Do we want easy, or do we want change?

I recently began following UpWorthy on Facebook and Twitter, after a few inspiring and uplifting posts made me smile and feel hopeful. Of course, I’m now beginning to regret that decision. It seems that UpWorthy content breaks down into two categories: inspirational stories of hope and human goodness (4%), and controversial, sensationalized, shock-factor yellow journalism that aims to incite “righteous outrage” and social media bickering, with the occasional surprise PTSD trigger (96%). (And don’t even get me started on their shameless self-promotion with their pop up ads on every video with”Opt Out, I already follow Upworthy!” links that don’t work.)

Nonetheless, I occasionally allow myself to be drawn in by a title or tag line, hoping for something that will inspire me or that, at the very least, thoughtfully raises awareness on an important issue. I’m usually disappointed. But if I could just stop at disappointment and ignore the Facebook comments section, I’d probably be much better off. But then, we wouldn’t get long rant blog posts like this one, would we?

This morning, I allowed myself to become enraged by the social media commentary on this post. And probably not for the reason you’d expect. Not for the ignorance and misconceptions about eating disorders that it promotes. Not for the trolls who posted things like “she’s hot” or “I’d do her” or “go eat a hamburger” or “still too fat” or “fat people are gross”. (There are trolls lurking under a lot of bridges and in every comment war…it’s best not to feed them.)

No, the people I’m addressing are those “well-intentioned”, sincere wannabe-do-gooders who posted things like this:

These women are scary looking. They look like the prisoner’s released from Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau after WWII. Why would that emaciation be considered attractive in any way?

Disgaree, because this is a matter of perception. For me, as a size 2 or XS (I am a petite person), it always seems like they make only big clothes. I think there should be clothes for all sizes. period.

I think with near 80% of our country overweight, we should be addressing the obesity crisis, not anorexia. People love to “feed off “model thin which amounts to a genetic lottery (rare) Criticizing others who are thin is the same as criticizing those who are fat. Find a healthy outlook.

May we please stop this whole “Marilyn Monroe was a size 14 ” myth? By today’s measurements, she would have been a size 6 today. They have vanity-sized sizes so much since her day because women have gotten so much larger (in other words, today’s size 14 is much much larger than a 1950s size 14).

I could go on, but I won’t, because reading those posts is making me angry again.

I posted a comment of my own there too. (And to save you the torture of wading through hundred of poorly spelled comments that are all a variation of everything I’ve already shown you, I’m posting it here.)

I put a lot of thought into it. I proofread it. And, like the idealist I am, I expected it to make some sort of difference in the conversation.

Could we just stop with the body shaming? Does it really matter whether you’re a size 16 or 00? Does all of Facebook need to know your jeans size or your weight or your measurements? Do we need to know how you compare to Monroe? Does that really tell us anything about who you are?

What’s actually important in life?
Your body?
Or the thing that lives inside it? Your mind? Your soul?

It’s about time we start valuing people for the very real, beautiful, immaterial things about them. It’s time to stop making “you’re so pretty” the first compliment a little girl hears. It’s time to start noticing women (and men) for what they do and what they think instead of what they look like. Could we just take a moment to recognize the brilliant beauty of who we are underneath the skin and the sizing and the standards?

All of human history to look at–the legacies of Madame Curie, and Mother Theresa, and Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony and Maya Angelou and Helen Keller and Jane Goodall and Anne Frank and Corie Ten Boom and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the thousands of other women who have and still do change the world–and you’d rather talk about dress sizes?

And yes, obese is unhealthy. Anorexic is unhealthy. They are equally unhealthy, and they both stem from other problems. And maybe if we made it less shameful to admit our problems and get help, we could start a movement for healing. And maybe if we could learn to accept diversity in beauty, we could recognize that, as long as the person is happy, healthy, and able to pursue the life he or she wants, their body size (that number you guys keep posting here) doesn’t matter at all.

Maybe we should take the numbers off sizing and find a different system, so our math-obsessed industrial culture will stop calculating the equation to perfection. We don’t read very well anymore, it seems…so how about we go for adjective sizing instead?

I checked back thirty minutes later. The video post has 6.2 thousand likes and 1.6 thousand comments. Want to take a guess at how many of those respond to my comment? Or at least take a more thoughtful turn in the conversation?

If you guessed none, then go have a cookie. Or a celery stick maybe, because all Americans are too fat already, right?

You see, here’s the real problem: WE DON’T WANT TO CHANGE. We just want to complain.

