In order to understand where we're headed when it comes to "gender" issues, it's helpful to know where we came from. For a long time, a couple of famous newspaper advice columnists, twin sisters Eppie Lederer and Pauline Phillips -- better known as Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (aka "Dear Abby") -- held a mirror up to our culture's views on gender. (Imagine these two know-it-alls in one family. You wouldn't want to be caught in the crossfire of all that good counsel being fired back and forth across the Thanksgiving dinner table, take my word.) Their views on gender issues were enlightening, hysterical, and frightening, sometimes all at once. The double standards could be infuriating.
Their views on the issue of modesty represent a sort of microcosm of a culture that was intent on keeping femininity in check and on insuring that boys conform to a certain masculine ideal. Whether things have changed much is open to question, but we suspect it is a good sign that a lot of people likely will find these views old fashioned and even infuriating.
In 1969, a parent wrote to Dear Abby complaining because her 14-year-old son was told he would have to swim in the nude at school with his male classmates, and the boy felt uncomfortable about it. Abby offered no sympathy: “[H]e had better overcome his shyness about nudity in the presence of other boys,” she lectured, “or he is apt to be uncomfortable much of his life.”
Abby's sister, Ann Landers, was even more direct. In a 1974 column, she bluntly told a 15-year-old boy who was embarrassed to shower with other boys: "You have a problem, Son." She rejected the boy's assertion that the school was invading his privacy as "a cover up for something else." (Hmm. He must be . . . gay or something!) She told the lad he needed to see the school counselor. There was something wrong with him.
Even worse, when the genders were reversed, the answer was completely different. A 13-year-old girl wrote to Dear Abby complaining that her school expected her to shower with other girls. Compare Abby's advice with the advice given to the boys. Not only was there nothing wrong with the girl, but Abby declared: "No girl should be forced to stand naked before other girls if it disturbs her."
Ann agreed in a 1974 column: ". . . girls are reared to be more modest about their bodies" than boys.
Boys, you see, were supposed to feel completely comfortable around other naked males, or there was something wrong with them. Ann, in 1970, didn't see anything wrong with a father walking around the house naked since the couple's only child was male. She declared: "If a teen-age boy sees his father in the nude, so what?" But a mother shouldn't be expected to feel comfortable when her son pulls the same thing. Ann in, 1973, said a 17-year-old boy who parades around the house naked in front of his mother needs professional help.
A boy likewise is in need of professional help if he likes to look at a neighbor woman sunbathing in the nude, according to Ann. That sort of conduct, she cautioned, doesn't bode well for his future.
But here's a real eye-opener. Ann had completely different advice when the genders were reversed. A 31-year-old female doctor's aide wrote confessing she conducted medical tests on a nude 19-year-old man, even though it wasn't necessary for him to be nude. He was embarrassed, but the aide admitted that she "enjoyed the situation immensely," and hoped it would happen again with other young men. Did Ann slam her for invading the young man's privacy? Did Ann tell her she needed professional help because this conduct doesn't bode well for her future? Of course not. "Everyone has fantasies," Ann told her. "Stop feeling guilty."
Read it again if you don't believe me. And compare it to what she said about the boy who liked to look.
As daffy as Abby and Ann could be, their readers could always top them. And here's my favorite. A reader wrote to Abby complaining about neighbors who allowed their 16-year-old son to cavort around their house naked. Read what the neighbor wrote, and ask yourself if the neighbor was paying a little too close attention to this boy:
"In the morning, he gets up around 6:45," the neighbor confides. "He walks into the kitchen and fixes a bowl of cereal." (If you're wondering how the neighbor knows all this, your guess is as good as ours.) "Then he stands at the counter, watching the morning sports shows while eating his breakfast in the nude." (Holy cow! The neighbor even knows what he's watching on TV!) "There is absolutely no evidence of arousal of any kind." (Thank goodness we have this neighbor to closely monitor the boy's penile engorgement.) "When the bathroom becomes available, he goes in for a shower." (We're disappointed that we aren't told what kind of soap he uses.)
I'd say that this woman knows a little too much about the boy's daily routine. For once, Abby's advice was dead-on: buy some curtains, lady.