Since Pigtails in Paint is an important venue for the healthy expression of child nudity, it makes sense that we should deal with the subject of sex education. This can take serious forms as in proper (and perhaps institutionalized) sex education or in a more humorous form as children explore changes and differences in sexuality in their culture. I thought it appropriate that this work should be a launching point for this topic—in this case a serious example but not oppressively so. In many sexually-repressed societies (and we have to count the modern West among them), any begrudging acknowledgement of the need to educate young people typically takes the form of dull and clinical coverage or is authoritative and fear-based and, in both cases, offers a cartoonish approach to the facts of gross surface anatomy. The legitimacy of a serious approach, though, should not exclude more humorous and light-hearted portrayals. As creatures born with instinctive sexual proclivities that develop over time and rational minds trying desperately to cope with this reality, there is plenty of fodder for humor that does not necessarily imply shame. There is an inherent awkwardness when children compare the superficial differences between boys and girls or between children and adults or watching inexperienced lovers fumble around as they figure things out. In a healthy context, these can be a source of gentle amusement for those more experienced. Therefore, readers will begin to see examples of “comparative anatomy” appear on this site.
In the West, the Sexual Revolution went hand in hand with an acceptance of nudity and it makes sense that probably the most definitive text on sex education for children should appear during this time. Will McBride courageously and sensitively provided the photographs that appeared in that book, Show Me! (German: Zeig Mal!) published in 1975. The book was a collaboration between McBride and Helga Fleischhauer-Hardt, a psychiatrist, who provided an essential context for how the book should be used. The English adaptation is by Hilary Davies.
The temptation, since we are such visual creatures, is to skim through the images and get an impression from that, but the introduction provides an important framing for the unconventional approach this book takes.
“We have made this book for children and parents. In their hands, it can be an aid to sexual enlightenment. But above all, we hope it will show parents that natural sexuality develops only when children are surrounded from birth onwards by a loving family and environment which does not repress sexuality. We don’t believe a child will have “found the answer” to sex simply by looking at the pictures in this book. A good understanding requires rather a continuing exchange between parent and child, a dialog which helps the child express his questions and problems concerning sex and resolve them. The photographic part of this book is meant as a taking-off point for parents…We hope this book will serve parents and children as a source of information and guide them toward a happy sexuality marked by love, tenderness, and responsibility.”
Traditional sex education can be clinical and dry and so Fleischhauer-Hardt urges the target reader (the parents) to use simple words in the descriptions of conception, pregnancy and anatomical facts and some suggestions are offered at the end of the book. The philosophy behind producing this book is that only an explicit and realistic presentation of sex can spare children fear and guilt related to sexuality which is why photography was chosen as the visual medium. It was also hoped that the children’s reactions to the material would be spontaneous and would give the readers a realistic idea of how their own children might react. The most obvious obstacle to this is the peculiarities of culture and I did notice the book expresses an almost blind acceptance of the validity of Freudian theory. The explanatory text offers further clues to how young children might perceive this book.
“Children who have grown up in a free and unconstrained atmosphere react positively to the photographs. They show interest and ask questions. Even children of preschool age react in this way. A child only accepts what he or she can comprehend, in any case, and this depends on the stage of development. In no way can looking at the pictures damage a child, even if he or she does not yet understand them. Children see many other things in their surroundings which they cannot understand.”
It should be understood that this book is to be used for very young children, not children already dealing with the arena of adult sexuality. The irony is that many young children using this book will have more experience with the facts of anatomy than teenagers whose parents felt it necessary to shelter them. Fleischhauer-Hardt makes the point many times that a child’s response to the book is a function of the parents’ attitudes. If a child has a healthy attitude about the human body, he will not find the pictures too strong for him; but an inhibited child may at first react with hostility. In this case, the concern is to not to introduce any new repressions but to encourage the child to express his feeling and work through them. It is best to go through the book gradually to allow the child the assimilate the images and gain confidence in the material. Sexuality is not an all-or-nothing proposition. As we develop, various aspects of our own sexuality come into play. Even a fetus in the womb is not a completely asexual being and I was pleased to see the suggestion that, “Sex education, like all education, should begin in infancy, within the family.” and be an ongoing endeavor throughout development.
