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Tuesday, July 12, 2011


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Read for all my thoughts on afterschool activities, beauty pageants, and much more.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Shrinking and Pinking: Summer Round-Up

The summer brings warm weather (finally!), outdoor activities, and lots of sports news.  What's new in the world of shrinking of pinking since my last installment? Here are some female-centered sports stories that I've been thinking about this past month.

1) Did you see this excellent piece in The New York Times about Babe? No, not Babe Ruth-- Babe Didrikson Zaharias. I remember reading a biography of Babe as a young, unathletic girl and being amazed by her accomplishments.  Though she died young-- at age 45-- she accomplished much, including winning multiple Olympic golds in track and field, being an All-American basketball player, and a golf champion (she helped found the LPGA).  It's not an overstatement to say she may be the most well-rounded and accomplished female athlete of all time. But she's largely forgotten today, despite being a trailblazer. Today's female athletes should remember that Babe Didrikson Zaharias helped pave the way for all of them, long before Title IX came along.

2) Another story from the annals of sports history offers a slightly different lesson-- one young, female athletes today shouldn't imitate. Did you see the Sports Illustrated story on Kathryn Johnston Massar? Massar is credited as being the first girl to play Little League baseball. But there's one problem. She was actually too old to play Little League "legally" since she was fourteen at the time of her ground-breaking season in 1950 in upstate New York.  While it's clear to me Massar shouldn't be recognized as the first female to play Little League-- that the honor should go to Maria Pepe for pitching as a 12-year-old in 1972-- Massar's case raises interesting questions about when boys and girls play together and if the same rules should apply. Given that boys tend to be bigger than girls around puberty, should we allow "older" girls to play with "younger" boys?

3) Then again, Marti Semetelli shows that some girls can hang with the boys, regardless of age. This female pitching phenom will play on the boys' baseball team at Montreat College in North Carolina. At only 5'2" Marti is a force to be reckoned with while on the mound. It will be interesting to see how her collegiate career develops.  I think Babe (maybe both Babes?) would be happy to see a female collegiate pitcher take the mound.

4) While some girls can play with some boys, there's a move in Massachusetts to prevent too many boys from playing with the girls.  Because there simply aren't enough boys who play field hockey in high school, boys are allowed to play on girls' teams (the reverse of girls wrestling on boys' teams, which I've written about before).  But these boys tend to be bigger and play more aggressively. This article in The Boston Globe details the serious concussion one female player sustained at the hands of a male field hockey player.  After incidents like this one, coaches petitioned to prevent more than two boys at a time from playing on the field, playing in the area just around the goal, and from playing goalkeeper. Some oppose these changes, saying they discriminate against boys-- though I can see that they are meant to protect everyone on the field. Hopefully soon there will be enough boys interested in field hockey that all-male teams can be fielded.

5) Another rule change, though this one separates men from women. No longer will men and women (competitively) eat against one another. Now there will be separate competitions to crown male and female victors. As this article explains, "'Serena Williams didn’t have to beat Roger Federer to win the Wimbledon title, and we don’t think Sonya Thomas should have to beat Joey Chestnut,' said master of ceremonies George Shea." In case you don't know who Sonya Thomas is, she's "The Black Widow" of competitive eating (at only 105 pounds she once ate 41 hot dogs in 10 minutes); Joey Chestnut, also known as "Jaws," ate 54 hot dogs in 10 minutes.  While there is currently controversy over the men's competitive eating world champion, no one seems dismayed that women now get their own title and competition, as the move is expected to give women more attention.  Do you think having separate-sex championships (they do the same thing, somewhat controversially, for women in chess) will help women, or hurt them?

More importantly, what would the great Babe Didrikson Zaharias think of competitive eating as a sport?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Big Fat "Gypsy" Dresses

After reading this you might be forgiven for thinking that I watch a lot of TV (somewhat true) and that I only watch TLC (definitely not true).  Still, I can't help but write about TLC's latest foray into a different/almost-deviant subculture, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

This show offers an "inside look" at life among the UK's Irish Travellers, and a few Roma; note I put "gypsy" in quotations in the title of this post both because the show isn't really about gypsies and because the term is actually quite offensive.  The show was a runaway hit in Great Britain, and it's been doing so well here that a US-based version of the show is now in the works.

Yes, there are Irish Travellers in the US, where they mainly live in Southern states.  What brought attention to the group in this century was a scary video of a mother beating her 4-year-old daughter in a store parking lot in Indiana, back in 2002.  With an improbable family name of "Toogood," the story brought attention to this reclusive community.

What struck me about the story was the revelation that Traveller girls get married very young (think 14-18) and their mothers dress them in a combination of pageant/ballroom dancing/stripper dresses (I was heavy into child beauty pageant research at the time, so this really resonated).  And the mothers then teach them how to dance in a sexy fashion to attract husbands. Yet, according to Travellers/Roma themselves, and many reports, premarital sex is basically unheard of, as is out of wedlock childbearing, as they are devout Catholics.

The UK/TLC series has truly exposed the bright, gaudy, over-the-top, and often suggestive wardrobes of Traveller females.  Here's a little taste.

The gussying up starts young, but especially around the time of a girl's First Communion:
When girls attend others' First Communions, or weddings, they go dressed to the nines:
 It doesn't stop as they get older. This is a shot of a bachelorette party (can you spot the bride and her mom?):
 (Hint: This is the bride-to-be):
Her wedding dress was my favorite shown:
Her bridesmaids' dresses (I SO should have used these in my wedding!):
My second-favorite dress featured on the show had lights inside of it, along with moving butterflies. Someone had to follow the bride with a fire extinguisher in case she caught on fire though... (Interestingly, she married into the Traveller community, so her dress was even more over-the-top, presumably to prove her bona fides):
Some other amazing wedding wardrobing:
(Photo credit: Mark Duffy)

So why do Traveller women wear these elaborate dresses? I turned to a book by British anthropologist Judith Okely that had been sitting on my bookshelf since I learned about the dresses worn in this community-- The Traveller-GypsiesShockingly, while the book is very informative, and devotes an entire chapter just to women's issues, sartorial choices are never discussed. Given that the fieldwork for the book took place in the early 1970s, I'm left wondering if such elaborate dresses are a more recent phenomenon. The show's narrator always says that these practices are stepped in tradition. I know bright colors are part of "Gypsy" tradition (think of painted, covered wagons), but I'm not sure Britney Spears-inspired bubblegum pink concoctions are "traditional."

Clearly there is an element of the animal kingdom's sexual mating rituals-- get as done up, and as colorful, as possible to attract a mate. But I would think there is more to it than this. I've been starting to read other books about Travellers, trying to see if there is a link between Southern child beauty pageant cupcake dresses and Irish Traveller outfits; I have always found the link between Irish/Scottish immigrants to the American South and traditional notions of femininity and masculinity fascinating (best book I have read about this is Culture of Honor), so I suspect there is a deeper connection.

In any case, while I am sure you are all now ready to order your own bachelorette/bridesmaid/wedding/Communion dress a la "Gypsy" style, better be ready to write a BIG check. Those dresses can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blog Follow-Ups: Botox Mom, Bernard Lagat's Son, and Miss America's Daughter

Many of my blog posts fall into one of the following categories: beauty pageants, child beauty pageants, and competitive children.  Today's post features updates on some of my most popular stories in each of these areas.

