Sunday, August 2, 2009

Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch -

Michael Pollan’s books have opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about food, eating and nutrition, but in today’s NY Times magazine, he makes some really good points about the explosion of TV cooking shows… compared to how little time we actually spend cooking anymore.  My favorite quote was this one: “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking, and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it!

Check out the whole article:


Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch -

Sunday, June 28, 2009

YouTube - Michael Jackson - Black Or White




People all of the world are analyzing the amazing, perverse and strange legacy of Michael Jackson—and the changes in his appearance over the years are among the many (many, many) topics to discuss.  Although born a black male, at the end of his life, he appeared to be closer to a white woman.  Some theorize he wanted to look like his friend and fellow child star, Elizabeth Taylor.  Others suggest that he was attempting to escape from the negative associations of a painful childhood. Still others simply dismiss him as crazy.

I don’t think anyone will ever know what was going on in Michael’s mind. Perhaps even he didn’t know.  But his physical changes point to a larger truth--one he sang about in “Black or White” a song that not only responds to the various speculations about his ethnic identity, but serves an anthem to our ultimate oneness. That truth is simply this: race and gender aren’t fixed concepts.  With money and time enough, they can be altered to suit whatever notion of identity we choose. Furthermore, what we appear to others to be on the outside may not always speak to the truth of how we define ourselves.

Michael Jackson had money enough to blend both race and gender lines in a way most of us don’t. But there are many of us who have met a person in some aspect of a gender transformation, either from male to female, or from female to male.  Just today, in a photographic essay published in the Washington Post Magazine, I saw some images chronicling the transformation of a young woman from her childhood as “Anna” to her young adulthood as “Logan.”  Just a few weeks ago, Cher’s daughter (formerly “Chastity” now “Chaz” Bono) announced her/his sex change procedures.  In most urban centers, if only on the street, or shopping or in a restaurant, most of us have seen someone in the process of a sex-change. We—and I include myself,unfortunately—react to them with a double take of confusion, with whispers and stares.

Transgendered people challenge our notions about gender and identity—in the same way Michael Jackson challenged our notions about racial identity.  Transgendered people get the same reactions of horror, disgust and discomfort as the morphing images of Michael’s lightening skin and surgically altered face. But our discomfort or disgust with either transgendered persons or with Michael’s racial ambiguities has nothing to do with the object and everything to do with the subject.  In other words, it’s not about them. It’s about us

We like to believe there are some rock-bottom certainties about people that can be determine based solely on appearance alone.  There’s comfort in this: it helps us to order and categorize our world.  Transgendered people remind us that our categorizes are often too limited—if not flat out wrong. Some people are able to readjust their paradigms to include new categories—and others are so threatened by alternative possibilities that they react with condemnation.

I don’t pretend to be well-versed in the science, but many transgendered people say that all they are doing is changing their outsides to match how they feel inside. Put that way, I can relate to their struggle more easily.  Any woman reaching her mid-40s or early 50s who has looked in the mirror, considered her face and/or body and wished for plastic surgery should be able to understand.  On the inside, you’re still 25… but the outside? Not so much.

It’s a poor analogy, I know, but it’s something to think of both when meeting transgendered people—and in contemplating the legacy of Michael Jackson.  Perhaps, his changes in his outward appearance reflected the desire to bring his physical side in line with his mental image. 

Or perhaps---work with me on this--- he found all of these concepts—race and gender and age—too limiting. Perhaps simply acknowledged that skin and hair and noses and chins were simply “costumes” to be changed at will. Perhaps, if he had chosen to explain it, he might have said that what he was inside inside reached far beyond any outer expression.  The music in him expressed beyond young or old, male or female, black or white.

Whether it was his intention or not, this “unlimited identity” may be one of his greatest legacies.  In both his music and his physicality, he bridged cultures. If you loved him or loathed him, you had to acknowledge his uniqueness—no matter if you’re black or white.

Monday, June 22, 2009

GOP Chairman Michael Steele-- and Me

I went to the RCTA dinner last weekend in the hopes of meeting the President, but I didn't get the chance. My husband stayed at home with our daughters--partly because he hates having to put on a tuxedo and partly because he votes on the other side of America's political divide and expected the evening to be a one-sided liberal affair (in spite of the fact that Fox News was on the program and in the audience). Ironically, I did meet a political celebrity from the other side of the aisle-- and have an unexpectedly delighting chat with him.

