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It came out of the blue. At a family Sunday lunch in a local trattoria, my eight year old daughter made an announcement; “I want to be a thin girl”.

Her dad and I exchanged significant glances. Where was this coming from? Food, weight and dieting have never been an issue in our house. We own a set of scales but they spend most of their time covered in dust. We all love food and have been visiting restaurants regularly as a family since the children were babes in arms. They eat everything, from Chinese dim sum to big bowls of mussels on holiday in France. We encourage healthy eating but are not puritanical about treats, and have never forced them to finish everything on their plates.

Not something an eight year old should be doing

The thing is, she is a thin girl. She’s tall for her age, slim and, most important of all, healthy. The last thing I want is for her to start obsessing about food or feeling guilty about eating the things she enjoys.

Slightly floored by her declaration, I told her that she is already a perfect size. “But I want to be thinner” she replied. At this point I felt like shouting “Where are you getting these stupid notions?” My mind was racing. What is she hearing at school? Is it the American teenage comedies she watches on TV? Or is her desire to take up less space in the world the inevitable outcome of being surrounded by images of ridiculously thin models and celebrities? I bit my tongue and just told her that if she carries on dancing, cartwheeling and rollerblading she’ll be fine.

We moved on to other topics of conversation and she happily finished off her pasta and ice cream cone. No need to worry then – for the moment at least.

(Photo by puuikibeach on Flickr)

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I have two daughters aged nine and nearly seven.  And I think they’re gorgeous.

That’s all the validation I need – my own Mammy-eyes, which would view my children as gorgeous no matter what they looked like.

I don’t need to enter them in pageants for strangers to assess them and decide whether or not my two measure up to some one else’s notion of beautiful.

It seems, however, that one woman is of the opinion that there are enough parents in Ireland who disagree with me for her to make a few bob. This woman, Jorja Gudge, is hoping to bring a beauty pageant for girls under the age of 18 to Ireland next month.

Entitled ‘Miss Princess Ireland’ this pageant is slated to take place on April 30th in Dublin. According to Ms Gudge,

‘There will be three rounds which are; Sportswear this is any sporting wear (with a glitz touch). It  could be dance wear, swimwear, football, gymnastics etc… any sport at all.’

Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think dancing is a sport, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of young girls parading in sports wear – whether or not said sportswear has a ‘glitz touch’.  Virtually all sportswear is form-fitting and skimpy.  I don’t think it’s appropriate for little girls to be dressed in bikinis or leotards and paraded in front of strangers who will then grade them on how beautiful they are.

Wearing form-fitting sportswear for actually playing sport is, of course, a completely different matter.  I am happy to acknowledge that not all  sports outfits that are form-fitting, but I’d be willing to bet that any child turning up in a tracksuit won’t win a prize.

Next up in this pageant is what Ms Gudge calls ‘wow’ wear/ outfit of choice. This can be ‘anything at all – fashion wear, occasion wear, fancy dress or theme wear.’

This is a bit vague, but I’d guess that the idea is to dress your girl in her most eye-catching gúna and hope she catches the eyes of the judges.

Last of all will be formal wear. Formal wear for children sounds innocuous enough – it makes me think of lovely summery flower girl dresses from Monsoon, but I don’t think that’s what Ms Gudge means. I googled ‘Beauty Pageants for Children’ and got lots of very disturbing images of little girls in flouncy, tacky, meringue-y, dresses that were obviously styled along the lines of ball gowns for women.

‘Also make up, hair pieces, tans etc are all permitted as this is a glitz pageant, but I will leave the decision to you on which level of glitz you decide to use,’ the organiser tells me.

Again, this is disturbing, because it implicitly tells children that they are not good enough or acceptable just the way they are. Why on earth would anyone want to use make-up, hair pieces or tans on their children in an attempt to win an ‘American-style crowns, sashes and tiaras’? What does that do to the self-esteem of participants?

When they grow up, how will these girls view themselves? Their sense of themselves, surely, will be very extrinsic? Surely, their confidence – instead of being bolstered will be damaged? And what is the use of telling a child that their worth is based purely on how they look – or how they can make themselves look by the addition of chemicals and synthetic hair-pieces?

I’m also disturbed by the fact that people attending will also be able to bring their video cameras, although they will only be permitted to video their own children. I do wonder, however, how the organiser hopes to police that one.

I don’t think that these kind of pageants do the children who take part any favours at all. I don’t think they learn any positive lessons from them – and I think they are more about satisfying the desires and dreams of their parents (usually their mothers) than anything else.

