Does every girl need a Sweet Talkin’ Ken?

I’ve been seeing a counsellor for a couple of months. It started because I was having a truly awful time at work and ended up being signed off with stress, and my occupational therapist had recommended counselling: but of course given recent developments in my life, the counsellor has become more valuable and important to me than I could have known.

Last week we moved on from picking over the details of what had gone wrong and how it made me feel, and started talking more about the future. I’m pleased to say I’m generally very optimistic about what lies ahead. I feel like I’m already getting my life back on track and reclaiming my house, my happiness and my sanity. However, my counsellor asked how I felt about the idea of future relationships, and suddenly the solid foundation I had started rebuilding began to feel shaky and unsteady. I answered that I had all I needed in my children, my family, my friends and my home, and that the thought of another relationship couldn’t be further from my mind.

My counsellor dug deeper. I began to explain, tentatively, that I have lost all confidence in my ability to choose a relationship that is good for me. Looking back I could see that time after time I have made bad choices, and formed relationships with people who are, quite clearly, not right for me. I took a deep breath, then dug deeper still. And as the session went on, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realised that my sense of worth – my own measure of how interesting, attractive and funny I am; my perception of how much I am wanted – has always come from men.

As a teenager I very much wanted a boyfriend. I thought being someone’s girlfriend was a way of showing the world (and myself) that I was important and desirable. And after some perseverence on my part, the boyfriends started, followed in later years by three fiances and an eventual husband. My counsellor asked whether I had ever stopped to ask myself how I really felt about each of these men, and the honest answer is no. Time and time again I have got so caught up in the excitement of a relationship, and been so delighted that someone wants to be with me, that I’ve not taken the time to examine my own feelings.

But why? My inital reaction is that this clearly points to low self-esteem: it suggests that I am “grateful” for someone’s attention and grab it with both hands. But this explanation doesn’t feel right. I don’t believe my self-esteem is particularly low. If anything I was a confident, extroverted teenager, and while the gregarious side of my nature has lessened a little over time, I still feel that in many ways I am confident in myself and my abilities.

So why then? Why have I sought approval and attention from males for as long as I can remember? I was at a loss to explain this … until this afternoon. Yesterday I finally completed the redecoration of my 3-year-old daughter’s new bedroom, and I went to Toys R Us today to buy her a reward for staying in her new bed all night.

It was here that I came across “Sweet Talkin’ Ken”. This doll proudly wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Ultimate Boyfriend” in a variety of languages. The owners of this doll are expected to press the heart on Ken’s t-shirt and whisper sweet nothings into his ear which he will repeat back, in his own voice. The recommended age on the box? 5+. Little girls from the age of 5 (and it is not unreasonable to suppose it will be mostly girls taking Sweet Talkin’ Ken home with them) are clearly not only expected to want a boyfriend, but to know what he will say to them too. And he’s not just any old boyfriend; oh no. As any discerning 5-year-old will tell you, she needs to have the ultimate boyfriend.

The back of the box bears the legend “The Ultimate Boyfriend always knows the right thing to say!” and bears a photo of a young girl twirling her bunches around her finger as she exclaims “Oh Ken! You’re such a sweet talker!”

Further investigation led me to the Mattel website, where the wonderful Ken has received rave reviews. One delighted customer says: “Bought as a Christmas gift for my niece……she LOVES it”. The happy Auntie has rated the doll 5/5 for “age appropriateness”. Her niece falls into the 3-5 years category. Worse still is the review on amazon.co.uk from a London-based mum:

“My 4yr old has had, and continues to have, lots of fun with this doll. Really enjoys getting Ken to tell the Barbies how handsome he is & how lucky they are to have him. She has about 4 barbies and now they have Ken (lucky doll!).”

It simply astounds me that this disturbing doll and its horrific packaging are seen as OK. The message that this toy gives to young girls is nothing short of terrifying. Before they have even left primary school, girls are expected to want the perfect boyfriend who always knows what she wants to hear; and are equally expected to respond to him with coy flirtatiousness.

Which all leads, in my journey of self-discovery, to the question: was I subjected to these kinds of influences as a child? And of course the answer is a resounding “yes”. For as long as I can remember I have adored Disney films. And what did I learn from them? Cinderella’s step-sisters only recognise that she is someone to be respected when her handsome prince comes to save her from the drudgery of her former life. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is saved from her coma by her prince’s kiss; no doubt to then, in her overwhelming gratitude, devote her life to being the perfect wife. In the Little Mermaid, Ariel falls instantly in love with Prince Eric despite knowing nothing about him, and then like Sleeping Beauty, must wait for her prince’s kiss to save her.

