Last week, Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue landed in our mailbox. "So," I ask my 16-year-old son, the Sports Illustrated subscriber in our house, "should a feminist like me be upset that my son likes the swimsuit issue?" I am holding the magazine and the rest of the mail in my lap while Matthew, who recently got his junior license, backs out of our driveway for a practice driving session on the local highway. He has been driving for five months now, which means he is pretty confident behind the wheel and my hair no longer stands on end. To my surprise, these drives have turned out to be great times for one-on-one talks.
"Upset?" He looks confused. "Hell, no!"
"Well, that's what a psychiatrist named Linnea Smith would say. She's married to the guy who used to coach North Carolina--"
"Dean Smith?" interrupts Matthew, who lives for basketball.
"Right. Well, she and a lot of other people have been writing protest letters and organizing a boycott against companies that run ads in the issue. They say Sports Illustrated should stop objectifying women, and that the magazine should feature women as athletes, not sex toys." The words are scarcely out of my mouth when I realize how P.C.--how stilted--they sound. I think Smith, who has also gone after Playboy for publishing suggestive photos of children, is doing important work. But I don't want to come off like the libido-crushing nuns I had in parochial school. I want to open up a dialogue about the photos while affirming my son's budding manhood. This is the challenge, and it's a tough one.
"Oh, the media objectifies everybody," Matthew retorts, accelerating onto the highway entrance ramp. "That's what people want. If I read about Michael Jordan, I want to know about his basketball playing. Heidi Klum interests me because she's incredibly gorgeous. That doesn't mean I relate to all girls and women by objectifying them."
"No, I know you don't." This is a kid who willingly hugs his sister and me in public, has girl classmates who are good buddies, and goes to the girls' varsity basketball games to cheer on a winning squad with a better record than his own team.
"Besides, look at all the guys in the Abercrombie catalogue. Girls like to look at them."
"Sports Illustrated isn't Penthouse, Mom," he groans. "These women are icons. Men worship them. There's something about them that's--I don't know--elegant. Just look."
"I am looking." And I'm struck by the religious language he uses. In fact, this year's issue is actually titled "Goddesses of the Mediterranean." I find myself remembering my college days, when, as an Italian lit major, I read the medieval troubadour poets. For them the contemplation of an unattainable, dazzlingly beautiful woman was nothing less than a spiritual path. Maybe, I think, he's on to something.
I turn to a light-dappled picture of Daniela Pestova posing with surprising modesty, immersed up to her neck in bluegreen waters off the Tunisian coast. "See what I mean?" says Matthew, glancing over. "Mom, if you were that beautiful, wouldn't you want to be in that picture?"
"Well, thank you," I say sarcastically, wondering for a split-second whether it's time to color the gray in my hair and get those bifocal contacts. So much for my dispassionate approach. "Keep your eyes on the road," I sputter. "And don't you get it? That's exactly what feminists are talking about. They say the magazine holds up an impossible standard of beauty. What about the teenage girls who feel bad about themselves because they don't look like these women? What about the guys who expect women to look like this?"
"OK, so what does make guys view women as more than just sex objects?"
"Family," he answers. "Community."
And lest I bask too long in the implied compliment, he turns the radio way up, abruptly ending this particular conversation with a blast of rock music.
It doesn't matter, though. As he turns toward home, I am still touched by his caring response to my feelings. That tells me more about the young man he is growing up to be than any politically correct slogan. And I realize he's saying the pictures are a fantasy, and who among us--male or female--can claim that their fantasies are all politically correct?
Later on, I am reading Noelle Oxenhandler's new book, "The Eros of Parenthood." Children, Oxenhandler says, don't learn about sexuality by being "good" all the time. Instead, she says, they're like Goldilocks, who breaks into the Three Bears' house and keeps trying porridge, beds, and chairs, until she finds the ones that "are just right." And as they do their exploring, teens need parents who will not recoil in horror or offer noble precepts or strive for perfect consistency--who can admit that sexuality isn't simple for any of us. And they need parents who can talk about values, but only while affirming a child's unfolding eroticism as a precious part of his or her whole self.
I'm discovering that we do that affirming in various ways, most of them unspoken--by sharing a good laugh or a tender moment, by offering admiring glances, and sometimes, I figure, by understanding when they look at pictures of beautiful women in bathing suits.