I am hoping that the parents of Ireland will avoid this pageant – and ones like it – and spare their children the damage that could potentially be done to them.

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A couple I know recently adopted two little boys. The boys are four and five years old and had a very difficult start in life. I only know tiny bits of their history (I wouldn’t ask – it’s none of my business) but what I do know was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Initially, I welled up because of what the boys had seen and been through; then I welled up with gratitude that they had been removed from that situation and placed at the centre of a loving home and family.

These boys will be loved and cherished for the rest of their days. They now have the opportunity to have a childhood. They are part of an extended family which has embraced them and folded them into its bosom, letting them know that they are loved and accepted and wanted.

Should the unthinkable happen – and one of their parents become incapable, for whatever reason, of taking care of them – the other parent will step in and assume the role of sole care-giver. As is only right, of course, because they have adopted the boys together.

It’s just as well they’re in the UK, so, because they’d never get that security here in Ireland. You see, my friends – the adoptive parents – are gay. They have been in a committed relationship for over ten years, and five years ago, they become legally recognised as a couple. At the beginning of this year the adoption of their boys was finalised.

In Ireland, it is perfectly legal for a gay person to adopt a child – as a single person. Even if they are in a relationship, the non-adopting partner will not have equal parental rights – even though their relationship will have been taken into consideration during the adoption process.

This issue is back in the news again in Ireland because we have a new incoming government. They are ‘looking at things’ and trying to see what they can do to improve matters for citizens and residents.

I am stunned that we are even having a discussion about this. Why shouldn’t gay people be allowed to marry? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to adopt children as a couple? Surely the focus of any adoptive legislation should be on the child/ren involved and the perceived ability of the potential adoptive parents to parent?

Surely, as a nation, we should grow up and stop worrying about what loving, consenting adults do in their bedrooms? Surely, what is important is that the parents love each other and their children? Surely, all that matters is that children are loved, safe, secure and have their needs met? Surely, what their parents do or don’t do to express their love for each other in private is irrelevant?

I have heard the argument that the ‘ideal’ is for every child is to be brought up in a family with a mother and a father. And that’s marvellous – but guess what? Ideals are things we strive for, not standards that we impose as minimums and then use to punish people who don’t meet these minimums.

If we are to apply the ‘rule of ideals’ across the board and extrapolate it into every situation, I guess I should get my children ready to be taken into care. I’m a divorced woman with two children. That’s not ideal. My eldest child has not seen – or heard from – her father in five years. My youngest has never seen her father. Well, that’s not ideal either, is it?

I find it very difficult to comprehend how anyone would fight to deny a child a loving, secure, safe home. I am reminded of my own childhood. My parents were heterosexual and married to each other. For the first 15 years of my life, I went to bed worrying about which one of the heterosexual males floating around would get into bed beside me on any given night. I cried myself to sleep every night of my life until I was 20.

If you had offered me the choice between living with two, married heterosexual parents and suffering abuse – physical, mental, emotional, psychological and sexual – every day of my life and living with two homosexual parents who loved each other and loved me, I would have walked across hot coals to get access to the latter.

Heck! I’d have gone to live with two homosexual orang utans if it would have meant that I would have been safe.

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My little lad is a huge fan of Lego. In fairness who isn’t? Although our house is overrun with the stuff and I’ve sustained multiple injuries by standing on various sharp little pieces in my bare feet, I love it too. It’s an excellent, durable, creative toy and has given him, and consequently us, hours and hours of pleasure for several years now.

Lately he’s been wary about showing me his most recent purchases – a series of top quality, mystery mini figures that come in sealed packages and are well within pocket money range. “Great idea”, you say. “Yes”, I agree BUT my objection is that in a world where half of us are women these cute little figures are overwhelmingly male. I know I may well be accused of carrying feminist thinking to its extremes in this instance but hey you have to get ‘em young! What does everyone else think? Is this merely coincidence, a non-issue, or yet another example of marginalisation? At less than 20% representation for women are they merely reflecting real life? Yes, I know I should lighten up (before anyone says it) but the pervasive invisibility gets me down.

Series 1

Look at them. Aren’t they cute! Amongst the first 16 the girls get to be nurses and cheerleaders. The boys have a lot more choice and can be zombies, magicians, clowns, deep sea divers, forest men, ninjas, spacemen, wrestlers, tribal hunters, cowboys, demolition dummies and cavemen. Even the robot is referred to as “he”.

Series 2

Things are improving. Next 16 figures and the girls get to be lifeguards (a la Baywatch), pop stars and witches. The men get to be explorers, karate masters, maraca men, mime artists, traffic cops, pharaohs, ringmasters, skiers, Spartan warriors, vampires, surfers, weightlifters and disco dudes.