Just as my friends and I were getting ready to leave, we encountered GOP Chairman Michael Steele walking the concourse (probably getting ready to leave himself). He wasn't surrounded by handlers-- or anyone-- for that matter. I'd driven down to event with my friend Rich Schmidt (President of the advertising agency, Fat-Cat Creative) and his neighbor, retired broadcaster Herb Brubaker who is something of fixture in Washington DC local news. Like the good journalist he is, Herb had quizzed me thoroughly on the drive to the Washington Convention Center: who was I, what did I do, what did I write about, etc. So I'd shared with this elderly white man quite a bit about Don't Bring Home A White Boy and what my research had uncovered. So when he saw Chairman Steele, he grabbed me by the hand and said, "Let me introduce you."

Introduce he did. After my name, the next thing out of his mouth was: "She's writing a book about the most amazing thing. Tell him, Karyn."

So I did... and Steele's eyes lit up.

"Girl," he said offering me his last business card. "I need that book. Please send me a copy when it comes out."

He proceeded to ask about my research and to share some of his own experiences with my topic. History, he agreed, was the most salient of reasons why black women date out far less than black men and for a while we discussed black matriarchy.

"I was raised by black women... all women," he told me. "And they do their best to inculcate a resistance to interracial dating to their sons. I remember when I brought home the Italian girl I dated in college." He shook his head, laughing. "That did NOT play. And I see it now with my wife and our two sons. I think it's interesting that black women accept multiculturalism on every other front-- but not on the romantic one." He shook my hand. "You're onto something there-- and I wish you every success."

I had to wish him the same. He struck me as a good guy with an impossible job-- widening the tent of a party that has entrenched itself in some very close-minded social policies. For every effort he makes to drag the Rush Limbaugh contingent into the 21st century, he himself gets mired deeper into those muddy waters of the past. While my hubby and I have some interesting debates at home, even he agrees that the social conservatives hold on his party are their greatest challenge. "I really don't care how other people live their lives," Kevin says all the time. "I'm a fiscal conservative, not a social one."

When I told my husband about my nice conversation with Chairman Steele, he appreciated the irony-- but was thrilled, too. Not enough to wish he'd donned a tuxedo and accompanied me, but thrilled all the same. "Don't forget to send him a book when it comes out," he said, watching where I tucked the business card away, so when I forget where I put it, he'll remember.

Of course, I will send Mr. Steele a copy when Don't Bring Home A White Boy comes out in January. No, I'll send him a few copies. Sounds like the women in his life might need it!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Michelle Obama and Me

I had hoped to meet Michelle Obama—for the second time-- at the Radio & Television Correspondents Annual dinner Friday, June 19th—but it wasn’t too be.

My friend Linda Kenyon, a long time radio journalist whose beat is the United States Senate invited me to attend the event which included the opportunity to schmooze at the VIP reception where the President and First Lady were hoped to be in attendance. At the VIP reception, there would be also be an opportunity to take pictures. After various fits and starts in coordinating and getting ready for the event (including several dresses purchased and returned, and my mistaking the date and almost going downtown to the Washington Convention Center a full week early!) I learned that, unfortunately, the President wouldn’t be attending the VIP reception… and the First Lady wouldn’t be attending at all.

While meeting the President would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was disappointed, I had really looked forward to seeing Michelle again. I wondered, would she remember me? And if she did… would she remember what I remembered about the time we met before, on the campus of Harvard Law School over 20 years ago?

If my memory serves, it would have been the fall of 1986, at the first and only meeting of the Black Law Students Association that I ever attended.  I was a first year student, and the event was billed as a mixer.  I was excited: I hadn’t assimilated well with other black students at Mercer University, my undergraduate institution.  I was perceived as too “assimilated” because I had white friends, got straight As, decided not to pledge a sorority and didn’t perceive every action the administration took as racist. I bought my fellow students’ assessment of me and had inwardly resigned myself to “OREO” status.

