Monday, January 14, 2013


Yesterday, I left Robert to watch football in blissful silence (i.e., without having to listen to me natter on about sports-related head injuries) and drove up to San Francisco to spend some time at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.  I love this museum a lot: it’s small and the exhibits are beautifully curated and the whole space feels sacred to me.
There was a wonderful photography collection by the New York Photo League.  But what really packed a wallop was the exhibit detailing the work of the artist and children’s book author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (THE SNOWY DAY, among others).  As someone who has never been particularly interested in picture books, I had read his books but never given them much thought.  Seeing his work as art on a wall (rather than illustrations in a book) made it come alive, though.  His aggressive use of color to give life to small moments moved me, as did his masterful use of collage.

He was a child who received almost no support for his art at home.  (His parents, emotionally distant and brutally poor, worried that art would not allow him to make a proper living.)  He was small.  He was teased and bullied mercilessly at school and in his neighborhood.  And he described himself (according to the exhibit’s notes) as lonely.

There is something about loneliness.

Most people understand that there is a difference between loneliness and being alone.  I love to be alone.  I work alone, I run alone, I gave up an afternoon of cozy football-watching with my partner to go to a museum alone.  I often choose to be alone because I can, in fact, choose

Loneliness is not a choice.  Loneliness is an unlit hole, a dreadful, black emptiness.
I have been lonely.  Not for long, but even in short bursts, it is terrible.  It is a feeling that no one can hear you, that you are screaming and no one notices. 

Something about Keats’s art—its bigness, its loudness, its brightness, its joy—seems to be his way of screaming, I am here!  See me!  Know me!  And because, by all accounts, he was a lovely, talented, honorable, thoroughly engaging man, it is a pleasure to do so.

But I couldn’t help thinking about all the other lonely people—most especially, children—who haven’t yet found a way to be heard.  There is a lot of screaming out there, and it is so easy and so terrible not to hear it.

I left the museum and sat outside on a bench.  It was very cold for San Francisco—I was wearing a winter coat and gloves—but sunny and clear and windless.  I watched some strutting pigeons and two older ladies having a chilly picnic.  I thought how nice it was to know that Ezra Jack Keats and his editor puzzled over whether to call his book THE SNOWY DAY or A SNOWY DAY (because I can spend hours wondering about just this kind of thing).   I thought about the art I had seen and the book I am writing and the large, shapeless crowd of twentysomethings waiting to get into St. Patrick Church.  I wondered if any of them was screaming. 
And then, happily, Tracy arrived—my dear friend Tracy who is only one of the reasons I am so very, very lucky—and we went to lunch.

On Beauty Pageants and Sports and Mothers

So let's talk about Honey Boo Boo.

The youngster in question is Alana Thompson, also known as Honey Boo Boo, star of TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” a reality show that allows viewers a peek into the lives of Alana and her lovable, rough-and-tumble family.   The show is a huge hit, despite being lambasted and derided by the press, which has struggled to explain its strange appeal.  Having made a name for herself as a beauty-pageant contestant on “Toddlers & Tiaras,” Alana does not, at first blush, seem to be the kind of kid Americans usually embrace.  She’s no Suri Cruise.  So what accounts for her show’s persistent popularity?
Certainly little-girl beauty pageants—a $5 billion industry—have been much in the public consciousness of late.  With the movie “Little Miss Sunshine” and a slew of TV reality shows, people seem to be fascinated with the whole notion of pageants and the way in which ordinary-looking little girls are poked and prodded, primped, slathered, festooned, painted, sprayed, and spackled into odd-looking simulations of adult women, only without the breasts.  I count myself among those who, coming upon “Little Miss Perfect” one morning when I was home in bed with the flu, was unable to look away.
Why is that?

Part of it has to do with the transformations of the little girls, which is startling, to say the least.  People love makeovers, after all: they love the idea that something pedestrian can be transformed into something shimmering and new and barely recognizable.  Perhaps we even like to imagine what a sparkly dress, Plasticine hair, fake white teeth (called “flippers” for the pre-adolescent set who are missing their baby teeth), and makeup garishly applied might do for us.  Haven’t we all fantasized that with knowledgeable assistance and just the right accessories, we might be coaxed into an approximation of Audrey Hepburn?  (Or is that just me?)

But of course, it’s more than that.  The TV shows in particular have found a way to allow viewers (who are often mothers) to indulge in a cherished pastime: criticizing other mothers.  The mothers of little girls who compete in pageants are easy to hate.  Often, they are shown yelling at their daughters, exhorting them to smile, make eye contact with judges, twirl prettily, pay attention, stop crying, be quiet, hush up.  They promise disingenuously that if their little girls can’t behave properly, they’ll just pack up the suitcases and go home.  They critique their children’s imperfections with withering contempt.  (“She’s just so clumsy!”)  They pump them full of candy and soda and so-called “energy drinks” to insure an energetic performance onstage.
And then, there’s the aspect of all this that we don’t say out loud: Many of these women live in modest houses, often in small towns, often in the south.  They speak ungrammatically, with accents.  And—heaven forbid—some of them are fat. 

In short, they are just the kind of people that more affluent, educated suburbanites can feel good about hating.  Because they are different.  Because they aren’t like us.  Because we would never do what they do.

