Seen & Not Heard.

Via Scott Robinson
on Jan 4, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

How many of us were taught to keep our knees together and speak softly? ~ Deborah Wong, “Taiko and the Asian-American Body”

The subject of the photo that follows—in which a woman has her jacket zipped up to her nose—is a writer, actress, and former NASA exobiologist with published research and a graduate degree from MIT.

She is assertive, articulate, and no shrinking violet. She is also a photogenic young woman with a knack for eye-catching self-portraiture.  There is no doubt in my mind that this image depicts her chilly southern self in the act of trying to get warm on a frosty day, and I’m absolutely sure that’s all she meant by it.

But the bad news is that, while we can control the image we produce, we cannot control the image others see.  And because, although each of us is bombarded by an average of 3,000 advertisements a day, most Americans still insist that we are unaffected by ads, we aren’t usually even aware of our own responses.[i]

The result is that, while many of us may see the above image, or one like it featuring a little girl, as merely whimsical or, at most, coy, our unconscious responses are conditioned by a great many images, in advertising and popular culture, of women and girls with their mouths covered.

In many cases, the subjects are doing it to themselves. An internet image search for “girl covering mouth” yields a great many pictures of women and girls holding their hands in front of their mouths in surprise, shock, elation or fear. Interestingly, a similar search for boys results in only a few images, almost all of which are directly related to coughing and sneezing. Perhaps the message for girls is that any vocal expression of strong emotion must be attenuated, while boys need to be reminded not to sneeze on everyone in the room.

In other cases, like this image of pop star Aaliyah, someone else has covered the subject’s mouth.

Notice Aaliyah’s apparent complicity; though another is silencing her, she might almost be doing it to herself.

The featured image for this post, in which red tape with the words “No Carbs” written on it has been plastered over the model’s mouth, carries a double whammy of pressure on young women: the familiar societal demand that they be thin, and the often more insidious demand that they be silent. Although the messages are baldly explicit in this case, they are muted-but-pervasive in the culture.

Most of us know by now about the damage done to girls by the ideal image, weightism, and the obsession with thinness.  But girls get other messages too that “cut them down to size” more subtly.  In ad after ad girls are urged to be “barely there”–beautiful but silent…”Make a statement without saying a word,” says an ad for perfume…An ad for lipstick says, “Watch your mouth, young lady,” while one for nail polish says, “Let your fingers do the talking”…In another ad, a young woman’s turtleneck is pulled over her mouth…[ii]

Search for that last–the turtleneck over the mouth–and you’ll find page after page of images ranging from this seemingly innocuous photo of a young teen to a great many faintly-to-blatantly suggestive images.  (In this picture, the model also has one eye covered, a look which seems to fall almost exclusively on the coy-to-seductive scale; my six and seven-year-olds affect this look when they are imitating “teenagers,” because “kids” don’t do that.)

Interestingly, every turtleneck-over-the-mouth image I could find was a stock photo for use in advertising; evidently, people are much less likely to be photographed doing this in real life than they are in a professional setting for the purpose of doing what advertising does: create desire.

Some images are downright disturbing, like this photo of a very young teen girl with her mouth taped shut. Her submissively downcast eyes and passive affect, coupled with her youth, render many of the listed search terms for the image downright creepy:

  • Attractive
  • Young
  • Teen
  • Slim
  • Shut
  • Quiet
  • Pretty
  • Posing
  • Mouth
  • Model
  • Hostage
  • Girl
  • Female

Where did we get the idea that girls were supposed to be quiet, anyway?  I have two of them, and they and their friends are loud. Ear-splittingly, exuberantly high-decibel in a way that this earlier picture of my MIT friend captures perfectly:

You rarely see images like this in advertising, in which both the boy and the girl and being loud and unruly. Actually, by the prevailing standard, only the girl is being unruly; the boy is just being a boy.

A friend of mine, another writer who went to Harvard (I have smart friends) and is raising two girls on her own, describes herself on her Facebook page as “Headmistress of the Homeschool for Very Loud Girls.”

