Every year the Super Bowl is reviewed by cultural critics who are more interested in the perceived sexism of Carl’s Jr. hamburger commercials than the actual score of the game. Understandably, the National Football League has been trying to counter the sport’s association with sexism and domestic violence.
Parents must make tough decisions about what to let their sons and daughters watch on TV, whether pro sports or political debates. Examples of stereotypical gender roles and the sexual objectification of women provide opportunities to reflect on lessons we are learning from a culture filtered through television.
I’ve often thought of my 17-year-old daughter, Geneva, as being somewhat inoculated from the ill effects of the crasser attitudes because of the armor she wears. Usually when people speak of armor, they mean figurative armor, but I mean actual armor that she has worn since seventh grade.
Because of scoliosis, which can shape someone’s spine into a letter S or a question mark, Geneva has worn a 5-pound, hard plastic back brace from her hips to her collarbone 23 hours a day, every day, for the last four years.
Geneva has festooned her brace with stickers, decals and other artwork that displays her evolving aesthetic tastes. The Pokémon stickers given out by her pediatrician adorned her brace at 13, but those eventually gave way to political concerns, such as the colorful gay pride banner in high school.
And although this billboard that Geneva willingly displayed made her seem thicker and gawkier than we know her to be, she almost never complained. At first, the main concern was the heat caused by all that extra plastic during PE in junior high and long afternoon bike rides home. Later, she planned her one hour a day without the brace around swimming lessons, school dances, or a part in the school play.
But more important, she was learning crucial lessons about prioritizing her health, delaying gratification for a long-term goal, and presenting herself as a young woman who is loved by her friends because of her kindness and humor rather than dressing like Katy Perry. With each passing year, her resolve and character grew stronger along with her spine.
And then last week, finally, we learned from her doctor that she has stopped growing, that the work of all of those back braces is complete. She unbuckled her armor for the last time, and did a dance for all to see. Though she now gets cold easily, and she can’t get over waking in the morning and “feeling squishy,” she presents herself as slender and graceful.
“Wearing nice clothes makes you feel beautiful, and I can wear nice clothes again,” Geneva says.
Perhaps that is the sentiment hiding in those Katy Perry songs we enjoyed during the Super Bowl halftime show – the uplift of exuberance. The poet Robert Browning once said, “A man in armor is his armor’s slave,” and now this poised young woman will be a slave to no one and to nothing.
Unarmored, unbridled and strong, Geneva stands ready to impress us all.