Series 3

By now my lad has taken to hiding them from me. In the latest series the girls get to be tennis players, hula dancers and snow boarders. The men get to be samurai warriors, sumo wrestlers, rappers, fishermen, tribal chiefs, elves, race car drivers, pilots, baseball players, mummies (the bandaged variety), space villains and gorilla suit guys. The alien is not assigned a gender so perhaps we can claim her too!

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…opined my 4 1/2-year-old on the way back from school. He thought the concept quite laughable. Whilst I’m flattered, in a way, to be thought of as in a different category to all other women, according to him, it brought me up short.

I’ve been reading unsettling things lately, which has added to my dis-ease (the disease of being a mummy, as opposed to just being a woman). There was that book I picked up about love and marriage. It had a whole chapter on how men are more likely to stray when they are older because the sex gets boring after 20 years with the same person, but mostly because older women are more likely to put up with an affair and not leave because they are less likely to find someone who would want them.

A week later an article did the rounds on Facebook and Twitter by an American woman who, being recently divorced, regretted taking half a career break to be there for her children in the way we are exhorted to do.

Her advice? Don’t do it. Kids cost a million dollars per child and mummy gets screwed in the process – and not in the fun way. We lose  our financial security and the ability to make what we were making, and on the path to making, before we took two days off a week to bring expensive, needy, future tax and pension paying, joy into the world.

Is being a mummy and being a woman compatible? A woman can stride through her life, making her own choices, having a room of her own. A mummy is a breeder, someone who is there to serve her children, to be seen to try to fail to mould them into what everyone else thinks they should be like. She literally has to give over her body to her young for at least a year, often two. Her job is to love, feed and clean up.

In the process she becomes financially reliant.

In doing all this she becomes dull. Her body is no longer for sexual subjection (begging a hippo of a question about how we define our womanhood), because it’s given up, handmaid-like, to procreation and protection.

The yummy mummy phenomenon only occurred in the past ten years and purely because celebrities with enormous amounts of money had their children early, by optional cesarean section, so that the final couple of weeks of pregnancy, the ones that see the most weight go on the baby and the mother, were circumnavigated. Then, whilst under anesthetic anyway why not have a quick tummy tuck and maybe a boob job and hey presto, instead of coming out of the maternity ward like a sad sack, expanded and then retracted like a five-day old birthday balloon, they sprang out, gazelle like, Frankenstein stitches hidden under designer garments.

Mostly mummy is not yummy. She’s worn out, socially isolated and fiscally poorer.

Of course she will be a lot poorer if she doesn’t slap on a smile and keep her husband happy.

So why do so many of us do it and others yearn for it?

Love.

As Alice Thompson Elis put it: ” There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters.”

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Go on, guess. Or, better still, read Tina Fey’s brilliant piece in the New Yorker about the push-pull tug of juggling a paradigm-shifting career and, y’know, a family

And whilst we’re having a Fey fangirl moment, let’s remember why we really, really don’t want her to give up the day job (not that she’s suggesting that, I hasten to add):

watch?v=eXVIwo5fLYs&feature=related

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Sociologist Dr. Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics has, not for the first time, attracted considerable controversy in response to the publication last week of her most recent paper, “Feminist Myths & Magic Medicine”. Hakim has previously published provocatively titled works such as her 1996 paper “Mummy, I want to be a Housewife” and last year’s controversial article in the European Sociological Review entitled “Erotic Capital”. This latter contends that women should prize assets such as looks, charm and sexuality and that this “beauty premium” can have as big an impact on your career as your educational qualifications or background.

In “Feminist Myths & Magic Medicine” she argues that the battle for equality is effectively over, that “most of the theories and ideas built up around gender equality in the past few decades are wrong” and that women still aspire to “marry up”, that is to marry men who are richer and more intelligent than they are (though they were not asked I suspect that men would be quite keen on the idea of marrying money too; a situation that would undermine the argument somewhat).  A number of outraged women have accused Hakim of “depowering women” and taking us back to the days of Jane Austen. Feminist campaigning and advocacy group The Fawcett Society accuse her of “threatening the progress made in women’s lives”.

However, the reaction to Hakim’s most recent pronouncements has been far from universally negative. Some women argue that there is merit in what she says. The reality, they contend, is that family life requires a couple to operate as a partnership and that rearing children requires one party to spend more time at home. The greater the earning potential of the male partner, the less pressure the family unit is under to juggle childcare and seek a second household income.

