The Puberty Video: Or, A Quick Lesson in How We’re Taught to Feel

Although summer break is now upon us, it’s hard to forget that just a few short weeks ago, I received THE green permission slip home in my fourth grader’s hand.  That permission slip is the form that permits all fourth graders at our elementary school to watch the first in a series of puberty videos that continue through the sixth grade year, delving into ever more pronounced detail about the ins and outs of growing up.

As a person who studies social concepts of bodies and sex, and also as the mother of three kids (two of whom have now been initiated into the mysteries of that video), it has been increasingly interesting to me to watch the transformation in my kids’ attitudes towards this particular topic. I delivered my first “birds and the bees” speech to my oldest child (now going into middle school) when she was the tender age of four. Although she was far younger than I imagined she would be when we first had that talk, she demanded one day to know where babies came from, and so I told her. Naturally, she was shocked, but (importantly) she was not ashamed, and it is on this point that I wish to focus, for when my middle child and I first had this conversation a couple of years ago, he — a much more laid back type — was not only also unashamed, but also unsurprised, as if he were living on a farm and had between witnessing maturation and reproduction all these years (he doesn’t, he hasn’t).

So you can imagine my interest when this same child came home a few weeks ago a changed person (in a different sense!). Yes, he’d seen the puberty video, and no, he didn’t have any questions; he already knew everything from our conversations, he reports. But something was clearly diffferent: for the first time ever when discussing this topic, he was embarrassed. To be abundantly clear, this was not the product of the video nor any awkward chat with a teacher or school nurse. Rather, he was embarrassed because he did not know that his friends would be embarrassed. For all of the facts that I shared with him, it seems that the one I failed to tell him was that other people would be uncomfortable when talking about their own bodies.

While we often describe a growing body-consciousness as a sign of maturity, this is likely better described as a particularity of our socialization, since not all people in all cultures experience this in the same way. Put differently, what we are squeamish or insecure about  as a culture is usually closely connected to what our culture seeks to control and police.  As this changes from place to place, there are hardly universal experiences that accompany growing up (or any stage of life, for that matter).

Our emotions, however, seem to belie this version of events, since what we feel often appears to be so automatic or natural.  But as we know, if something were an innate part of our human biology, then assumedly virtually all humans would experience it. The fact that they don’t is a sign of the close relationship between emotions and socialization, one that Linda Kintz describes as a sort of “intimate training” wherein as part of our development into a fully functioning member of our culture, we are taught how to feel about certain things just as much as we are taught about them. Consider, for instance, that no one is born racist or sexist; the emotions that inspire those particular forms of social interaction are taught very subtly and over long periods of time, and probably without a lot of overt conversations on “how to be a racist (sexist, etc.).”

Kintz’s larger point is that trying to explain the platforms of a group by appealing to logic is a somewhat lost cause because emotions form their own logic, or as Kintz would put it, what we find logical is what feels familiar. This is, in my mind, a much better foundation from which to start analyzing group dynamics.  In this case, a widespread perception of bodies as embarrassing and inadequate and a related belief in sex as something taboo has produced a series of shared cultural feelings that, even if not individually embraced by all, help create a larger climate of discomfort. This is evidenced through the very sorts of permission slips and other institutional structures that must be put into place before broaching this particular subject, for perhaps it goes without saying that I do not sign permission slips for my kids to study math, science, reading, or art.

Sex and maturing bodies, then, are not intrinsically sensitive, shameful, or delicate topics, but are rendered so through the cultural lenses through which we view them. In this case,  these moments of intimate training are far less about telling kids about “the facts of life,” but also the associated feelings that our culture says go with those facts.




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Debating “The System”

Five people standing behind podiums

I was one of “those” debate kids in high school whose weekends were spent at debate tournaments — and yes, I carried a ridiculous briefcase, spoke too fast, and owned a dress suit. In other words, I was livin’ the life.

