The Content of Her Hair

This odd title is a deliberate botching of Martin Luther King’s famous phrase from his “I Have A Dream” speech, the part when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The content of their character. So many girls and women are still judged not by the content of their character but by their lips and their eyes. For so many women on this planet, beauty is still the only working capital.

I am fortunate to live in a place where women have opportunities for education and careers. And yet I am struggling to deal with the reality that my 5-year-old daughter has already learned that her appearance seems to be more important than her character. She is learning that for many people, her appearance is primarily who she is.

In her case, the content of this story centers on the wild ash-blond curls scattered over her head, a mess of ringlets that have become an object of constant praise and even worship for a few over-the-top admirers.

Which leads me to “the content of her hair” as a thought experiment on benevolent sexism.

How can sexism be benevolent? Well, it can’t, but it’s useful to understand as an insidious foil to the more obvious hostile sexism. Hostile sexism refers to blatantly negative and aggressive attitudes and actions toward women, like paying female employees less money than what their identical male counterparts receive.

In contrast, benevolent sexism, as defined by researchers Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, is “a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men.” This includes things such as inappropriate compliments, like Obama’s silly praise of California attorney general Kamala Harris, and unnecessary protection for perceived female weakness and inferiority, like a man paying for a woman’s meal or rushing to defend her from street harassment.

Many people think benevolent sexism is harmless, but it’s not really about winning praise or a free lunch. Its underlying assumptions are that female worth depends on appearance, and that women are weak and need certain special protection.

Glick and Fiske have found that benevolent sexism is highly correlated with hostile sexism. That means that even though someone who practices benevolent sexism doesn’t necessarily endorse hostile sexism, the researchers found that in fact the two often go together: people who endorse one often endorse the other.

And they found that benevolent sexism (independent of hostile sexism) significantly predicted nationwide gender inequality across a range of indicators, like life expectancy, income, social status, etc. Other researchers, Julia Becker and Stephen Wright, found that when women were exposed to benevolent sexism, they were less likely to take specific actions against gender inequalities and were more likely to justify unequal systems.

So benevolent sexism is much more insidious because it often makes women feel great but ultimately can do as much damage as hostile sexism.

Think of it like the high fructose corn syrup of social relations: It totally rocks while you’re eating the candy but will seriously screw with your life if you give in to the addiction.

Lest anyone think that benevolent sexism is a thing of the past, it has been all over the news lately. Besides Obama’s gaffe, there was the revelation of Elise Andrew as the creator of the I F-king Love Science Facebook page, which prompted a tsunami of offensive praise (OMG a hot girl loves science!!!). And we had the New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which touted her cooking prowess and wifely humility, making her career seem like a bonus coupon.

But wait, there’s more. Now we are graced with the Dove campaign, which reveals how touchingly blind we women are for not realizing the depth of our true beauty. You see, we are so fragile and misguided that total strangers can see us better than we see ourselves!

Friends and strangers alike take pleasure in my daughter’s hair. This is because when it’s not matting into little dreadlocks, her hair resembles pale lilies in sunlight. It is rare and beautiful to look at and even better to touch. Like lambs wool woven with silk.

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This seems harmless enough. We perceive beauty because we find it is real and because human beings are beautiful. With so much ugliness and injustice in the world, what’s wrong with professing beauty where we find it? Isn’t it only right, even essential to find beauty where we can? Isn’t it natural to compare my girl’s hair to flowers in sunshine or sweet fluffy animals? And haven’t I chosen photos for this blog based on some perception of beauty, or at least some aesthetic value?

If we can’t appreciate beauty then what is left in this world? Reality cop shows and Cheez Whiz for the rest of our days?

I don’t think it’s quite so hopeless, partly because there is a big difference between appreciating whatever or whoever we experience as beautiful and making beauty the essential nature of that person or thing.

Here is what sometimes happens in a typical day with my daughter. We go out walking somewhere and somebody stops to praise her lovely hair. At our next destination – maybe it’s the coffee shop – someone else will comment on her adorable locks. Then we go somewhere else, like the doctor’s office for a checkup, and the nurse can’t resist gushing over her gorgeous curls.

It is not yet noon, and my daughter has received so many compliments from friends and strangers. Maybe that seems like no big deal. Maybe that seems great for her self-image. But as I watch this, I realize I am in fact witnessing the belittling of a girl’s self-perception, the whittling away of her personhood. Because not one of these people has said a thing about her character, her strong vocabulary, her decent manners, how fast she runs through the park, or how confidently she climbs a tree.

No. In these comments she is learning that the first and most important thing people want to notice is her hair. In a few short years it will be her clothes, her makeup, her body.

