Using drama to curb teen dating violence

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Byline: Daniel B. Wood, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a spare stage in a tiny high school auditorium, meet college-bound teens John and Mike, Laura and Kate.

Tonight’s skit: “When a kiss is more than just a kiss.”

Scene 1: A casual drinking party in Laura’s home ends up in a sexual assault. Scene 2: House lights up, audience participation, Oprah-style.

Questions: “Did you have problems letting your friends go upstairs drunk?” “Did you regret how flirtatious you were?” “What made you think Laura wanted to have sex?”

Played to high-schoolers and their parents, this is more than just a skit. It is an ambitious attempt to help educate students on a neglected problem: How to deal with dating violence and alcohol abuse (why not join in other extracurricular activities, such as camping, singing, playing musical instruments like the best acoustic guitar, …).

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These issues have become more a part of the public dialogue on American campuses as the number of reported date rapes has increased. Some universities have reacted by adopting social-conduct codes, others have begun to offer workshops, hot lines, and counseling. But the traveling theater troupe of college-age actors known as the Anti-Sexual Abuse Project (ASAP) has gained plaudits for spurring conversation among parents and high-school teens.

“Rightly or wrongly, parents across America have a real problem opening a discussion with their … children about the realities of sex and drinking,” says Toby Simon, former associate dean of student life at Brown University and creator of the program. “This gives them a nonconfrontational opening to hear each other’s views as well as the views of both teen and adult peers.”

Begun five years ago as a campus project at Brown University in Providence, R.I., the program has become in demand nationwide as the issue of date rape has gained prominence. The award-winning, eight-actor ensemble has performed for 40,000 teens from Maine to San Diego. What makes the program successful, say parents, teens, and teachers, is its realistic depiction of teen dating in the ’90s.

“I thought this might be sort of dumb and preachy,” says Julia Michaelson, a student here at Harvard Westlake High School. “But the show was incredible…. They do a great job of talking to the parents and students and asking questions.”

The scenes and sexual attitudes portrayed are culled from dozens of real-life testimonies given to Ms. Simon in her former role at Brown. Many details are purposely left vague to elicit questions and clarification. When the 15-minute skit is over, the actors remain in character for the question-and-answer session.

In addition to questions about why John, Mike, Laura, and Kate did what they did, the high-schoolers ask about guilt and anger, peer pressure, birth control, and alcohol. At appropriate moments, an onstage host follows up the actors’ answers with relevant statistics.

“Fact. Alcohol is a factor in 78 percent of teen rapes,” for instance. After the performance, the audience breaks up into three groups – boys, girls, and parents – for further discussion. The hope is that people will be more willing to speak up than than they were in the mixed setting.

“I have been surprised at the number of parents I know who will go away and leave their teenage kids alone like this and allow them to have parties,” says a woman in the parent discussion. “We as parents need to take more respons ibility.”

Simon helps lead the discussion. How many think this scene portrayed rape? How many think the girl was equally at fault? After the brief round-table discussions, the full group is reconstituted and group leaders sum up the observations.

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* Girls’ list: Most felt the situation portrayed rape, even though the man, Mike, denied it. A majority felt communication in both directions was a major problem. Most felt birth control and other sexual issues – which could have bearing on the fictional situation – are openly discussed between parents and daughters but not between parents and sons.

* Boys’ list: Many men do fit the stereotype of initiating lust first, love later, but some do not. Girls should not be afraid to be more communicative about exactly what they do and don’t want – before such sexual episodes unfold.

* Parents’ list: Teens need to be in a long-term committed relationship before sex is an option. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” You don’t have to have sex to be popular. Think in a long-term perspective.

Some observers worry that the once-a-year skit will allow schools to avoid developing more in-depth programs. But local school officials say that the supplemental input from a national touring group just provides a fresh perspective.

“We do the entire community a disservice by not unveiling $(what$) young people go through and opening $(it$) to more conversation,” says John West, director of student affairs at Harvard Westlake. “This program allows that.”

CAPTION(S):

PHOTOS: 1) ACTING OUT: Julia Schaffer performs in a skit about rape. 2) TUNED IN: An audience of parents and students at Harvard Westlake High School in Studio City, Calif., watch as the Anti-Sexual Abuse Project performs a skit. PHOTOS BY ROBERT HARBISON – STAFF

I think I love you: you had a connection and then he was gone. What if he was the one?

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Forget Facebook, lay off Lavalife, the newest place for online dating isn’t a portal of disappointing profiles and poses, it’s actually where you’d go to sell your truck. Craigslist, perused mainly for its smorgasbord of miscellaneous buy/sell ads and job listings, is now gaining ground among those seeking the love that got away. Though not a new concept-Vancouver’s Georgia Straight newspaper runs “I Saw You” and Toronto’s Now magazine once featured a similar venue called “I Spy”–unlike some classified competitors, Craigslist’s Missed Connections is free and offers unlimited space for gushing to the intended recipient.

Postings range from fleeting subway strikeouts and laundromat lust to affirmations of ardour to colleagues. It’s customized to cities worldwide; one unidentified man from Toronto recently wrote: “Canadian Tire: I held up your checkout … I flirted clumsily. “We dropped your blue-cleaning-fluid stuff. I could not take my eyes off you. A drink … and … a few laughs?”

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For some, the site provides the elusive “fate” factor often absent from paid-dating sites: the Cupid-struck have seen the object of their affection in the flesh. Recently on layover at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, United Airlines flight attendant Gail Sloma, 44, borrowed a Blackberry from a golf-club-wielding man so she could phone her hotel. She didn’t expect to be knocked off her feet by the “electricity running through us.” But he was stepping into a taxi and before she could untie her tongue the cab pulled away, with him all the while watching her. “It blows my mind I didn’t just grab on to him,” she says. Sloma discovered Missed Connections when placing an ad on Cralgslist to sell some furniture, and decided to post a shout-out to her Canadian gent. She has yet to hear from him.

Jim Buckmaster, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Craigslist, says the chance of a successful Missed Connection increases if the poster already knows their heart’s desire. Office manager Ava first met Pete (not their real names) 16 years ago when they worked together at a call centre. Save for a friendship and some innocent flirtation (both were married), Ava says she pined for her co-worker through the years but the timing had never been right. Now 37 and unhappy in her second marriage, Ava’s hoping for that thirdtime lucky. Pete’s wife died a year ago after battling cancer, leaving him with two young children. Last month, Ava composed her online fess-up: “You are the one I think of when I’m happy … I can’t tell you this and risk our friendship; you mean so much to me,” she wrote. “I thought it was a good venue to get it off my chest without jeopardizing our friendship,” Ava told Maclean’s. Two weeks later, Pete took the bait. “This verifies what I’ve always thought,” he told Ava in a phone conversation, adding the feeling was mutual bur that he didn’t want to be perceived as a home wrecker. “I’m not comfortable being the other person. If things happen and you aren’t with him anymore then that will be our time. And I’m willing to wait for that” he said. Ava says she now has some soul-searching to do.