It’s much easier to blame society for the images it feeds young women than to admit the role we have played in selling that culture. It is easier to complain about the clothing industry than to force change by changing what we buy. It’s so much easier to make this a discussion about fat-vs.-thin than to brainstorm solutions to change our relationships with food and exercise and body image. It’s so much easier to fat-shame or thin-shame than to acknowledge that eating disorders are REAL mental health issues that have underlying psychological and emotional aspects. It’s easier to post our own weight and body measurements and claim that we are “perfectly healthy”as self-assurance that we are alright than to admit that we, too, have a messed up relationship with the person in the mirror, and it’s only the approval of and comparison to cyber-strangers that is keeping us from flying over the edge.

It’s easier to post arbitrary and contradictory statistics about obesity and average weights and sizes than it is to do real research and put real thought into a discussion about what needs to happen for us to create positive change.

And maybe it’s time to follow in the steps of those great, outstanding women (and men) who changed the world–the ones we ignore in our conversations about beauty and culture and human worth–and stop doing what is easy so we can start doing what is necessary.

Sex sells, and we’re buying.

I’ll preface this post with a statement of facts: 

  • I am not a parent.

  • I do not intend to be a parent for several more years.

  • I was brought up by very conservative parents.

  • I didn’t go through a “wild” rebellious stage.

  • I do not wear Victoria’s Secret products.

  • I might wear Victoria’s Secret products someday–when I’m married.

  • I am not an expert in parenting, child psychology, marketing, ethics, or anything else. 

  • I am in possession of a measure of common sense.

In the past twelve hours, my Facebook newsfeed has exploded with outrage over a rumor that Victoria’s Secret is launching a new line targeting a middle school audience. So I’ve done some searching on the subject, and I have a few reflections:

First, the controversial campaign is called “Bright Young Things” and is part of the VS PINK line–which has traditionally targeted the 18-24 demographic. In short, this is a line dedicated to college students. It advertises itself as a “spring break” necessity. “Bright Young Things” is just another spring collection of sweats, underwear, and swimsuits. It doesn’t look too different from what they’ve always sold.

I’m not sure where the idea that this line was meant for middle schoolers came from. True, the ad campaign features a young-ish model with a less curvaceous body than most of VS’s other ads. But the model is certainly older than middle school aged–I’d venture to guess she’s just under eighteen, if not older. And the concept of this campaign is still geared to college students. It’s advertised as “spring break” wear. Spring break, as in that thing that college students do. At big universities with Greek life, it’s a traditional party week, filled with drinking, music, and behaviors you shouldn’t chronicle on social media. And what is spring break to a middle schooler? It’s a few days out of school around Easter time. I’d venture to say that most middle schoolers are not going on wild spring break beach trips to participate in questionable parties. If they are, I’d say that’s a parenting problem.

But the I see it, the problem isn’t so much what’s being marketed or to whom. The problem is who’s buying it.

Businesses market products to people who have the power to buy them.

In the case of products targeted towards children, businesses have to find a balance between appealing to the child and meeting parent approval. After all, children don’t have jobs or a consistent source of income. Their purchasing power is incredibly limited. 

Middle schoolers–preteens–are usually aged 11 to 14. The labor laws in this country place heavy limitations on the type and extent of their employment. At this young age, many girls are employed occasionally as babysitters, and a few might help out in a family-owned business. They can’t work a steady job with long, regular hours. At least not legally.

Having once been a twelve-year-old working a babysitting job on weekends, I can attest to the fact that twelve-year-olds have limited income. I think, over the course of a summer, I might have earned a few hundred dollars total, most of which my parents encouraged me to put into a savings account (which has come in handy during my college years). I spent a little bit of that money though…on a cute shirt from Old Navy, some cheap flip-flops, lunch and a shake at Chick-fil-A, and books. Mostly books, actually. (Confession: I was a strange child.) But I didn’t spend much of that money. I learned early on to calculate the time and effort costs of earning money and prioritize my purchases. Was that shake at Chick-fil-A worth cleaning all the toilets at home? (Yes.) Was that boxed set of The Lord of the Rings books worth the six hours of babysitting a spoiled tyrant and her sweet-but-autistic-and-nonetheless-challenging-to-care-for younger brother? (Yes.) Was that super-cute sundress worth two days of said babysitting? (Heck no.) Because–let’s face it–I, like the average middle schooler, had limited funds.

