What You See is What You Are….

What you see is what you are.
You’re a naked movie star!

This was a popular taunt among younger kids at my grade school (Iowa, mid 80s), and the research I’ve done on it was a real shocker. As it turns out, we were VERY lucky that nothing bad came of our repeating it.

I’m sure it was more widespread than this, but from what I can find on google, this seems to have been current in exactly two places: my school, and a pre-school in California (edit: comments indicate that it was also current in southern IL, where kids learned it from kids who had moved in from St. Louis, so it was definitely fairly widespread). To my knowledge, no one got in any trouble because of it in Iowa. But in California, the fact that kids were saying this was seen as “proof” that the kids were being sexually abused and forced to participate in bizarre Satanic rituals involving human sacrifice.

So this was the rhyme that kicked off the McMartin Preschool Trial, which, in turn, started the Satanic Panic era, when talk show hosts, televangelists, and assorted hucksters convinced parents that there were millions of Satanists operating as part of a massive international conspiracy disguised as priests, pre-school teachers, day care center owners, and, in many versions of the theory, the Pope. According to these stories, children everywhere were not just being abused and forced to star in child porn films while at day care, they were being dragged into underground basements and secret lairs to participate in all sorts of hideous rituals that were setting up the world for Satan to take over. Most of the stories veered well into the realm of the absurd. It was, especially in hindsight, a case of mass hysteria.

Many people (mostly women, in contrast to most sexual abuse cases) were taken into court and – even sent to jail – on evidence no stronger than kids knowing the rhyme above. As far as I know, they’re all out of jail now – the kids grew older and said their testimony was just them telling the investigators what they wanted to hear.

I probabaly shouldn’t go into it too much here – even now, I’m afraid I’ll get some nasty mail for being skeptic about widespread satanic ritual abuse. The book on the left is the best I’ve seen on the whole sordid affair. Looking through it now, I’m just glad that no teacher in my town (that I know of) was accused of anything on the basis that we knew this rhyme – some parent could have heard that rhyme on the news and thought it was a warning sign. This isn’t to say that nothing bad or outrageous ever happened in my town (heck, the DARE officer turned out to be selling crack), but I feel like I’m safe in saying that there wasn’t much in the way of Satanism in Des Moines.

But, anyway, I assume that kids outside of that one pre-school and my elementary school knew that rhyme. Did it go back far enough, at least in Des Moines, that parents knew not to be alarmed by it? Any other sightings?

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12 Comments

  1. SilverSpring80s

    I recall a similar chant in Maryland (just outside of Washington, D.C.) in 1981.

    The difference: "What you SAY is what you are. You're a naked movie star."
    The victim would respond, "I am not a naked movie star!" and the bully would say "but you just said it!" and then repeat the rhyme until the victim figured out he or she was not supposed to say "naked movie star."

    Reply
  2. librario

    I also grew up in Montgomery County, MD (outside DC) and I recall that one as well. Can't remember whether it was "see" or "say"

    Reply
  3. Adam Selzer

    Coe to think of it, I can't remember if we used "say" or "see" myself. Seems like "see" to me, just because it makes a bit more sense (for what that's worth), though SilverSpring's variation makes the "say" a lot more sensible.

    Reply
  4. aaronthemad

    I learned this one in the sandbox of my preschool in Las Vegas, NV in 1983ish. We said the "What you say is what you are" variant, and used it as an equivalent to "I'm rubber you're glue" to reverse someone's insult back at them. Also, I understood the second verse as "You're a naked boobie star". In retrospect the nonsense phrase "boobie star" was obviously a corruption of "movie star". I'm not sure whether the other kids said it that way too, or if it was just me misunderstanding it.

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  5. Anonymous

    We said the rhyme often in my schools, and I'm from British Columbia Canada. To this day most people I know my age remember saying it and singing it in elementary school.

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  6. cee

    early 90s in ohio

    We had this, but it wasn't very common or clear. I think it was 'say' rather than 'see', and it was definitely 'boobie star' or 'booty star'. It took me a moment to recognize your version, but it really makes a lot more sense.

    Also,
    'I am rubber
    you are glue
    things bounce of me
    and stick to you'
    was a much more common rhyme of that nature.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    Late 80s in North Dakota:

    What you say is what you are.
    You're a naked boobie star!

    Reply
  8. Juan

    One of my sons repeated this in the late '90s in Texas. "What you say is what you are. You're a naked booty star."

    Reply
  9. Donna

    1970's Cleveland, Ohio
    "What you say is what you are"

    Reply
  10. mvj

    We said this in Ontario in the early 1980s.

    Reply
  11. Elle

    Common in Oklahoma at around 1985 ~ 1990. I learned about the McMartin Preschool Trial fairly recently and my reaction was the same: thank God no one was accused of child abuse.

    Ours was this version:
    “What you see is what you are,
    you’re a naked movie star”

    So it’s from at least the 70’s in Cleveland, Ohio – from Donna’s comment.

    After learning about the McMartin fiasco I remembered that yes, we all said that rhyme, along with several other rhymes I know realize were pretty culturally insensitive at best, and plain old racist at worst.

    Anyway, I was curious about how long it’s been around and how it came about.

    Reply
  12. Mike Kearney

    I remember kids started saying, “What you say is what you are, you’re a naked movie star!” at summer camp in Marin County, California in 1984. It soon morphed into “What you say is what you are, you’re a naked booby star!” and pretty soon the two were being used interchangeably. When school started back in up the Fall, I tried to get kids at school saying this “hella funny” thing I learned at camp, but it never really took off. And I didn’t think of it until just now. Funny.

    Reply

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