1) Botox Mom (aka Kerry Campbell/Sheena Upton)- It's been reported that Botox Mom (who never actually used Botox it turns out) is working with the Department of Children and Family Services in California to keep custody of her two daughters.  Upton is taking parenting classes, undergoing mental health counseling, and living with a family member to help her girls recover from the events of this past spring. I don't think we'll be seeing the Uptons on this season of Toddlers & Tiaras, do you?

2) Miika Lagat was back in the news this weekend as his dad ran in the US Track and Field Championships.  In an interview Lagat reported: "Lagat, who's son Miika is his #1 fan and was cheering for him every lap of the 5,000m on Friday night, said it was OK with Miika that his dad did not win. Bernard said Miika told him BEFORE the race, 'You know what daddy, you've run a lot (this week). If you lose, it's part of running.'" Let's not forget that Miika is five-and-a-half. He's pretty wise for someone so young, but having grown up around racing I guess he's earned his wisdom. I wonder if he will be racing soon?

3) Speaking of children of celebrities, Diana Dreman was just crowned Miss Colorado 2011. What's special about that? Well, her mother is Rebecca King, Miss America 1974. I am 99% sure that this is the first daughter of a Miss America to compete on the Miss America Pageant's stage. As the daughter of Miss America 1970, I have a lot of respect for Diana for putting herself out there-- but I also worry for her. I never did pageants, though there was a moment when I was a kid when I thought, "Hey, I could do that." My mother, wisely, didn't let me participate saying, "If you win, people could say it is because of me. If you lose, it could be because of me. You need to do your own thing." Not surprisingly, my own thing did not involve walking on-stage in a bathing suit (because, really, I think for most people, that is the stuff of nightmares).
In any event, I do think that Diana has the "Miss America look." I read on the pageant message boards that her talent routine is weak (dance), but I would expect her to go pretty far in Vegas come January. First of all, it's a great story for the Pageant. I will definitely be interested to see what a) the mainstream media makes of this story, and b) what pageant insiders make of it. And, of course, I'll share my thoughts!

Two other quick things to note: Rebecca King, Diana's mother (who was also Miss Colorado-- the last to win Miss America!), signaled a new stage in Miss America's development, back in the early 1970s. King was basically the first to use her scholarship money for professional graduate school. She became a lawyer and has had a successful law practice. She has also stayed involved with the Pageant, serving on its Board-- so it will be especially interesting to see how this plays out, since Diana has presumably met much of the Miss A leadership over the years... Second, I can't resist noting that this is not the most (in)famous pageant mother-daughter duo to come out of Colorado. That, of course, would be JonBenet and her mother, Patsy...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

From Eden vs. MaKenzie to Miss USA

It's been a big week in beauty pageants, especially with the Miss USA Pageant and the return of Toddlers & Tiaras.  Last week's TLC hit featured a "showdown" between two of the most well-known queens featured on the show-- Eden Wood and MaKenzie-- and this week's featured a Pentecostal, praying pageant mom and a pushy, pugnacious pageant mom/entrepreneur.

I've written about little MaKenzie before; while I am sure she is a difficult child to raise at times, she is an absolute character to watch. She is a refreshingly smart, and filterless, child.  The latest episode had her declaring that with her flipper in (a "must" for many glitz pageants), she looked like a bunny.  After a successful acting lesson (which likely went well precisely because MaKenzie isn't overly practiced/rehearsed), she exclaimed, "I don't know how to act. I just know how to be MaKenzie!"

Her rival-- who bested her yet again-- Eden Wood, is a bit more polished than MaKenzie, to say the least. We got a slightly different view of Eden this episode, as she had a minor meltdown while getting ready. In general though, Eden is a little pageant pro who clearly practices hard, and who has a team behind her helping her succeed. Despite her pageant successes, it was announced after this episode aired that Eden is "retiring" from pageants to pursue other career opportunities (though if you've seen Cutie Patootie, which I've linked to before, you might wonder if a singing career is premature-- then again, Eden is currently on a mall tour of the Midwest, so she has fans in place already).

Not to worry though, as they are lots of other pageant divas out there. Chloe, from last week's episode, is one. She is on a "winning streak," as her mom says. Her mother makes her living off of pageants, so doing well is Chloe's "job." Chloe's mom declared that Chloe is not traditionally "facially" beautiful, as she doesn't have blue eyes and blonde hair; we're treated to nine-year-old Chloe getting her hair highlighted and eyebrows waxed (always painful to watch).  The worst moment though was when her mom kept referring to Chloe's teeth as "jack-o-lantern," and then Chloe said she doesn't want to be a jack-o-lantern because they are "fat."  It's very possible Chloe is gong to grow up to hate her mother, and pageants.

So do MaKenzie, Eden, or Chloe stand a chance to become Miss USA like Alyssa Campanella (the gorgeous Miss California)? My guess is no, for a few reasons. First of all, it's unclear that any of them want to become Miss USA, or even Miss America. Eden clearly has grander ambitions and I'm guessing MaKenzie won't stick with pageants for many more years. Chloe, well, I've already shared my views there. On top of that, pageants really don't reward those who have been doing pageants since childhood. They are seen as too programmed and too "pageant patty." (One exception is Miss America 2004, Erika Dunlap, who did pageants as a child.) Note that, refreshingly, Alyssa Campanella was one of only two contestants last week at Miss USA who said she believed in evolution (one theory is that contestants didn't want to be controversial, the other is-- yikes!).  Like many things, including sports, making it to the "big leagues" is a long haul that involves luck, patience, and persistence. Many girls who start in childhood drop out along the way.

I definitely don't expect to see many of these girls competing in the Miss America system either-- and almost certainly not in Massachusetts. To hear some of the reasons why, listen to my appearance on NHPR's Word of Mouth from this past Tuesday (click HERE and then click "Listen" under "Article Tools").

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Odds Look Gorgeous: A Quantitative Analysis of the Miss Massachusetts Contest

Please check out my piece in the June 19, 2011 issue of The Boston Globe Magazine! It is an analysis I did of the past 25 years of the Miss Massachusetts America Pageant. No Miss Massachusetts has ever won Miss America-- and only one queen from a New England state has ever won, for that matter. Will this be the year? I'll have a full report on this year's Pageant in a few weeks.

You can see the printed version by clicking HERE (and you can see the headline on the cover and the description of the article by clicking HERE).

An online slideshow version is also available HERE.

Look forward to hearing your thoughts and hope you enjoy!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Celebrity Children

Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat just lost the NBA Championships. But he's okay with it. Why? Because his daughter, Trinity, got to see him play in the Finals.

Now Trinity is two-years-old. But imagine instead that she was twelve-years-old. How hard would it be to watch your father-- or any parent-- lose a major game or tournament, in person?

This past weekend Bernard Lagat, an Olympic runner, competed in the 2011 Adidas Grand Prix in New York City. Lagat ran the 5000m and came in second. His five-and-a-half-year-old son, Miika was in the stands to watch. How do I know? Because in NBC's coverage they actually miked little Miika and recorded his reaction to the race, showing the visual during the race replays. Miika was screaming for his dad to win, and seemed upset when he came in second. He sat next to his mom during the race, and obviously his parents had to okay their son being miked and recorded. While Miika is adorable and full of personality, was this really the best decision? Clearly a lot of Miika's identity is wrapped up in being the son of a successful runner. What about his own identity?

