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Archive for February, 2009

Darwin and the Swimsuit Issue

February 19, 2009

February 12th was definitely an auspicious occasion: the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. When I read about the contributions of each, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection caught my attention.

Nicholas Wade of the Times recently discussed Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and his fascination with the peacock’s tail: “Showy male ornaments, like the peacock’s tail, appeared hard to explain by natural selection, because they seemed more of a handicap than an aid to survival,” wrote Wade. Darwin’s worry about the “problem” of the peacock’s tail led him to “the idea of sexual selection, that females chose males with the best ornaments, and hence elegant peacocks have the most offspring.”

Fast forward to the 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, published each February. I picked up a copy by chance just before boarding a flight to Florida. As I put the magazine on my lap, I became uncomfortably aware that a boy about eight years old was sitting next to me. I looked down at the cover showing model Bar Refaeli on Canouan Island in the Grenadines, wearing the skimpiest bikini I have ever seen. Then I saw the cover line: “Bikinis or Nothing” and began to fervently wish that I could quickly slip the magazine into a brown paper bag. Since I didn’t have one, I compromised by holding the magazine at a 90-degree angle, so the eight-year-old could only see the back cover.

Darwin was on my mind, and I looked through the photographs only to discover that, in this case, he was wrong, wrong, wrong about who was attracting whom. Almost all the men in the issue were completely clothed in very conservative coats and shirts—even when on the beach—while the women wore nothing but the flimsiest coverings on their breasts and pubic regions. Now, I know this isn’t really about sexual selection; it’s about who’s getting paid to strip down to the bare essentials, but just stay with me here.

The women were gorgeous—make no mistake about it—and the cover headline kept its promise: “Bikinis or Nothing.” (In fact, if this was a contest between bikinis or nothing, I’m really not sure which side would have won.) The gals certainly won the peacock tail contest, though. They put the guys in the shade. Had Mr. Darwin seen the 2009 swimsuit issue, I wonder whether he would have had to go back to the drawing board with his theory of sexual selection. At the very least, he’d have to say that both women and men wear tail feathers to attract the opposite sex. What a difference 200 hundred years make.

Perhaps it was because I was sitting by the 8-year-old boy that I felt concerned about the swimsuit issue and its possible effect on preteens and teens. Millions of households must receive copies of this issue, and I wonder what parents say to their children about the way women are depicted. What messages do these images send to young people, who are just barely out of puberty?

For girls, is the message, be what I am? Is it, aspire to be a swimsuit model and make a gazillion bucks? Is it, if your body isn’t like those in the magazine, then you are seriously deficient? For boys, is it, only go after the girl with the beautiful breasts? Are the girls who are willing to bare almost all more desirable and worth pursuing than those who are covered up? Do the models have the ideal American female body (and did they achieve it through starvation, plastic surgery and Botox injections), and is anything less, undesirable? I could go on a long time with a lot more questions.

I wish school officials would allow sexuality educators to use the swimsuit issue to trigger conversations about the body issues that are so critical to self-esteem. But most teachers taking a copy of the issue into a classroom would have to fear for their reputations, particularly if they don’t have tenure.

I wish the models themselves would talk openly with young women about body image and how they developed the (high or low) self-esteem to be photographed with hardly any clothes on. More and more young men are struggling with body image issues as well, so there’s plenty of reason to have a group discussion. But since teachers or models will probably not be able to discuss the ramifications of this issue and its effects on body image, then parents should use the magazine as a vehicle for talking to their own kids.

In the meantime, Mr. Darwin, how would you attempt to explain sexual selection and the swimsuit issue of 2009? Have any good ideas?

The Octuplets: A Lesson Plan

February 12, 2009

Octuplets: The word is such a rarity that it isn’t even included in the spellcheck of Microsoft Word. A certain woman and the worldwide media have put it on the map. Surely, as educators, you must have heard the buzz about the multiple births in the hallways and classrooms of the schools where you teach.

Whoever Nayda Suleman, the mother of the octuplets, really is or isn’t, she’s surely handed sexuality educators the teachable moment of the semester. I suggest you pause whatever curriculum you are using and capitalize on this opportunity to talk to your students about a wide variety of issues triggered by Suleman, a single mother of six who gave birth to eight babies, all conceived through in vitro fertilization.

But I don’t suggest that you focus your students’ attention on Suleman’s behavior or that of her medical doctor. Rather, I suggest that you use the following lesson plan, which I created after reading Ellen Goodman’s column, “Eight Is More than Enough.” The ideas in Goodman’s column provide an excellent basis for a lesson plan.

In her column, Goodman cites the following issues raised by Suleman’s births. She says the issues are “everything that we don’t really want to talk about in terms of pregnancy and child rearing”:

  • marital status,
  • money,
  • individual choice,
  • responsibility and
  • technology.

These issues should become central to your discussion with students. You could divide your students into five groups, and give each student one of the issues. Next, you could ask them to brainstorm together and then write down the pluses and minuses of each issue if someone was having a baby. For example, with marital status, the group might discuss the pluses and minuses of having a child as an unmarried teen, a single adult woman (with or without a job) or a committed couple in a marriage or long-term partnership.