Like the average middle schooler, I also had limited transportation. While the law in this country might allow pre-teens some small ways to earn money, it still does not permit them to drive. I couldn’t just hop in a car and drive myself to a store when I wanted to purchase something. I’d venture to say that’s still the case–last time I checked with my local DMV, anyways. I’m the oldest child, without the benefit of an older brother or sister to take me to the mall. I didn’t have a much older friend either. If I wanted to go somewhere, I had to ask my parents to take me–and you better believe they weren’t taking me to Victoria’s Secret at that age. They didn’t just drop me off at the mall unattended with a wad of cash or their credit cards either. Because they were good, concerned, protective, engaged-in-my-life parentsHow bizarre.

 And sure, kids today know how to take a bus, and they have older siblings/friends who can drive, and maybe they live close enough to the nearest mall to walk or bike there. So maybe they can get themselves to a Victoria’s Secret store if they really want to. And maybe these same kids with transportation also have a little extra cash. But really, are their parents so uninvolved with their children that they don’t have a clue what these kids are doing? 

And even if I had been so (un)fortunate as to have an excess of funds, free transportation to the local mall, and unaware parents to allow me to purchase lacy, scandalous panties that would have allegedly led to my ultimate downfall into the world of whoredom at the tender age of twelve, I still would’ve run into a problem.

I didn’t do my own laundry. 

So, even if by some chance I did manage to acquire underwear from Victoria’s Secret, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to wear them more than once. Because after that, I would’ve been faced with the choice of re-wearing unwashed panties (gross!) or of throwing them in the garbage. Because if those had appeared in the laundry at any point, my mother would’ve seen them. And would’ve known whose they were. And I’d have some ‘splainin’ to do. Which would’ve ultimately led, not to my descent into whoredom, but my descent into a long stint of groundation and the anti-trust zone. 

But maybe I was atypical for my peers. I’ll admit that possibility. (I mean, the end result has been proof of at least some difference. After all, I’m twenty-two years old, about to graduate college. I’ve never been drunk, never even tried alcohol. I’ve never smoked or done drugs. I’m not an unwed mother, not in an abusive and sexually-based relationship, not looking forward to a life of depending on welfare or child support checks. And before anyone jumps down my throat about being self-righteous and judgmental and making assumptions about everyone else who isn’t like me: can it. I’m basing this comparison on real girls that I graduated high school with–the majority of whom never went to college or dropped out within the first year, have one or more children, work meaningless part-jobs for meager pay, and struggle financially every month. In my county, that’s a reality. One that I’ve somehow, by the grace of God and the vigilance of my parents, been able to avoid. But I digress.) I remember envying my peers for their freedom when we were growing up. I remember feeling jealous sometimes because their parents dropped them off at the skating rink or the movies or the mall every weekend for hours at a time, while mine wouldn’t even let me go to the library unsupervised. I certainly did grow up with girls who–somehow or another–had spending money and transportation and uninvolved parents who didn’t notice (or care) what their daughters wore to school.

Maybe that’s the case for some of these scandalously-clad middle school girls. But I’d venture to guess that the majority of youngsters wearing Victoria’s Secret’s provocative, lacy panties own them because someone (ahem, parents, looking at you) bought the underwear for them. Because, looking back, when I’d ask my peers in the locker room where they got that cute lacy bra with the matching polka-dot panties or the camisole that showed a little cleavage–items not found in my wardrobe until I was eighteen and had a steady job–they invariably said, “I’m not sure. My mom got them for me.”

Yep. Let that sink in. Those too-mature-inappropriately-sexy-and-exploitative panties were purchased for pre-teens by their parents. And if it was happening ten years ago, I’d venture to guess it’s happening now. 

The real problem isn’t marketing. It’s parenting.

Let’s think about this rationally for a bit. 

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A BUSINESS?

To make money.

HOW DO BUSINESSES MAKE MONEY?

By selling a product or service to someone who desires it.

HOW DO BUSINESSES SELL PRODUCTS AND SERVICES?

By making them appealing to the target demographic in advertisements.

So is what Victoria’s Secret is doing in this ad campaign really so different from what every other business does? They want to make money. They make money by selling lingerie, underwear, and other clothing–most of which is sexually provocative. They sell these items by marketing them to their target demographic–mainly women ages eighteen and older. And occasionally these products meant for older consumers attract the attention and desires of younger consumers.

How is this so different from any other company marketing any other product?

