gender-limiting stereotypes. He would be presented with a very clear picture of what it is to be a girl, and what it is to be a boy. Both of these definitions are very narrow, and he would quickly realise it was high time he dumped all of his female friends.
I would label very few of the toys in this shop inherently "bad or "wrong", but it's the overwhelming message they present en masse, and also the stark reality of what is missing. I managed to find three images of girls and boys playing together IN THE WHOLE STORE. Research shows that cross-gender play in childhood increases the likelihood of more healthy romantic relationships in the teen years, yet it seems that marketers are doing all they can to prevent this.
Comforting because I realised that, if I searched hard enough I could find toys and games that were not gender-limiting. There are options out there for parents willing to take the time to find them. Some companies are still marketing their product to both genders, and although many had fallen into the highly-gendered trap, a number still offered a 'gender neutral' option alongside their gendered stuff. For this, I am heartened, and this quote comes to mind: "Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I'll tell you what they are." - James W. Frick
Childhood lasts for such a precious short time, let's not shorten this further by placing limitations on who and what our children can be. Let's not allow the financial motivations of toy companies have any part in how our children define themselves. Let's give our children the time and the space to explore and experience their world without being limited to what pop culture dictates is "right" for their gender.
As soon as we found out that I was pregnant we told our three-year-old son Sol about the pregnancy and he has been involved in the midwife appointments and lots of excited talk about our new baby. He recently accompanied us to the 20-week ultrasound scan
After the radiographer had done all the important measurements and observations, she got to the least important part – finding the vulva or the penis. While she was looking for that part of our baby’s body she said to me:
“Ouhhh, you’ll soon know if you’ll have to be buying a pink tutu!”
(I am sure my husband smothered a laugh at this point. I refrained from launching into a tirade about gender stereotyping and the findings of various neurological studies on babies and gender.)
As it turns out, we spotted a vulva.
And I realised that, at 20 weeks gestation this wee girl had already experienced her first gender stereotyping.
It isn’t that pink tutus violently offend me, it’s that there was an assumption that if my baby had a vulva, then a pink tutu would be the most important thing on my mind, and that her vulva would automatically predispose her to an uncontrollable urge to wear pink tutus.
Who knows, she could be an absolute ballet fanatic, in which case I am sure our house will be loaded with tutus of all description. Or she could be a soccer player, a hip-hop dancer, a chess-genius, a swimmer... - in which case we may have no pink tutus at all. Or maybe she’ll have stages of being all of the above, and our already-cluttered house will have a collection of all sorts of outfits in all sorts of colours.
All I know is that I will do everything in my Mama-Bear power to protect her from the tirade of gender-limiting stereotypes that I know will attempt to surround her from birth (and before!). All of a sudden I am deeply grateful on a personal level for the amazing work done to counter such attitude by individuals and organisations such as Enlighten Education
, Pigtail Pals
, Pink Stinks
And I will leave you with the wisdom of little Riley, who articulates the craziness of all this stuff just so so well:
We recently had the excitement of having an ultrasound scan. I was twenty weeks pregnant and we had decided to find out the sex of our baby if he/she decided to reveal it to us.
As we walked into the room, our three-year-old son Sol announced: “I am going to see if there is a vulva or a penis!".
The radiographer seemed rather uncomfortable at his confidence. She giggled, and then said to him: “A Volvo! But a Volvo is a car!”, and it seemed that she was making this joke to cover up her embarrassment at Sol’s knowledge of basic anatomy.
Sol looked at her oddly, and calmly explained to her “No it’s not, it’s what girls have instead of a penis”.
As I lay there, I did a silent cheer for my boy.
As Sol provided a running commentary on what he believed he could see on the TV-screen of the scan, the radiographer commented to me that he had an impressive knowledge of anatomy. I thought about her comment, and I really don't think he does. I think she was actually referring to Sol's accurate labelling of sexual body parts, and I got the feeling this made her uncomfortable.
