Friday, March 16, 2007

if you cut me i could shine

Lat night I sat in on a focus group of homeless women who gathered around to talk about their difficulties in clothing their kids, and how the lack of suitable (read: popular, expensive, hip) attire causes issues in their homes. (or shelter housing at the moment)

I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but I found the whole thing fascinating. The women had kids ranging from 5-20 years of age, and had from 1-6 kids each. All spoke of the same pressure - not having enough money to clothe their kids and the frustrations that caused them at home, and the humiliation the kids suffered at school.

dirty shelter kids. white-trash. loser. ghetto. fat, ugly, stupid.

It was appalling to hear the way their kids were spoken to. And it's not just about having new clothes, it's about labels and brands. Specific stores. One mom said her eight year old was upset because her friends had underwear from Victoria's Secret. Um, seriously? At age eight?

Others spoke of the expense of bras, and how kids at nine or ten were requiring them. Again, I was floored. I can't remember when I got my first bra, but I know I was in my teens.

Kids who, due to years of poor nutrition, were overweight and unable to find clothes their size. And are humiliated for it.

Kids who only had hand me downs, and would go to school and keep their jackets on no matter how hot it gets. Kids that cried and begged to stay home from school because they were too ashamed to face the others.

The moms talked about how painful this is for them - they want more than anything to keep their kids similar to others, but simply unable. About how they cry at night, blame themselves. The guilt. And it's not like these lovely women don't have bigger fish to fry, either. And yet it matters. We are all moms here. No one loves their kids any more or less. It matters the same.

When asked who was responsible, almost every mom said the media. That the media is so harmful in it's pressure to look a certain way, to be thin, to have the right clothes. And how far away from that reality they are, and yet it's in their face all the time.

The whole thing terrified me. I came home and told J we need to get the hell out of this country before M starts school. We need to raise her in the jungle. Without TV. She cannot ever be in the position to feel ashamed of how she looks. We must do this now. He nodded solemnly (no doubt thinking but kindly enough not saying that no matter what we do this will still happen) and we spent another endless conversation around how we can get to Belize, and how fast. And how it's not fast enough.

Because while this population had a specific set of extra challenges, the pain and suffering exists on some level for most kids. It's almost as if babies are born right next to god, go very far away after a while, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to find our way back.

How do we keep our kids from caring about superficial things when the rest of the world insists that they do? What can be done for kids who are defined by their appearance, and treated horribly if they don't meet the standard? My focus group reminded me of Julie and the fascinating discussion that spawned from her In defense of vanity post a couple days ago. I know it's not just the poor kids. I know it's the grown ups too.

But I still wish they got a free pass, because god knows they've got enough extra things to worry about as is.

(i stole the title to this post from a poem Em posted yesterday).


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Well, I don't have a single answer to these questions, but I have to say that this

It's almost as if babies are born right next to god, go very far away after a while, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to find our way back.

is exactly right. I love the way you put it. I think it's the definition of life -- not just in the US but everywhere.

Thailand Gal said...

You did put that very well.(See above comment) I disagree however with the "it's life everywhere" part. That's simply not true.

That said:

I'm sorry to say that my immediate reaction is, yes.. get to Belize, take M, create a quality life and get the hell out of this place. As Nietzsche once said, "if something is tottering, give it a final shove".

I have no answers. Truly. None.



Susanne said...

I'm still hoping that we as individuals can make a difference in this. Those pressures are cultural and culture is made by people. Even if those people are working in corporations.

And unlike Chani I'm not sure going to Belize would really be better.

But then I don't live in the US either. Here in Germany the peer pressure too is big. And interestingly I have the notion that it is even bigger in low income families. *Sigh*

Kyla said...

I don't think there is escape from these pressures. I hope there is some way to help our children through, to teach them what is really important and to keep them them as safe as possible from all the pressure. I hope.

slouching mom said...

I was going to object that every kid faces this pressure at school, no matter the socioeconomic status, but you beat me to it. You are right that these women have so many issues to face that adding one more seems unnecessarily cruel.

I grew up with a mom who never let me have anything "in" -- no pierced ears, no Sasson jeans, no clogs, etc., etc.

And yes, one gets ostracized for not having those things. But I wonder if the kids who actually have the "in" clothes don't just get ostracized for something else or in some other way.

I wonder.

ECR said...

In regard to the "it's life everywhere" thing, I absolutely believe that. But the "it" refers to the difficulties children face growing up. The specifics may differ from country to country, but no place, anywhere, has a monopoly on the perfect childhood.