How much are the comments sinking in? By four years old, she was already insisting that soccer was “for boys.” She finally agreed to try a class, but only because her friend was in it. She wasn’t much into the game.

So when I witness these patterns, not just on one day, but many days over and over and over and over again, I understand in a new way that benevolent sexism is not some cute sugar joke. In fact, hostile sexism is relatively rare for us, but the benevolent brand is how we degrade the worth of women and girls every day, how we make it constant, how we make it sink in. How we make second-class life seem so utterly benign.

Benign, that is, until one day when we are all looking around asking how rape culture in so-called first-world countries can still be so prevalent. How it is that any police officer could look the other way when a 5-year-old girl is raped. How people could order textile workers in Bangladesh to get back to work in a dangerous building, only to watch it collapse on them moments later.

And so I come back to King’s words and my thought experiment: what if we could make benevolent sexism as culturally awkward, as strange and wrong as my title sounds, “the content of her hair.”

What if we could think our way out of this problem by sheer force of imagination? What if we found a new language to imagine our way out of the norms of injustice – to think our way toward freedom for women?

There is no magic word wand for this crisis, no secret code to wish it away. But I do believe that imagination is as crucial as action, and possibly the key to it.

I also believe this challenge is not as impossible as it sometimes feels. Yes, feminism has lost ground in recent years and in some very alarming ways. There’s serious work ahead.

But we humans can be surprising, and children, it turns out, are not so attached to the meanings of words.

A few weeks after my daughter quit soccer, she announced out of the blue one day that she wanted to play basketball.

At her second lesson, she hadn’t quite gotten that the point of the game is to shoot baskets, but she loved the idea of getting her hands on the ball. She was the only girl. I watched in amazement as she zoomed around the court, stealing the ball repeatedly from one particular older boy. She began to attract attention. A few other parents started cheering every time she raided the other team.

She didn’t seem like lilies in sunlight at all. More like rushing water in a desert wilderness.

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After the game, some kid’s exuberant dad was over the moon about my girl.

And for once no one said a word about her hair.

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Violence is Senseless, Grief Makes Sense

With participants from around the world, the Boston Marathon is an international event, and so the tragedy there is both local and global. And there was violence in other places this week, a terrible series of car bombs in Iraq, and explosions in Mogadishu, which occur regularly and do not receive the attention they deserve. My heart is heavy as I imagine the grief of others and struggle to feel my own.

Many hopeful messages have circulated. The intentions behind these stories are good and are surely helping some people. I especially appreciate the story of Carlos Arredondo, a peace activist who had already lost both of his sons, one in Iraq and one to suicide, and who helped to save some of the wounded in Boston.

But as blogger Jan Wilberg points out, it might be too soon to barrel ahead and “rush to the healing station.”

Don’t get me wrong – the positive stories have value; among other things, they can help people to absorb the shock, to begin to comprehend the incomprehensible.

But it is also important to grieve. These violent acts were not inevitable, and there is no justification for death from a bomb attack. But when people die, not only anger but grief becomes a necessary part of life, a rational response to loss. Grieving rites exist in various forms throughout the world but the recognition of loss always seems to be there. We grieve the loss of others through formal rituals, which in part define us as humans.

This impulse to gloss over grief is especially troubling given that the updated DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which sets the cultural standard for how mental health is defined in much of the Western world, now encourages grief to be categorized as a mental illness rather than a normal human response.

The change has sparked much criticism and debate, but the result is clear: just as the ravenous beauty industry has turned aging into an unnatural horror requiring treatment, now the misguided arbiters of sanity appear to be doing the same with bereavement. Instead of recognizing grief as part of what makes us human, mental health practitioners will be encouraged to treat it as an illness, which could encourage a cultural stigma around grieving.

Considering the violence throughout the world this week, I remember a haunting poem by Louise Glück called “Vespers.” Glück has written several poems with this title; this one airs a grievance to a distant God over a failed tomato crop. Her spare, elegant language is impressive:

In your extended absence, you permit me

use of earth, anticipating

some return on investment. I must report

failure in my assignment, principally

regarding the tomato plants.

I think I should not be encouraged to grow

tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold

the heavy rains, the cold nights that come

so often here, while other regions get

twelve weeks of summer. All this

belongs to you: on the other hand,

I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots

like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart

broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly

multiplying in the rows. I doubt

you have a heart, in our understanding of

that term. You who do not discriminate

between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,

immune to foreshadowing, you may not know

how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,

the red leaves of the maple falling

even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible

for these vines.