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Buckmaster says city centres with sophisticated transit systems are more likely to produce greater postings-Toronto and Vancouver are tops in Canada. Regina and Saskatoon Missed Connections tend to be sullied with no-strings-attached sex ads.

But every dating forum has its own brand of cheese and sleaze. Mario (not his real name), 42, an IT professional and married father, recently penned: “You’re on the 7th and I’m on 12. I find you very attractive but I’m married … If you’re interested and see me in the elevator, say the following phrase: ‘I feel like a chocolate dip doughnut from Timmy’s? I will then respond with, ‘Allow me to treat you to one.’ “Though Mario views the prospect as a long shot, he says Missed Connections provides a venue to speak one’s mind without criticism (except for one anonymous post in response to his doughnut note “you’re extremely lame, ugh, people like you irritate me”). Says Mario: “I actually thought this was more of ah honest approach, in a dishonest kind of way I guess. Just basically putting the cards on the table, this is who I am, this is what I’m looking for.” Absent a paper trail no less. “You can’t put it on your credit card because of course your wife sees the credit card. So you have no choice, really, but to actually go on a free site.”

Dating in digital world: social networking sites, cell phones, and other digital media can help your love life–or hurt it

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Would you invite a stranger to the prom via YouTube? That’s what a 17-year-old guy from Las Vegas did last year. He posted YouTube videos asking Arianny Celeste, a well-known model, if she would be his prom date. Surprisingly, she said yes!

You may not be ready for something that extreme, but you probably use technology every day in your romantic life–texting your girlfriend, checking out a crush’s profile, or sending a photo to your boyfriend. Like all things, though, dating in the digital world has good and bad points. The Web and cell phones can help “connect” your love life and make it sweeter, or “disconnect” it and cause problems.

CONNECT: Icebreakers

If no one from school or your neighborhood makes your heart go pitter-patter, the Internet can help. Now, although online dating services are popular with adults, it’s not safe for teens to meet someone they’ve only “met” online. But social networking sites can open up your dating possibilities by letting you connect with people from real life. You can get to know the friend of a friend you met at a party, the guy who transferred from a different school, or that cool girl who babysits for your little cousin.

Social networking and texting make striking up a conversation easier too. Your crush won’t see your nervousness, and you’ll have time to think about what to say (and erase, if needed). You can send a “cute pic!” comment or even ask someone out.

CONNECT: “Tell Me About Yourself”

You may be able to learn even more about someone online than you would in person. Just ask Zara S., 16, of Massachusetts. “When I start talking to guys, I can utilize texting and IMing to get to know them more in-depth,” she says, “and I can learn the basics, such as their favorite color–things that would be too cheesy to ask in person.”

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Viewing your crush’s profile to see how she describes herself and her interests, or how he interacts with others, can also give you a better glimpse. Connor Berge of Colorado is glad he took the time to get to know his crush online before approaching her in person. “I started up a chat with her on Facebook and realized we were complete opposites,” the 18-year-old says. “Instead of wasting my time with her, I found someone (also on Facebook) that I’m totally happy with.”

CONNECT: Closer Than Close

With school, chores, family time, hanging out with friends, extracurricular activities, and homework, finding time to spend with your boyfriend or girlfriend can be hard. Fortunately, cell phones and the Internet can help you keep in frequent contact. Rather than waiting until you’re both in the same place at the same time, you can chat or zap a quick “thinking of you” or “let’s catch a movie this weekend” text to each other. Even if you are able to hang out, newer technology allows you to express yourself in creative ways–think e-cards or YouTube dedications–that can draw you closer.

DISCONNECT: A Whole Wide Web Apart

Though the Web and cell phones can strengthen bonds, they can also cause distance. If you talk to someone online or by text too much, you may not have anything to talk about in person, Zara says. And you may be in for a letdown if someone’s real-life personality doesn’t match up with his or her online persona. You may like a girl because her tweets make her seem outgoing, but in real life she may be shy. Or a guy could have cool status updates but be a total snooze in person.

Digital drama can cause problems too. “Reliance on Facebook updates, tweets, texts, and other forms of nonverbal communication can lead to jealousy and misunderstandings because information is shared without context,” says Stacey Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist in New York City. Zara and her boyfriend have faced that. Sometimes, she says, “an ex posts something on one of our walls, and the other person kind of gets thrown off track and is a little upset.” They have worked through those problems. But if digital drama is too much, it can bring a relationship to a crashing end.

DISCONNECT: An Open Book

One of the biggest downfalls of dating in the digital world is others knowing your personal business. Through status updates and profile comments, people can tell a lot about your relationship. Then there are breakups, which are hard enough, but even worse when everyone on your friends list witnesses them. “Having that little broken heart go across a Facebook newsfeed can be sad for anyone dealing with a breakup online,” says Adrianna Giuliani, who runs Techromance, a blog that discusses how technology affects relationships.

Also keep in mind that your business could be shared with people you’d prefer to keep out of the loop. “Remember that e-mails can be forwarded, IMs/chats can be cut and pasted, text messages can be sent to groups, and photos can be shared with locker rooms, frenemies, bullies, strangers, parents, school officials, and even the police,” Giuliani says. Her advice? “Engage in safe text–meaning, don’t send anything that could hurt you or someone else.”

By staying safe and dating wisely in this digital world, you can avoid the obstacles that could “disconnect” your love life, and make the right moves to help you “connect” in a happy relationship!

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Think About It

How does technology affect your relationships with friends and family? Which tips from this article would help you manage those relationships?

Text Your Way to a Date

Though breaking up by texting isn’t cool, asking someone out that way is OK. Drew Olanoff, director of community at textPlus, which allows free group texting, offers these suggestions:

* Don’t send a blast text to multiple people in hopes of scoring a date. No one wants to think he or she is one of 15 people you asked to the movies. Personalize it (using the person’s name) to show you’re hoping to date that person only.

* Skip the text shortcuts. Type out full words to make sure the person understands.

* Take a photo of yourself holding a sign that says: “Will you go out with me?” Then send it to your crush.

* If you haven’t heard back in 24 hours, pick up the phone and call.

* If you’re asked out through a text, respond within a few hours.

Key Points

* Modern communication technologies such as social networking sites and cell phones can be both a helper and a hindrance to romantic relationships.

* Teens should avoid meeting and dating people they know only from online interactions.