So you can perhaps imagine my interest at a recent Radiolab episode that not only featured the story of a debate team, but of a debater who got his start in Kansas City, where I happen to live. This debate team performed a very unlikely act: in the final round of the national tournament, these underdogs reversed the customs of debate, and in so doing redefined what it means to engage not just in debate, but in persuasive discourse about their own and others’ identities. Continue reading “Debating “The System””

Do Bathrooms Matter? Revisiting “The Bathroom Problem”

Target rainbow bullseye

On the heels of North Carolina’s recent decision to require transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to their identified sex at birth, Target has just released a new policy indicating that transgender people may use restrooms in its stores that correspond to their present gender identity. While this initiative has received strong support from many corners, it is also not without controversy; most notably, the American Family Assocation (AFA) has called for a boycott of Target on the grounds that this policy “endangers women and children by allowing men to frequent women’s facilities.”

With these claims in mind, there is some importance to my inquiry in doing a bit of fact-checking. As the evidence suggests, transgender people are no more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else, and yet as a group they experience disproportionately higher levels of discrimination and harassment in public venues (and in bathrooms, in particular). Moreover, in response to those who claim that Target’s policy will invite sexual predators of all gender identities into bathrooms, the data indicates that people are no more likely to be attacked in a bathroom than anywhere else, rendering most of the safety arguments relatively void. Continue reading “Do Bathrooms Matter? Revisiting “The Bathroom Problem””

The Manly Vasectomy: When a Symbol Gets Snipped

A bag of frozen peas

Some of you may have heard the recent hubbub surrounding urology clinics that are running March Madness specials. The idea is that men might be more likely to have the procedure done if their recovery can be timed to coincide with a period of sports-related TV watching that might otherwise be considered indulgent. As Time magazine tells it, the practice of advertising vasectomies with March Madness isn’t particularly new, but simply makes public a scheduling trend that had already long been in place, one initiated by men themselves. Time also reports that for those who like their sports with pizza, there is also at least one urology clinic that will throw in a pie with one’s procedure to accompany that bag of frozen peas.

This might strike many as somewhat laughable, but for me it reveals a rather ordinary (if often interesting) practice by which we socially negotiate the demise of a critical symbol. If one’s virility — the marker of manhood across the millennia — is now gone thanks to a vasectomy, then that masculinity can be rebuilt simply by symbolically interjecting a masculinized sporting event (and presumably being pampered by one’s wife, as these adds often imply) on the procedure’s other side. Continue reading “The Manly Vasectomy: When a Symbol Gets Snipped”

Of Lactose and Privilege: Or, How Privilege is Largely Unintentional

A block of yellow cheese

As I’ve referenced in another post, a few years ago one of my kids was diagnosed with several health problems, the solution for which was an elimination diet that forbade gluten and dairy. In an act of solidarity, our whole family decided to eat this way, and today we remain gluten and dairy (or more specifically, lactose) free. While my daughter was the only one for whom this diet was recommended by a doctor, many other things started to clear up once the rest of us were on board: my headaches and joint pain went away, as did my husband’s acid reflux, as did our son’s very frequent night terrors. In the midst of all of the good, however, there was a new issue that emerged: because we no longer eat lactose or gluten, we have lost whatever capacities we individually had to digest them. Thus what began as a mild sensitivity for most of us has now blossomed into all out gastrointestinal misery for all of us if we are accidentally exposed.

What this means in a very practical sense is that we are now living in a world that, from a dietary perspective, has many pitfalls and traps, and is filled with what feels like an endless amount of label reading and Pepto Bismol. We have a very difficult time eating at restaurants, cannot eat many pre-packaged foods, and must often work double-time to provide substitutes for our three children’s very full social lives, where birthday parties, playdates, and movie nights include mounds of forbidden foods. Continue reading “Of Lactose and Privilege: Or, How Privilege is Largely Unintentional”

Who Is A Christian?: The Donald, The Pope, and the Rhetoric of Religion

Donald Trump smiling

Donald Trump received some criticism from an interesting corner this past week when Pope Francis all but declared Trump “un-Christian,” an assessment rendered in response to the latter’s planned policy to build a wall between the US and Mexico if he is elected President. Predictably, Trump fired back with a series of remarks alleging that if ISIS were to attack the Vatican (a possibility in a world without Trump as President, he surmised), then the Pope would seriously regret his words. Although both offered more conciliatory statements later, the spectacle that remained exposed some of the very interesting seams of social identity, seams that should be particularly intriguing to anyone interested not just in the study of religion, but also in the dynamics of public life.

