My child has many teachers. Some of their voices need to be drowned out.
I stood in the shower thinking fondly of the day ahead and the glad tidings it was certain to bring me. My eyes wandered to the soap holder on which was perched the Axe Body Wash my 12-year-old has taken to putting on the family shopping list. I am delighted that he seems interested in hygiene, unlike his 8-year-old brother who wears mud and frog pee like badges of honor.
On the label was a depiction of a man showering with Axe Body Wash, along with a post-shower illustration of scantily-clad women lined up for him.
“The cleaner you are, the dirtier you get,” promised the label. Har, har.
I was like one of those cartoon characters that did a floppy-joweled double-take. Let’s revel in the sentiment:
The cleaner you are, the dirtier you get.
The label went on to propose that you will also be heaped with “unlimited female attention,” highlighted with an icon of a kissy lipstick-mouth.
At first I rolled my eyes at the label. I’m fascinated with marketing and the ways companies try to manipulate consumers. Mostly transparently. I snickered at the thought that any man would fall for the idea that using a certain brand of body wash might increase his chances with women. I mean, who would believe that? Then I thought, “ugh, maybe my naïve son.”
My son, at 12, is not super-charged about girls at the moment. He still loves his outdoors, his Airsoft guns, picking up snakes and doing magic tricks for friends. He has mild interest in a girl down the street, but it seems fairly take-it-or-leave-it.
We have had numerous conversations about advertising in the past. He would run to me and tell me about something he saw on television that promised this or that. Or while shopping for toys online he would tell me we had to make a purchase RIGHT NOW because there were only three of these toys left. Ever! In the whole world! Forever and into eternity! I explained to him, with pain in my heart, that capitalism doesn’t work like that and the job of advertising is to separate a boy from as much of his money as possible.
It’s not fun to tell your kid the world lies.
But deception aside, there is the matter of the message. I don’t call myself a feminist. Or if I do, I refer to myself as a bad feminist because I was raised by a bad feminist – a fierce and scrappy woman who never gave a thought about the difference between men and women, who treated the world like the playing field was always level. Suddenly, though, I was trapped in the shower with sexy women in their skimpy clothes and the man with his hands in his pockets casually waiting to “get dirty” with them, and I wondered if my son ever looks at that and believes it’s the way the world works.
The message is that, as a man, all you have to do is have great hygiene and the women will line up for your attention. And not just the three women in the picture – unlimited female attention!
What would I say to my son about what it takes to attract a woman and, more importantly, what is his responsibility to bring to the relationship table? At a minimum my advice would be “good hygiene and don’t be an asshole,” but I’d like to set the bar higher.
When I think of my son as someone’s husband, I like to imagine his wife or partner describing him as loyal, caring and compassionate. I want his wife or partner to think he is a great protector – not because she can’t protect herself but because there will be a day when she feels weak and that’s the day he needs to step up and be strong for them both, to provide aid and comfort to his partner as we all should. I want him to be competent in the ways of surviving the world: he should know how to change a tire and tie his own tie and cook something more sophisticated than macaroni and cheese and be able to balance his checkbook and stay out of debt. He should grow up to be a fantastic father, because the world needs more great dads.
It’s my job to tell him all these things are important and yet at that moment I realized I’m not my child’s only teacher. Axe Body Wash is also his teacher and that teacher tells him all that matters is good hygiene and that he has to put out no further effort to develop his character as a decent human being.
His schoolmates are also his teachers and some of them think bullying is fun and that gay people are second-class citizens. The members of his homogeneous, white, Southern community teach him that it is okay to routinely deride Blacks and Mexicans. His fellow Americans teach him intolerance and anger and violence. The world teaches him how little value there is in a human life.
The village is helping raise my child whether I want it to or not, so I spend as much (or more) time UN-teaching as I do trying to instill the values I think are important.
But it also serves to increase my gratitude for those villagers who teach him about the miracles of kindness and generosity, who I can hold up as examples of what I think the “ideal man” should be, whatever that is. I cling to amputee athletes, to adolescents who start orphanages, to corporations that are philanthropic, to firemen who run into burning buildings, to people who make terrible mistakes and have the courage to admit them and make them right. To anyone I think can drown out the noise of all the other teachers I don’t want in my son’s life.
On the way out of the bathroom I tossed the body wash into the garbage, pushing it down to the bottom so nobody would see it and ask why I threw out perfectly good body wash. I took pleasure in that petty act of consumer rebellion as if to say not today, not in my house, not with my boys.
Image courtesy of the author.