January 5, 2011

Seen & Not Heard.

How many of us were taught to keep our knees together and speak softly? ~ Deborah Wong, “Taiko and the Asian-American Body”

The subject of the photo that follows—in which a woman has her jacket zipped up to her nose—is a writer, actress, and former NASA exobiologist with published research and a graduate degree from MIT.

She is assertive, articulate, and no shrinking violet. She is also a photogenic young woman with a knack for eye-catching self-portraiture.  There is no doubt in my mind that this image depicts her chilly southern self in the act of trying to get warm on a frosty day, and I’m absolutely sure that’s all she meant by it.

But the bad news is that, while we can control the image we produce, we cannot control the image others see.  And because, although each of us is bombarded by an average of 3,000 advertisements a day, most Americans still insist that we are unaffected by ads, we aren’t usually even aware of our own responses.[i]

The result is that, while many of us may see the above image, or one like it featuring a little girl, as merely whimsical or, at most, coy, our unconscious responses are conditioned by a great many images, in advertising and popular culture, of women and girls with their mouths covered.

In many cases, the subjects are doing it to themselves. An internet image search for “girl covering mouth” yields a great many pictures of women and girls holding their hands in front of their mouths in surprise, shock, elation or fear. Interestingly, a similar search for boys results in only a few images, almost all of which are directly related to coughing and sneezing. Perhaps the message for girls is that any vocal expression of strong emotion must be attenuated, while boys need to be reminded not to sneeze on everyone in the room.

In other cases, like this image of pop star Aaliyah, someone else has covered the subject’s mouth.

Notice Aaliyah’s apparent complicity; though another is silencing her, she might almost be doing it to herself.

The featured image for this post, in which red tape with the words “No Carbs” written on it has been plastered over the model’s mouth, carries a double whammy of pressure on young women: the familiar societal demand that they be thin, and the often more insidious demand that they be silent. Although the messages are baldly explicit in this case, they are muted-but-pervasive in the culture.

Most of us know by now about the damage done to girls by the ideal image, weightism, and the obsession with thinness.  But girls get other messages too that “cut them down to size” more subtly.  In ad after ad girls are urged to be “barely there”–beautiful but silent…”Make a statement without saying a word,” says an ad for perfume…An ad for lipstick says, “Watch your mouth, young lady,” while one for nail polish says, “Let your fingers do the talking”…In another ad, a young woman’s turtleneck is pulled over her mouth…[ii]

Search for that last–the turtleneck over the mouth–and you’ll find page after page of images ranging from this seemingly innocuous photo of a young teen to a great many faintly-to-blatantly suggestive images.  (In this picture, the model also has one eye covered, a look which seems to fall almost exclusively on the coy-to-seductive scale; my six and seven-year-olds affect this look when they are imitating “teenagers,” because “kids” don’t do that.)

Interestingly, every turtleneck-over-the-mouth image I could find was a stock photo for use in advertising; evidently, people are much less likely to be photographed doing this in real life than they are in a professional setting for the purpose of doing what advertising does: create desire.

Some images are downright disturbing, like this photo of a very young teen girl with her mouth taped shut. Her submissively downcast eyes and passive affect, coupled with her youth, render many of the listed search terms for the image downright creepy:

  • Attractive
  • Young
  • Teen
  • Slim
  • Shut
  • Quiet
  • Pretty
  • Posing
  • Mouth
  • Model
  • Hostage
  • Girl
  • Female

Where did we get the idea that girls were supposed to be quiet, anyway?  I have two of them, and they and their friends are loud. Ear-splittingly, exuberantly high-decibel in a way that this earlier picture of my MIT friend captures perfectly:

You rarely see images like this in advertising, in which both the boy and the girl and being loud and unruly. Actually, by the prevailing standard, only the girl is being unruly; the boy is just being a boy.

A friend of mine, another writer who went to Harvard (I have smart friends) and is raising two girls on her own, describes herself on her Facebook page as “Headmistress of the Homeschool for Very Loud Girls.”

Now, this lady, like my other friend, is no damsel in distress, and neither are her offspring, who regularly accompany her on winter mountain hikes, among other Outside-Magazine-type character-building activities. And it pains me to think that, while her self-description is funny and cute for a mother of girls, if she said she were homeschooling “Very Loud Boys,” how many people would find that a strange thing to say? Boys are loud by definition, aren’t they?

I think about this a lot, because I am always asking my girls to quiet down, just for the sake of my pained grown-up ears and stiffening middle-aged brain. At least, I hope that is the only reason. I’m pretty sure, when I tell them to “use their inside voices”, that I wouldn’t just say “Let’s keep it down to a dull roar, OK, guys?” if they were boys–but because I’m aware of how unaware most of us are, I couldn’t swear to it.

A 1999 study done at the University of Michigan found that, beginning in preschool, girls are told to be quiet much more often than boys.  Although boys were much noisier than girls, the girls were told to speak softly or use a “nicer” voice about three times more often.  Girls were encouraged to be quiet, small, and physically constrained.  The researcher concluded that one if the consequences of this socialization is that girls grow into women afraid to speak up for themselves or to use their voices to protect themselves from a variety of dangers.[iii]

My younger daughter in particular could take the paint off the walls with her volume and timbre, and she’s stubborn as crabgrass to boot. And when I am at my wits’ end, my wife says, “Just imagine her canvassing for some worthy cause some day.”  And it’s true: the very assertiveness, exuberance and uninhibitedness that can make her hard to live with now may, if they survive adolescence, equip her to make a difference as an adult. So when my ears are ringing from the din, I try to picture my daughters as the strong, independent, well-adjusted women I would like them to grow into–whatever Madison Avenue may have to say about it.

[i] Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

Read 18 Comments and Reply

Read 18 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Scott Robinson  |  Contribution: 9,315