But I had hopes for Harvard Law School. Surely there would be black students’ like me there: black students who had had white friends in undergrad, black students who could be fluent in a culture outside of their own. Black students who had been ridiculed for not being '”black enough” for some, but who knew fully well that they were African Americans?

But if there were black students like me, they kept awfully quiet about it.  Indeed, at that first BLSA event I realized that though I’d traveled from central Georgia to Cambridge--- there was NO difference. I still didn’t fit within the prevailing definitions of blackness—and everything I said and thought was pretty much wrong in fellow black students’ eyes.

Michelle Robinson—that was her name then, of course—was black enough for the crowd and happy to be among its most accepted and vocal leaders. I remember her for two reasons: she’s very tall (and I’m very NOT) and as a second year law student at Harvard (a class ahead of me) she was very sure of her place in the black-o-sphere.  As a light skinned, middle class black woman who wasn’t mad at white people for everything, I felt her dismissal of me… and that’s why I remember her.

I would like to tell you that we were friends at Harvard: we were not.  We came to the school with different purposes, and different agendas—and while not exactly in conflict, I would say that our differences point to just how wide the  gaps between people can be, even among a relative small and select group as “black women at Harvard Law in 1986".  Though Michelle and I were both black young women at one of the most select institutions in the nation, that was all we had in common.  There was little else to connect us in terms of common experience, and we never connected intimately enough to call each other “friend” or “enemy.”

That was almost 25 years ago and I’m certain we both have changed.  I know I’ve had many experiences now that have validated my ideas and given me a confidence in my own brand of blackness.  I don’t feel apologetic about my experiences anymore, but proud of them. And I wonder if, now that Michelle has left the all black environments that formed her youth, she has come a little closer to understanding the world that I grew up in—one that included multiple cultural perspectives from my earliest memories.  I have to think that the woman who married Barack—a man who is biracial, who has admitted his own struggles with race and identity in his book Dreams From My Father-- must have had some moments of awakening and acceptance-- much as my own experiences living in a poor, all-black community for a couple of years changed my own perceptions.  Our life experiences over these decades have changed us. I wonder if she might have remembered me and how different we seemed then… and perhaps how much more similar we might seem now.

Unfortunately, she missed the  RTCA dinner and I missed my chance to meet her again and remind her that we have met before.  Everyone who knows me knows: my style isn’t confrontational. But for those who only know me through the blog-o-sphere, I can tell you with an open heart that, though we are very different women, who have had very different life experiences, I am nothing but proud and happy for Michelle—and nothing I would ever say to her or about her would approach rudeness.

I firmly believe that everything in life happens so for a reason—sometimes we’ll understand it later and sometimes, it’s not for us to know.  It’s taken me years to appreciate the racial confusion I felt when I was in my 20s, but now that I do, I understand fully its role in the work I do now, in the things that I write about, in the importance my experiences have in working with others to throw off limiting definitions of identity and exploring a truly multi-cultural experiences.

It’s all good, as they say. And it truly is.

And, because I live in Washington,D.C and Harvard Law’s alumni are active here, I’m optimistic I’ll have another change to meet Michelle for the second time-- and Barack for the first—and point to our slice of common ground.

While the Obamas were not among them, I DID get to meet some other political luminaries… but that’s another post. More later, friends.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Escape from Blackistan-- Or an Introduction to Divestment

Escaping from "Blackistan"--an Introduction to Divestment
Several years ago, I wrote an essay called "Escape from Blackistan" in which I explained how, for most of my life, I failed "to fit in" with many of the ideas about "blackness" that most of my peers (even at Harvard) adopted. The essay discussed the difficulties of feeling aligned with other blacks on issues of injustice, and yet completely (and not always unhappily) disconnected on just about everything else. Many of the ideas embraced by those deemed "authentically black" seemed ridiculous or dangerous to me: avoiding education, embracing certain types of music and excluding others, embracing only certain people, hair styles and clothing, living only in certain neighborhoods-- all to "stay black." It seemed ridiculous (especially at Harvard!). Still, when I tired to find a publisher for that piece I had little success.

These days-- as new discussions and blogs on the efficacy of black monoculturalism abound-- I wonder if the time is ripe to re-visit the concepts of Escape from Blackistan.