Is this true?
I raised my children in a Bay Area suburb where it was (and is) de rigueur for kids to begin their athletic careers at the age of four, on the soccer field.  Because I worried that my quiet, sedentary son might be left out socially if he didn’t participate, I signed him up.  I then spent the next four months watching a pack of kids swarm across a field without the slightest sense of what they were doing, let alone where the ball was.  (Half the time, I couldn’t even see Evan.  Usually, he was at the wrong end of the field, looking for bugs in the grass.)  All the while, well-heeled parents shouted encouragement from the sidelines.  Sometimes it sounded encouraging.  Sometimes it sounded like the kind of rage that would get you escorted out of a professional hockey game.

My son played soccer for almost ten years, and volleyball throughout high school and college.  During that time, I saw a lot of ugliness, as well as out-and-out emotional brutality: parents who lobbied coaches to make sure their superstar didn’t have to be on a team with a kid who was slow or uncoordinated; coaches who tried to get parents to discourage their kids from playing because “they’ll never be any good anyway”; kids who refused to sit next to a teammate who allowed a goal or screwed up a corner kick.  At a volleyball game, I heard parents (who lived in the next town) laughing about how their kids were beating ours because their town was “richer.”  During my son’s single, ill-fated Little League season, I saw an assistant coach put his arm over his son’s shoulders after the kid had pitched a near-perfect game and the other team had won anyway.  I drew closer, hoping to eavesdrop on a sweet father-son moment.  “What the hell’s the matter with you?” the father was whispering.  “What the fuck were you doing out there?”  The kid was crying.  He was nine years old.

And don’t get me started on my daughter’s experiences with gymnastics. 

It’s easy to think that allowing my kids to participate in hometown sports is nothing like allowing little girls to dress up in ball gowns and wink and blow kisses at strange men with clipboards.  After all, sports are about learning rules, fostering camaraderie, becoming team players, building healthy bodies.  They are about developing competencies, whereas beauty pageants are about being judged for what you look like, which has nothing to do with competence and everything to do with the luck of the draw.


Maybe not.  David Elkind certainly doesn’t think so.  A professor emeritus at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child, The Power of Play, and All Grown Up and No Place to Go, Elkind believes that modern-day parenting has stressed children to the breaking point, depriving them of the childhoods necessary for appropriate development.  “The pressure to grow up fast, to achieve early in the area of sports, academics, and social interaction, is very great in middle-class America,” he writes in 1981’s groundbreaking The Hurried Child.  “There is no room today for the ‘late bloomers,’ the children who come into their own later in life rather than earlier.”
Consider this excerpt from sports writer John Underwood, cited by Elkind:

Sports-psychologist Bruce Ogelvie laments the sickening arrogance of Little League coaches, too many of whom are unqualified.  Some coaches, says another psychologist, Thomas Tatlio, even “think sports is war.”  They make eight-year-olds sit on the bench while others play, learning nothing beyond the elitism of win-at-all-costs sport.  Token participation—an inning in right field, a couple of minutes in the fourth quarter—can be equally demoralizing.
To visit on small heads the pressure to win… is indecent.  To dress children up like pros in costly outfits is ridiculous.  In so doing, we take away many of the qualities that competitive sports are designed to give to the growing process.

Elkind goes on to say, “Generally it is parent need, not a child’s authentic wish, that pushes children into team sports at an early age.”

And suddenly, the affluent suburban parents who laud their children’s talents on the tennis team begin to bear an eerie resemblance to Honey Boo Boo’s mother, June Shannon, who likes to “scratch her bugs” and is happy to provide her little pageant queen with the “go-go juice” she needs to show herself to best advantage.

My point is not to denigrate the hallowed, untouchable institution of sports in America.  Nor is it to instill guilt into the hearts of already beleaguered parents who adore their children and want nothing more than to do right by them.
My point is that our demonization of the mothers of child pageant contestants bears examination.  When we laugh at them, or say we’re nothing like them, or roll our eyes at the way they have forced their children to become miniature adults, we’re not being completely honest.  Perhaps we are using these women to avoid seeing ourselves as we really are.

There are plenty of things not to like about child beauty pageants:  the emphasis on appearance, the sexualization of little girls, the horrific insistence on "practicing" and rehearsing routines performed by children who are barely old enough to flush a toilet or button a shirt, the unbridled competitiveness, the weird way that social class factors into it all.   A small study conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Anna L. Wonderlich, Diann M. Ackard, and Judith B. Henderson found that adult women who had competed in beauty pageants as children scored higher on body dissatisfaction, interpersonal distrust, and impulse dysregulation than non-participants, and showed a trend toward greater ineffectiveness.

But let’s not kid ourselves.  June Shannon loves her little girl, just as you love yours and I love mine.  The problem is that somehow, we’ve all been coerced into believing that we must teach our very young children about competitiveness and winning.

Sports exert such a hold on the modern imagination that we have turned any number of activities into them.  Dance is no longer an art form: children are now on dance teams.  The same can be said of chess, martial arts, a cappella singing, and a host of other activities that used to be pursued for reasons other than the desire to be better at them than other people.  One might argue that little-girl pageants take this idea to its logical, if ludicrous, conclusion.   Now, you can win a trophy for being the best smiler and winker.  We have, at long last, made winning available to all.

And that, I think, is the crux of the whole thing.  The little girls who win the Ultimate Grand Supreme titles (an exercise in hyperbole if ever there was one) aren’t really very good at anything.  But pageants allow anyone with the money to spend to compete on an even playing field.  That is what twenty-first-century America teaches its citizens.  And that is what twenty-first century mothers teach their children.