The poem is not about violence but about the possibilities of grief, what happens when someone grieves a loss. It is firmly rooted in the tradition of Job, a virtuous Old Testament character who loses everything and struggles to comprehend the injustice of his misfortune. Like Job, the speaker here laments a material loss that brings about a larger crisis of faith in whatever metaphysical force is believed to control the mundane world. The speaker has failed to cultivate fruit from the earth granted to her and questions the deity’s indifference to her labor. And this leads her to suspect that this particular god might not be omniscient after all, might not finally understand “how much terror we bear.”

The grief in this poem is different from that brought on by the recent tragedies of senseless violence. Yet for many people in the world, crop failure can be as deadly as roadside bombs, if less sudden. Disasters like these bring crises both practical and metaphysical, making people question their beliefs, like Glück’s speaker who begins to doubt the divine power she addresses.

And that’s one reason I find this poem so remarkable in this moment: it poses as a harmless complaint about a failed garden, but if we pay attention we can see that it is making much larger claims on us.

It asks us to notice that for many people, a small crop can mean the difference between survival and death.

It reminds us that grief is not unnatural or a luxury. It is not a weird disease or a Gucci bag you wish you could afford, but an inevitable part of life, because loss is inevitable, a reality that the DSM-V is increasingly making a debatable proposition. Some people must now challenge authority for the right to simply grieve.

And on my reading, authority is what the poem finally challenges as well: if we take time to grieve, to voice our sorrow, we too might begin to question authority, like the bizarre imperative to stifle normal emotion. And then we might also begin to question other types of authority, like the roots underlying the patterns of violence in the U.S. and around the world. Courageous writers like Glenn Greenwald are addressing such questions.

Or we could just forget about all that and try to feel happy again.

Maybe some people don’t hesitate to question authority in times like these whether they grieve or not. Maybe some people think art and especially poetry are frivolous and irrelevant to any of this. But I do not read this poem as a frothy sound bite, a feel-good mantra of “grief (not greed) is good.” For me it is a potent reminder to slow down, to claim the right to grieve, to begin to question what is going on, and how and why we respond as we do.

There will be time for hope and strength. For now, Glück brings a message in a bottle on the vital kinship between grief in art and in life.

Noun, Verb, Proverb…

On a college language exam asking for the eight parts of speech, a befuddled student offered these three words before petering out.

I’m glad the poor soul gave up early. Who knows what might have come next, “adventure” instead of “adverb”?

Clearly the exam was something of an adventure as “pronoun” got conflated with “verb.” If only there could be special words that take the place of verbs, it’d save us so much work! Actually, some words already do, like the way I just used “do” as shorthand for “save us so much work” in the preceding sentence.

This is why dictionary.com lists one definition (early 20th cent.) of “proverb” as “a word that can substitute for a verb or verb phrase,” by analogy of “pronoun.” But no such listing appears in the venerable OED (Oxford English Dictionary), and “proverb” has never won a coveted place as a part of speech.

I would like to think the student knew something about this, though that’s sort of like believing you meant to be charitable after losing your wallet.

But wishful thinking is persistent, so maybe this student is just deep. Maybe this promising young person thinks the parts of speech are too freaking dull anyway. Who cares about basic grammar?! Let’s get some real truth in here dammit!

Not all proverbs are mundane, on the order of “money talks,” “two wrongs don’t make a right,” and “when the going gets tough…” A few common ones have a nice ring and say something useful too, like “better the devil that you know than the one you don’t” and “don’t cut your nose off to spite your face.”

My parents taught me these two: “if you want something done, ask a busy person” (true) and “cold hands, warm heart” (quirky). Worthy scientists have actually bothered to prove that cold hands are not a sign of inner warmth.

Then there’s the less common but more interesting maxims, like “a cat may look at a king,” an English metaphor asserting meager rights for social inferiors. The intriguingly vague “No friendship can survive the gift of gold” raises all kinds of possibilities since it doesn’t specify the giver or the recipient. Does it mean one’s gift of gold to a friend will spoil the friendship? Or a friendship can’t survive a sudden fortune for one of the friends? What if both friends hit the jackpot?

Of course, there is no love lost between women and certain adages. Sadly, they are not BFFs, because most proverbs are rooted in conservative, popular belief and reflect centuries of the systematic dishonoring of women’s lives.

So along with justifying bad male behavior (“boys will be boys”) we have, “a woman, a cat, and a chimney should never leave the house,” “a woman, a dog, and a walnut tree: the more you beat them, the better they be,” and, “never run after a woman or a streetcar; there’ll be another along in a few minutes.” And A Dictionary of American Proverbs reveals that the custom of older women not revealing their age, which is still going strong, is rooted not in vanity but in social shame: “A woman over thirty who will tell her exact age will tell anything.”