Isn't it odd that so many people are so uncomfortable with the correct labelling of body parts? For preschoolers, the word vulva has about as much meaning attached to it as nose, mouth and ears. It is just another body part.
Vulvas. There are billions of them out there, and they are a pretty diverse collection
. I am no geneticist, but I would say there was as much diversity in vulvas as there is in fingerprints. And as long as women have had vulvas, in most cultures they have been covered in public hair. Until recently...
A few weeks ago I was visiting a Catholic all-girls’ high school. I had never been there before and I was meeting with the school counsellor and the Deputy Principal for the first time. They had come straight from the staffroom, where it sounded like a very lively discussion had been taking place. After we greeted each other the Deputy Principal said that before we started the meeting they would love my opinion on the topic the staff had been musing over during morning tea. Of course I said yes – very curious by this point!
“We are all trying to work out WHY none of our senior girls have pubic hair?”
(Apparently the topic had come up in a health class discussion).
And we are not talking about delayed puberty here. We’re talking about teen girls, and why it is the norm to have a vulva stripped of hair.
These days, many girls tell me about the immense pressure to look a particular way now extends to their vulva. It’s not enough to have perfect legs, a flat stomach and blemish-free skin – their vulva must also be bald.
Why indeed is a generation of teen girls finding themselves under immense pressure to wax or shave all their pubic hair? Because it certainly wasn’t like this 15 years ago when I was at high school. We’d shave our bikini line when necessary - just enough to ensure no stray hairs were visible when swimming. But if anyone had suggested getting rid of it all, I am sure we would have been appalled. In fact, I remember girls in my first year of high school proudly displaying their pubic hair growth – for us it was a sign of maturity, of leaving girlhood behind. Now it seems that as soon as pubic hair appears, girls are feeling the pressure to get rid of it so their vulvas resemble a prepubescent child.
I want to talk a little about pornography.
When I was at primary school, every so often we would hear the boys whispering about a Playboy magazine that one of them had found amongst their Dad’s secret stash. And one memorable day my friend and I were exploring and we came across a man stashing a whole pile of Penthouse magazines on the side of the road. We spied on him and after he left we grabbed them all, had a little giggle over the contents and handed them over to our parents. I am sure our parents would have preferred we hadn’t seen those magazines, but other than a fascinating glance at spread-eagled nude women, they were pretty unmemorable. A far-cry from the easily accessible plethora of porn available these day. This generation of youth are being exposed to explicit pornography in a way that generations before just were not. According to Big Porn Inc.
"Pornography has become a global sex education handbook for many boys, with an estimated 70 per cent of boys in Australia having seen pornography by the age of 12 and 100 per cent by the age of 15." In one recent Canadian study of boys aged 13-14, more than a third viewed porn movies and DVDs “too many times to count”.
The impact of this early viewing of explicit porn on girls’ vulvas?
If boys are getting their primary sex education from pornography, their expectation is that vulva’s come in one model – hair-free. And if this is what the boys expect, many girls will comply. One teen girl commented that it wasn’t pressure from boys to wax - it was the pressure from her girlfriends. Teens are desperate to fit in – I know that should I have been a teen in this era, there would be no way I would have wanted to be the only girl in the changing rooms with pubic hair. Hair-free vulvas are now entirely the norm. In fact, a school that I used to teach in ran a full-page for Brazilian waxing in the school diary. This diary was distributed to all students, from Year 1 to Year 13. Imagine your five year old writing in their homework for the evening, right next to the “Home of the Brazilian” advertisement.
I have no problem with adult women doing whatever they want to their vulvas. Hey, if bejazzling your vajayjay
is your thing, go for it. (Just don’t package it in terms of empowerment
PLEASE!). My problem is also not with pornography - sexuality is to be celebrated and although 'ethical porn' is a pretty rare thing, it does exist.