We have the obvious example of alcohol. For legal and ethical reasons, alcohol may not be purchased by, provided to, consumed by, or marketed to minors (under the age of 21). Alcohol products are not promoted on channels that show primarily children’s shows during the hours that children typically watch television. Advertisements for alcohol include the information that it is illegal for minors to consume alcohol or for anyone to provide alcohol to a minor. These advertisements also bear the warning that consumers should “drink responsibly,” along with warnings from the medical profession about the potentially harmful effects of alcohol. (Granted, most of these messages are in small print at the bottom of the screen and rushed at the end of the commercials. But they’re there.) Ads for alcohol don’t use children either. The typical alcohol commercial depicts attractive, healthy, happy young adults (in their mid twenties to early thirties) having a good ol’ time while consuming the alcoholic product. The message? “Alcohol is a good way for young, cool, happy adults to have fun together.” Does this advertisement attract some minors to alcohol consumption as well? Inevitably, the answer is yes. Some minors read the advertisement (perhaps even somewhat correctly) to mean that consuming alcohol will make them more grown up and cool. Is this interpretation the fault of the alcohol company? Maybe. Is the morality of providing potentially misleading messages to young people questionable? Yes. Is underage drinking the fault of the alcohol companies? No.

But Amelia, I hear you saying, alcohol is a bad thing for children, just like skankified underwear. Right. I hear you. I hear the sound of you missing the point of that last paragraph. So let’s consider a different scenario. 

Let’s say…popular secular music.

 

The general public would seem to agree that, overall, pop music is a generally benign thing. If we didn’t, would we allow it to be played during prime listening time on almost every radio station? If we (as a whole) thought pop music was inherently evil and dangerous to our children, at some point, someone would’ve successfully petitioned to remove secular music from the radio during hours that children were likely to be listening. And if that were the case, we definitely wouldn’t have things like KidzBop–the kid-friendly, censored-of-profanity versions of the Top 40s. (And yes, KidzBop is evidence that we acknowledge that some of the Top 40s music is inappropriate for children in its original form. Why else would we censor?) But what themes are common in this music? Skimming through this week’s Top 40 (available here), I can sum it up as follows: electronic dance music with Spanish lyrics about terrorists, Goodwill purchases and sex, sappy break-up songs, looking sexy, sappy relationship songs (including sex), alcohol consumption, foreign pop bands singing uplifting songs of encouragement, sex, death, shame, shame because of sex, one-night-stands, sexual frustration. About half of these songs include profanity. And though the KidzBop versions substitute different words for the cursing, they fail to change the major theme of the songs. The real kicker? The KidzBop albums aren’t even marketed to pre-teens–they’re marketed to elementary schoolersThe infomercials advertising the albums depict adorable children (apparently younger than my fifth-grader sister) singing and replicating the music videos for these popular songs. KidzBop is cool when you’re in second grade; no self-respecting seventh grader would admit to listening to it. And these songs, though without profanity, can hardly be considered truly age-appropriate. For instance, popular song “Moves Like Jagger,” when recreated by KidzBop, removes the blatantly sexual words, but not the sexual innuendos. “California Girls” cuts the second (“sex on the beach”) verse, but not the lines in the chorus that talk about partying or the lines in the verses that refer to drinking. And then, the ever-popular and celebrated One Direction song, “Live While We’re Young.” Check out the lyrics. It’s about sneaking out of the house for a night of promiscuity and reckless behavior, because, hey, you only live once. (Exhibit A: verse two lyrics: “Hey girl it’s now or never, don’t overthink, just let it go/ And if we get together,don’t let the pictures leave your phone.” Exhibit B: chorus: “I know we only met, but let’s pretend it’s love.”Yep. That’s what I want pop culture teaching my [hypothetical, nonexistent] children. But when our fourteen-year-olds come home saying, “Mom, I’m pregnant and I’m scared,” do we immediately say, “Darn it! I knew I shouldn’t have let them listen to that pop music!”? Nope. We blame ourselves for not paying more attention. We blame the guys that took advantage of them. We blame every adult who should’ve done something to stop this from happening. Maybe we blame the child for her actions too. For the most part, the music is left out of it.

Somehow, we are ok with pop culture teaching our children that promiscuous sex is a vital part of being young–even while being outraged that another company markets an adult product in such a manner that it is appealing to an inappropriately young demographic.

And we’re not blaming the music producers, or the movie producers, or the television producers, or the authors and publishers of popular tween novels that feature graphic descriptions of sexual encounters of various types for the hyper-sexualization of today’s young people. And we’re not blaming the parents who allow their children to consume this media. Or the parents who fail to put healthy limits on their children’s behavior for fear of squashing their miniscule personalities or whatever psychobabble excuse we want to use for overindulgence. No, we’re blaming Victoria’s Secret. A large corporation. That markets to adults. And sells adult clothing that the average pre-teen can’t afford on her own.