(Did you delete that line about life everywhere, btw? I saw it when I first read it but now I went back and I can't find it)

NotSoSage said...

It's so messed up, isn't it? And the crazy thing is, it seems like such a small thing in the face of what they (the mothers AND the children) likely face, but it is hurtful and I'm sure the teasing only serves as a constant reminder of the other challenges they face.

I don't know what the answer is. I think there are some circumstances and parts of the world where children don't face this specific issue but I think by virtue of being privileged, and depending on if and which school you send M to, it could still exist.

And jennifer(ponderosa) grabbed the line that grabbed my heart and pushed the tears over my bottom lids.

Andrea said...

How sad, Jen. That's heartbreaking.

I think it probably is tough everywhere, though that doesn't mean it is equally tough or in the same ways. We live in a consumerist society, which means that the things kids are tormented about here are trivial little consumerist things that still lead to great misery.

It makes me dizzy, thinking of facing this w/ Frances a few years down the road.

Thailand Gal said...

ECR, you are correct that this sort of thing, social stratification, happens in one form or another - everywhere. Probably the best we can do for kids is remove them from the most egregious stuff, to get them to a place where they can grow up with competitive standards that include sports.. academics.. you know, stuff like that. :)

For the record, I grew up with all the coolest "stuff" but it didn't make the hollow hole inside of me fill up. And it won't for these kids, either.

It is indeed cruel to impose yet one more plastic pressure on mothers who are already maxed out, just trying to feed their kids and keep them housed.

I would ask one question: Who controls all of this? Look who benefits and put the target there.

I do apologize for the strength of my earlier message. I came back here to delete it but maybe it is something worth dialogue after all.



kristen said...

I get a little anxious when I think about the world today and having a little girl. VS undies at age 8 is ridiculous as are the styles that little girls are offered to dress in. I worry and I try to divert. I try to encourage my girl to be physical with sports and dance and try extracurricular activities in hopes that having other, engaging interests will pull her away (even a little) from peer pressure.

Z said...

I think that, in the end, it is still the people that count. Your daughter will not want to be friends with the superficial people who only judge by what you possess. It is self-worth that counts. Someone with self-worth can wear rags and keep self-respect. You could. I could. Most of your readers could too.

It's understandable that the women you were talking to, who have so little that it's immeasurably hard to keep their self-respect too, can't pass on self-worth to their children, but you are teaching your little girl tolerance and respect and she will be all right, wherever she goes to school.

jen said...

Jen, thanks.

Chani, I do think it's everywhere, but in varying degrees, absolutely. One of the reasons, yes, I want to try it another way.

Oh, and never apologize. glad you left it in. Looking at who benefits from this is truly the key, but then what do we do w/ the answers and how?

ECR, I didn't change the I, too am going back to re-read it. Perhaps life everywhere was summarized from Chani's comments?

All - am particularly interested in HOW we do it differently, or how we make it matter less. The external forces are huge.

Momish said...

Having grown up with hand me downs I can relate to what some of these kids feel and as a result probably would go out of my way as a mom to make sure my child did not feel that way.

But, you know, it will just end up being something else that brings her down. Our house isn't big enough. Our car isn't the right color. We don't go on four vacations a year... Kids will always be comparing themselves and unfortunately, they won't learn until later in life that there will always be someone better off than them. That it is a useless mental battle to engage in.

Hopefully, they also learn to understand that there will always be someone worse of than them. Hopefully, I can teach my child to care more about the fact there are those with less than worry about the fact that there are those with more.

I think the media is absolutely to blame, but that does not get parents off the hook. Parents need to combat that shit at every angle and put their kids straight. Parents need to help build the right character traits in their child that make them not care about that shit, regardless of how hard it seems at the time.

I grew up resenting having to wear hand me downs, then spent most of my young adult life shopping in thrift stores buying retro clothing. I actually paid money to wear hand me downs. Go figure.

Julie Pippert said...

First, this was amazing:

It's almost as if babies are born right next to god, go very far away after a while, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to find our way back.

Second, oh the trauma of knowing this lies ahead.

Something wicked this way comes. Indeed.

We have entered that stage.

I do not have the money to buy fancy or trendy or expensive or designer things for my children. They wear the hand-me-downs from friends who do have this kind of money. And they also wear things I buy in good shape from the shelter resale shops. On special occasions such as an important holiday or birthdays, they get new.

I think they have more than they need. I think they have nice things. I do not think they are gypped. Usually.