The thing that really concerns me is that no part of a girls’ body now seems immune to the beauty pressure. The pressure starts so young and this is a ‘trend’ that is driven by a misogynistic porn culture seeping in to our everyday lives. It makes me sad to think of girls being so ashamed of their vulvas in their natural state.
I haven’t got a simple solution. Other than to talk talk talk with our children. They need to know that the pornography that they are likely to see (inadvertently or not) is not ‘real’. That is not what women look like, that is not how people experience loving relationships. Give girls the message that they are beautiful as they are, and teach both boys and girls the beauty in diversity.
Speaking of diversity, now it is possible to make your vagina whiter
. Yep, vaginal bleaching. I have never really considered the colour of my genitals, but apparently it should be another thing to add to my list of "women's worries". This post
by Moata reiterates my feelings well!
Image from The Great Wall of Vagina. Plaster casts of vulvas and vaginas. Look at the diversity!
While I have had a very quiet few months on the blogging front, it has been a busy and fulfilling time on the personal front.
I have embarked on a very enjoyable aspect of 'professional development': helping my nearly four-year-old son understand that later on this year he will be sharing his Mama and Dadda with someone else. There have been many amusing conversations, and certainly some moments when I have thought "Now is NOT the best time to be asking me this!" :) I look forward to sharing some of these stories over the upcoming months. Now that I am well in to my second trimester my energy levels have returned and most days I feel like a firebomb of energy!
One of the issues that led me to the field of sexuality education was my own personal journey through the medical minefield of gynaecology, and my realisation that the standard sexuality education most of us receive leaves us totally unprepared to deal with anything 'out of the ordinary' with our own sexual/reproductive health. I have done an immense amount of learning and have had some amazing teachers over the past few years with regards to fertility and reproductive energy, so also look forward to sharing some of these insights.
I welcomed 2012 with a long-awaited-for positive pregnancy test. I look forward to welcoming in 2013 with two babes in my arms. And in the meantime I plan on harnessing some of this pregnancy energy and getting some writing done!
*PS My mother-come-editor has just pointed out that it sounds like I am having twins - just to clarify - by my 'two babes' I mean our new arrival and our four year old, who still co-sleeps with us. (And who would hate being referred to anything like a baby, but he is still a scrummy babe to me when sleeping peacefully at 3am :) )
Precious early moments with my son four years ago.
This is the update of the Diva
situation from Suzanne Culph at Change.org
. See my earlier blog post
for some background on the issue."Huge news! Reports are coming in from supporters in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide that Diva staff have been removing some Playboy products from display. The campaign is working - but Diva management continue to dig in their heels and are refusing to withdraw Playboy nationwide.Diva’s brand is taking a beating - both online and offline. They’re monitoring what their customers are saying about them online every moment. Taking a respectful message about why you signed the petition directly to Diva right now could tip the balance.Click here to post a personal message on Diva’s Facebook page.It’s important you speak from the heart about why this campaign matters - but if you need some help, here are some ideas on what to say:• Why you’re personally against promoting a porn brand like Playboy to girls.• As a parent and customer how it will influence your shopping decisions.• The impact of the porn industry on women and perceptions of women.The petition started by Collective Shout on Change.org has transformed into a movement of parents and shoppers, determined to hold Diva to account for pushing Playboy products on to young girls. And we’ve been phenomenally successful, some Playboy merchandise has been shoved under the counter “because of the controversy.”Diva’s General Manager Bianca Ginns continues to say they’re just following a fashion trend. Let’s make sure Diva know that selling the porn industry to young girls will never be fashionable - click here to share with Diva why you support the petition by posting on their Facebook wall.Thanks for all that you’re doing,Suzanne, for the Change.org team."
is a budget Australian jewellery company popular with young girls - their ranges include Winnie the Pooh charm bracelets, Disney Princess pendants and Cute Cupcakes Best Friends necklaces. Recently they launched a range of Playboy jewellery - necklaces, rings, bowties, earrings – all come adorned with the popular Playboy bunny symbol. Suddenly Diva’s shop windows were plastered with Hugh Heffner’s porn symbol .