Because it’s easier and less time-consuming to be outraged on Facebook and Twitter and your blog than to parent your child.

It is easier to start a petition to ban a product from being sold in a store than to tell your child, “No, I will not purchase that item for you because it is inappropriate for you at this time, and I don’t give a flying flip what your friends think about it,” and stick to it. It’s easier to write poorly-phrased and grammatically incorrect invective against “exploiting the innocence of children for profit” than to take a step back and look at the culture that already views people as objects for consumption. It’s easier to accuse a major corporation of brainwashing our children with a misguided idea of beauty and healthy sexuality than to look at ourselves and the mixed messages we send in our own homes. And yes, maybe Victoria’s Secret and her peers are responsible for some of the sexuality in our culture. Maybe they can take some of the blame for skewing the views we have about the female body. And maybe they’re able to do this because we let them.

Sex sells, and we’re buying.

We buy plenty of it. In the poll for social acceptability, we vote with our money. In a consumer culture, what society is willing to allow will undoubtedly become visible, but it’s only what society is willing to pay for that becomes truly popular. And in this consumer society, sexuality sells big time. Why are shows like The Bachelor/The Bachelorette–which objectify women, promote promiscuity in the interests of finding “the one”, and make a mockery of healthy relationship development–on tv? Because we watch them. Why is there so much sex in our pop music? Because we keep buying it. Why do the shorts keep getting shorter, the bathing suits keep getting smaller, and the necklines keep getting lower? Because we buy them. 

And sure, there is a sector out there that refuses to participate financially in the aspects of culture that it finds reprehensible. My parents are part of it. Growing up, I didn’t watch the popular movies or tv shows. I didn’t know the Top 40 songs. I didn’t own shorts that came above mid thigh. I didn’t have a two-piece bathing suit. My parents, who held the purchasing power for our family (and for me), made a clear decision about what they believed was acceptable. And yes, it was difficult for me to understand at the time. And yes, I argued with them on it. And yes, I made exaggerated claims that they wanted me to dress like a nun and take a vow of celibacy and never ever find a boyfriend (because what boy wanted to date a girl who wears shorts that could’ve come from the boy’s department) and didn’t want me to be pretty. And yes, sometimes I felt out of place because I didn’t dress like most of the girls my age. (*Refer back to above paragraph about where they all are today.)

And no, I didn’t get my way.

And I’m perfectly unharmed by that. My little minuscule personality wasn’t crushed to smithereens. Neither was my ability to think for myself. I made it through high school with a perfect 4.0 GPA. I had friends who cared about me, no matter what I dressed like. I was awarded over $140,000 in scholarships to various universities. I have held several respectable jobs. I’m now a senior in college, about to graduate with three separate degrees earned in the course of four years and embark on a career as a teacher.

And, wonder of all wonders, I have a boyfriend of two years who loves and respects me and wants to be with me long term, no matter what I choose to wear.

Having been parented by people with conservative values who upheld a high standard of behavior for me was not in the least bit damaging. Having been denied my preference at the time did not negatively impact me. Having parents who were involved enough in my life to know where I was and what I was up to almost constantly until I reached the age of 18 didn’t keep me from maturing and learning to be independent. In fact, it taught me accountability. I learned that I had to consider my actions carefully, because my actions had consequences–even when I became an adult. 

I turned out this way because my parents chose to be my parents–NOT my friends. I turned out this way because my parents told me no when what I wanted wasn’t right for me. I turned out this way because my parents were willing to let me be unpopular in favor of becoming a better person. I turned out this way because my parents chose to raise me themselves, instead of turning me over to the coddling consumerist culture of popular media and fashion trends. 

So if you want to be outraged at Victoria’s Secret and the fact that their clothing might somehow be appealing to young girls who have grown up in a culture that tells them to grow up as quickly as possible, that their worth is based on their attractiveness to males, and that being promiscuous is a necessary experience, go right ahead. But do yourselves and your children a favor and back that outrage up with your actions. If you are disgusted by the objectification of women, don’t treat your daughters like property to be guarded until sold to a husband. And don’t let them see you worry about your weight or your appearance. Don’t encourage them to believe that you only feel beautiful when you have your makeup and high heels on. 

You’re the parent. For a large portion of their lives, you have the power to tell your children no. You have the power to choose what’s best for them, to set guidelines, to shape their sense of morality and respectability. And you have the power to choose any standard you want for your children–whether that’s to let them do as they please and learn on their own, or to set boundaries and protect them from the rest of the world. The point is that, as a parent, it’s your responsibility to make that choice. And you’ll have to deal with the consequences that come with whatever choice you make. Just like your kids will.