Hakim’s own approach is to advocate preference theory, supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to remain in the workplace or the home and using the fact that the vast majority of main earners are men to support her theory that women, when given the choice, opt to remain at home. However, in her comprehensive critique of Dr. Hakim’s theories in the most recent edition of the Sunday Times, Kate Spicer quotes University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies’ director Jude Brown as saying: “Hakim belongs to the school of thought that interprets certain inequalities as reflections of the choices that individuals make. The thinking here is that these choices are related to people’s preferences. But for there to be a real choice there need to be different options, instead of just herding people into stereotypical roles. For most families seeking to balance child care and work, there is no real choice”.

This is the crux of the matter in my opinion. I firmly believe that we are addressing the wrong issue entirely. Instead of looking at how we should or shouldn’t force the square peg that is the modern, well-educated mother into the round hole that is the modern, inflexible, often dysfunctional workplace should we not be asking how we can incorporate more flexibility into the workplace thus allowing society to benefit from the skill sets of women who can do more that feed a baby and fill a dishwasher?

As a rather disorganised mother of two young children I cannot envisage taking on the stress involved in juggling the kind of full-time, high-powered career that I enjoyed before my little ones arrived. Yet as a well qualified, experienced and highly motivated individual I simply cannot draw sufficient fulfillment from adopting the role of homemaker alone. For a women in my situation (and there are many of us) the options for combining a flexible career with the role as primary child carer (the housework can frankly go to hell or be sub-contracted as far as I’m concerned) are very limited. What organisation wants to hear that you are only willing to work term-time? Yet my children are in school and for thirty weeks of the year I can devote five hours per day to productive, revenue generating and ultimately fulfilling activities. That’s 750 productive hours per annum, not one of which will be spent nursing a hangover, moodily dreaming about a turbulent love life or worrying what I’ll wear at the week-end as may have been the case for my younger, single self (I’m admitting nothing). Employers take note – mothers are brilliant and efficient multi-taskers who make the most of the precious hours available.

In the recently published How Woman Mean Business (a follow-up to Why Woman Mean Business, co-authored with Alison Maitland in 2009), Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of gender consultancy 20-First, clearly and comprehensively documents how corporations can best implement strategies to achieve gender balance and attract the best and brightest members of both halves of the talent pool. She believes that enlightened companies are moving away from the old ineffective mindset and adopting radical and viable new strategies.

At 20-First gender balance is treated as a business issue not a woman’s issue and blockages are removed. This approach is considered radical and attracts clients that are, “open to new solutions and willing and committed to work with them”, having recognised that their organisation is flawed. They realise that gender balancing brings the best mix of management styles to the fore and has a positive impact on the bottom line. As for the rest, “traditional, resistant companies go elsewhere and continue to do all the wrong things.” The “wrong things” include talking about glass ceilings and setting up internal all-female support groups, thus treating women as the problem and convincing them that in order to succeed they must learn to behave more like men.

Ensuring that women remain and thrive in an organisation requires a shift away from the old notion of linear career progression. That’s why women are often attracted to entrepreneurship as it offers greater control. However, access to capital can be problematic. Wittenberg-Cox believes that, “it’s all about shifting the mindset. Creative solutions such as job sharing will work if the company is well disposed to trying them”. Many men welcome changes intended to redress the gender imbalance as this represents an opportunity to improve working life for everyone. So, is the traditional workplace dysfunctional? Wittenberg-Cox contests this assertion, saying that it is simply “outdated. [The system] worked perfectly well in its time when a man went to work every day and had a wife at home to look after him but that time is gone.”

The crux of the issue is this: women should not be expected to make unrealistic sacrifices and take on unrealistic stress; Children should not effectively spend their little lives becoming potentially institutionalised in various crèches and after-school facilities from early morning to late at night (and I do realise that this may be a personal bias and that many children seem to thrive in childcare); and men should not lose the happy, dynamic and successful woman they married to have her replaced by a Stepford style automaton who starts hitting the vino earlier and earlier each day.

What should happen is that society should reorganise itself to allow for more flexibility, thus facilitating the needs of all. Perhaps a mum could take five years out to get her children to school-going age without losing out on status and promotional opportunities as Gwyneth Williams, recently appointed controller of BBC Radio 4, did. Perhaps an Irish dad could take three months off when a new baby arrives as his Norwegian counterpart can. Perhaps junior can spend a happy morning in school knowing that he will be collected by a calm, fulfilled, contented mum not one burnt out by juggling unrealistic demands or worn down by domestic chores that hold little interest for her. Is that Utopia? Perhaps it is and I’d sure like to live there.

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