Australian bloggers, activists, media commentators, TV and newspapers
erupted in anger and controversy over Diva’s Playboy paraphernalia. Collective Shout
explains Playboy’s marketing strategy:Playboy has succeeded in embedding its bunny logo on pencil cases, bed linen, cosmetics, jewellery, wallets, slippers and key chains, normalizing and sanitizing the Playboy insignia to children and young people. Playboy deliberately markets its brand to girls as cool fashion chic. Diva has become a willing participant in pimping the brand and its values to its young customers. Many of the Playboy products the company sells are decorated with sparkling diamantes or are in the shape of love hearts. There are ‘Playmate’ pendants and Playmate of the month necklaces (‘Miss January’, ‘Miss February’ etc), which invite girls to think of themselves as porn stars. One necklace depicts a Playboy bunny from her backside down. Her upper body, including her head, is missing.No longer merely a ‘soft-porn’ magazine, Playboy is now a billion dollar global brand profiting from the exploitation and subordination of women. Playboy Enterprises pornographic film titles include “Cum Drinking Sluts”, “Barely 18 Anal Virgins”, “Fresh Juicy Lolitas”, “Double Entry”, “Wait your turn, bitch!” These films and others depict women enduring body punishing and violent sexual acts for men’s sexual pleasure. Diva pretends this doesn’t matter.
The Diva Facebook wall was overwhelmed with passionate arguments from both sides of the case. I want to share with you Dannielle Miller's case for what Playboy really means
.1. Playboy is not harmless, mainstream fun. It is not a cute little bunny.2. Playboy is Hugh Hefner. He is 85. He lives in the Playboy mansion with his girlfriends, all at the same time. It’s not so much that he could be their father, more like their grandfather. Or great-grandfather. He ain’t that cool really, is he?3. Playboy isn’t harmless or soft porn. As Collective Shout notes, some of Playboy’s films “depict women enduring body punishing and violent sexual acts for men’s sexual pleasure”. Some of their films have titles that are sickeningly degrading of teen girls and women... It is clear from the titles alone that this brand sells material that denigrates women and treats them as objects.4. Criticism of Playboy isn’t a new thing. Writer and feminist Gloria Steinem exposed the truth of the Playboy Bunny’s life when she wrote a magazine article after going undercover to work at the Playboy Club almost 50 years ago. It wasn’t glamorous. It was badly paid, exploitative and denigrating. She pretended to the woman interviewing her for the bunny job that she had been a secretary. The interviewer looked at her and said, “Honey, if you can type, why would you want to work here?”5. Playboy is not about women expressing their sexuality. It’s not about liberation. It’s about making money from women’s bodies. This marketing line on the Playboy site sums it up, really: “Get all these girls for 1 low price!”
I lent my support to the various Australian individuals
voicing outrage and I signed Collective Shout’s petition for Diva to remove their Playboy range
. I visited Diva’s Facebook page
and voiced my dismay. As far as I was aware, Diva was an Australian company selling products in Australia and I wanted to support my Australian colleagues in their protest. Not a word about Diva was mentioned in the New Zealand media, or by any New Zealand blogger or commentator.
Imagine my shock when walking down Wellington's Lambton Quay at lunchtime to be greeted by this sight:
Yes, Diva and their Playboy bling are alive and well in New Zealand with 21 stores across the country. These are some products from their New Zealand website:
It suddenly struck me: I had heard the Australian voices loud and clear – but where are the New Zealand voices standing up for New Zealand girls? Is it OK that Hugh Heffner’s failing porn company
is being propped up by kiwi girls, some not even in their teens? What does a father say when their 10-year-old daughter delightedly shows them the new Playboy bowtie they bought at Diva with their pocket money? Do we want a company that exploits and degrades women to be developing brand loyalty in our little girls? I say no. Anyone else with me?**NB: I am not anti-porn or anti-sex - I am anti-exploitation
. I welcome comments and love to debate, but will cheerfully delete any comments that make personal attacks on anyone. Check out my comments policy if you need clarification.