It's not just the children of athletes who often have a spotlight on themselves based on their parents performances. This can apply to children of performers and politicians, along with notorious figures. For example, Karen Gravano, the daughter of Sammy the Bull, is in the news as part of the VH1 show Mob Wives. Gravano is currently penning a memoir about growing up the daughter of a mobster.  And then there's Chaz Bono, also much in the news, who has used the celebrity of his parents as a platform to promote transgender awareness (never mind that as a young girl Chasity was featured on her parents' television show in sequins and make-up, which made his personal struggles more public and in some ways more difficult).

Perhaps most interesting to me are the children of politicians.  Politicians regularly use their families, and their children, to promote a particular image to the public.  They also use their children to drive home particular issues. For example, the Obamas (especially Michelle) talk about childhood obesity in terms of their own children's "rising BMIs." These same children can become caught in the crossfire when things go awry. When the Arnold and Maria scandal broke, their teenage son's tweets were reported by the media. And then, of course, there are the Palin children. The Palin brood have been used in and across multiple reality television shows (for some of my thoughts on kids and reality TV in general you can read my USA Today op-ed here). When Sarah Palin took off on a summer tour recently her youngest daughter, Piper, was used in the video produced by SarahPAC.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. Putin shows that there is another path-- although in this country we'd likely prefer something less extreme than essentially hiding family members.  But this raises larger questions: should access to children of celebrities be limited in particular ways? Is the media wrong to focus attention on some of them (like Lagat's son being miked and recorded)? Or is this solely a family/parental decision that we should leave up to the parent's discretion?

It's true that children of celebrities get various benefits from having celebrity parents, like access to other celebrities and real material rewards.  It is also easier for them to have a platform, if they so chose, as Chaz Bono shows. But, in general, they are thrust into the spotlight against their will and based on the skills and accomplishments of their parents, and not their own. In some ways, then, are these parents no better than Richard Heene, Balloon Boy's father?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shrinking and Pinking: Skirts, Skorts, and Shorts

I must admit that as a child I was known to wear skorts. I've never been a big shorts person, so skorts were a good compromise.  Seems like they work well for some athletes as well.

Not for most female badminton players though. May brought more attention than usual to the sport of badminton after the governing body declared that all female players must wear skirts or dresses in competition.  The rule change happened in advance of the 2012 Olympics in the hopes of increasing the sports popularity (In any event, the proposed rule change certainly increased the sport's notoriety...).  I first read about the Badminton World Federation's decision in early May, in stories like this very interesting one published on May 4th; but the decision didn't get broader attention until The New York Times ran this story on May 26th (Incidentally, people ask me why I use Twitter and this is a perfect example-- you just get a lot of news faster than you do through the mainstream media).  After intense pressure from players, sports journalists, and leadership within the Federation, the rule was reversed in advance of the June 1 deadline.  It seems likely that the women's dress code will still be undergoing revision, but not all players will be forced to wear skirts-- a key victory for Muslim players who would have to wear a skirt over long pants.  Who knows what will happen to the men's dress code, but I love the sentiment expressed in this article: "'What I would really wish is to see male players in skirts,' Sertaç Sehlikoglu, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and author of the blog Muslim Women in Sports told HuffPost. 'That would most certainly promote badminton much more than any woman's skirt can ever do.'"

But skirts--or at least skorts-- do work very well for another group of female athletes.  The talented women of Dunbar High School's Track and Field team, in Washington, D.C., have excelled at meets this year wearing new uniforms that consist of skorts.  They report that the skorts make them feel more confident as they don't worry about any wardrobe malfunctions.  It doesn't hurt that they feel "cute" in them as well. This appears to be the first high school team to use skorts and it sounds like they might just be trendsetters.

Another trendsetter (not related to skirts, skorts, or shorts though) is Kari Sickles. I came across her story today: Sickles is the first female wrestler to be recruited to wrestle at Davidson College. On the men's team. The Florida wrestler will compete in the 125-pound weight division in the NCAA. I've been fascinated by female wrestlers before, so it will be interesting to see how her collegiate career develops. I'm guessing she won't be wrestling in either skirts or skorts. Clearly shrinking and pinking continues...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Two weeks ago today...

My husband and I moved into our first home. Very exciting, but moving is such a drag-- and it kept me away from blogging. But I'm back now, with lots to say!

Also two weeks ago today, on May 24th, Australian child beauty pageant opponents, and some supporters, held rallies across the country.  These protests were organized in response to Texas-based Universal Royalty organizing an "American-style" child beauty pageant to be held in Melbourne next month (I've written more about this here).  Although several protests were held in capitol cities, and the press covered the events, my sense is that they were not received as well as organizers had hoped.

The goal of the opposition is to actually get child beauty pageants deemed illegal in Australia.  Or to at least institute a minimum age requirement (like 6-years-old instead of 6-weeks-old). Without an overwhelming turnout at the rallies, and for other legal reasons like the privacy of the family, Australian lawmakers have offered a lukewarm reaction.  It seems unlikely that such legislation will pass, at least at the moment.

Another issue is that the story has somewhat morphed-- if not into a pro-pageants stance, then into a sympathetic angle for some pageant mums. Why? All the opposition and press coverage led to some mothers receiving death threats. For example, this story details the hate mail one mother received.

At the same time, as has happened with child beauty pageants before, all the attention actually helps the business end of the enterprise. Now, not only will pageants be organized in Australia, but now events will also take place in New Zealand. All press is good press, right?  Increased media coverage of the UK pageant circuit also seems to be heating up-- and at least one contestant entered due to all the press interest (I have some thoughts on a journalist mother entering her daughter in a child beauty pageant for research purposes-- none of which are positive).

While the press has eaten the story up, and lawmakers have seemingly ignored it, another group of professionals has weighed in-- the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. On the day of the rallies the professional organization released a statement saying child beauty pageants are detrimental to children's mental health. I don't necessarily disagree with many of their sentiments, but as I've explained before we simply don't have the data to back-up statements like, "The mental health and developmental consequences of this are significant and impact on identity, self esteem, and body perception." To be considered medical research, and worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals, more work must be done.

That said, comments made by Dr. Phillip Brock, Chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, in this newspaper article deserve further thought and clarification.  Dr. Brock states his opinion on child beauty pageant headshots, like those I show below: "That is a photograph that can be interpreted as alluring and appealing to the sexual instincts of the observer, and if that observer is an adult then it's voyeuristic."
Pageant photographers use a technique known as "airbrushing" to achieve the glassy, wide-eyed look in the eyes, the perfect lips, and the flawless skin.  You can see a proof before airbrushing, and then the final product, at this website: 

What is the purpose of airbrushing? Besides trying to create a particular "pageant look," I have to agree with Dr. Brock that these changes are ones that are purely sexual.  When I say sexual I mean that certain biological triggers cue a response that is hardwired into our brains. As I've mentioned before, The Survival of the Prettiest by Dr. Nancy Etcoff has a good explanation of some of these, as do books by historians Lois Banner and Kathy Peiss on the history and development of make-up and beauty culture in the US.

What are these sexual triggers? First, the eyes. Wide eyes, with long lashes, are a sign of sexual arousal, which signals a healthy partner for mating.  Some have called retouched eyes in pageant pictures "spider eyes," which doesn't sound very sexy to me, but they are. Similarly, darkened lips and cheeks are signs of arousal as well-- and the lips and cheeks are always colored in these retouched images.

As a sociologist I don't think all things at child beauty pageants are sexually hardwired (for example, many criticize girls blowing kisses as sexual, and I believe such an action totally needs to be interpreted in its social context-- which is NOT sexual, but rather seen as cute and precocious at child beauty pageants).  However, when it comes to these pictures, it's hard to disagree with the science.