In the course of completing the research for my upcoming book, Don't Bring Home a White Boy and Other Notions That Keep Black Women Single I have been exposed to lots of new ideas that have given me a whole new vocabulary for the concepts in Escape from Blackistan. One of those ideas is propounded daily by Rev. Lisa Vazquez at her think tank/blog site Black Women Blow the Trumpet. The concept is "divestment" and basically it describes the process by which black women re-examine, then abandon the notions commonly considered to authentically "black". Divesting from these concepts means not only ceasing to believe in them, but refusing to invest any further time, money, or emotional energy in supporting these ideas.

In a series of thoughtful essays, Rev. Vazquez points out that dismantling "notions" that limit the way black women must behave in order to remain "good sistas" is necessary for black women to obtain dominance in a world that increasingly requires us to be culturally fluid in order to succeed. By dominance, she doesn't mean any abuse or misuse of power; she means the necessity of the good use of power in order to achieve success.

For all of us-- regardless of race or gender--achieving success really does require dismantling some of the notions that many of us were taught in childhood. For black women in particular, however, it means taking a careful look at cultural notions like the "strong black woman" or the matriarch image of a woman who shoulders everyone elses responsibilities, putting herself last. It means the habit of giving black men a "pass" when they fail and accounting it to racism. Indeed, it means reconsidering whether it is truly racism or sexis that affects black women more. Ultimately I think many of these notions come down to self or selfish-- and the loaded meanings those words have in the black community.

Obviously, Reverend Vazquez's essays had particular relevance in Don't Bring Home A White Boy, which is also about re-examining cultural dictates. But they also brought back a lot of the ideas I had written about in my Blackistan piece. Are black Americans finally ready to give the idea of a single black voice and admit the truth-- that we are as different and as varied in our backgrounds, tastes, beliefs and value systems as all other Americans? Does that dilute our power and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing in country that is less and less "black and white" and more global than ever? More and more, aren't the differences between people attributable about socio-economic class-- not race or ethnicity?

I don't pretend to know the answer (though I certainly have an opinion). I'll be exploring all of this as I dust off my Blackistan essay and retool it around some of new ideas I've been reading about. It will be telling if publisher's believe there's a market for it now. It may mean that the climate in Blackistan is shifting... and that the center of black monoculturalism cannot hold.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Confronting the Angry Black Woman in Me

It sometimes seems I’ve lived my life trying to avoid becoming one of the ugly stereotypes that plague black women. I’ve avoided becoming a Welfare Queen or a Teenaged Mother. I’m not a ‘Ho or a pillar of the church. I do my best not to become wider than I am tall, not to speak to my husband in Sapphire’s emasculating tone, or to adopt any “Sho ‘Nuff” Mammyisms. But there’s one stereotype I can’t seem to avoid. Every time I’m confronted with it, I find myself struggling to straddle the balance between the truth of my feelings and a proper response.

Perhaps you’ve guessed the stereotype I struggle with?




Just last night, I had a tangle with the ABW as a result of annoying experience in an ice cream parlor. All I wanted was a scoop of chocolate ice cream—not even for myself, but for my soon to be 4-year old who was playing outside with her father. But I couldn’t get waited on. Even though the store wasn’t crowded, even though there were two employees available (all three of the young people working were girls no older than 18), no one spoke to me. It was like I was invisible.

Then a young man walked in behind me. One of the un-busy girls giggled out a “Oh hi,” and immediately made him an ice cream cone (which he didn’t pay for). The boyfriend special, I supposed. The other girl pretended to scrub the counter and refused to look up.

As I waited unsuccessfully to get an ice cream, my efforts at defying stereotype completely failed.

I was angry.

I was black.

I was a woman…

And I was about to blow.

(Un)fortunately, my husband walked in right then to ask what was taking so long. I complained to him that I’d been standing there, watching others get served (free) ice cream and at that moment, the little girl who’d served her boyfriend decided maybe she should ask me if I’d like something, while the girl who had been cleaning the table looked up as though she had just realized I was standing there. My husband, seeing these girls were about to get a tidal wave of an answer, quickly ordered the ice cream, and I took our daughter to a table.