With the media furore over school sexuality education over the past week, many parents have been asking what their expectations of their child’s school sexuality education should be... So here it is, Part One of the non-official Concise Guide to School Sexuality Education in NZ...
The sexuality education prescribed in the current curriculum is a far cry from the sex ed most parents would have received when they were at school. For many, this “education” now serves as a hilarious dinner party story, for others sex ed barely existed or was so terrible that all memories have been banished. Indeed, my own high school sex ed was taught by a very embarrassed science teacher who managed to get through the entire 'reproduction' unit without once mentioning the word ‘penis’ – he simply referred to that thing as a "John Thomas”. And we were told we must always make sure we put the Johnny Condom on the John Thomas. The standout memory from the ‘period talk’ at primary school was the horror of the “pad burner” - a raging inferno in the girls toilets with which we were instructed to put our used pads. I am not sure I ever raised the confidence to use that thing! (I am told they no longer have these at schools - phew!) Today I want to address three main questions that I have been asked over the past week:1. How much influence do I, as a parent, have on the sexuality education programme at my child’s school?
The most important thing for parents to keep in mind is that school sexuality education programmes are a partnership between the school and the community. As such, schools are obliged to consult with their community every two years on the content of their health education programme. According to Section 60B of the Education Act 1989
, every school Board of Trustees is required to inform the school community about the content of the sexuality education programme and consult with members of the school community regarding the way in which the school should implement this education.
Following this consultation, a school sexuality education policy and programme are constructed. In reality, the definition of ‘consultation’ can be interpreted quite broadly. Some schools send out information in school newsletters, others organise information evenings. Some schools don’t do much consulting at all. This doesn’t mean they are ‘bad’ schools, it’s just that the reality for schools is that they are operating in a jam-packed curriculum in an environment focussed on literacy and numeracy. Sometimes sexuality lingers at the bottom of that ‘to do’ list. Some schools put a lot of effort in to the consultation, and many receive absolutely no feedback from their community. 2. What if I don’t want my child to participate in sexuality education?
There are many reasons why parents may consider withdrawing their child from the school sexuality education programme. Indeed, following the media frenzy last week over sex ed, I guess more parents will be considering this.
It’s been widely mis-reported in the media this week that parents need to sign a consent form for their children to participate in a school sexuality education programme. They don’t. Some schools choose to do this, but it is not required. Legally, every school is obliged to inform parents what the programme consists of and no contact from a parent conveys to the school that they are happy to have their child participate in sexuality education. There is provision under section 25AA of the Education Act 1989
, for parents to write to the principal to request that their child be excluded from sexuality education. Note that this exclusion does not apply to other times during the school day when a teacher deals with a question raised by another student that relates to sexuality education.3. But I don’t want my child learning about contraception!
If you feel this way, it’s important you discuss this with your Board of Trustees and Principal. If you do feel strongly about this issue you may decide to withdraw your child. However you need to know that the 1990 repeal of section 3 of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977
removed all restrictions on the advice and supply of contraceptives to those under 16 years of age. Young people of any age now have the right to access information about contraception and to be supplied with contraceptive products without parental consent
. In reality, this means that if your child wants information about contraceptives, the school is able to provide this, regardless of parental consent.Part two coming up later this week. It will answer the question: "What SHOULD my child be receiving as part of a quality sexuality education programme?"
**Disclaimer – there are some schools and some teachers doing an absolutely fantastic job delivering sexuality education in New Zealand. I applaud these people. Those that are struggling with it are struggling because of a multitude of reasons, not easily addressed in a 200 word attention-grabbing newspaper article. If you are a parent and are concerned about the sexuality education in your school, I urge you to contact the Principal and your Board of Trustees to discuss your concerns.