So if you don’t want Victoria’s Secret “sexualizing” your daughters, don’t buy them anything from Victoria’s Secret. It’s really that simple.

Don’t Just Take It From Me

I’m not usually one to get into politics in a public forum–because somehow it always turns out ugly and unproductive. But I’m going out on a limb today to offer my own personal commentary on today’s events.

I beg you, please read all of this post before commenting on it. The end is the most important part. In fact, maybe just skip the numbered bullets and get straight to the last six paragraphs. If that’s all you read, I won’t be offended. Because I want–no, need–you to understand why I stepped out of my usual box and posted something political. The numbered points are only candid reactions and probably have very little value. In fact, you can disagree with them all you want. You won’t hurt my feelings. But my real reason for posting this comes at the end, and (I believe) it is something we can all agree on.

Upon reading the transcript of Obama’s speech today regarding gun control, I offer the following thoughts:

1. Biden stammers when he speaks publicly. He repeats words a lot. He might consider rehearsing his speeches a little more.

2. I am all for action to prevent violence. I am not for nationwide reform decided on by one man being immediately put into action without legal consent from this country’s citizens.

3. If all Americans today had real rhetoric skills (which include listening without interrupting and not insulting your opponent) by which to voice their disagreements and work towards a solution, we would not need gun legislation, because we would not need to shoot each other to solve our differences. What we really need isn’t another law; it’s an attitude adjustment. We have to stop looking at each other as obstacles or resources to our own personal goals and start seeing each other as real people, with real feelings and real needs and real beliefs and very real reasons for everything we think and do. And maybe start considering that when we disagree on any issue, it’s usually not because we hate each other and love to argue, but because we honestly believe that our idea is the right thing to do. If we start seeing that we all want the same end goal, and start recognizing that we’re just presenting different ideas of how to get there, maybe we can stop making this so personally offensive and start coming up with real solutions to our problems.

4. I agree that if even one innocent life can be saved, we have an obligation to try to save it. But have we looked at all possible ramifications? Are we sure the death rate will decrease because of this? Or will the perceived weakening of household protection in our country make criminals bolder to strike out against unarmed civilians? And is the one life saved better than the five or six who die instead? (All hypothetical, but questions worth thinking about.)

5. I don’t see a problem with requiring background checks for gun purchases. But I don’t believe for a second that it will stop someone with intent to cause harm from acquiring a gun. It just means they’ll buy one that we can’t trace.

6. He only announced “a few” of the 23 executive actions he signed into effect today. I’m curious to know exactly what the rest of them were and why he didn’t share them publicly. Secrets don’t make friends, Mr. President.

7. I definitely agree that there’s no reason a civilian should need a military assault rifle. We aren’t being occupied by terrorists or the British. No need for another Revolutionary War or anything. And I don’t feel like a grenade launcher is the best method for killing deer–at least not if you want to have anything left. But again, I don’t think that banning these weapons will keep people who want them from getting them.

8. Stricter laws on gun trafficking sound great. But can we really enforce them? Criminal organizations have been getting around all sorts of laws since our country began. They’re already breaking the law. They don’t really have anything to lose.

9. I don’t know anything about this Todd Jones guy. Definitely need to look him up. Not sure how I feel about Obama nominating him yet.

10. More funding for police jobs–great. But where is that money going to come from? Taxes have already gone up once this year, and heaven knows the federal government doesn’t have enough to fund this, what with their increased spending and sending the president on multi-million dollar winter vacations and such.

Upon further reading, I noticed that they intend to redefine who may and may not purchase a firearm. While I believe those convicted of violent criminal offenses and those whose psychological or mental state makes them violent should not be allowed access to a weapon, the idea that anyone with a mental disability or any other undesirable trait should be denied firearms makes me nervous. Many nonviolent individuals suffer from mental illnesses of varying degrees, and limiting their Second Amendment rights arbitrarily seems to be in violation of anti-discrimination protections for disabled Americans. Furthermore, unsupervised and unchecked, this new legislation might be ambiguous enough that almost anything could be construed as a mental illness that would prevent gun ownership.