In any case, the child beauty pageants steam ahead in Australia, and in the US, as Toddlers & Tiaras returns to TLC on June 15th. Believe me, my DVR is set. Is yours?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pageant Princesses and Math Whizzes

Two of the activities I spent a lot of time studying have been receiving a lot of attention of late-- child beauty pageants and Kumon afterschool learning centers.  Last week The New York Times ran an article on Junior Kumon, a program designed to teach preschool-aged kids how to read and do math. "Fast-tracking to Kindergarten?" has generated a lot of discussion in parenting circles. And, between Botox beauty pageant mom and the Australian child beauty pageant kerfuffle, child beauty pageants are as in the news as they were in the days after JonBenét's death.

An academic article I wrote, "Pageant Princesses and Math Whizzes: Understanding children's activities as a form of children's work," which appeared in arguably the top childhood studies journal, Childhood, actually compares child beauty pageant moms and Kumon parents.  These two groups of parents may seem to have little in common. On a basic level, many assume that parents who value beauty are somehow different from parents who value academic achievement. But I show that despite considerable differences in their backgrounds, these parents converge in the reasons they give for enrolling their young children in these activities, and in their focus on their children’s careers and future achievements.

I want to tell you a bit more about Kumon, as it is less well-known, and there are some misconceptions about how it works. Kumon was founded in 1954 in Japan by a high school mathematics teacher to help prepare children for state examinations. The company expanded to North America in 1974, opening a center in New York City. The method began to spread, especially along the East and West Coasts, where there were East Asian immigrants. By 2005, Kumon's enrollment was about 4 million, and remarkably it was the fourth-fastest-growing franchise (behind Subway, for example) in the US.  In 2009 there were over 1300 centers in North America.

Kumon actually demands a fairly high level of parental involvement. Kumon requires parents to make sure that children complete their homework and then the parents must check the homework in a master book they received after paying tuition. It is only after seeing what a child is doing wrong on the worksheets that a paid instructor becomes involved. Essentially, as one mother said to me, Kumon is providing books and worksheets, but not much instruction. On some level, as with pageants, when the child walks into a ‘lesson’ to be evaluated or take a test, it is as much about how the parent has prepared the child to succeed as it is about the child’s own abilities.

It is true that Kumon relies on repetition and rote memorization. The Kumon method is fairly simple. It is based on the premise that by breaking things into manageable units and drilling those units every day through practice, a child will progress. There are two set curricula, one devoted to mathematics and one devoted to reading, and students can choose to do only one or to do both. The other major pedagogical touchstone is that children should start slightly below their level to build their confidence.

But it is the rote memorization and repetition, which may build confidence, that was the attraction for the Kumon parents I met.  I spent one summer hanging out at night at a Kumon center.  At the location where I was I met almost exclusively immigrant parents-- both East Asian and South Asian. Of the thirty parents who I formally interviewed, 93% were born outside of the US (contrast that to the 95% of the 41 pageant moms I met).  They felt that particularly when it comes to mathematics, the US educational system lags behind the way they were taught in their home countries.  Most of these parents are professionals who use mathematics in creative ways in their jobs.  So they do want their children to learn to be creative and innovative. However, they felt this occurs best after a child has mastered the fundamentals so soundly in childhood that they do not need to think about, say, multiplication tables. Only after the foundation is well established can creativity be attained.  This is true not only for many Asian parents, but also reportedly for Russian parents (this was told to me by Kumon instructors).

Here then we can see two important strands then that have come together in modern American life and parenting-- immigrant striving and middle- and upper-middle class insecurity.  Kumon has been transformed from a site almost exclusively of immigrants to white, affluent parents, who are enrolling their kids, at least according to the Times, to help them get ahead in the education arms race that has begun earlier than ever.  Why? In a time of economic and educational uncertainty, many parents (not just those who are innately competitive and perhaps driven by other varied psychological motives) don't want to risk not giving their child every chance to "get ahead."

But what does it say that we criticize what is presented as "extreme" parenting both when it comes to education and when it comes to beauty? Do these criticisms arise from the same source, or are they something else? I think they spring from the same source, and choices of parents are largely dictated by their own social backgrounds. What do you think?

Final note: I'm calling it now. Five-year-old Mabou Loiseau will become the next big parenting story.  Prodded by her immigrant parents (her family is not affluent, as her father works 16 hours a day as a parking attendant to help pay for all of Mabou's private lessons), Mabou is homeschooled and she can now "speak" seven languages and play six instruments. Favorite line in the article from the Daily News? "Her mom recently got rid of the kitchen table to make room for a full-size drum set...'Furniture is not important. Education is.'"

This reminded me of "I Speak Six Languages" from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A wonderful musical-- I actually got to see it on Broadway when Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell on Modern Family) originated Leaf Coneybear.  Never seen it? Here's a taste.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Too Much Botox, Too Much to be Believed: UPDATED

Poor Britney Campbell is back in the news. I wrote about Britney in March after her story appeared in The Sun, detailing her Botox injections and virgin waxes.  Yesterday morning Britney and her mom, Kerry, appeared on Good Morning America to “defend” themselves and talk about wrinkles and waxings.

The somewhat-horrifying interview/video speaks for itself. Click below to watch it.

I have a variety of questions about this story, which part of me still wants to believe isn’t true.
  •        The Sun reported Britney’s mother, Kerry is from Birmingham (UK). Why no accent in the television interview?
  •        Did Kerry Campbell know that by appearing on GMA she went on a parenting kamikaze mission—opening herself up to investigation by child welfare agencies (she must have known something untoward could happen, given the fact she wouldn’t name her Botox source)? Why do this? [Note: it's being reported that a formal investigation has been opened by the state.]
  •         The Sun story focuses much more on pop superstardom and less on child beauty pageants. Why the shift?
  •         GMA shows a clip of Britney in a “pageant dress,” but it doesn’t look at all like a high glitz pageant dress. Does anyone in the California pageant scene actually know this family? I stand by my earlier comments that I know some pageant moms wax their daughters (OUCH!), but Botox is a bit hard to believe in girls this young.
  •        This observation is going to sound horrible, but if this mom is so concerned about Britney’s appearance, why not invest in orthodontia instead of Botox? I know many eight-year-old girls with braces (sad, but true, and I think it must be a bit young—though definitely not my area of expertise!). Seems like a better, and more permanent, “beauty fix.”
  •        Finally, are dimples no longer desirable? It seems like the “wrinkles” they don’t like are Britney’s adorable dimples. My mother tells a wonderful story about taping frozen peas into her cheeks each night before bed as a child because she wanted dimples so badly. I’d still love to have dimples! Is this déclassé now?
Of course, there are many other unanswered questions, but I’ll stop there. Personally, I’d rather have Amy Chua and intense music lessons than Kerry Campbell and Botox injections.  What do you think?

UPDATE I: There already seems to be a "copycat" mom, covered by The Sun. This mother, Sharon Evans (also apparently British), tattooed her daughter, Bree, giving her permanent eyebrows. She also did fillers in her lips (in addition to Botox). Be horrified some more.

UPDATE II/I: Apparently this is not too much to be believed it is real. Poor Britney was taken from her mother and apparently is under custody of CPS. This article on the latest developments reveals another head-scratching fact: Britney's father died four years ago at the age of 83. So her mom was 30, with a four-year-old daughter, when her 83-year-old husband died... I wonder what kind of "research scientist" the father was? And whether or not *he* used Botox?