Until I go to Target and see so many cute things, or a friend pops in with an adorable new outfit. I love the style of loose and peasant blouse and little sundresses. I'd love to get everything I know would look cute or give them pleasure.

I agonized over a $15 sundress at Target and decided to splurge for Patience.

I imagine it sounds silly to a lot of people to agonize over $15 but that's our budget and life.

My children have one pair of shoes. Sneakers for fall and winter, and close-toe sandals for spring and summer. Today we got the spring shoes. I got them beach shoes too.

It's hard to hear Patience cry for the "Dorothy sparkle shoes" her friends have just for fun. We went through that again today, as I pointed her once more towards the practical, the needed.

And we stick to need.

You know what? She is fine. Really. She knows that it looks fun but doesn't suffer from the not having it.

We have richness in other ways.

I did let them splurge on some stickers and silly nail sets on the dollar row. So it's not deprivation of things, or even silly things.

But, as a mom, yes, I want my kids to have the moon and stars, as much as I know they don't need it and will likely not benefit from the having of it.

And I wait until the day arrives that Patience realizes she has second-hand clothes. And isn't okay with it.

I held my breath one day when her friend, who refuses to wear hand-me-downs from her sister (so we benefit) said, "Why do you wear my sister's old clothes?"

Patience said, very practically, "Because I like them."

The friend argued the "gross and old" and "not new and cute" point for a while but Patience was unperturbed. Thank goodness.

But next month? Next year?

Thanks to grandparents giving it as a gift, the girls take gymnastics. One activity, unlike the 3-4 most of their friends do. I worry about what they might be missing, but on the other hand, they seem fine.

The truth is, generally, if I look at what we've got, it's enough, sometimes even more than enough...okay often it is more than we need.

But then you turn around and there's still so much more out there, and the worst bit is the pressure that you MUST HAVE THIS.

You must have THIS to be happy, cool, accepted, prove your worth, etc.

(insert sobbing here)

Kids are so susceptible.

(insert wringing hands here)

I try my best to distinguish and model want from need, a simple but rich in what really matters life.

So far both kids are on the same page with us and doing well, even though some outside pressure has begun seeping in.

As much as I'd like to take credit for it, the truth is, it just might be personality and early days yet.

Jen, I hear you. I'm with you.

I SO DON'T want these kids to grow up with that materialistic mindset---that sense of entitlement---and the inability to distinguish wants from needs.

A jungle might help with that, but I figure every circumstance must present its own challenges.

It might provide perspective, and maybe that's a good thing to get away from this civilization sometimes to get that.

For now, I do my best to keep living, showing and teaching and then I pray that's enough.

Third: This reminds me of my conscious spending post.

Once I asked where that quality line was for products.

It might show me as the lower rung socioeconomic person I am (LOL) but I often can't find it.

A friend showed me a designer purse and the really cheap knockoff and TBH, shrug, the knockoff looked fine to me. I could not fathom $800 for a purse. And I don't think I could tell the difference between the two on the street.

My purse is a resale shop special. And it gets compliments. Go figure.

I can tell really cheap stuff that won't wear or hold up long enough. But there is this huge gray area of products that usually the slightly less expensive seems quite good enough to me.

The friend who bought $2000 trousers on sale for $700...TBH, the trousers didn't whistle dixie or anything so I wasn't sure, just looking at the cut, fabric, how they looked on they were worth so much money. Label?

My Kohl's clearance rack trousers seemed to be just as good I thought.

But I read all these books, and hear talking, or maybe it's on TV and it's all "could tell by the cheap cut of her pants she was poor" or somesuch.

Maybe I look like a beggar, what do I know. I don't think so, don't hear as such. Eh.

So you know...somehow I ended up like this.

P.S. The friend's daughter who won't wear hand-me-downs? Will only accept those silky panties.

To my knowledge, my friend is SO not like that. Her other kids are SO not like that.

So again with the question of nature.

Sorry to be all comment hoggy long.

Just very interested in this topic and coudl go on and on (and did) LOL.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

If you are specifically trying to solve a problem for those few women, I do think there are a few things you could do.

You could ask us (your readers) to buy clothes for the kids. Tell us the sizes and exact styles. Send us the URL to the picture... You could ask us to send money. You could pre-screen thrift shops and find out which ones have the best stuff, then send the moms there. You could make an arrangement with thrift shop owners to hold some special items aside. You could talk to Target (or victoria's secret or whoever) about donating some items to the shelter. Etc...

Not a single one of these ideas will make teenagers not care about their "style." It might make them feel special for a day, though.