* Technology can help teens break the ice, learn more about a possible romantic partner, and stay in close touch.

* These technologies can also cause distance and messy situations, as well as expose a relationship’s problems to anyone either member of a couple has friended.

Think and Discuss How does technology affect your relationships with friends and family? Which tips from this article would help you manage those relationships?

Extension Activity

Teens are embracing the communication technologies in the article just at the age when they are learning critical social skills. To help students practice problem solving in relationships, separate the class into groups and have each write a skit about a romantic problem. Ask each group to address the ways technology can exacerbate that problem as well as solve it. Then, have the class act the scenarios out and discuss.

Resources

* The Safe Space: Technology and Abuse

www.thesafespace.org/the-basics/technology-abuse

* A Thin Line: Take Control

www.athinline.org/take-control

Love shouldn’t hurt: what you need to know about dying violence

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When Sarah Van Zanten, of Palo Alto, Calif., was 15, she met a guy at the back-to-school dance who made her heart do a two-step. “I had never met him before, but it [turned] out he lived right around the corner and was a football player for my school,” Van Zanten, now 19, says. They started dating, and everything was great. “The typical cute, perfect, adorable relationship is what everyone saw,” Van Zanten says.

However, that “typical” relationship came to a crashing end eight months later. “We went to a party, and he got completely drunk and out of control,” Van Zanten says. “At the party, he lifted his leg up and swung it at me for no reason, hitting me right in the ribs.” He kicked Van Zanten so hard that she hit her head on the wall and was knocked unconscious. When she came to, she had two bruised ribs, a concussion, and a broken heart.

Last year, dating violence among young people came out of the shadows when singer Chris Brown, now 20, assaulted his girlfriend, 21-year-old singer Rihanna. Somewhat lost in the media hype was the fact that one in three teens will experience physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse in a dating relationship. The altercation between Brown and Rihanna sparked rumors and heated opinions about what happened and why. It’s clear there’s a lot of misinformation out there about dating violence. Here, we aim to give you the real deal on relationship abuse.

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All couples fight.

TRUE. “A relationship is never going to just be all sunshine and happiness,” says Candice Hopkins, director of the teen dating-abuse organization Love Is Respect. “Arguments do happen, but in positive and healthy relationships neither party should ever use physical force to get what they want,” she says.

In healthy relationships, “fighting” means having a disagreement, giving each other time to cool off, and then working through the issue.

Abuse doesn’t have to be physical.

TRUE. “Generally, in abusive relationships, the abuse happens in a pattern,” says Colleen Gallopin, policy and technical assistance manager at Break the Cycle, another group that works on teen dating-abuse issues. Usually, it starts with emotional and verbal abuse. Then, over time, it can escalate and lead to physical abuse. People sometimes think verbal and emotional abuse aren’t significant, but they’re often warning signs of more severe abuse to come, Gallopin says.

And they hurt just as much as physical abuse. “Tearing down one’s self-esteem and [causing] feelings of isolation and worthlessness are often some of the most powerful tools some body can use when trying to control a dating partner,” Gallopin says. So whether the abuse is physical (hitting, shoving, throwing things), verbal (name-calling, bad-mouthing your family and friends), emotional (constant criticism, telling you how to act or dress, embarrassing you in front of others), or sexual (forcing you to do things you don’t want to do), it’s wrong.

You can tell whether someone will be abusive.

TRUE AND FALSE. Anyone can be an abuser–even the captain of the football team, the quiet student in the chess club, or the class president. “It’s not something you can tell by how someone looks, where they come from, where they grew up, how they grew up, or what they wear,” Gallopin says.

And you can’t assume that only guys are abusers. Girls can be abusive, and guys can be victims. If a girl calls her boyfriend nasty names because he went to baseball practice instead of hanging out with her, it’s verbal abuse. If you see a friend getting slapped and hit because his girlfriend is angry with him, it’s physical abuse. If your friend has a girlfriend who ruins all of his social time with others by calling him excessively or showing up unannounced to check up on him, that’s emotional abuse.

Whether you’re a guy or a girl–dating someone of the opposite sex or the same sex–there are some warning signs that a dating partner may become abusive. (See “Healthy or Unhealthy?”)

If you see red flags, definitely don’t ignore them. When Melinda Bryant, * now 21, of Washington, D.C., was a teen, she dated a guy despite his reputation for having a violent streak and being involved in fighting. Eventually, Bryant’s boyfriend punched her, sexually abused her, and threatened her life.

Only stupid people stay in abusive relationships.

FALSE. There are many reasons people stay in abusive relationships–and it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Bryant stayed because she feared her boyfriend would follow through on his threats.

For Van Zanten, the party incident was the second instance of abuse. The first time, her boyfriend slammed her into a locker at school. “I’d never seen anything like an abusive boyfriend before. I didn’t know how to handle it,” Van Zanten says. “He apologized, bought me flowers, and said it was because he was drunk and it would never happen again,” she says. Van Zanten believed him. But he wasn’t telling the truth. Teens may stay with abusers because they’re just learning how relationships work. They believe the abuse won’t happen again, or they hope the partner will change.

Isolation is another reason teens stay. One of the tactics abusers use is either literally keeping a person away from his or her family and friends or emotionally isolating him or her. That makes the person feel as if he or she doesn’t have anyone to turn to, Gallopin says.

Then there are the emotions. “There’s often good and bad in the relationship, so it’s like, ‘Well, he’s mean to me then but sweet to me a good portion of the time,'” Hopkins says. Because the abused person may still have deep feelings for the abuser, that’s often enough to keep him or her involved.

The victim must have done something to set the other person off.

FALSE. After Brown’s assault on Rihanna, rumors spread about what she may have done to cause the abuse. Van Zanten faced the same backlash. “Some people said I hurt myself, that I had done the wrong thing [by telling],” she says. “My house got egged four weekends in a row, and his best friend threatened my life,” she says.

Regardless of what a partner has or hasn’t done, the abused person is never at fault for the abuse; only the abuser is responsible, Hopkins says. There are many reasons people are abusive. Problems expressing anger appropriately, low self-esteem, insecurity, and the thrill of causing fear are just a few. Also, “we know growing up in a home with violence increases the likelihood someone [will] either be abusive or abused in [his or her] adult relationships,” Hopkins says.

There’s nowhere to turn.

FALSE. Even if abusers try to make their victims believe otherwise, people suffering from abuse are never alone. After the party, Van Zanten turned to her parents, and her ex-boyfriend was sent to a rehabilitation program.

If victims are uncomfortable talking with their parents, they can turn to other relatives, friends, teachers, school counselors, and other trusted adults. If they feel there’s no one in “real” life they can turn to, there are many online sources and telephone hotlines available for help. See “Help Is Here” for a list.