The question of the appropriate age to conceive a child would certainly come up in the conversation among students. (My guess is that the students would conclude that having a child as a high-school student or a single parent would be immensely difficult.)

Individual group work around the other issues that Goodman suggests would enlarge and enrich the classroom conversation. Putting the students’ contributions to each issue on an easel-sized piece of paper and placing them up around the room would lead to a rich discussion about the heart of pregnancy and child rearing.

Goodman also asks another set of questions, which students could answer.

  • Does anyone have a right to tell anyone else how many kids to have?
  • Can only people who can afford children bear them?
  • If you are heterosexual female, do you need to have a husband to have a baby? (This might have already arisen under the discussion of “responsibility” in the first phase of the exercise.)

I might ask each student to answer each question individually and then hold a class discussion, with everyone chiming in and elaborating on his or her opinion.

A possible homework assignment might be for each student to browse the Internet and write a short paragraph about one of the following topics:

  • The history of the infertility movement;
  • The cost of having a single birth and/or multiple births to an individual family and to society;
  • Cost savings of providing family planning to poor women (which was stripped from the stimulus bill); and
  • The ethics of implanting multiple embryos and of destroying embryos.

I have tried to keep students away from giving their own opinions about the ethics of Suleman’s and her medical specialist’s behavior. This kind of discussion can cause some parents displeasure, if they hear about it. If the conversation reduces itself to a quarrel between those who support Suleman and those who do not, students will avoid the larger questions on bearing children. But students may want to talk generally, as a windup, about how or how not to regulate infertility treatments.

As a coda, it would worthwhile to review all forms of contraception. Students tell us so often that lessons on contraception are too dry and clinical to remember. A discussion of the methods against a backdrop of the octuplets’ birth might just be the perfect way for students to realize the profundity of bearing and raising a child. They may come away from the discussion with a better respect for the medical gift of contraception and a greater comfort with using contraception when and if they do decide to have sex.

If you decide to follow this lesson plan—amending it, of course, to suit your students’ ages—let us know if it flies. We shall put your feedback in another post. In the meantime, thanks, Ellen Goodman, for your thoughtful and good ideas!

Family Life Educator-in-Chief

February 6, 2009

President Barack Obama is our Commander-in-Chief, and First Lady Michelle Obama refers to herself as Mom-in-Chief. Awhile back, former President Bill Clinton earned the title Sex Educator-in-Chief, but he earned it for all the wrong reasons—namely, his indiscreet, lewd and disrespectful conduct with a much-younger intern. I would only bestow that title on someone again if that person attains the highest standards associated with sexuality education. But I will, however, declare President Obama our Family Life Educator-in-Chief.

Why? Because when you look at Obama’s persona, conduct and ideas over the two-year presidential campaign and first 100 hours in office, it is clear that he is a model partner and family supporter who espouses the values of responsibility and caring. Just consider the following:

  • Obama adores his wife. When the President and First Lady danced together to the romantic ballad “At Last” during the inaugural ball, no one in the world could have doubted the depth of their love and attraction for each other—and after 16 years of marriage. They radiate real, not manufactured, intimacy.
  • He is committed to the institution of marriage. At first, President Obama dragged his feet about asking Michelle to marry him. (She was the one that kept pushing him, telling him that “marriage is everything.”) But then he bought the ring and showed it to every member of her family before offering it to her on a dessert plate at a fancy restaurant where he finally proposed. Their commitment to their marriage is a shining example for young people about the importance of partnership. (Note: President Obama has not yet supported same-sex marriage, but he strongly endorses civil unions, where partners have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. This is an important step forward.)
  • He adores his two young daughters. President Obama glows in his daughters’ presence and always refers to them by name in his speeches. I read that after his eldest was born, he worked “the night shift,” because he was only teaching at the time, his schedule was more flexible than his wife’s and she needed more sleep. (You can see his affinity for small children and theirs for him in these photographs from the campaign.)
  • He shows respect and kindness toward family members, scattered as they are from Hawaii to Indonesia to Kenya. Obama’s willingness to invite his mother-in-law to live in the White House also testifies to his understanding of the multi-generations that make up the American family.
  • He calls on young men to take responsibility. Just recall these comments from his speech on Father’s Day last June: “We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. … Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.” (Check out the full speech here.)

It’s clear that people have great respect for the Obama’s family life, as this cartoon demonstrates.

Beyond the basics about family life, President Obama is working toward another title: Sex Educator-in-Chief. With the stroke of a pen on his third day in office, he lifted the noxious global gag rule, which has prevented international family planning agencies from mentioning the option of abortion to pregnant women, even if the procedure is legal in their own country.

While saying that abstinence is the ideal, he has also acknowledged the need for young people to have comprehensive information about contraception, because human fallibility and sexual desire can cloud even the clearest minds. (Just check out his official statement on the Prevention First Act.)

If Obama keeps moving in this direction, he may (unlike Bill Clinton) become the true version of a Sex Educator-in-Chief—one that meets our country’s need for sexuality education policies that are based on common sense, intelligence, responsibility and understanding.