Now, this lady, like my other friend, is no damsel in distress, and neither are her offspring, who regularly accompany her on winter mountain hikes, among other Outside-Magazine-type character-building activities. And it pains me to think that, while her self-description is funny and cute for a mother of girls, if she said she were homeschooling “Very Loud Boys,” how many people would find that a strange thing to say? Boys are loud by definition, aren’t they?

I think about this a lot, because I am always asking my girls to quiet down, just for the sake of my pained grown-up ears and stiffening middle-aged brain. At least, I hope that is the only reason. I’m pretty sure, when I tell them to “use their inside voices”, that I wouldn’t just say “Let’s keep it down to a dull roar, OK, guys?” if they were boys–but because I’m aware of how unaware most of us are, I couldn’t swear to it.

A 1999 study done at the University of Michigan found that, beginning in preschool, girls are told to be quiet much more often than boys.  Although boys were much noisier than girls, the girls were told to speak softly or use a “nicer” voice about three times more often.  Girls were encouraged to be quiet, small, and physically constrained.  The researcher concluded that one if the consequences of this socialization is that girls grow into women afraid to speak up for themselves or to use their voices to protect themselves from a variety of dangers.[iii]

My younger daughter in particular could take the paint off the walls with her volume and timbre, and she’s stubborn as crabgrass to boot. And when I am at my wits’ end, my wife says, “Just imagine her canvassing for some worthy cause some day.”  And it’s true: the very assertiveness, exuberance and uninhibitedness that can make her hard to live with now may, if they survive adolescence, equip her to make a difference as an adult. So when my ears are ringing from the din, I try to picture my daughters as the strong, independent, well-adjusted women I would like them to grow into–whatever Madison Avenue may have to say about it.

[i] Jean Kilbourne, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 


18 Responses to “Seen & Not Heard.”

  1. Amy C says:

    You are certainly on to something here. In my therapy work with adolescent girls, one of the first things I ask them to do is to draw a quick self-portrait. I use this drawing to glean information about my client. You would not believe how many of those self portraits have no mouth. I always say to them "how odd! It seems like your portrait has no mouth!" And they always shrug and say "whoops, I just forgot to draw it". But of course, it is no mistake. It is a very telling thing. I believe that among teenage girls, having no voice is an epidemic,. Our culture has taken every word they might have and twisted it, loading so much expectation on their every move and breath that it is better to be silent than face persistent criticism.

  2. YesuDas says:

    Wow; I'd heard of that sort of thing happening with small children–particularly abused kids who draw themselves with no eyes–but I didn't realize it could persist all the way into adolescence! Thanks for writing.

  3. Amy C says:

    I know, that's what I thought to – I was taken aback by it, but it seems to be disturbingly common.

  4. *K* says:

    As a very loud girl myself, with an equally loud sister, I have to wonder if some of it starts at home with the parents just because of the shrill, ear-splitting sound of multiple little girls shrieking and giggling incessantly?

    I'm not trying to justify the social conditioning you speak of in the article in any way, but as I was reading this I was reminded of the time our family cat brought a mouse he had caught into the middle of my younger sister's slumber party, and dropped it. It just so happened to still be alive, and both it and the cat ran around hysterically amongst about 10 girls between the ages of 8 and 12 until I managed to catch the mouse in a paper cup and take it outside. "A dull roar" doesn't even begin to describe the chaos that occurred in the room while this was all going on.

    As an adult now, who worked in childcare and as a professional nanny for a looooooong time, I was thinking as I read this that it's entirely possible I may have told groups of little girls to "quiet down" more often than groups of little boys, simply because, in my opinion, when you get a group of boys together they tend to be "loud" more in the sense of thumping, whacking, cracking, and hi-yahing, whereas little girls tend to shriek. And shriek some more. And then laugh, and shriek some more. And I definitely remember endless shrieking and cracking up with my sister when we were small, and hearing the "let's keep it to a dull roar," more than once 🙂

    Again not trying to justify the resultant social conditioning, but I would be interested to know if there is any credence to the idea that while girls may not be "noisier," that the actual sounds they make might just attract more attention, and/or just simply be more grating to adult ears so that they end up being chastised more. It's still a very unfair double standard, and I have personally seen the long-reaching consequences of such as girls grow up.