Now, of course, my irritation under this circumstance is justified. And while it was tempting to play the race card (everyone else in the store was white) as I sat fuming, I couldn’t in all fairness blame race. Immaturity? Yes. Poor customer service? Absolutely. Bad teenaged judgment? Yes, ma’am. Worth a letter to their manager? Already written—with special mention of the free “boyfriend ice cream” service.

But in the car home, I thought about my own conduct… and my anger. I could have loudly announced myself sooner… but I didn’t. I could have insisted I was ahead of the young man, but I didn’t. And instead of complaining to my husband (within the girls’ earshot, of course), I could have just gone off about the lousy service and demanded better treatment. I didn’t do that either.

Perhaps, as you’re reading this, you’re thinking: “You should have.” And perhaps, when I make peace with the angry black woman inside me, I will. But for now, she symbolizes something I’m deeply uncomfortable with and I generally choose NOT to express that side of personality in public.

That’s because in black women what would be considered little more than assertiveness in a woman of another race, often gets painted as something much more strident. The slightest expression of displeasure is read as neck-rolling, finger-waving dressing down. Indeed, I have been accused of “seeming angry” when I’m simply concentrating or thinking. A non-black woman wearing the same expression probably wouldn’t be considered angry. A black woman’s neutral face immediately creates that presumption.

It shouldn’t take a study to support that black women get no angrier than any other group of people—but there has been a study to show just that. If you want to read it online, follow this link:

In the 2000 revision of her ground-breaking work Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins wrote about “anger privilege” explaining that anger is something rewarded in white males—and largely resented or punished in other groups, in minority groups in particular. In order for black women’s anger to be validated, we have to dismantle white male privilege and eliminate the stigma associated with the black women’s worth in society must be elevated. How to dismantle white male privilege? Education, opportunity, and changing our long-ingrained images about how power is held-- and who should hold it.

I believe these changes are underway—President Obama flies in the face of white male privilege, as did Condi Rice, as do the millions of black people holding supervisory sway all over the country—but obviously, there’s still work to do. The Angry Black Woman image is still pervasive in our media (anyone seen a Madea movie, lately?), still alive and well in our cultural shorthand about what a “typical” black woman is like. And therein lies the reason I restrain myself: there is no typical black woman and the efforts to cast us all in a common mold must be resisted, reshaped and reconstructed.

While these types of incidents point to larger social issues, in the final analysis, however, the question of anger is ultimately more personal. I know I have to resolve my own discomfort with expressing my feelings even in situations that I perceive to be potentially racially-charged or where I might be perceived in terms of racial stereotypes. I have to decide how best to express myself to achieve the results that I need. In this case, I didn’t “go off” in the store and maybe I wouldn’t have, even if Kevin hadn’t walked in when he did. After all, it’s just ice cream.

But I did write the letter to the store manager, and I will send it, copying (as we lawyers do) up the corporate ladder. To me, this seems an appropriate expression of my irritation that will probably get a better result than anything I might have said or done in the store.

I’m betting a well-written missive from an unhappy customer will be the end of the Boyfriend Ice Cream special. You never know who you’re ignoring, right?

Note: I received an apology for my experience at the ice cream parlor from the owner along with a gift certificate for a return visit. What me, angry? Not anymore!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An Update from the Anti-Diet

About a week ago, I posted about the book Overcoming Overeating and how it had altered my thinking on my lifetime of being either on a diet or breaking my diet. The book advocates the (radical!) concept of abandoning dieting and "diet think", making all foods legal and accepting one's body for what it is. The authors encourage the reader to learn how to eat when hungry, to eat exactly what one is hungry for and to stop when full. If that means you're up at 2 AM, starving for a jar of peanut butter, you eat it.... but if that also means that when everyone else is eating a special Mother's Day brunch at 10 AM and you're not hungry, you don't eat. You might be sitting with a group of people with an empty plate in front of you... but if you're not hungry, you wait until you are.