Maybe I’ve read too many dystopian novels, but I can’t help but fear that in the future, some corrupt leader with ambitions towards absolute power would find a way to have anyone not in support of his or her goals declared unfit for gun ownership, effectively creating an unarmed population ripe for the taking. And maybe this fear of mine is absolutely ridiculous–after all, it’s an extreme (and currently improbable) situation that would take a lot of political movement over time to take hold. But it’s the little decisions we make every day in our country that shape the course of our future, and I would feel like an idiot not to consider it a vague possibility. And being afraid makes me more attentive. More observant.

But I don’t think that these fears should keep us from finding a way to protect innocent civilians from violence.

I do think that each individual American citizen–especially those of voting age–should pay close attention to upcoming government events, and should examine all possible outcomes of the decisions we allow to be made on our behalf.

We the people have a right to make educated decisions regarding our future.

If we choose to neglect that right and follow the crowd like a herd of sheep, we risk being led to a slaughter.

I’m urging you, my brothers and sisters–conservative, liberal, moderate, gun owner, pacifist, young, old, Northerner, Southerner, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor–whoever you are: EDUCATE YOURSELVES. Don’t rely on fiery rants from the NRA or inspiring speeches from a politician. Don’t rely on what you read in the New York Times or the local newspaper. Don’t rely on what some website says. Don’t read just one source, or listen to just one voice. Don’t just listen to the fear around you–fear of more violence, or fear of lost rights. 

Read, read, read. Listen. Talk to each other. Have conversations with people who don’t think like you–real conversations, where you listen and respect each other’s right to disagree. Try to understand someone else’s viewpoints. Be kind to one another.

And above all, THINK. Use the mind and reason you have been blessed with. Make up your own mind. And then make a decision. Take action. Speak out. Vote.

That is the true privilege of the free.

As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, speech, Aug. 16, 1967

Climbing is a Metaphor

Higher…higher!

Muttering under my breath from the middle observation deck, I watch as the climber once again skips the logical step and reaches for the unattainable blue hold. Your foot has to go higher, I whisper, and then release the exasperated sigh that has been building in my throat, as his hands slip again and he swings wide of the face.

I’ve been watching for days. I see the climbers, in all their many forms. I see them, with their too-tight spandex shorts and professional climbing shoes and environmentally-friendly t-shirts advertising their participation in that trendy outdoors adventure, trying to look at home at this indoor mountain. I see them, with their stiff jeans and fashionable tops, inappropriately non-functional footwear, not at all dressed for the occasion but just as eager to succeed. I see them come with confidence or trepidation, but I see them all leave disappointed.

They have been asking me to climb, but I will not. I am a champion watcher. I do not climb.

I saw him, carelessly casual in his shiny blue athletic shorts that bunch around his crotch when he wears the harness. I saw him saunter in, exuding the egotism of one who has never seen struggle or failure. Even now, I see him as the adventurous child he must have been once—see him as his lithe toddler’s body dangles from tree limbs, from the top shelf of his father’s study, from the gutters on the roof of their fine house. I see his mother below him, indulgently scolding, a worried look on her face as she urges him to come down. But I see now that he could never have come down—down so she might tether him to an earthbound existence, when he so wanted to fly. With his mother’s outstretched arms as his safety net, he climbs higher, swings more wildly, laughs more loudly. That day, I watched him scoff at the required harness, a precaution he could never require—for who but he would be more sure of himself in the air? I heard him say, no, he hadn’t climbed rock walls before, but he had climbed real rocks and real houses and real trees to such great heights without the assistance of a spotter or a rope, so he’d try the middle face, please.

The middle face, which slanted steadily outward until it reached the height of the middle observation deck, where it jutted sharply out so that the climber would hang, back parallel to the ground and face to the sky, resisting the pull of gravity and fear, until he could creep over the nose of the rock and continue his crawl towards the crown. The middle face, which the expert instructors approached cautiously in their own climbing attempts.

The middle face? they ask, Mightn’t he want to start with, perhaps the left face, something a little easier? But only the middle face could do for him, and he begins his ascent. He scales the chin and lips, hangs from the nostrils of his foe and climbs the bridge of the nose with ease. He is at the eyebrows. He is too self-assured, too cocky. And his arms are burning with the exertion. He doubts he will hang on much longer. Desperate measures are required. So with a mighty grunt and a thrust of his legs, he lunges fiercely for the top, hoping to launch himself to the treasured hairline and skip the forehead entirely. Upward he soars higher and higher body straight and graceful face contorted as if by his eyes alone he could pull himself skyward arms reaching reaching reaching until almost—

But no. His fingers grasp empty air, and the shock registers in his eyes as his body changes trajectory. The scorned harness does not scorn him, and he does not crash to the ground. But his dreams—oh, such dreams of flight—they do not shatter, but rather hang midair above the observation deck, dangling at the end of a green nylon rope.