And there we have my answer. Since I was a very young child I have received messages telling me that I need my own prince in order to feel valued and loved; just like little girls now are being told they need the ultimate boyfriend. Last week my counsellor uncovered the fact that I have never taken the time to examine my own feelings for someone before jumping into a relationship: much like Cinderella, Aurora and Ariel I have been happy to wait for a man to tell me I am important and to show the world I am of worth.

Phew. That’s quite an epiphany. So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to darn well sweet-talk myself.  I ‘m going to try to focus on the things I do well, and the things I’m proud of.  I’m going to try to be happy with who I am and what I have. I’m going to remember that my life is full and happy and often pretty darn wonderful without needing a man to validate me. I’m going to try to bring up my own daughter to be confident and strong, and to know that there are no limits to what she can achieve alone. I’m going to question the fact that the bedroom I’ve just completed for her is a Disney Princess themed room …. oh dear.

Well at least I can take a little comfort from the time I spent getting to know Sweet Talkin’ Ken in Toys R Us today. Once I had worked out how to record Ken’s message I set to work on the three Ken dolls remaining on the shelves. And so I can’t help smiling when I think about the fact that the next three little girls to take Ken home will hear his deep masculine voice saying “I respect you for being a strong, independent woman. Of course I will support you in your career. There’s nothing you can’t do”. Aaaah, my work here is done.

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Accepting Rejection

I went back to my old school today. It was their annual “open house” day for all alumni to take a walk down memory lane and meet up with former classmates and old friends. I was very privileged to have attended a prestigious public school and I thoroughly loved my years as a student there, so I am always pleased to have the opportunity to go back. Today I was excited to take J and L so they could see where Mummy went to school, and as we walked through the imposing red brick tower into the rather beautiful quadrangle, L breathed “Wow! A castle!” A few minutes later they discovered the joy of sliding down the grassy bank at the side of the school field, and this kept them enthralled for the rest of the afternoon.

I had arranged to meet up with an old school friend, M. We had only seen each other a handful of times since we left school 16 years ago but we talk regularly on Facebook and I was excited to meet her son and her fiance (both of whom turned out to be lovely). We were shortly joined by a couple more old friends, and before long we were reminiscing about passing out in Maths exams, where our lockers had been located, and trying to remember who had dated who. We started talking about ex-classmates with whom we are still in touch, and those who we are friends with on Facebook. I mentioned that a girl I had once been friends with, S, had rejected my friendship request on Facebook. It emerged that others in the group had experienced the same when trying to reconnect with S.

As we watched our children playing on the field, someone whispered “Look who’s just arrived! It’s S!” I turned to see her strolling past and smiled expectantly, looking forward to catching up with her after 16 years. To our astonishment, she continued walking. She passed within a few feet of us, resolutely avoiding eye contact as she chatted with friends of her own. She and her friends stopped a short way down from us and stood in a group, talking and laughing. I stared open-mouthed at the people in my own group, who returned the same bewildered expression. Why on earth had S pretended not to know us, when we had been classmates for seven years? S and I had been to each other’s houses on numerous occasions. We’d been to parties together and done each other’s make-up. I had never argued or fallen out with her in our whole time at school. After uni we had met up for coffee a couple of times, but simply lost touch. I bore S absolutely no ill-will whatsoever. Yet here she was, a few feet away from me, acting as though she had never met me. Then, as she sauntered over to the bar, she looked straight at me. I raised my hand in a wave and smiled at her. She looked away and kept walking. I was completely perplexed.

I tried to join my group in laughing it off; pretending it didn’t matter. But the truth was, it did matter. I wished I was brave enough to march over and demand answers. But instead I was left feeling confused. To varying degrees I felt angry, upset, amused, hurt and suprised. I knew, rationally, that it shouldn’t have mattered to me. Someone I’d barely seen in sixteen years and am unlikely to see in the next sixteen years didn’t want to have a conversation with me. It shouldn’t have mattered to me. But it did. And I continued to brood over what I could have possibly done to offend S to this degree.

Until it suddenly hit me. This was precisely the kind of thing I’ve been writing about in this blog. The lyrics from Wicked. The Serenity Prayer. Why was I letting myself get upset over something I couldn’t change? So this is what I did:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

… I decided that S’s issues were for her to deal with. If she chose to reject my offers to reconnect with her, there was nothing I could do about this.

Courage to change the things I can;

… I really enjoyed talking to other old friends. So I made a date with them to meet up at the pub in a few weeks time.

And wisdom to know the difference.

… It took me a while but I got there. I cannot change the way others choose to act and respond to situations. I can only change the way I behave and the decisions I make.

I still can’t help wondering why S behaved the way she did, but I suppose I’ll never know. I’m still very pleased I went to my old school today. I enjoyed catching up with my old pals and am looking forward to seeing them again in a few weeks time. Accepting rejection is hard for anyone, but today I think I may have managed to do it.