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Love is supposed to hurt.

FALSE. Although love can hurt if it’s unrequited or you’re dumped, in healthy relationships, love itself isn’t painful. “People who love you don’t hurt you,” Bryant says. “They don’t hit you. They don’t call you names. They don’t do anything to you that will harm you. All they do is show you love. And love doesn’t hurt.”

* Name has been changed.

Healthy or Unhealthy?

Determining whether a relationship is healthy or unhealthy can sometimes be difficult. Candice Hopkins, director of Love Is Respect, a group fighting teen dating abuse, says this list can help you tell the difference.

HEALTHY

[check] There is mutual respect.

[check] Your partner Is supportive.

[check] You feel he or she is a positive part of your life.

[check] Your family and friends like the person,

[check] Both partners are free to have their own activities and friends.

[check] You feel happy when you’re together.

UN HEALTHY

[check] Your partner has called you names you don’t like.

[check] He or she is controlling.

[check] Your partner wants to know where you are all the time.

[check] He or she wants you to spend less time with friends or family.

[check] Your partner threatens to hurt you, or himself or herself, if something doesn’t go right.

[check] You feel unhappy, stressed, or fearful when with your partner.

HELP IS HERE

These organizations can help people who are caught up in dating violence.

Break the Cycle: www.breakthecycle.org

Experience Project: www.experienceproject.com

Love Is Not Abuse: www.loveisnotabuse.com

Love Is Respect: www.loveisrespect.org

The Safe Space: www.thesafespace.org

National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE

! Think About It …

Some people criticized Rihanna for initially taking Chris Brown back after he assaulted her. Were they right? Why or why not?

Key Points

1. It’s healthy for romantic partners to argue, but not to engage in physical, verbal, or emotional abuse.

2. Anyone can be abusive in a relationship, but warning signs can help teens avoid those people.

3. Victims of dating abuse are never at fault; the abusers are always to blame.

4. Teens who experience dating abuse can get help from reidtires, people in their school, other trusted adults, and commnity support resources.

Critical Thinking

Some people criticized Rihanna for initially taking Chris Brown back after he assaulted her. Do you think going back to Brown was a bad idea? Why or why not?

Extension Activity

Have students research dating abuse facts and local resources. As a class, create a brochure that the school health office can give out.

Resource

* Do Something

www.dosomething.org/whatsyourthing/violence+and+bullying/dating+abuse

Gazing at the stars: celebrity worship is a big part of our culture-but is it a good thing?

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When singer Justin Bieber tweeted a photo of himself with reality TV star Kim Kardashian at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, it wasn’t long before she received death threats from those with “Bieber fever.” When Kanye West wore slatted sunglasses for his “Stronger” video, the shades–despite being completely impractical–flew off the shelves. And when Miley Cyrus does pretty much anything, she makes headlines.

Celebrities may have hair-and-makeup teams, big bank accounts, and designer clothes, but at the end of the day, they’re just people. So why do they fascinate the rest of us? And at what point does healthy interest cross the line to unhealthy obsession?

Why Do Celebrities Matter?

Following the lives of the rich and famous is something people of all ages enjoy, but for teens in particular, stargazing helps them explore who they really are. “Celebrity culture is a way people identify with the kind of person they want to be and the kind of person they don’t want to be,” says Emilie Zaslow, an assistant professor of communication studies at Pace University in New York City and the author of Feminism, Inc.: Coming of Age in Girl Power Media Culture. “Adolescence is a time when teens are learning about themselves, trying to craft out who they are. … Media has an impact on how a young person sees him-or herself.”

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People often feel as though they know many celebrities, each of whom has a different life story and set of values and opinions. Over time, following that celebrity culture helps teens figure out what’s important to them and what’s not through examples they see every day. Maybe that brash pro football player turns you off, or maybe you admire his confidence and sense of humor. Perhaps the way your favorite actress cheated on and dumped her boyfriend shocked you, so you vow to make sure your relationships are more respectful. “When you’re a teenager, you’re really open to a lot of different influences [while] trying to figure out how you fit in and where you fit in,” says Sasha Pasulka, an entertainment blogger for Evil Beet Gossip. “It’s easy to use celebrities as role models.”

Marketing is another reason you’re probably interested in celebs. Teens spend billions of dollars a year on products, and that isn’t lost on the fashion and media industries. Many teen powerhouses are catapulted to stardom solely to sell you things, according to psychologist Robert Epstein, author of Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence. For instance, in 2008, Disney sold $30 billion worth of licensed products–many backed by the smiling faces of young stars such as Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron. “Apart from school, what a teen thinks about is actually the creation of all kinds of executives and designers,” Epstein says.

What People Learn From Celebs

A small dose of celebrity worship is fine. In fact, one study from the University at Buffalo in New York found that thinking about a celeb can boost self-esteem; those with lower self-esteem felt better about themselves after writing essays about their favorite stars. Researchers think that is probably because people feel a bond with a celebrity that they might not have from a real relationship. It’s been shown that when people hang out with someone athletic, they feel more athletic; when they hang out with someone smart, they feel smarter. So thinking about a star you admire could make you feel you have the positive qualities you see in that person.

There are also lessons to learn from people in the spotlight. Athletes such as David Beckham and Serena Williams might inspire you to play sports, and the stars of Glee may prove being a chorus kid is cool. Some messages are more serious but still valuable. The 2009 news that Chris Brown had hit Rihanna showed dating violence can happen to anyone, even the young and beautiful. Lindsay Lohan’s progression from The Parent Trap cutie to jailbird is an example of the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

When Adoration Goes Too Far

Reading celebrity blogs, marveling at Lady Gaga’s latest outfit, and seeing whom Nick Jonas is dating can be fun. In one study, U.S. and British researchers looked at the range of interest in famous people. They found that most people are mildly interested in celebs–they may collect posters of their fave star or watch all his or her movies–but their real-life relationships are unaffected. Maddie S., 17, from Washington state, admires actress Kristin Chenoweth, has read her book, and watches her plays. But, Maddie says, “I’m not like, ‘I saw her wearing that, and I have to wear that.'”

There’s a point, though, at which the interest can become obsessive. A small subset of people suffer from “intense-personal” celebrity worship, say researchers–for example, people might insist they really know a celebrity and think they’re destined to be together. They may camp outside a singer’s tour bus or plan a wedding to a star basketball player.

Then there’s a third, even smaller, group labeled “borderline-pathological” celebrity worshipers. Those people would do something illegal for their favorite star and might even become stalkers. The teens obsessed with celebrity fashion who were recently caught breaking into the houses of Orlando Bloom and Paris Hilton to steal their clothes and jewelry might fit into that category.