    Regardless, very interesting and relateable article, at least for me.

  5. I personally have trouble relating to this issue because all three of my sisters are quite assertive, as is my daughter. My wife is an education consultant who speaks for a living, and my first wife was a criminal prosecutor! –Bob W.

  6. jdk says:

    I am happy to see this article and the subject being more openly discussed. I grew up in a household where I was not only not allowed to speak my mind but not allowed to voice any opinion adverse to my elders. I've spent many years as an adult woman searching for and discovering my voice as a result and it has been an intimidating journey to say the least.

  7. elephantjournal says:

    Renée L:t the statistic(s) in this article are something few would be brave enough to post, but thank you, EJ- somebody needed to!

    Johann G as a proud parent of an 11 yr old daughter who "…could take the paint off the walls with her volume and timbre, and she’s stubborn as crabgrass to boot.", i applaud her 'unconventional' attitude. knowing she will be able to hold her own in this world and not feel she 'has to have a man in her life' to achieve her goals is quite comforting.

    Johann G it's a big misconception that girls aren't as rambunctious as boys. society has taught them to stand in the background. glad that's changing.

    Caitlin Winkley Thank you for this piece. It really hit home for me. Ever since I was a little girl, I've been loud and expressive, often told I was "too much." I used to think there was something wrong with me. However, now I see things very differently. I am a strong, powerful woman. Now in response to being told I'm too much, I say, widen your container!

  8. 13thfloorelevators says:

    It's not really changing, Johann. That's part and parcel here. Perhaps that gent who posted on here a while back that he was" deeply wounded by an aggressive female" would like some duct tape.

  9. YesuDas says:

    And while I've no doubt your assessment of your own family is accurate, Bob, I don't think "success"–even in speaking-up-related fields, is conclusive evidence of freedom from the kind of scars some of the other commenters describe. My scientist mom was head of a college biology department, and she struggled with self-expression her whole life. I know other successful women who are, at the same time, working through the damage done by the "good girl" expectations they grew up trying to fulfill.

  10. YesuDas says:

    I'll bet it has, JDK. I've seen other women go through that process, and it's a hard one. Good luck with that journey!

  11. YesuDas says:

    K, I'm willing to entertain that notion; the shrieking is definitely ear-piercing in a way that boy-noise isn't. But I don't think that adequately accounts for the persistent notion that women talk too much–which obtains despite the fact that men actually speak more words in a day on average than women do. Deborah Tannen talks about this in her book, "You Just Don't Understand"; she opens one chapter with a list of proverbial "old saws" about how women talk too much. (It's a great book.)

  12. YesuDas says:

    Thanks for writing, K; yes, it sounds like you had some powerful incentives to pipe down. I believe we tell ourselves too rosy a story about "21st century America."

  13. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Waylon Lewis, W. Bell, StephanieYostMentzel, Red Fox and others. Red Fox said: Seen and Not Heard […]

  14. Excellent points, Scott. I actually didn't mean to imply anything that you assumed. I wasn't writing about what they went through. I was only relating what I went through.

    With women in my life I've generally been the relatively quite one, as hard as that may be to believe, given my somewhat aggressive writing style. The combination makes an ideal Yoga Cyber Hermit.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  15. timful says:

    I guess there is a flipside to this as well, that boys must be loud to be seen. I think many boys have the experience that they are only valued for what they can do, not simply for who they are. This instills a strong achievement orientation that motivates success… and leaves a lot of wreckage in those who don't measure up. It cuts both ways.

  16. YesuDas says:

    No question, timful; I was actually thinking of tackling that in my next.

  17. YesuDas says:

    Wow" is right! Interesting that they thought I was a woman, too.