I have continuously said there is something seriously off with this story. Proof the Botox mom is not who she says she is. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Evolution of American-Style Child Beauty Pageants

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post on May 10, 2011.

The Australian press and public have reacted strongly to plans to hold an "American-style" child beauty pageant in Australia this summer. Since I wrote a summary and a response to the "Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants" situation, the media attention has increased. Last weekend numerous articles appeared about this issue in Australia's newspapers. Now some in Ireland have raised concerns about having an "American-style" Miss Princess Ireland pageant. [Note added: This pageant in Ireland recently took place without a hitch, and reportedly more pageants are being organized for the near future.]

What are the historical roots of these "American-style" child beauty pageants? Having studied these events for over a decade, first as an undergraduate and now as a professional sociologist, I can offer some insights. Somewhat ironically, the first event that would evolve into an "American style" child beauty pageant actually started in a Commonwealth country.

A British art critic and historian named John Ruskin got the idea to hold a springtime festival for young girls, honoring their girlish innocence (Ruskin was actually rumored to be a pedophile...). Ruskin called his events May Queen festivals, since one girl would be selected queen, the "likeablest and loveablest" of all the maidens. The first of these festivals was held in England in 1881 and they quickly spread to North America, where they found a strong reception in the United States.

These competitive festivals soon developed into more systematic baby competitions -- baby parades and better baby contests -- which rewarded children for their looks and their costumes. The historic Asbury Park baby parade was arguably the most famous of the baby parades and contests that started at the turn of the twentieth century. It was the first baby parade ever held on the East Coast and in its heyday, in 1893, it drew 30,000 spectators. It was so popular that Thomas Edison made one of his first movies of the event, on September 12, 1904.

The fame of the Asbury Park Baby Parade set off a string of imitators in Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Long Island, and, of course, Coney Island. Coney Island started its famous baby parade in 1906. The Coney Island baby parade had 1200 participants in its first year, 600 of whom competed for the title of "most beautiful baby."

Coney Island's parade continued to thrive into the 1920s. The 1923 and 1928 events boasted around 400 entrants who won in a variety of get-ups. A three-year-old girl won in a harem costume, a two-year-old won as a "Vanity Girl," and a six-year-old won dressed like a "Show Girl." Clearly, children dressing up like sexual adults started long before the twenty-first century. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, these little nymphs, audiences turned out in large numbers. The New York Times reported that the 1929 Coney Island Baby Parade had 500,000 spectators.

Click HERE to keep reading!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shrinking and Pinking: Stars of the Future

This edition of Shrinking and Pinking starts with the shrinking component-- though with a focus on the shrinking of athletes' ages, not the clothes they wear.

Have you heard about Baerke van der Meij? Van der Meij has become a YouTube star for his soccer skills. Based on that video the Dutch soccer club VVV-Venlo signed him to a ten-year contract. Why is this newsworthy? Because van der Meij is... eighteen months old.

This is not a joke, as I myself first thought. The contract is mainly symbolic, but the club does want first dibs on him once he hits seven and can actually start seriously playing.  Little Baerke seems to have some serious soccer talent already (check out his toy box kicks) and his grandfather played for for the club in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  It seems that the press conference where Baerke signed his contract was pretty tongue in cheek though (he scribbled his name, had some orange juice to celebrate, etc.).  But note that the Dutch do take their soccer seriously (for a fantastic piece on Dutch soccer training methods for kids read last year's New York Times Magazine piece by Michael Sokolove).  Only time will tell if Baerke van der Meij delivers on his toddler promise.

Alexis "Lexi" Thompson is a bit older than Baerke, at 16, but she still qualifies as a promising star of the future.  She's been a phenom since age 12, when she qualified for the US Women's Open.  At 15, Thompson was the youngest female golfer to turn professional, about a year ago. Last weekend she almost became the youngest LPGA winner at the Avnet LPGA Classic; Thompson stumbled at the very end, hitting two shots into the water, and she ended up 19th (though she still took home a $14,715 check).

Despite the setback, Lexi Thompson still has about two more years to become the youngest tour winner ever-- an example of shrinking age standards and higher expectations than ever for young athletes.

FYI-- seems Thompson also likes to play in pink.

Last weekend another group of female athletes were given the chance to make some history of their own.  The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association added wrestling as a girls' sport. It's the first time in eleven years that a new high school sport has been added (the last one was girls' hockey). Only 84 Massachusetts girls participated in high school wrestling last year, so there likely won't be girls' teams for some time.  However, there likely will be an individual tournament for girls (this was an idea I wrote about related to the dust-up at the Iowa state wrestling championships a few months ago).  It's great that more female athletes will get the chance to represent their high schools and compete against their peers. Hopefully more states will follow suit.

Look forward to seeing who will become the female wrestling stars of the future, when Lexi Thompson will win her first major, and how good a soccer player Baerke can der Meij will be... in eighteen years or so!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Racing to the Ivies

A lot happened in the world over the weekend-- from the Royal Wedding to the White House Correspondents' Dinner to, of course, the death of Osama Bin Laden.  May 1, 2011 was definitely an historic day.

Today I write about a much smaller corner of the world, and an event that also occurred over the weekend-- the Penn Relays. The Penn Relays is the oldest track and field competition in the US, beginning in 1895. I must confess that I know about the Penn Relays from a 1986 episode of The Cosby Show, when Heathcliff Huxtable ran on a relay team.  Like many children of the '80s I would have loved to have been part of the Huxtbale family, so I thought I would share a clip from that episode, "Off to the Races."

On Friday The New York Times ran a very interesting article on Princeton's record-setting 4x400 relay team in advance of the Penn Relays.  The team, which did not win over the weekend at the Penn Relays (though Princeton's 4xMile team did win), is made up of four very different young men.  All have different backgrounds, academic interests, and extracurricular pursuits.  What is so impressive is that these young men are Princeton students, top athletes, and they do other things around campus-- like being part of a hip-hop dance group, singing in an a cappella group, and playing the trombone.

These extraordinary young men seem almost ordinary on an Ivy campus like Princeton's.  Their pattern of involvement and success is exactly what admissions officers look for while sifting through thousands of application. In my research on afterschool activities and their links to elite college admissions I have spoken with admissions officers on why participation in extracurricular activities is so important.

Ivies are looking for smart students with a great deal of ambition. But it’s awfully hard to measure ambition. Participation in activities—and especially awards and leadership earned through participation—are a proxy for that ambition. The specific activities are less important; what matters is that you play a sport or seriously participate in anther activity like debate or drama. But you should also do something else, like play an instrument or be part of a Model United Nations team or volunteer or compete in dance competitions. Because what Ivies, and schools like them, are looking for are ambitious individuals who aren’t afraid to take risks.  Princeton's anchor, Austin Holliman, is a great example: Not only is he a top sprinter and hurdler, he also is a high-level trombonist (so good, in fact, he almost went to Julliard for college).

When freshmen get to campus they will be exposed to new activities and academic disciplines. Princeton, and schools like it, wants to create a campus full of ambitious kids who are willing to try swimming or journalism or glee club or anthropology for the first time. So you can’t just do one thing in high school, you need to show you are flexible and versatile. Of course, you’re still ultimately expected to excel in whatever you try, but you must first be willing to try.  Freshman Tom Hopkins, who runs the third leg of the relay, has been in an a cappella group his first year at Princeton, a great example of someone jumping into campus life and trying multiple things.