Keep It Real

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, realize that the fantasy life celebs seem to live is just that-a fantasy. “Look beyond the surface, and think about it,” Pasulka says. “Be aware that what’s presented on television and in magazines has very little to do with reality. What can look really fun and exciting in a photo or in a 30-second clip is not always really fun in real life.” Behind a celeb’s super-glam image may be 16-hour workdays, nonstop traveling, and constant hounding from the paparazzi.

So go ahead and pick up that copy of Us Weekly if you want to. But know your limits. If you find yourself tweeting to Kim Kardashian that she needs to stay away from your man, you might need to take a break from stargazing and root yourself in reality (and no, “reality” TV doesn’t count).

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

After Zach Veach heard about a fatal accident caused by texting while driving, the 15-year-old race car driver from Ohio kept it in the back of his mind. He later learned about the No Phone Zone, Oprah Winfrey’s campaign urging people to put down their phones while driving. Zach knew he had to get involved.

He collected signatures from friends, fans, fellow drivers, and even CNN host Anderson Cooper. “Having celebrities involved is important. They set trends–what they do, we do,” Zach says.

Celebrity influence alone isn’t usually enough to make people do good deeds, but it can certainly inspire them. “Typically, young people don’t change their values based on what they see, but it can reinforce some ideas we already have and help to push us in the right direction,” says communications professor Emilie Zaslow.

That has certainly happened to Zach. In the racing world, he’s gotten Danica Patrick and Dancing With the Stars champ Helio Castroneves to sign on, along with more than 33 fellow Indy 500 drivers. “They’re the fastest drivers in the world, and if they’re setting examples, maybe it’ll get a little further,” Zach says.

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You Obsessed?

Researchers in the United States and England have identified a condition the media has dubbed “celebrity worship syndrome,” which they believe affects about a third of the population. See where you fall on the scale.

LEVEL 1: ENTERTAINMENT-SOCIAL

* My friends and I like to discuss what my favorite celebrity has done.

* I enjoy watching him or her.

* Learning the life story of him or her is a lot of fun.

LEVEL 2: INTENSE-PERSONAL

* I consider my favorite celebrity to be my soul mate.

* I have a special bond with him or her.

* I can’t stop thinking about him or her, even when I try to concentrate on other things.

LEVEL 3: BORDERLINE-PATHOLOGICAL

* If someone gave me several thousand dollars, I would consider spending it on something my favorite celebrity had once used.

* If he or she asked me to do something illegal as a favor, I would probably do it.

* I would be very upset if he or she got married.

Think About It

How might the Internet and other aspects of technology have influenced celebrity worship? Do you think those changes are positive or negative?

Key Points

* Following celebrities helps teens form their own identities and figure out whom they want to be.

* The celebrity-driven entertainment industry counts on teens to be among its main consumers.

* A little bit of celebrity worship can raise a person’s self-esteem and serve as an inspiration or a caution.

* For a small group of people, obsession with celebrities can become a pathological condition.

Think and Discuss

How might the Internet and other aspects of technology have influenced celebrity worship? Do you think the changes are positive or negative?

Extension Activity

Have each student write about a famous person he or she admires. Essay should cover why they like these celebrities, how interacting with the celebrity’s work or hearing about him or her makes them feel, and ways in which the connection influences them. Ask them to locate where they feel they may be on the “celebrity worship scale” in the sidebar (includie “Not on the Scale” as an option), and why.

Resources

* MTV Sticky www.mtvsticky.com

* Blogilow–Contemplating Fans, Fandom, and Fame www.blogilow.com

* The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America, by Dr. Drew Pinsky (Harper, 2009)

* TeensHealth: How Can I Improve My Self-Esteem?

www.teenshealth.org/teen/ your mind/mental_health/ self_esteem.html

Low life

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I came up and out of the underground station into the busy Brixton Road. It was 9 o’clock on a humid, overcast summer evening. As well as being a bustling place of departure and arrival, the precinct in front of the station seemed also to be a preferred place for the locals to meet and sit and socialise.

I was looking for an Eritrean restaurant called Adulis. Here I was to meet a woman I’d met two days ago on a dating website. This new dating website is proving amazingly fruitful, which surprises me not least because it was the first time I’ve been truthful on one. So far we’d exchanged messages, this woman and I, mainly learned ones about books we liked and different kinds of fountain pen ink. Then I’d told her I was coming to London, and she’d said to come and see her while I was up. We could talk some more about fountain pen ink, she said, or we could have great sex. Whatever I liked.

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I hadn’t fully intended going to see her. I’d been to The Spectator Summer At Home party the night before (I was glad I went; it was the best for years) and I’d spent the entire next afternoon and early evening standing outside a pub in Old Queen Street called the Two Chairmen. I hadn’t eaten a thing all day and I hadn’t been to bed. And now I was drunk again. I knew I was drunk because a friend had come over in a cab after work for a drink, and I could barely speak, so he hadn’t stayed long. I knew I was drunk because I was getting disparaging or curious or amused looks from all sorts of people. I knew I was drunk because I imagined I was beyond the pale of civil society and was moreover glad about that. Also, I felt calmly judicious, as though there existed between me and the world the kind of mediating two-second time delay which I believe they use for live radio phone-in shows.

It was at this point that another message from her arrived. ‘Hallo you,’ it said. ‘Come and see me. Adulis. Eritrean restaurant. 44 Brixton Road. 7-9.30.’ Adulis, I knew, was the seaport of the ancient kingdom of Axum and a slave emporium. But where this modern eponymous equivalent was located on the Brixton Road I had no idea. I looked around the busy station forecourt for someone to ask for directions, and chose an elderly (about my age, in truth) black man standing alone beside the road safety barrier.

‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Have you got any idea where Adulis the Eritrean restaurant is?’

I said it fully expecting to see my inebriated state reflected back at me via this man’s uneasiness or contempt. He turned slowly to take me in, as if he was operating on the same two-second time delay that I was. But instead of contempt or unease, I found myself confronted by a face of deep kindness, of infinite patience, of hard-won wisdom. It was the face of a man who might have had them once upon a time but was now entirely without rancour or preconceptions. It was the face of one who has seen far too much of human variety and good and evil even to begin to judge a stupidly sloshed white man in a business suit.

‘Adulis,’ he said, narrowing his eyebrows and racking his brains. My problem was now his problem, it seemed. His acceptance of me plus my need was total. And his determination to help in any way he could had about it the quality of a humble father’s love for an overbearing son. There was, too, even that studied neutrality that fathers use to make their love more palatable to callous youth. What fine and refreshing people the people of Brixton are, I thought, if this man is anything to go by.

