Religion and SpiritualitySkepticism

Sex Ed with James Dobson: In Which We Feel Bad About Ourselves Because We are Ugly, Unintelligent, and Poor

Last time, Dr. Dobson explained that we will all develop a crushing sense of inferiority as adolescents, now he will tell us why.  We have three options for why, the first being that we feel ugly:

As young people grow up in our American society today, there are three things that teenagers feel they must have in order to feel good about themselves.  The first of these, and by far the most important, is physical attractiveness.  Did you know that about 80% of the teenagers in our society don’t like the way they look?  Eighty Percent!

Dobson never cites anything that he himself did not publish, and this number sounds a little high.  I am not a psychologist, things from the 70s aren’t necessarily free online now that I’m not searching from a university, but I did find a paper referencing a 2004 study in which overall body dissatisfaction was expressed by 46% of girls and 26% of boys in a study of some 4,000 odd adolescents.  That’s not 80% overall but my impression of the way that body image satisfaction surveys are done is that respondents are asked to rate satisfaction about a lot of different body parts, so if you say anyone who expresses dissatisfaction with at least one part of their body is not liking the way they look, then I will buy an 80%. I am also open to the idea that I am missing something.  Particularly from 1978.

Credibility due to citation needed issues aside, fine.  Dobson is onto something.  His tone is so condescending I hate admitting that, but he is.  Body image dissatisfaction is recognized as something of a problem, often linked to eating disorders.  Fortunately, Dobson has a solution, which is telling us that our feelings are silly, “can you imagine being depressed and miserable over something as silly as having a nose a fraction of an inch longer than you think it should be?”

He doesn’t just say that we are silly for feeling feelings, it’s also partly a problem of other teenagers saying hurtful things about us.  To illustrate, he has several anecdotes, one of which is cited, and I was happy until I saw it was from one of Dobson’s other books, Hide or Seek.  Anyway, Dobson tells us about a teenager named Charlie who is teased for having large feet and then becomes “disinterested in living instead of being a happy fellow who enjoys the advantages God has given him.” We also hear about a girl named Janet who receives the following letter:

Awful Janet

Your the stinkiest girl in this world. I hope you die but of course I suppose that’s impossible.  I’ve some ideals.

  1. Play in the road
  2. Cut your throad
  3. Drink poison
  4. Get drunk
  5. Knife yourself

Please do some of this you big fat Girl. we all hate you. I’m praying Oh please lord let Janet die. Were in need of fresh air. Did you hear me lord cause if you didn’ will all die with her here.See Janet we’re not all bad.

from Wanda Jackson

It is left as an exercise to the reader to determine how likely it is that Dobson wrote this letter himself. Janet’s reaction we are not told of, she is merely an illustration of bullying. Which, kudos to Dobson for actually acknowledging, I suppose, but after a reference to a popular song of the time (Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” how relatable of Dr. Dobson to know popular songs!), we move on without any practical advice on how to not feel silly feelings about how we look when we are being bullied. Though Dobson does say “I hope you will never be included in this vast group of discouraged people who learn so many painful lessons ‘at seventeen.’ Nice of him.

The second characteristic that young people don’t like about themselves is that they feel unintelligent (or dumb).  This feeling often begins during the very early school years, when they have trouble learning in school. Either they have a hard time learning to read, and they start worrying about this problem, or else they blurt out answers that cause everyone to laugh. They gradually start to believe that everybody in the classroom (including the teacher) thinks they’re stupid, and this brings the same old feelings of inferiority.

Personally, I was teased for being smart, because that happens too, but Dobson doesn’t even have any anecdotes, so after a comment that repeated failure is likely to bring discouragement and more failure, repeat (which is true), but no acknowledgements of actual learning disabilities or school’s being largely a one-size-fits-all institution. We move on to our final option for feeling inferior: poverty.

The third value that young people use to measure their worth is money.  You see, they think the wealthy family is more important than the poor one, and to be accepted and popular, they have to dress a certain way, or their family has to have a particular kind of car, or they have to have a big house in the right part of town, or their father [rigid gender role alert!] has to have a certain kind of job.  The young person who can’t afford these things sometimes feels inferior and inadequate.

Dobson really can’t seem to imagine any poverty greater than just not having the right kind of job, car, and house, or any problems stemming therefrom besides feeling inferior.  Fortunately, however, he has a four point plan for fixing all of our problems.

  • Recognize that you are not alone.