Being ambitious, versatile, and taking risks are traits that many also think of as being American, part of our nation’s DNA. A former president of the American Psychological Association said that America is “a success-oriented society whose attitudes toward achievement can be traced to our Protestant heritage with its emphasis on individualism and the work ethic.” When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the US in the mid-nineteenth century he famously wrote about the participatory nature of Americans, declaring that we are a nation of joiners.  When another European, the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, toured the US he was also struck by the degree of involvement of Americans—specifically American parents. Piaget was shocked by how many parents asked him whether it was possible to speed up children’s development.  He named this concern “The American Question,” because he said Americans are always trying to hurry things along.

Today that “American Question” symbolizes not just ambition and involvement, it also symbolizes competition. Americans love competitions and reward winners. General George Patton declared, “When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time."  This seems a particularly relevant quote and sentiment today.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Creating Competitive Kid Capital... Through Bridge?

Whenever children participate in activities, including unsupervised play or organized non-competitive activities, they acquire skills through socialization. This is also true of participation in organized activities which do not have an explicitly competitive element, as I have argued before. But many activities that were previously non-competitive have been transformed from environments that only emphasized learning skills, personal growth, and simple fun, into competitive cauldrons in which only a few succeed—those who learn the skills necessary to compete and to win. According to their parents and teachers, kids can learn particular lessons from participation in competitive activities apart from normal childhood play.

Yesterday The New York Times ran an article about kids learning how to play bridge, and then competing in bridge tournaments.  The article draws many comparisons between bridge and chess, given that they are both mental games (the major difference between the two highlighted in the piece is that bridge adds a more social, team element, as players have to play together to win).  But whether we think about chess, bridge, sports, dance, music, or other childhood activities, we see many similar trends-- like trophies and titles (the Times article specifically mentions a nine-year-old boy who recently became the youngest bridge life master). Most important, we see adults focused on developing similar skills in kids through their participation in these competitive activities.

In my research on competitive activities for elementary school-age kids I focused on three case study activities. Children's competitive activities can be classified into one of the following types-- athletic, artistic, or academic-- and I had one of each-- soccer, dance, and chess.  Based on sixteen months of observation and 172 interviews with parents, teachers and coaches, and kids themselves, I label the lessons and skills children gain from participating in competitive activities competitive kid capital. The character associated with this competitive kid capital that parents want their children to develop is based on the acquisition of five skills and lessons: internalizing the importance of winning, bouncing back from a loss to win the future, learning how to perform with time limits, learning how to perform in stressful situations, and being able to perform under the gaze of others.

Internalizing the importance of winning is a primary goal when acquiring competitive kid capital. One parent told me: I think it’s important for him to understand that [being competitive] is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.

Competitive children’s activities reinforce winning, often at the expense of anything else, by awarding trophies and other prizes. Such an attitude seems to bring success in winner-take-all settings like the school system.  Though many activities do award participation trophies, especially to younger children, the focus remains on who wins the biggest trophy and most important title. and some labor markets.

Linked to learning the importance of victory is learning from a loss to win in the future, a second component of competitive kid capital. This skill involves perseverance and focus; the emphasis is on how to bounce back from a loss to win the next time. A mom explained: The winning and losing is phenomenal. I wish it was something that I learned because life is really bumpy. You’re not going to win all the time and you have to be able to reach inside and come back. Come back and start fresh and they are able to. I’m not saying he doesn’t cry once in a while. But it’s really such a fantastic skill.

Because competitive activities belong to organizations that keep records, the stakes are higher than in recreational leagues and children can see that it matters that there is a record of success. These competitive activities in childhood then also help kids learn how to recover from public failures, and how to apply themselves and work hard, in order to be long-term winners. Kids learn the identity of being a winner only through suffering a loss. This father summarizes the sentiment, trying to raise a son to be a winner in life: This is what I’m trying to get him to see: that he’s not going to always win. And then from a competitive point of view, with him it’s like I want him to see that life is, in certain circumstances, about winning and losing. And do you want to be a winner or do you want to be a loser? You want to be a winner! There’s a certain lifestyle that you have to lead to be a winner, and it requires this, this, this and this. And if you do this, this, this and this, more than likely you’ll have a successful outcome.

Learning how to succeed given time limits is a critical skill as well—one of the “this” things you have to do to be a winner, and a third element of competitive kid capital. There are time limits for games, tournaments, and routines—and the competition schedule is also demanding, cramming many events into a weekend or short week. On top of that children need to learn how to manage their own schedules, which they might have to do someday as busy consultants and CEOs. One boy, in an unintentionally funny, and prescient, comment about how busy his young life is and how busy his schedule will likely be as an adult told me that he thinks soccer helps him learn about: Dodging everything—like when we have to catch a train, and there are only a few more minutes, we have to run and dodge everyone. So, soccer teaches that.

Children also learn how to perform and compete in environments that require adaptation, a fourth part of the competitive kid capital recipe. These environments may be louder, more distracting, colder, hotter, larger or smaller than anticipated in preparations, but competitors, and especially winners, learn how to adapt. The adaptation requires focus on the part of children—to focus only on their performance and eventual success. The following quote by a mom of a fourth-grader links this to performing well on standardized tests: It’s that ability to keep your concentration focused, while there’s stuff going on around you. As you go into older age groups, where people are coming in and out, the ability to maintain that concentration, a connection with what’s going on, on the board in front of you, and still be functional in a room of people, it’s a big thing. I mean to see those large tournaments, in the convention centers, I know it is hard. I did that to take the bar exam, and the LSAT I took for law school, and GREs. You do that in a large setting, but some people are thrown by that, just by being in such a setting. Well that’s a skill, and it’s an ability to transfer that skill. It’s not just a chess skill. It’s a coping with your environment skill.

Finally, in this pressure-filled competitive environment children’s performances are judged and assessed in a very public setting by strangers—the fifth and final component to competitive kid capital. This dance mom explains: I think it definitely teaches you awareness of your body and gives you a definite different stance and confidence that you wouldn’t have. For example, you’re told to stand a certain way in ballet, which definitely helps down the road. When she has to go to a job interview, she’s going to stand up straight because she’s got ballet training; she’s not going to hunch and she’s going to have her chin up and have a more confident appearance. The fact that it is not easy to get up on a stage and perform in front of hundreds or thousands of people, strangers, and to know that you’re being judged besides, definitely gives you a level of self-confidence that can be taken to other areas. So, again, if she has to be judged by a teacher or when she’s applying for a job she’ll have more of that confidence.

Children are ranked, both in relation to others’ performance in a particular competition, and in relation to participants their age. These appraisals are public and often face-to-face, as opposed to standardized tests which take place anonymously and privately. Being able to perform under the gaze of others toughens a child to shield his feelings of disappointment or elation, to present themselves as competent and confident competitors.

While all of the parents I met believe their children need to develop this competitive kid capital to succeed later in life, most were also concerned that their kids lack free time to play, or to “just be kids.” What is remarkable is that despite often deep ambivalence, families keep their children involved in competitive activities. Even when the specific activity may change (for example, a child leaves soccer for lacrosse, or gymnastics for dance), children remain actively engaged in competition and in their afterschool activities. Parents want to ensure they are giving their child every possible opportunity to succeed in the future in an often unpredictable world. These actions make sense to them now, though the later transition to success is not guaranteed, so they are hedging their bets by encouraging their children to acquire and stockpile this competitive capital-- whether it be by participating in bridge, chess, soccer, dance, or other competitive athletic, artistic, or academic endeavors.

Do you value these skills for your kids? If so, how do you choose to impart them during childhood? I myself don't know how to play bridge, but think it sounds interesting!