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‘Adulis,’ he said, looking very anxiously and carefully up the Brixton Road, first one way then the other. ‘Adulis, Adulis, Adulis, Adulis,’ he intoned, as if it was a name he dimly recognised, and which he felt he certainly ought to have remembered, if only to be of assistance on occasions such as this. But, alas, it wouldn’t come. Then, sensibly, for he realised he had to do the thinking for both of us, even in this small matter, he said, ‘Do you have a street number?’ I did, I said. I fumbled and fished for my phone and finally found it, got the message up on the phone screen and handed it to him.

And while he closely read it, I watched his politely puzzled brow, and his murmuring lips, and I thought that here, unexpectedly, outside Brixton station, was the kindest and best and most civilised person whom I’d encountered for a very long time. And I was happy for myself that ten pints of lager or so had made me calm enough to recognise it.

Love Is in the Ether; A Manhattanite plays the electronic field

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Byline: Natalie Axton

After 16 years of New York City apartment living, I bought a house in Westchester County. I am very happy with this decision. The house, a 1935 Cape, is charming; it will be more charming once I renovate it. Currently the house needs a new kitchen, two new baths, some ceiling, some floor, a little paint, a lot of plaster, and a new septic tank. But I love it.

Few of my friends are interested in what the broker listed as my ‘diamond in the rough.’ Most are alarmed I’m moving in: It’s not the house, it’s the solitude, they say. I am in my middle thirties and single. The girls’ reproach is: You’ll never meet anyone in the suburbs. To which I respond: Nonsense. These days everyone meets online.

The Internet dating site eHarmony is known for its compatibility questionnaire, an online form designed to deter those looking for casual relationships. The procedure is long and boring. If you lose concentration you can screw up. Drinking gavi di gavi with girlfriends while you fill it out is a guarantee you’ll lose concentration. The next day I went online and learned that I was a religious Muslim who drinks frequently, sometimes in my favorite bathtub. Interestingly, I was very popular.

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Men began contacting me through the site, and in return I investigated their profiles. The men who ‘Matched’ with me lived throughout the New York metro area, came in every skin color, and ranged in age between 32 and 45. They had one thing in common: According to eHarmony, I am compatible with men who hold technical jobs. This is not what I expected. If you believe the science behind the compatibility questionnaire (I don’t), this means that all the time I’ve spent with editors, novelists, playwrights, and historians was truly nonproductive. I should have been looking for a guy like Tom, who posted a picture of himself opening the Nasdaq. Or Chris, who archives anime when he isn’t building information networks.

I’m happy to try new things. There is, however, a trade-off: None of my literary pals would ever approach me in writing with ‘I’m looking forward to exploring the possibilities with you.’ Not what I had in mind when I checked ‘verbal intimacy’ as a must in my relationships. The same goes for ‘You seem like a quality woman.’ I don’t know what that means. Perhaps it’s what one Match meant when he described his ideal partner as ‘STD-free and she MUST HAVE SEXY FEET.’ You have to admire a man who knows what he wants.

As a woman with less exacting criteria, I confront a tremendous volume of the possibilities. Every day a new batch of ‘Matches’ appears in my inbox, many ready to ‘communicate.’ There must be a lot of single tech guys in New York, and they produce a lot of bad copy. It’s hard to keep up. On the bright side, I could start a consulting firm with all the engineering contacts I now have. Ditto financial services. Overwhelmed, I called my brother, who also uses the site. His advice: ‘You just have to turn it off.’ Still, he thinks meeting online is better than meeting in a bar, where it’s difficult to start a conversation. With online dating, he said, ‘When you meet up you can always talk about eHarmony.’ Again, not my idea of appropriate ‘verbal intimacy,’ but if a girl in San Francisco can meet a nice guy like my brother through the site, why not give it a try?

I changed my religion from Muslim to ‘neither religious, nor spiritual,’ toned down the floozy factor on my profile, and settled in. I picked three men to contact, the first three Matches who didn’t list the iPod as a cherished item.

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Guy Number One was good looking, but in conversation he stuck to three topics: his fitness level, his family’s fertility, and his desire to have children. His interest in me was limited to my fitness level, my family’s fertility, and my willingness to have children. I’d like to go out; I don’t want to be a breeding experiment. That ruled out Number One. Guy Number Two was less awkward, and funny on the phone. We arranged to meet in person–three times. Number Two always canceled, the last time because he got tickets to an adult puppet show. A man who prefers puppets to women? Strike Number Two. Guy Number Three seemed normal, if a little Type A. He asked me to meet him at 9 A.M. on a Saturday. I reluctantly agreed. Then I overslept. Sorry, Number Three–and best of luck.

It’s been fun to point and click, but meeting all these virtual dates takes real time. And it’s not cheap. I have a house to renovate, so I suspended my account. Besides, my contractor is single and pretty cute. More important, he thinks I bought a really great house.

Natalie Axton writes about dance in New York and blogs at www.howdotheymove.com.

Beyond the Apps; The Blue Helix should suffice for the next few months

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Byline: Joe Queenan

Consumers are justifiably confused when it comes to picking out a smartphone. Many high-end iPhones and Androids contain features that are not terribly useful in everyday life. Not-so-early adopters also worry that they will purchase a state-of-the-art phone for $399 and then, just a few months later, burn with envy as a less expensive unit offering many more features hits the market.

The public need no longer fear either of these scenarios. With the release of the Blue Helix, a solar-powered telekinetic unit that is easily the most powerful cell phone ever invented, consumers will find themselves in possession of a self-regenerating smartphone that automatically downloads new apps and features the very moment they come into existence. The phone is a living, breathing organism that not only need never be replaced, but keeps getting better and better.

The Blue Helix is very much like a plate of osso buco that miraculously reappears as soon as it is eaten, or a stein of award-winning Pilsner that automatically improves its taste before it has even finished dribbling down a person’s throat. It is a phone that will never be obsolete, a phone that will never require an upgrade, a phone that will never need servicing. Understandably, because it has a life expectancy of 4,000 years, it is a bit on the pricey side: $30,000 per unit. But anyone who has tried out the Blue Helix will agree that the thirty thousand clams is money well spent.

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In addition to all the basic phone, email, texting, and search engine functions that are standard features of smartphones, the Blue Helix has certain applications never before seen in a device of this sort. The polygraph app lodged in the upper right-hand corner of the screen tells the user whether the person he is talking to or receiving texts from is lying–a useful application when chatting with a broker, a politician, a philandering spouse, or a child. Via high-powered satellite cameras, a second app instantly pinpoints the location and identity of the person phoning, texting, messaging, or emailing, making it impossible for telemarketers to disguise their identity and making it useless for people who frequent online dating sites to lie about their height, age, weight, or the quantity of hair of which they are still in possession. Not with a resolution of 376,000 pixels.