As for longer-term solutions. The Mad Hatter's been writing about how important it is to communicate with like-minded people struggling with similar issues. So -- do they have access to computers and the internet? Is there a way to get homeless teens across the country in touch with each other? Homeless moms? A blog would probably be too time-consuming but surely there are other technologies that allow communication, maybe myspace?

Lastly... I've noticed that the people who make it through the teenage years with the fewest scars are those who feel special. Who feel they can do something that most people can't, who feel that something (that they're proud of) sets them apart. As a parent, then, one of my goals is help my child find that thing and run with it!

meno said...

I somehow seem to have raised a child who is uninterested in clothes, make up and accessories. I give myself no credit, but i need to say that not all kids are wanting more.

Having said that, she is also in an environment where no one teases her about her clothes. That would break my heart. I wish i knew what to suggest.

Mrs. Chicky said...

I think I may just lock my kid in her room from age 7 to age 20. Maybe we'll be able to avoid some of the ridiculous competition. Victoria's Secret underwear at age 9? What the heck is the matter with their parents?!

mamatulip said...

I want to run away and hide my kids from all of this. Yeah, I'm a coward. But it's my kneejerk reaction.

Thailand Gal said...

Thanks for letting me know it's okay to leave the long comments. :)

I'm still not sure of the answer. After all this time, I only know for certain that, just as we would with a toxic relationship, there comes a time to leave a toxic environment.

I'm too old for the idealism that says we can as individuals turn it around. It's a monolith.

Maybe it's better to leave it to those wiser than me to figure out. The suggestions and input here are very valuable and it's giving us all plenty to consider.



Oh, The Joys said...

My initial instinct is to protect, but then I wonder how strong experiences like that might make their characters in the long run...

That said, I do wish that kids who have less than enough could sometimes have abundance -- things aren't the solution, but every now and then they help make you feel better.

flutter said...

I can't begin to tell you how this touched me. It's not just relegated to homeless folks, either. I grew up in a beautiful southern California. Here I was, pale, chunky, dark haired. Not only could I not afford to have the cool clothes, but I had a weight problem and couldn't fit into them anyway. I was absolutely tortured without the benefit of a guardian angel. I feel for those kids, then add homeless on top of it? How unbearable.

jen said...

It's a hard one, isn't it..the urge to put on blinders and hope for the best is overpowering in the face of not knowing what else to do but hope somehow we can build little creatures strong enough to tough it out.

but how awful that it has to be like that. your comment..i am actually on a board of another non profit that does exactly what you are me if you want more info.

everyone, this is a terrific discussion. thank you.

Mad Hatter said...

I was that kid only it was 30 years ago and times were more forgiving of my hand-me-downs and K-Mart specials. I look at all the clothing my daughter has. When she was a baby we had to pass along some outfits the she never even wore because she was given so much. Right now I am passing my daughter's used clothing on to friends. I think I might change what I do and give the clothes to kids who need them. But even then, we're all still caught in this trap and I don't know how to pick the lock.

Jen, I've been sooo backlogged at work this week (and with all this bottled up blogging thinking that is blowing my brain to bits). I just got caught up on a couple of your posts tonight. Oh how I've missed you. Your writing, your Thank the powers that be for you. You make me want to change the system like no other.

Tabba said...

Jen - this is a good one. It's one you know I've sort of written about somewhat recently.
I feel the same way as you. I constantly say to Rav "If we had the money, we would be out of here." But it's more in regards to politics and the turn this country is taking.
However, kids are cruel no matter what. And parents like "us" are losing a battle. More and more parents are willing to give in to these ridiculous wants. Have you ever seen that show on MTV "My Super Sweet 16"? It's ridiculous and it makes me want to scream. Someone I know just recently bought her 10 year old a Pink Razr. I mean, c'mon!
I certainly don't know what the answers are. But I do like what Jess said.

Beck said...

Those poor kids. Excuse me while I bawl.
We're all right financially, but keeping our kids nicely dressed for school is an almost non-stop business. They grow a lot, you see. And we live way up north, so it's profoundly different here - status clothing becomes an issue much later than in urban areas.

Emily said...

oThis was an amazing post. I too loved this line
"It's almost as if babies are born right next to god, go very far away after a while, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to find our way back."

I was really thinking about this in terms of the 10 and 11 year old girls I work with everyday. One thing that is helpful is that all our kids wear uniforms (even though we're a public school) While I don't think this gets at the heart of the problem, I do think it considerably decreases the pressure to dress a certain way.