I am a champion watcher and criticizer of the climbers. But I do not climb.

I saw her too. She came unprepossessing, in jeans and t-shirt and doubtful expression, dragged along by a more adventurous friend. I’ve never done this before, she murmurs to the instructor who straps the harness more tightly around her legs. Can you show me how, can you teach me to climb? With encouraging smile, the blond pony-tailed instructor assures her that she will be a professional in no time. She points out the first steps, gives pointers in how to hang on in the rough patches, identifies a few potential pitfalls. She reminds this doubting student that she will not fall, but even if she does, the harness will catch her before she even knows it.

She trembles as she approaches the wall. She places her hands where the instructor has showed her—left hand on grey, right hand on green—and her feet on the appointed places—left foot orange, right foot green—like a high-stakes game of Twister. There, elevated half a foot off the ground, the fear overtakes her. Straighten your left leg! the instructor laughs, straighten it and you’ll be able to reach the blue stone with your right hand. She reaches for the indicated hold, but her legs will not straighten. It is not a deficiency of strength, but of courage. She falls off the wall from that starting position of a mere six inches, panicking the whole way down. The instructor, her friends, the other climbers reassure her. You can do it, they say. Try again. They want her to succeed. Try again. She obliges. For excruciating minutes she crouches there, trembling against the face of the wall, too afraid to straighten her legs and reach. Again and again they cheer her on: you can do it, just straighten your leg! But she cannot. She will not move beyond that first step, and so instead steps away. I shake my head in sadness. If only she would have tried harder.

I watch her, I pity her, but I will not climb with her.

But then he comes in. He captivates my attention.

He has been here. every. day.

I have watched him return to try, again and again. He wears the same ill-fitted jeans, the same dingy-gray t-shirt, the same tousled hair and vacant expression. His eyes are glassy, bewildered, shrouded by thick unfashionable lenses that slip clumsily over his too-big flat nose; yet, once, in their depths I thought I saw something alive—something struggling against the restraints of a damaged mind—something striving for lucidity and recognition.

I saw this in a flash, the first time I watched him climb, just before he fell from the wall again. He fell from only a few feet above the ground, but he staggered and flailed as if it had been a great height. He chuckled then—loudly, self-consciously. “I fell again,” he remarked, to no one in particular. The weary instructor who had been spotting him for nearly an hour merely nodded and put out a hand to steady him. He once again turned to the wall, thinking to select a different section to climb. He chose the face of the wall that is most severe—no one could have guessed why. Perhaps it was because he has seen others climb it. It can be done, his mind might have whispered. Or perhaps the colors of the hand grips suited his childish fancy, like so many pieces of gum stuck to the wall. He approached the wall. He mounted the first foothold. Climbed a few feet. Hesitated. Fell. Once again he flailed and stumbled, like a toddler trapped in a man’s body. The instructor steadied him again.

Ready for a break? the instructor asked, daring to hope.

“No. I want to try again.”

It has been the same every day. Every day he has climbed, hesitated, fallen. He has never reached the top. He is not the only one who fails. But he is the only one who returns, without embarrassment or prejudice, to once again face the adversary. He doesn’t get angry. He isn’t frustrated. He is only persistent.

He is here today, as he has been every day before. Same ill-fitted, wrinkled clothes. Same thick glasses. Same vacant expression. Today he is the same. And today he is different.

Because today, he succeeds.

He approaches the wall without hesitation. Takes the same grips he has taken every day before. Hoists himself up a few steps. But today he does not stop to rest his arms. He has grown stronger. He reaches, again and again, propelling himself up the wall and towards the goal that has mocked him for months. He reaches the point where most fall. But he does no t fall. He continues. Step by step, he climbs, as steady as breathing. In this way, he reaches the top.

I see the flash in his eyes again. I see the flash as his eyes meet mine. He looks, as if to say See, I did it. I did it.

What he says is, Come climb with me.

I have been asked to climb many times. I always slowly shake my head, mumbling some excuse about not having the right clothes with me, not having the time. But today, my excuses will hold no water. He has done it, as he is, in the time he has.

I will not watch them anymore.

It is my turn to reach and hope to fly.

[This is the first draft of a piece for my Fiction Writing course. My professor remarked that it is more like an essay or a blog post than a fiction short story, so I thought I’d memorialize it here before it undergoes major editing. Most of the formatting is original to the blog and is not in the original draft I submitted.]