I think Fleischhauer-Hardt is being somewhat diplomatic when she says that sex instruction given in many schools in extremely valuable, but she is right in pointing out that its effectiveness is overestimated. Her argument is that many children, by school age, are already encumbered with prejudices and misconceptions as a result of a repressive attitude to sex in their home and environment. Contemptuous expressions used by a six-year-old boy about the opposite sex can only have come from the adults in his life and then get reinforced by peer groups later on. A child who has never been allowed to see his parents and siblings naked will almost certainly find nudity shocking. And as far as concerns over hygiene, a child need not be instilled with the idea that bodily excretions are dirty or repulsive; psychiatrists believe a child will learn clean and hygienic habits by example without their excretory functions becoming taboo. She proposes a nurturant attitude from birth and one of the implied goals is that children will grow up able to enjoy sex more fully, a purpose indicative of the notions of the Sexual Revolution. For some reason, we all have largely forgotten a lot about our sexual experiences growing up and so the book was meant to help parents be well-informed about the sexual development of their own children which is not always intuitive.
The book has stirred controversy not merely because of its frank photographic illustrations, but in its attitudes regarding a proper sex education. In that respect, I think some of the hostile reaction has been due to an innate fear that this might be regarded as a kind of standard and Fleischhauer-Hardt seems to recognize, despite her own expert opinion, that this book may not be for everyone, but for those ready to take on the challenge of learning a better way.
“This book is aimed at open-minded people who are prepared to rethink and perhaps even question their own attitude to human sexuality. The book came about as a result of my experience that many parents are not sufficiently informed about sexual matters to understand the sexual development of their children correctly. In many cases, they are not even thoroughly informed or aware of their own sexuality, because everything to do with sex was suppressed in their own upbringing.”
It was hoped this book would do justice to the sexual needs of children and adolescents. Will McBride’s photos were meant to portray sexual behavior appropriate to each level of development from birth to adulthood. There is an obvious bias here, because the idea was to show most of the “usual forms of sexual activity”. But if, as experts say, a large portion of the population is sexually repressed, how much evidence is there for the normal range of healthy sexual expression in which to base this book? Nevertheless, children and adolescents may at least get some graphic introduction to the sights and activities they may see and practice in later life.
In addition to the introduction and explanatory text, the body of the book centers on the dialog between a little boy and a little girl with interjections from family members. As explained before, the idea was to capture the spontaneous responses of these children, but I have to wonder how much of this was natural and how much was primed by their particular upbringing. Arguments about Freudian theory aside, the book does boldly discuss basic terms like: belly button, penis, vagina (and the fact that it is an interior organ), pregnancy, breasts, nursing, circumcision, pee, poop, vulva, labia, clitoris, masturbation, erection, pubic hair, orgasm (male and female), semen and making love including the conventional adult use of the penis and vagina. On the psychological side, it deals with issues of: jealousy over a new baby, thumb sucking, the pleasures of masturbation, breast variation among girls, physical development of adult characteristics, the awkwardness of lovemaking and the odd rituals associated with it, anxieties of giving birth, the shock a baby experiences entering the world and gender roles and identity (including the Oedipus Complex). To the book’s credit, the children did not just go with the flow and sometimes declared how silly or tiresome it was to look at all these naked people and shock at how heterosexual intercourse is conducted!