In addition to the eating program, Overcoming Overeating advises that people get rid of the bathroom scale and strive to eliminate the "morning yuck" reaction many of us have to our bodies. You know what I"m talking about: you get up, strip down for your shower, catch a glance of your jelly thighs or your tummy pooch and think "YUCK." That "yuck thought" follows you through your day, dampening your self esteem and, according to the authors, creating an emotional need to deprive yourself or binge. To defeat the yuck, the authors advise (gulp) MORE mirror time, not less. Becoming intimately familiar and accepting of how your body really looks is supposed to de-sensitize you to its appearance, so that your reaction slowly goes from critique of your flaws to "Oh, yeah, that's me."

After about two weeks following this plan, my experience has been that "doing the food" is easy, but defeating the "morning yuck" is very, very hard.

It's really a pleasure to eat when hungry-- and to enjoy exactly what I want to eat without the slightest guilt. I find it easy to stop when I'm full because I know that when I'm hungry again, I can have more of whatever I want. Eating chocolate chip cookies without guilt is a wonderful thing, but even more wonderful is the discovery that, because they are "legal" and I can have them, I don't want them. I actually THREW AWAY half a box of those grocery store baked ones yesterday. They had sat on the counter for a week and gotten stale. The dieting me wouldn't have had them in the house-- and if I'd bought them, I wouldn't have been able to leave them alone until they were all gone.

Eating whatever I feel like has led to some surprising choices. Turns out, I don't like chocolate as much as I thought I did. Or potato chips. I'm perfectly happy most days with strawberries and whole-wheat crackers. And nuts. I like nuts. But not meat. I never crave it. Too many low carb diets in my past, I suspect.

In accord with the book's recommendations, I have hidden my scale so I have no idea what my weight is. I also gave up my exercise regime which, for me, was as punishing as my diet. But so far, in spite of my fears that without diet and exercise I would balloon immediately to Reubenesque proportions, my clothes still fit. Two weeks of diet liberation hasn't resulted in any dramatic weight gain... or loss either, as far as I can tell. But I can deal with staying the same weight in exchange for this new feeling of liberation in eating.

But the mirror is another story. Every morning, when I face the mirror, "yuck" is still my first thought. When I catch a glimpse of myself in any reflective surface, I have the same reaction. I've been thinking "yuck" for most of my life-- the difference is now I'm finally fully aware of it and how often that reaction pervades my consciousness. And, according to Overcoming Overeating, "yuck" is what ultimately sends us life-long dieters running for the cupboards, either right away or after weeks of restrictive dieting. Yuck makes us not eat... which ultimately makes us eat.

The authors write: :"Ruminations about what is wrong [with your body] can take up a lifetime. They provide a focus for people and a fantasy that if this one thing were corrected life would go well but they never inspire change. People feel as though they are being productive when they focus on what's wrong. In fact, they are spinning their wheels and thus staying in a rut." Overcoming Overeating, p 82 A few paragraphs later, they remind us that one of the biggest myths of the health/weight loss culture is that EVERYONE is meant to be thin. It's like saying "every one should be the same height" or "everyone should have brown hair." It just doesn't hold up under rational analysis.

But our feelings about our bodies aren't rational at all. For women in particular, body image is tied up in desirability and attractiveness. None of us are happy with how we look and we devote tremendous resources-- financial, emotional and physical-- toward attempting to conform to an impossible ideal. If we could just fix our bodies, then we will be attractive, successful, respected and financially secure like the beautiful people on TV. It's crazy-- I know this and so do you. And yet, there's the "yuck", every day in the mirror.

Change, the authors say, comes from positive reinforcement, not negative. When we feel good, it's easier to embark on a healthier choice, secure in the knowledge that succeed or fail, we're still okay. Yuck thoughts work the opposite way, condemning us to a diet/binge cycle based in self-hate. It's a new idea, that my "yuck thoughts" are keeping me from moving forward, but understanding is the first step toward change. For now, understanding is all I've got.

Today, I'll put on my bathing suit to take my kids to the pool... and think "yuck". But I'll put it on and I'll go, monitoring the turmoil inside myself about how I look. All this, I hope is the foundation for change. Perhaps one day, I really will be able to put on my bathing suit and just enjoy it, without comparing myself to every other woman at the pool and finding myself lacking. I would love that-- but I honestly can't image it ever happening.

I promised myself I'd spend the full summer "not dieting" and working on acceptance of my body as it is... but this very well could be the job of a lifetime. More later as this summer experiment progresses..