A multifaceted GPS unit alerts drivers when they are entering a ZIP code where their political views and bumper stickers are not likely to be well received. And yes, it can be specially programmed for libertarians.

Standard features of the Blue Helix include a 35 mm camera, a telescope, a periscope, a high-powered microscope, an atomic collider, and a disposable EKG unit. Via an invisible, genetically modified camera made entirely of soy, the phone can be used to perform CAT scans, endoscopies, and colonos-copies, automatically texting the results from inside the stomach in any one of 35 languages, including Urdu. It also removes cataracts.

For an additional $599, ranking members of the armed forces can purchase an app allowing them to activate the nation’s antinuclear missile defenses from remote locations. The phone comes equipped with four micro-torpedoes, a state-of-the-art antiaircraft gun, 12 compact heat-seeking missiles, and a small, but remarkably effective derringer. The ordnance adds little to the weight of the phone, as it is made entirely of optical fiber fused with an extremely supple form of tungsten.

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In emergencies, the Blue Helix can morph into a lifeboat, a glider, a parachute, or a roulette table; it can also be expanded to serve as a mattress, a gazebo, a helicopter landing pad, or a small but well-appointed Gothic cathedral. The phone works well as a portable space heater, DVD player, television, and microwave, and can readily be used to detect termites, cholera, radon, or intruders. Optional add-ons include a portable chemotherapy unit, an electric piano, a virtual studio apartment in Paris’s fashionable 16th arrondissement, and a four-car garage.

Does the Blue Helix have any drawbacks other than its price? Only a few. Some users complain that the laser gun app can accidentally be activated, causing nearby buildings to go up in flames. Several have pointed out that the female voice on the GPS unit bears an annoying resemblance to Carol Channing’s. And the stitches created by the personal auto-surgical unit may chafe against sensitive skin. Other than that, the Blue Helix is nothing short of a miracle.

This just in: The Blue Helix can also be used as a lunar landing device, a magnetic resonance imaging unit, a mobile funeral home, and a changing table. Once the price on this baby comes down a few bucks, look out.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.

Holiday gifts for the congressional staffer in your life!

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From Pages 12–18 of the December 2014 SkyMall[TM] Catalogue

The NoRegrets[TM] mobile-phone case slips easily on your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy to deliver up to ten extra hours of power on the go! The congressional staffer in your life will love the sleek design, the fashion-forward colors, and the easily rechargeable battery that comes packed into the case. Light, durable, and a must-have for the budding young strategist. Also comes with a tiny blowhole attached to a state-of-the-art breathalyzer that instantly measures the blood alcohol level of the user before allowing him or her to access any social-media applications! Including Snapchat! No more tweeting or Facebooking while tipsy! No more embarrassing updates! Anything above the equivalent of two light beers renders the continuously updated list of social-media services inaccessible for twelve safe hours! Also available: The NoRegrets+[TM], which utilizes the camera flash unit to measure the user’s heart rate for signs of anger, rage, and mental agitation with racial and/or ethnic overtones and instantly shuts down the entire range of communication applications until the pulse rate returns to normal! Tell your staffer loved one to stop apologizing! Get a NoRegrets[TM] or a NoRegrets+[TM] today! (Gift-wrapping available.)

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A one-month subscription to iFrenemy gives the political strategist or congressional staffer on your list the ultimate in career protection! It ain’t cheap, but then quality solutions never are! With a one-month introductory subscription to iFrenemy, the budding young political mastermind is “matched” with a “best friend” from a potentially troublesome and easily offended pressure group. Utilizing state-of-the-art algorithms almost identical to the ones used by online dating services your young friend already uses, the staffer is matched with one or more “BFFs” from a pull-down menu of ethnic and/or racial categories. Your “new best friend” will post on your wall, retweet your tweets, and in general serve as “inoculation” against charges of racial bigotry or self-segregation! For an additional monthly fee your iFrenemy will come to your defense via social media should that situation arise. (Which it probably will!) Imagine the delight on the face of the young political operative in your life when he connects online with this ticket to career safety!

The JKr App, now available in the iTunes App Store and Google Play, automatically follows each tweet, Facebook update, or social-media contribution with a simple “JK” followed by a smiley-face emoticon. Rest easy knowing that the political staffer or strategist in your family is well protected against outraged responses to his or her ill-considered Internet outbursts! They can relax and simply point to the automatically generated follow-up post, that they were “Just Kidding” about that tweet or update making fun of the first family, fat people, African victims of Ebola, or the physically challenged. Get the JKr App ($29.95 in the app store) and sleep easy knowing you’ve protected your young congressional staffer against career suicide!

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PhotoSpinnr is a subscription service that creates photographs using cutting-edge photo-illustration technology and uploads those photographs to the user’s social-media accounts. Simply by selecting a few checkboxes, the user can instantly “post” photographs of himself or herself building wells in Africa, serving food in a homeless shelter, comforting the sick, or casually surrounded by adoring children of all races and creeds (maximum limit of seven races/creeds), all from the comfort and convenience of the home! Imagine the peace of mind you’ll give the Little Politico or intern in your family by assuring them that no matter what stupid thing they may post on the Internet, no matter which zoo animal they may inadvertently compare the sitting president of the United States to, there will also be photo “evidence” sprinkled artfully through their social-media profiles of do-gooding and caring to offset the negative blowback! Crucial for any young person involved in politics!

No excuses! The E-lectrocutr[TM] mobile-phone case–fits all models, including the new iPhone 6 Plus!-creates a powerful electric charge just waiting for the young and impulsive congressional staffer to “forget” him- or herself and click on social-media applications to “share” or “post” some thoughts or rants on the events of the day. Simply pressing the icon for any social-media application will result in a powerful electric jolt, enough to stun a 180-pound adult and render the typical nerdy congressional staffer (average height: 5’8″, average weight: 142 pounds) unable to speak or move for several reflective hours, giving the politico on your Christmas list valuable time to decide that, after all, no one really needs to know his or her thoughts on the “inconvenient truth about Ferguson.”

A table for one: a New York restaurateur is tackling the single-female diner stigma one glass of bubbly at a time

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IS THE SOLO female diner still such a brave anomaly that her pluck needs to be rewarded–even celebrated–with a complimentary glass of bubbly? Legendary New York City restaurateur Keith McNally thinks so, as I learned recently when dining alone at his restaurant Balthazar. I’d approached the hostess of the popular Soho brasserie one weeknight with the standard solo-diner plea: “It’s just me. Do you have room at the bar?” They could do better than that, she said, leading me to a table for two that wasn’t in Siberia. I was so shocked I didn’t tell her I actually like dining at the bar.