As a scholar of religion with an eye for social theory, one of the first rules of engagement that I use when analyzing a situation such as this is to presume that labels like “Christian” are more shifting descriptors of a particular group’s interests and place in a society rather than a finite, essentialist definition of them. In other words, there is not a single thing that characterizes all people who call themselves “Christian,” and so what intrigues me about the use of the term is why and how we use it when we do, rather than assuming that it is a neutral, self-evident category that objectively describes the world. Continue reading “Who Is A Christian?: The Donald, The Pope, and the Rhetoric of Religion”

Tales From the Bottom of the Backpack: What was “The Point” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that my children often figure significantly into my posts if only because people in the midst of being socialized are, in my opinion, some of the most interesting people around. This is also why so many of my posts about my kids are often focused on their educational experiences, for while there are a large number of ways in which we are socialized, most of these experiences are rarely as intentional and self-conscious as formal education. (If you’re interested, you can check out  my reflections on their school introduction to Columbus Day and 9/11).

With that said, I recently had an interesting experience that shed some light on the ways that we negotiate our social rituals in order to suit the specific power relationships that such rituals foster. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurred a few weeks ago in the U.S., a holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. Many of you, no doubt, saw all sorts of King-related posts on social media, most of them lines extracted from King’s larger speeches and writings, transformed into motivational statements like these: Continue reading “Tales From the Bottom of the Backpack: What was “The Point” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?”

On the Market, Playing the Game: On Status and Elitism in Academia

a picture of Indiana Jones wearing glassesWhile sitting in the lobby of one of the conference hotels during our discipline’s major conference in November, I was joined by a group of post-docs and very early career scholars who were (loudly) discussing their career plans in this tight market. What I caught of their conversation can be summed up as such: We all currently have (or hope to have) tenure track jobs at “teaching schools,” but as soon as we can, we’ll get out of there and move on to the “real” jobs at elite institutions where our research will be valued.

This is a popular sentiment, albeit fantasy for most (in light of the current market). Yet I think it deserves attention, for I believe it to be responsible for some very subtle sorts of power plays that many of us may not recognize as such. For those of you not familiar with the lingo, a “teaching school” is a college or university where greater emphasis is placed on one’s teaching competencies and comparatively less on one’s research, which means that faculty at such schools tend to have larger teaching loads and, typically, less paid time to produce scholarship. The opposite is the case at more elite institutions, where (on the whole) faculty have opportunities to teach less, specifically to give them time to produce the aforementioned research.   Continue reading “On the Market, Playing the Game: On Status and Elitism in Academia”

Ugly Christmas Sweaters and Bubba Teeth: On Holidays and Class-Based Humor

Ugly Christmas Sweater

Several days ago, I was wooed to my local thrift store by their promise of deep holiday discounts. As I was shopping, an employee made an announcement over the loudspeaker that went something like this:

“Shoppers! Don’t forget to check out our latest and greatest selection of ugly Christmas sweaters, perfect for your Ugly Christmas Sweater party! They’re located on the west side of the store under the “Christmas sweaters” sign.”

I happened to be one aisle over from that very sign and saw several older, presumably working class women shopping in that section, looking at one another with shocked faces upon their mutual discovery that what they had presumed was a fantastic deal on a nice holiday sweater was now someone else’s joke. Whether such a sweater ended up in their carts I do not know, but it was a very interesting examination of how certain types of defamation can be called “humor” while others simply remain defamation. Continue reading “Ugly Christmas Sweaters and Bubba Teeth: On Holidays and Class-Based Humor”

When the Question Matters More Than the Answer

Leslie Dorrough Smith

I often ask my students to consider what the world would be like if we asked a different set of questions about it. Usually that results in some puzzled looks, for it’s hard to think of different questions precisely because it’s hard to think about a different sort of world. This is, after all, what Pierre Bourdieu was getting at when he described our social lives as “habitus,” or the series of preferences, dispositions, perceptions, and other taken-for-granteds that we think are relatively unique to and comprise our individuality, but that really describe large swaths of our given culture that, bit by bit, shape us into who we are. Continue reading “When the Question Matters More Than the Answer”