Friday, June 5, 2009

From Mother to Daughter- Navigating Feminity in a Hostile World

My daughter is growing up.

She turns 13 this summer-- entering the dreaded years of adolescence. Just as she's somewhat advanced in science and English, she's already got a jump on some of the key aspects of being a teenager. She's unbelievably lazy, will talk to her friends on the phone for hours if unchecked, gets really giggly when her friends tease her about a boy in her Spanish class named "Fai" and can stretch the simple word "Mom" into four syllables of indignation, annoyance and disgust.

This year, I watched her body change from little girl to young woman. She went from a skinny collection of bones covered with skin to a shape that I'm rather intimately familiar with.

You see, my daughter has inherited my behind. It sits out from the rest of her body just like mine does, advertising something my child is far from ready for. The sight of it stirs up all kinds of maternal uncertainties and reminds me of the peace I still need to make with my own backside, which started attracting me unwanted attention around the same age.

Maturing raises a host of problems for girls that boys seem largely exempt from, one of many unfairnesses we just have to accept until the entire male gender learns some respect-- something I don't think we can hope for, given human nature and the nature of the male animal in particular. Grown women rarely yell out of cars at 13 year old boys walking down the street; but men of any age think nothing of accosting a female child of that age. Unfortunately, black men seem to be among the worst offenders. As a result, young black women have to learn early to cover up, to keep their heads down, to try to shrink inside their own skin lest they appear to be "encouraging" this attention. Or they learn to embrace that attention even though it serves to validate only what's on the OUTSIDE, offering nothing for their gifts on the inside.

I see my daughter's friends responding to this difficult and unfair choice. Some have opted for baggy boyish pants in dark colors and hoodies even on the hottest of days-- in attempt to conceal their burgeoning feminity. Others experiment with skirts and tops so small very little is left to the imagination. And then there's me and my daughter, and millions like us, trying to a walk a line in the middle where it's okay to show what you've got... but not too much of it.

I know I absorbed more than a little shame about my body's shape-- and endured more than little unwanted attention. It's hard to teach my daughter to walk a line I don't feel I have ever navigated well-- especially since it's only now, in my mid-forties that I can appreciate how cute I was at 15. At 15, I didn't feel it. I felt uncomfortable. I felt embarassed when men yelled out of cars or tried to talk to me on the street.. I wished I were invisible so they'd leave me alone. And worse, I was made to feel as though I had invited that attention by what I wore or how I moved. It's as though it's the girl's FAULT that she's changing and not like a natural thing.

But as a mother I now understand these criticisms of dress and movement: at the mall the other day, I caught a man-- my age at least!-- eyeing my daughter with interest. She'd taken off her jacket and underneather wore a T-shirt. She had neglected to put a bra and her little buds were sticking out. I shot the man the nastiest look I could muster, yanked my kid out of his line of sight and started fussing with her. "Why aren't you wearing a bra?" I hissed. "Don't you know how you look?"

My daughter looked both surprised and hurt by my sudden explosion. I explained to her about her "admirer" and told her she would have to be more careful. "When you go out, you need a bra," I told her. "Always."

Her eyes welled up with tears. "That's not fair. Why do I have to be uncomfortable because some guy is a pervert?" she wailed.

She's right of course. It's not fair... but it is a fact. And the fact there's far more to fear than being looked at... and it will take more than a bra, more than my watchful eye, more than her own awareness to protect her from it. I hate to teach her fear... but sometimes, I confess, I don't know what else to do.

At that moment, though, I just felt bad. I'd made her feel ashamed of being a girl-- as was done to me. It wasn't what I intended, but in my concern and fear, those were my first responses. Later, at home, we had a more detailed talk about it all and I did my best to talk her through what had happened, agreeing with her about the unfairness of it all. We talked about the burka in the Middle East, we talked about her friends and their mini-skirts, and we talked about bras.

American women have accomplished so much in the last hundred years or so and we are among the most liberated women in the world. But even for us, biology remains the ultimate underlying issue that each of us must come to terms with in her own way.

Today, she went out of the house for school in a pair of jeans that hugged her little round behind. I bit my lip and said nothing.