Will McBride was born in St.Louis, Missouri in 1931. It had not occurred to me until now how apt the English title to the book was as Missouri is known as the “Show Me State”! His parents and teachers noticed at a very early age that he was talented at drawing. He was 11 years old when he began Saturday morning classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. He made life drawings from nude models and collected and studied anatomy books. When his family moved to Detroit, he attended the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, made detailed charcoal drawings of nude models and already knew he would be an artist at age 14. He graduated from high school in 1947 then studied at the University of Vermont when he had the opportunity to meet Norman Rockwell. After Rockwell looked at his male nude studies, he knew McBride was a real artist and was invited to learn painting and illustration under his tutelage in the summer of 1950. Rockwell remained his most important influence the rest of his life. He continued his studies at various institutions until 1953, when he joined the U.S. Army. That was when he got his first taste of Germany and after completing two years of service, he continued his studies in Berlin—taking an interest in photojournalism. He was married in 1959 and had three sons. He lived all over Germany, putting together photo essays for various publications and teaching photojournalism. He had his first one man show in 1972 in Munich and moved to Italy for a time to resume his efforts in sculpting and painting. In 1983, he returned to Germany—exhibiting his work in various media. In 1995, he began his “NO WAR!” monument—an enormous installation of sculptures and paintings. He had shows in Frankfurt and Camaiore (in Tuscany), but this is an ongoing work in progress to this day.
His philosophy illustrates the sensitivity and purposefulness of his work and even in the seemingly documentary medium of photography, his work has a strong feeling of conscious deliberation.
“A Photographer has only one thing to give to his photography. His whole being. The photographs should be the result of this involvement with the life around him…A photographer, in order to give his utmost , must be able to recognize his own being by the study of it, making constant note of the growth or regression of his being…The responsibility to the public should be even greater than the means of conveying the photograph to the public…For me, the true meaning of photography or the fundamental endeavor of the photographer is to notice, measure, relate the visual evidence of the changes of the development or the destruction (whichever you prefer) of the life and society going on…and as such is autobiographical.”
When the public hype over Show Me! began, it was not the first time McBride had sparked controversy. In 1960, Twen magazine provoked a scandal when they published portraits of his pregnant wife Barbara. Nor was Show Me! the first time he photographed nude children. He was invited to provide photographic examples to illustrate a book called The Sex Book: A Modern Pictorial Encyclopedia published by Herder and Herder, Inc. in 1971 with text by Martin Goldstein MD and Erwin J. Haeberle PhD.
While many parents appreciated Show Me! for its frank depiction of pre-adolescents discovering and exploring their sexuality, the knee-jerk response of others was heated. In 1975 and 1976, charges were brought against the publisher (St. Martin’s Press) by prosecutors in several states. Legally speaking, the book could not be banned for pornographic content but charges were leveled over the issue of obscenity and applicable laws. Starting in 1977, some states began to criminalize the distribution of even non-obscene material arguing that such “images of abuse” were not protected by the First Amendment. Despite the passing of a law in the publisher’s home state of New York, an injunction against the State was successful because the courts believed the First Amendment could only apply to obscene material. The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, New York v. Ferber, allowed the government to constitutionally ban the knowing distribution of even non-obscene “child pornography”. St. Martin’s Press rightly argued that even though Show Me! was demonstrably not pornographic, they could not afford the legal expense to defend it, their own personnel or vendors who distributed the book and so no further editions were produced.
During the media debate, the 13-year-old daughter of a Chicago Tribune reviewer Carol Kleiman commented, “…The book is good for little kids because they don’t know what society terms ‘dirty’ yet. You know, Mom, it’s parents I’m worried about. They’re not ready yet.” It would be fascinating to learn what the children who participated in this book think today.
I was surprised to find there was an attempt to make a documentary about the history and controversy over the book. It has been five years since this trailer was posted and it is clear that production was canceled without a trace. Even this video gives you an idea of the range of reactions over the book even today.
I want to thank one of our readers, Michael, for painstakingly transcribing his copy of the book and carefully selecting those images that would illustrate its contents without exposing Pigtails in Paint to legal complications. I did get a pretty thorough description of the images that were included though. Naturally, as a sex education book, more detailed images of genitalia were present but even though they are appropriate in this context, it is not the purview of this site to show them to the general public. I will deal with this issue in more detail later in an essay about the intricacies of public and private displays of intimate subjects. Exact transcriptions of key parts of the book can be found here.