The school I teach at is also segregated racially and economically. I rarely hear kids make fun of each other for what they don't have materially (they may for other reasons) and yet I've known kids to go rounds over a pencil. Or maybe I just don't see it as much because they do wear uniforms. I'll have to talk with them a bit and see...

Great post.

christina said...

I loved this post. It was extremely captivating. the truth is those things are taught. They are taught by parents which dwindle down to their children. therefore, even when less fortunate children are taught to be non superficial by the time they get to grade school some of the others think differently. Unfortuantely- those kids are the ones who have the nice things and aren't afraid to voice their nasty little opinions.
I went through this as a child and it has made me much wiser about how cruel people can be and how those kinds of kids grow up to be shallow. It's not just a phase. It's just sad that as much as I will try to instill that into my daughter. She will never fully understand until she is older.

KC said...

I love these responses here.

I agree with christina. This socialization starts young, by the values we reflect and pass on. But while we can work very hard to bring up compassionate children who see the beauty in others, no matter what exterior, we can't protect them from those who don't.

Would mandated "uniforms" help? I'm sure this wouldn't take away all the problems, but nice to not worry about not being able to look/dress differently.

hel said...

I always tell Florian once we have kids we are moving away from where there are shopping malls and designer wear.

We have the same issues here, in the townships there are hundreds of cell phone shops and even in rural families the family will go hungry so that the father can own a phone.

Lillithmother said...

you said: How do we keep our kids from caring about superficial things when the rest of the world insists that they do? What can be done for kids who are defined by their appearance, and treated horribly if they don't meet the standard?

Right off the top of my hat, I'd say there are two contributing factors. 1~ we live in a materialistic, capitalistic country, ergo our children will eventually be exposed to all the demons that reside here too. 2~ inevitably we are animals and therefore we use our eyes to decide who is friend or foe. Friends = same, foe = different, and possible threat to the safety of mainstream.

I believe it comes down to teaching our children, once they become aware of such things, labels isn't a reflection of what beauty resides within them. Mind you, we'll spend years and years and years teaching this one lesson and then one day (hopefully) it'll click. You and J are good examples for M....never waiver from that!

And I feel for those moms Jen...I really do.

Deezee said...

too much to say. just allow me to be concise with 'awesome post.' (and may I add, boys are the news girls. no one gets away from this.)

carrie said...

If my daughter wants Victoria's Secret undies at age 8, I will be joining you in the jungle.

I imagine it is soooo much harder for girls than boys. Right now, Katie jumps up and down with each new hand-me-down bag that makes it's way into our home (we have a large girl population amungst our friends, so we recycle the clothes as much as we can), but I know the day will come when she will care where the clothes came from, not just if they are overalls or not (which is her current obesession). I wish it could always be that simple, for everyone.

So, how do we get our nice hand-me-downs into the right hands? And I don't mean for vanity purposes, just so that these kids can be current and clean and proud of themselves. I used to drive my donations directly to the women's shelter, but they've made that impossible now for security and privacy issues. Now, I have people pick up our stuff, I just want to make sure it is being given to the right people and I can't figure out which is the best way. Any thoughts?


carrie said...

ps. I need to say that Julie's comment above blew me away. Wisdom, like yours. I may have to print it and stick it on my refrigerator, or read it to the boys.


QT said...

I'm late to the party on this one, jen. I went to Catholic school and wore a uniform. I dealt with the taunts. And I guess I will say I am a stronger person for it. I honestly couldn't care less what someone thinks of my appearance. That was the attitude I had to cultivate to make it.

If I can do it, so can others. I feel like my mom saying this but don't parents JUST SAY NO anymore? No, you can't have Victoria's Secret underwear until you get your own damn job and buy them for yourself?


kim said...

Until this year I felt indifferent about uniforms. Now I've seen that the benefits far out way any negatives. Uniforms are a great equalizer masking any homelife disparity of advantage. In our school it has instilled a sense of pride in the children themselves and in the connection it provides with their school. But even before the uniforms the kids at the school never really focused on the material.

In large part the reason for this is that the our system uses educational programs that are focused on creating a better world through education, respect, and understanding.

crazymumma said...

I loved what you had to say about babies being born close to god, going away and then trying to find their way back.

I don't know Jen. I am struggling with this myself having two girls who live in a ridiculous state of having and constantly needing to fill the.... what?

I know your dream is Belize, and I think being a world citizen would be good and healthy for anyone to put the absurdity of our society in perspective.

But running from it is not a solution. Stare into it I say.