When you go to school tomorrow, quietly watch the people who are coming and going. Some will be smiling and laughing and talking and carrying their books and playing baseball. Unless you take a second look, you’d never know they had a care in the world. But I assure you, many of them have the same concerns that trouble you. They reveal these doubts by being very shy and quiet, or by being extremely angry and mean, or by blushing frequently, or by acting proud and “stuck-up.”

Recognizing other people have the same problems is, in itself, reasonable advice, but it would be more reasonable if it involved talking to people around you about how they felt rather than analyzing them by silently looking for things which may or may not actually indicate feelings of inferiority.

  • Face your problem

This boils down to make a list of what you don’t like about yourself and talk about it with someone who is an adult.  Make a plan to fix things you can fix and for what you can’t, burn the list of stuff you can’t fix while praying the following specific prayer, “stated in in your own words”:

Dear Jesus, I am bringing all my problems and worries to you tonight, because you are my best friend. You already know about my strengths and weaknesses because You made me. That’s why I’m burning this paper now. It’s my way of saying that I’m giving my life to you…with my good qualities along with my shortcomings and failures. I’m asking you to use me in whatever way You wish. Make me the kind of person You want me to be. And from this moment forward, I’m not going to worry about my imperfections.

Ellipsis and inconsistent capitalization of the word “you” are preserved from the original text.

Again, by itself, and assuming the same Christian-only audience that Dobson does, this isn’t the worst advice.  Making a list of problems and coming up with a plan to fix them is cool.  There might also be some acknowledgment that not all perceived problems are actually problems or in any way a big deal, and some problems need external help.  By which I do not mean god.  But god is what we get.  Beyond the choose your own prayer (as long as it’s the same as Dobson’s) we get a reference to the song Something Beautiful, Something Good, which I have sung in church and it is a terrible hymn. It is melodically boring but at least it’s slow so it feels like it lasts forever.  Then we get a reference to how in the Bible Moses feels inferior, according to Dobson, which I’m not sure the text supports, but nothing will get in the way of Dobson’s moral, which is that when Moses didn’t want to go talk to Pharaoh and asks god to send someone else god got mad because Moses was supposed to believe in himself.  Dobson completely neglects to mention that god then sent Aaron along with Moses and then there were staffs turning into snakes and other shenanigans, so trying to use this story to say you shouldn’t question your worth to god might be missing whatever point there is in the staff/snake thing.

  • Compensate for your weakness.

Are you ready for the third suggestion?  There’s a very important word that you ought to understand and it’s called compensation.  Compensation may be a ten-dollar word, but it has a very simple meaning.  It means to make up for your weaknesses by concentrating on your strengths.  

The condescension is real.

Not everybody can be the best-looking person in school. If this is your situation, say “All right, so what? There are a lot of other people in the same boat, and it doesn’t really matter.  My worth doesn’t depend on the arrangement of my body. I’ll put my effort into something that will help me feel good about myself. I’ll be the best trumpet player in the band, or I’ll succeed in my part-time job, or I’ll raise rabbits for fun and profit, or I’ll make good grades in school, or I’ll see how many friends I can make, or I’ll learn to play basketball as well as possible, or I’ll become a good pianist or drummer, or I’ll see how pleasant a personality I can develop (that’s one that nearly everybody can work on), or I’ll learn to play tennis, or I’ll become a seamstress, or I’ll draw or paint and express myself through art, or I’ll write poetry or short stories, or I’ll become a good cook.”  Or maybe you could become highly skilled at entertaining small children and become well-trained as a child-care worker.

Or maybe don’t compare yourself to other people at all, but ok.  Also, that was a terribly exhausting sentence.

  •  Have genuine friends.

How can you make new friends quickly and easily?  You must remember that the people you deal with every day have exactly the same problems I’ve been discussing with you.  Understanding that fact will help you know how to get along with them and earn their respect. Never make fun of other people or ridicule them. Let them know that you respect and accept them, and that they are important to you. Make a conscious effort to show this kind of affection for people.

Well, other than not making fun of people, this contains no practical advice whatsoever, but ok.

After a few more god-dy bits about how god values us rather than beauty, intelligence or money, we are finally finished with the first chapter.  We now have the pattern of the book firmly established: telling us what our feelings are, that any problems we have are only problems of feelings that are easily solved with a combination of motivational speeches, injunctions to not be silly, and the Christian god.   Personally, I’m feeling insulted.

Next chapter, we learn about conformity. I can’t wait.

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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