Friday, April 22, 2011

New Shrinking and Pinking: "Don't let my stilettos fool you. I still want to win."

This was syndicated on BlogHer on April 26, 2011 as "Don't Let My Stilettos Fool You. I Still Want to Win." Check it out HERE!

New female sports heroes alert! Continuing my "Shrinking and Pinking" series I started last month...

Number one on the list? Desi Davila. Davila finished second in the Boston Marathon on Monday, just two seconds out of the lead. She set a new personal record and became a hero to the next generation of American runners.  I followed the race a bit online, and when I realized that I might see an American win Boston for the first time since 1985, I turned on the television.  This pretty much describes my reaction: "At this point, I imagine if you were watching Boston all across America, you spontaneously did what I and Alberto Salazar did- you stood and screamed at the TV/computer screen." (You know this is actually pretty typical behavior for me if you have ever watched a beauty pageant, a gymnastics meet, Michelle Kwan compete at the Olympics, or the Kentucky Derby with me!)

Aside from her impressive performance as an athlete, it appears Davila also performed well as a teammate and a human being.  Kara Goucher, another top female marathoner from the US, ran to a somewhat-disappointing fifth place finish (given that she gave birth seven months ago though, I'd call it pretty amazing).  Goucher wrote on her blog: "By 16 miles I was completely out of contention. The real race was ahead of me. Then Desiree Davila went by me looking amazing. I knew she had a chance to catch the leaders and maybe win. As she passed me, she encouraged me. 'Keep your eyes up,' she said. Now that’s classy."

I also love that Davila would actually rank in the Top 100 of male marathoners in the country this year. It's nice to see a woman beating most men at the same exact event! Finally, on a more personal note, I love that for the past seven years Davila has trained in Rochester Hills, MI-- about thirty minutes away from where I grew up.  Everyone knows the Detroit area needs as much positive news/attention as it can get. Davila will be throwing out the first pitch at the Detroit Tigers game on Tuesday, April 26th.

Another new female sports hero of mine who can beat the men at their own game: Nancy Lieberman.  This week's The New Yorker had a wonderful profile on Lieberman, "Queen of the D-League." Lieberman was: 1) the first woman to play men's professional basketball; 2) the oldest female professional basketball player (twice, once in 1997 and again, at age fifty, in 2008); and 3) the second female coach to lead a professional men's basketball team. She also was a Harlem Globetrotter, who has played under various nicknames over the years-- like "Fire," "SuperJew," and "Lieb the Heeb."

Lieberman was clearly an impressive athlete (she played in college and in the Olympics, in addition to playing professionally), and she seems to be an impressive coach.  But what I really love is the spunky attitude that comes across in Ben McGrath's profile.  One of my new favorite lines? "Don't let my stilettos fool you. I still want to win."  I also love how Lieberman seems to know when and how to use the fact that she is a female coach to her advantage. For instance, when a key player was nervous in an important game she knew she had to get him to loosen up. So she called him over: "He doesn't know how I work. It's our second game together. I say, 'Antonio, look, this is serious. Do you like my hair?'"  Lieberman is not ashamed that she gets her nails painted, or that she gets her fiery red hair done. She is a female athlete, a female coach, and a mother, and none of these are incompatible in her world. I wonder if she paints her nails pink?

Another female athlete not afraid of pink? Cindy (Battlecat) Dandois.  I read about Dandois in this week's Sports Illustrated, which reports on page 18 that Dandois withdrew from a planned MMA fight in June because she's pregnant. I suppose that fact on its own wouldn't be worthy of a mention in SI; what makes the story impressive/scary is that when Dandois fought (and won!) last month, she was actually two months pregnant. According to this article Dandois had taken a pregnancy test, when she had trouble making weight, but it came up negative.  She hopes to reschedule the fight after the pregnancy-- and Kara Goucher has shown you can be in nearly top-of-the-world form only a few months after delivery.

[Note: If you read SI, be sure to check out "Shin-Soo Choo That's Who" on page 63. It touches on a topic related to my other research, on early specialization in young athletes. Choo went to a baseball academy high school in his native South Korea and has some interesting things to say about the experience.  Choo is now one of the top five-tool players in MLB, but he is the only successful Korean position player in US.]

Davila and Lieberman show that female athletes can be among the best in the world, playing with and beating men.  But Goucher and Dandois remind us that female athletes have to deal with very different issues from their male counterparts-- like, oh, pregnancy. (True, MLB now has a 72-HOUR paternity leave for players-- which has been getting a lot of attention this week, but the body of the male athlete clearly isn't effected the same way).  Given such physical differences between male and female athletes, I'm interested in learning more about a new proposal in Minnesota to increase girls' athletic activity and keep them healthy by offering all-girls' gym classes, which you can read about here.  Again, pinking of sports can be okay at times, but shrinking never is, even though at times there are clear physical differences between men and women.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Resignations and Circumnavigations: Miss Maine USA and Abby Sunderland

As I read The Boston Globe this morning I came across this story at the back of the Metro Section: "Missing Out, Happily." The story is about Emily Johnson, Miss Maine USA 2011 (not to be confused with Miss Maine, who represents the state in the Miss America system). Johnson was crowned Miss Maine USA 2011 on November 27, 2010.  Two months into her reign, on January 25, 2011, the Miss Maine USA organization announced that Johnson had resigned due to a "personal family matter." The news was reported in some pageant publications, like Beauty Pageant News, on January 29, 2011.  The new Miss Maine USA 2011 is Ashley Lynn Marble (who was also Miss Maine Teen USA in 2000).

Over the past two days this story seems to have exploded. This is the most detailed article I found, out of Maine.  The Portland Press Herald reporter wrote a great first line, "For Emily Johnson, family trumped Trump." Why did this story break now? Did the Miss USA organization wait to release the story to drum up more publicity (in downtime from the other pageant crowning scandal of the year-- the dethroned Miss San Antonio legally fighting to keep her crown after being told she had eaten too many tacos to represent the system)? With The Donald at the helm, the organization is pretty savvy when it comes to working the media.  Yes, I guess I do believe in pageant conspiracies.Otherwise, I can't think of another reason why the story would break in the mainstream media almost three months later.

Second question, does anyone buy Johnson's reason for relinquishing her crown? The stated reason is that the pageant date of June 19, 2011 conflicts with her sister's wedding. The Miss USA Pageant, traditionally held in April, has been moved to June in Las Vegas to accommodate the television broadcast. Given the change, Johnson felt she couldn't miss her sister's wedding (and I guess it couldn't be changed so late in the planning stages). Some are praising Johnson for having her priorities straight, while others are criticizing her for not fulfilling the terms of the contract she signed when she won and representing her state.  Methinks there is more to this story... Feel free to suggest your own interpretation below!

Because I love random pageant facts, here are a few out of this story:
* The new Miss Maine USA 2011, Ashley Lynn Marble, now holds the record for length of time between holding Teen and Miss titles at eleven years apart.
* According to The Portland Press Herald, the past three Miss Maine USAs have all been college basketball players. I found that very interesting, but it makes sense given the focus on athleticism/fitness, which means the women likely look to be in great shape for the swimsuit competition, not to mention I assume they are all pretty tall, which helps carry an evening gown well. And, of course, having a lot of competitive drive and knowing how to work hard, two things collegiate sports emphasize, does not hurt at all!
* The third to last basketball-playing Miss Maine USA, Ashley Underwood (Miss Maine USA 2009), is currently a cast member on Survivor: Redemption Island. (PS. If you watch this, go Boston Rob!)