Once seated on a banquette though, I enjoyed the civility and the view. Service was stellar. After the main course, the waiter asked if I’d like a glass of champagne, on the house. They offer it to all women dining alone, she explained, a tradition McNally started because he didn’t like how solo female diners can be treated.

I felt torn. I like champagne, and generous gestures. But I also felt suddenly foisted into a sad cliche that needed to be rewarded with alcoholic combat pay-Bridget Jones out for steak frites, someone who needed to get back to her cats. What about single male diners, I wondered. Do they get free booze? Then I smartened up and said “yes” to the gratis wine, which was lovely. (And, no, there was no attempt to upsell dessert with it.)

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Needless to say, McNally’s femme-friendly gesture isn’t bankrupting him. Two per cent of diners at his seven restaurants are singletons; fewer than one per cent are women, he said in an email. He began the champagne tradition shortly after Balthazar opened in 1997; he didn’t like how women dining alone were apologetic about asking for a table “for one.” Often they would suggest the bar in order not to “take up a table for two,” he says. He does it at all of his locations, “to send the message that the restaurant actually likes, even encourages, women to dine alone.” The response is “mostly pleasurable surprise,” McNally says, “But it’s occasionally bewilderment; the last thing diners expect is to be encouraged to eat alone as it obviously reduces business. But I like it for that very reason.”

Not only women experience singleton stigma, of course. Singles may be the fastest growing demographic but in terms of dining out beyond the food court, little has changed since Steve Martin’s 1984 movie The Lonely Guy: Martin walks into a restaurant alone, and a spotlight suddenly appears that follows him to his table. The current trend to communal tables can make the solo dining experience even more amplified, notes Sandy Hamilton, the general manager at Salt Tasting Room in Vancouver. “I’d never seat a single between two parties of four” he says. Andrew Kremulec, a waiter at a high-end Toronto restaurant who likes to dine alone, sees it from both sides. “An unaccompanied person in the midst of a crowded restaurant is viewed askance, like a surveillance camera eavesdropping on every word and deed.” Krempulec always takes a book with him, “not only to prevent the forlorn spectacle of staring sadly off into space, but to put surrounding diners at ease. Burying one’s nose in a book renders the single diner invisible and defuses the threat.”

For female diners, additionally burdened by a bad-tipper rep, the alienation is more pronounced–and analyzed. Magazine articles offer strategies to minimize exposure: take a prop, sit at the bar, dine early. Women often have different needs, says Alison Fryer, manager of Toronto’s Cookbook Store. “A lot of women like to see the room but not be seen themselves.” McNally believes the stigma surrounding women dining alone is less than when he started in the industry 30 years ago, but it still exists. “To a small degree it can be a negative perception.” Beth Whitman, the Seattle-based author of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, agrees. She recalls visiting Toronto on business a few years ago and going to a fancy restaurant. “I told the maitre d’, ‘It’s just me,'” she recalls. “And he said,” ‘Only you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, just me.’ And he said: ‘So, one person?’ It went on and on.” She laughs about it now.

The solo female diner remains “a definite minority of an already curious minority,” says Krempulec. He recalls one customer, a woman he guesses was in her sixties, who’d arranged to have her dessert delivered with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the plate and no fanfare. “To this day, I still cannot figure out whether the gesture was in-your-face-world triumphant or a prelude to suicide,” he says.

But you have wonder why, more than 50 years after M.EK. Fisher rhapsodized about the pleasures of dining alone, even devoting a chapter to it in The Gastronomical Me, the plight of the solo female diner remains entrenched. A recent article on CNN.com read like ’70s feminine-hygiene ads in its discussion of “the embarrassment and awkwardness” of female business travellers dining alone. One woman, Rochelle Peachey, summed up her insecurity: “When I walk into a restaurant or bar alone, I feel others see me as either a woman out to pick up men or a sad, lonely spinster.” Peachey, who runs a dating website, once even pretended to be talking on her cellphone so as to seem she had friends who liked her; when it started ringing mid-conversation, she was mortified.

The spectre of dining alone can transform the most confident, successful woman into Miss Havisham. One corporate powerhouse, who asked not to be named, says she skips meals rather than eat alone when travelling. NancyVonk, co-founder of Swim, a Toronto leadership training firm, has no problem dining alone at casual places where she can read her iPad, she says: “But I’d never eat alone in a ‘real’ restaurant. Not only would I feel paranoid about the judgment of others, I would be unbelievably bored. It would be inappropriate to be on an iPad or to be reading, or God forbid, talking on the cell.” When travelling, Vonk loves ordering room service, “sadly, the most expensive way to consume food of any kind.”

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Nor does the connected generation show great comfort in dining alone, says Sarah Lyons, general manager of Toronto’s Crush Wine Bar. “Most women in their mid to late 20s would never, ever sit alone at a table. They’d be bored to death, or feel like a loser.”

A new website, Invite For a Bite–billed as “the safe, friendly way for women to meet and eat”–is capitalizing on the last bastion of upscale sexism by offering a platonic matchmaking service for female diners, evidently confident most women would prefer to make strained small talk with a random stranger than eat by themselves.

Paradoxically, the pronounced solitude that inspires terror can be a pleasure, an escape from having to make conversation, a chance to people-watch, to enjoy the moment. “I find it very empowering to dine out alone,” says Toronto food writer Marion Kane. “I go out for a certain dish ! really like, and I don’t feel the need to share the experience. It’s healing.” Kane’s point echoes one recently made by psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle in the New York Times. She wrote of the need to unplug and be alone in a culture constantly connected technologically, even when dining with others in a restaurant: “In our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves.”

Given the retrograde stigma, women who dine alone see it as a defiant, even liberating, gesture. Janet Beed, the president and CEO of Markham Stouffville Hospital in Markham, Ont., says she made a conscious decision about dining alone years ago when she travelled constantly as a management consultant. “I asked myself, was I going to sit in my hotel room like a social pariah or go out and eat a nice meal in a lovely environment? And I decided the ‘social pariah’ label was mine, not society’s.” Rounding up companions didn’t interest her, Beed says. “You can always find someone to eat with, but it’s not always enjoyable.”

She analyzed what kind of restaurant appealed and where she was most comfortable, experimenting with out-of-the-way tables, tables for two and sitting at the bar. As most singletons do, she prefers the bar: “The bartender keeps an eye out for you and makes sure you won’t be disturbed.”

Beed takes a book or work with her but rarely turns to it. “I prefer watching the crowd, or chatting,” she says. She dines out alone when home in Toronto as well. “Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking,” she says. “A guy doesn’t think, ‘I should cook.’ “She likes the freedom of dining alone, she says. But more than that, she says she likes “fighting a stereotype.”