But it’s not all vile. A gem among the rubble: “An aversion to women is like an aversion to life.” Let’s scrap the “like.”

So yes. I would like to think this student launched a clever protest against the perceived banality of basic grammar. Unfortunately I know better. More than a few college students don’t know the parts of speech precisely because many people believe this type of knowledge is déclassé. Students don’t need to memorize silly facts, the thinking goes, because it’s more important to know how to find, use, and evaluate information.

Which means you don’t need to know basic principles of how your own language works (let alone anyone else’s), or that the U.S. passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, or that some historians believe that language about gender discrimination was included in the act initially as a joke in an effort to scuttle the bill. Because you know, you can just look all those things up online.

Except that you can’t if you don’t even know they exist. The idea that basic facts can be simply summoned at will represents a colossal misunderstanding of what young people need to become literate human beings. If we don’t learn fundamental things about our own language and culture early on, we will have a very hard time grasping much else. There really is no way around this.

With that in mind, here is something that should be proverbial: The students who list “proverb” as a part of speech will someday be writing our wills, handling our real-estate transactions, and making crucial health decisions for us. Or they might be teaching our kids or taking care of us when we’re too helpless to do it ourselves.

But we’re not helpless yet. There’s still time to make sure the young’uns will one day torment the next generation by reciting the lines of a certain dead poet, the one who wrote something about how a little learning is a dangerous thing.

The phoenix theater in Venice fighting a threatened closure a few years back: "from fire one (i.e. the phoenix) can rise again, but not from ignorance."

The Phoenix Theater in Venice, plagued by several fires throughout its history: “from fire one can rise again, but not from ignorance.”

While I Was Out, Kay Ryan Was U.S. Poet Laureate

One of life’s unanticipated pleasures is catching up on great stuff I missed during the hardcore years of early parenting. Beginning in late 2007 I devoted all waking and most potential sleeping hours to my high-needs infant daughter and to finishing school. Which means that I was oblivious to the appointment of Kay Ryan as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010.

I wish we’d all missed other things too, like the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, the global financial meltdown, cropped skinny jeans.

But back to Ryan. Discovering her wonderful poems feels like a surprise holiday, or some totally unexpected consolation for awful parenting magazines and rapid aging.

Some fun facts: Ryan lives in Marin County, California and taught remedial English in a community college there for thirty years. For decades she had trouble even getting published but kept writing anyway. Her collection The Best of It: New and Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. In 2011 she was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Ryan is not overtly historical or political in her writing. Her playful poems, which often include what she calls “recombinant rhymes,” are more concerned with unraveling the intricacies of language and reviving clichés than with personal suffering. But it would be a mistake to think that she writes naively or superficially. Her poems seem light but often harbor a lovely and subtle dark side, somehow both triumphant and totally in the know about the limits of triumph.

A good example of this lyric chiaroscuro is her poem “Relief”:

We know it is close

to something lofty.

Simply getting over being sick

or finding lost property

has in it the leap,

the purge, the quick humility

of witnessing a birth-

how love seeps up

and retakes the earth.

There is a dreamy

wading feeling to your walk

inside the current

of restored riches,

clocks set back,

disasters averted.

I think this poem partly celebrates relief as sincerely wonderful, and I love the way Ryan opens up space to notice relief as an experience, not just a feeling. That is a rare gift in an anxious world of endlessly streaming data where many people struggle to notice their kids let alone the finer points of emotion.

But there is also a subtle irony here that I like. Relief is necessarily a reaction and temporary. It might feel like love, but it is only like love inasmuch as love actually retakes the earth, or as much as clocks set back change the pace of time. Relief is more like infatuation earned in advance.

And this difference implies an underlying hard-nosed realism, because exalting relief like this suggests some previous experience of loss or at least an awareness of it – anxiety at the very least. Otherwise there would be little surprise in finding the lost money or avoiding the house fire even though you accidentally left the oven on all day. If disasters must eventually come, at least we will have humbly earned the “dreamy wading feeling” in the lucky times when they don’t.

Ryan’s poems are not generally dramatic, but this one feels like it’s got stage potential, especially for dramatic irony. I can imagine some modern Hamlet speaking these lines to convince himself that things might really be okay, just before his uncle usurps the family business. Or a slightly silly character reading them straight.

It is a happy moment to find such a talented poet. I dare say it’s a relief to know that while I was fighting sleep and worrying about an infant’s slow weight gain, the U.S. exalted not just the Tea Party and Sarah Palin but the quirky and talented Kay Ryan.

Disasters not averted, and a sign of light in our history.