Speaking of television pop culture, as I was reading the paper and found the Miss Maine USA story this morning I was actually watching last night's House episode on my DVR. House has been a favorite of mine for a few years; not only is it smart but it is set in the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro hospital (when I was a Princeton grad student I lived in Plainsboro, so it's always given me a special thrill). The patient in this past episode, "The Last Temptation," was based on a story ripped from last summer's headlines.  Kendall Roberts is a fictional sixteen-year-old girl who collapses a few days before setting off to try to break the record as the youngest person to sail around the world.

This plot line was based on the story of Abby Sunderland, who had to be rescued last summer from her own solo circumnavigation after her boat was severely damaged in a storm. I wrote about Sunderland in a USA Today op-ed on kids and reality tv after it was widely speculated that the incident may have been a set-up for a family show (after this summer's rescue Abby's father canceled their contract with a production company and no show is currently in the works).

Sunderland is back in the news for another reason-- this time with her autobiography entitled Unsinkable, which was released last week. My copy is in that mile-high pile of books to be read that I have mentioned before.

Which would you prefer: winning a pageant beauty or sailing solo around the globe? My vote is that both sound great, as long as I'm not the one doing either activity...

Monday, April 18, 2011

All is Fair in... Science?

I never participated in a science fair, but I've been thinking a lot about them lately. In the past week I've (pretty randomly) ordered two new books on science competitions from Amazon and read three articles on them. I suppose it's science fair season, but it's also left me wondering if science fairs/contests are gaining in popularity?

In my mind I group together science fairs, girl scouting, and moms who have fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies ready for you when you get home from school-- various aspects of "traditional," and perhaps historical, American childhoods that you are more likely to encounter in children's literature than in real life.  According to this piece by Daniel Barth, Science Fair programs started in the US in 1921 and organized competition went national in 1941. This timeline is very consistent with historical patterns of organized competition for kids in the US. In my research on the history of organized, competitive afterschool activities I label the time period from the Progressive Era through the Second World War the "seeds of competition" and the time period post-WWII through the 1970s the "growth of competition" (since then, into the present, we have the "explosion of hyper-competitiveness").

Dr. Barth also points out that the traditional science fair model has become more about ego for parents and kids and "the validity of work and the experience of doing real science takes a back seat to grades and prizes – and vicarious glory."  However, another article on Lyman High School in Florida, published earlier this month in Education Week, suggests that integrating competition with the science curriculum helps students remain engaged and excited about science and can help increase creativity as well.  I would agree with teacher Bill Yucuis, with an important caveat.

Young superstar scientists exist.  An article, "The Next Nobels," in this month's O Magazine (not yet available on the web, so click HERE to see a scanned PDF from my copy) highlights four high-achieving young scientists; they are also four of the twelve kids featured in Science Fair Season, which will be released tomorrow.  Probably the most famous "science fair" remains the Westinghouse (now Intel, since 1998) Talent Search, and it's kids like those featured in the O piece and the book who will be competitive for this highly prestigious event.  But what about all the kids who are not great enough to compete at such a high level? I'm convinced by a variety of educational and psychological research that in-class competitions can help kids get excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) by giving them a goal and getting them engaged.  Competitions held outside of school are trickier though. When you go up against a superstar and constantly lose, it can be discouraging and lead to drop-out (what I call the "problem of the high-achieving child"). That means we may be losing the really good science students who could eventually catch up to some of the great science students if given the time, instruction, and opportunity.  What to do about this is not at all clear and in this case, big, public competitions could exacerbate the problem.

It appears that one teacher, Amir Abo-Shaeer, has found a way around this problem (incidentally, Abo-Shaeer is the first high school teacher to ever win a MacArthur "Genius" Grant).  Abo-Shaeer uses robotics competitions to make science "cool" for students as his school-within-a-school.  His team's story is the focus on the just-released The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts by Neal Bascomb. I just got the book and it's in my mile-high tower of books-to-be-read-soonish, so I'll let you know if I discover his secret. The book has been getting great reviews so it seems to be worth checking out.

What strikes me is that Abo-Shaeer appears to focus on robotics competitions.  Robotics is obviously a part of any STEM curriculum. And I can see how the technological aspects of robotics is particularly appealing to kids and adolescents. But what happens to the other parts of STEM? Are those more likely to be covered by superstar young scientists? I'd be interested to know if anyone knows of any research on this-- or how various parts of the STEM curriculum break down by sex.  If it is a trend to focus on more specific types of competitions (like robotics, or mathematics) as opposed to general science fairs, that's very interesting, and consistent with increased specialization in careers and the educational system.

As for specifics, can someone please answer this question for me: What is the difference, if any, between a science fair, a science competition, and a science talent search? I guess they are all the same thing essentially, so why the different names? Or is a fair more school/locally-based, while competitions and searches are more national?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kin Ties: Coal, Coupons, and Conception

It's no secret that I love reality television. I don't really discriminate, I pretty much enjoy it all, which is likely the ethnographer in me. Three new shoes that have entered my rotation are Coal (on Spike), Pregnant in Heels (on Bravo), and Extreme Couponing (on TLC).

What could these very different shows possibly have in common? Kin ties. All of them demonstrate just how important kin, or family, connections still are in this country (Family connections have also been a topic on Lisa Belkin's Motherlode Blog this week, where the topic is whether or not it is fair that family ties can help young students secure coveted internships).

In the second episode of Coal (click here to see "No Easy Way Out" in its entirety), a "red hat," or apprentice coal miner, joins the night shift. The foreman is very skeptical about this new addition and gives him a hard time about his clothes, shoes, and ability to multitask. But the attitude changes considerably when the red hat, Jeremy, reveals that his father is Ricky. "Oh, you Ricky's boy?!" The foreman suddenly smiles and his body language changes as he says he went to school with Ricky.  Suitably connected to the other men, Jeremy heads off into the mines with them, now part of the coal mining family. You can watch the scene at the link above; it starts at 33:54 and lasts about a minute.

A world away, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, kin ties also remain important. In the first episode of Pregnant in Heels Samantha Ettus and her husband Mitchell Jacobs hire Rosie Pope, a maternity concierge, to help them name their son. They pay her to assemble a panel of experts, a focus group, and a dinner party with their friends so that their son can have the right "personal branding" from the start. All that work, but in the end the couple dismisses the feedback from others and goes with the name they like best-- Bowen Asher Jacobs (they also dismiss Rosie Pope, the star of the show, as "the help"). I looked up the mother, Samantha Ettus, who advertises herself as a personal branding expert, and came across Samantha and Mitchell's New York Times wedding announcement from 2005.  Really, is there anything more antiquated than a wedding announcement in the NYT? (Full disclosure, my husband and I had a wedding announcement in the Times this past May.) I mean, essentially, the purpose is to show your lineage, both your family's and your own credentials. If you haven't read David Brooks' discussion on the Times' wedding announcements in Bobos in Paradise, I highly recommend it.  In any event, all this shows that from the mountains of West Virginia to the concrete mountains of Manhattan, kin ties remain important as a way to connect to people and quickly place them in context, deciding if they are worthy or not.

What about Extreme Couponing? Well, all I've got here is that last night's episode featured identical twin sisters bargain shopping together, and a son with his mom. So why include it in this post? Honestly, I'm OBSESSED with this show. Can anyone teach me how to be an extreme couponer, buying $800 worth of groceries and only paying $10?! You don't even have to be related to me!