Ah, early childhood. The carefree time when you run around in your underwear, or even completely naked. You don’t have body issues and your body is perfect and radiant. When does it all go wrong?
Everywhere I look, it seems like bodies are the topic right now. My Facebook feed is full of stories about slut shaming at schools (even kindergarten!), rape, and fat shaming. While there are few things more uncomfortable than talking with your child about bodies, how they change, and what their bodies will do when your child gets older, it’s something that parents need to discuss with their kids. As I write this, my preschooler Madi just figured out how to make hickeys on her arm. I remember when I learned how to do this. I was told that this was disgusting and to stop immediately. I didn’t know why I shouldn’t do this, only that it was bad! Bodies are fun and exciting until we are taught that they shouldn’t be.
Teaching Correct Words
Raise your hand if you love discussing body parts and sex with your child. No one? Me neither but I promise it gets easier if you normalize it for yourself first. I really like the Robie H. Harris books for teaching my girls about the bodies. Harris has a series of books teaching about the body and sexuality for any age. It was awkward at first but we taught Madi the correct words for body parts. Once I got used to saying vulva, I felt like it was more of a regular every-day word. Just as any child learning something new, Madi loved telling anyone she was with if they had a penis or a vulva. Fun times!
I bathe with Madi and her younger sister Ali. I love that they are exposed to a mom body that has all the natural things that magazines erase. When I was pregnant, Madi started to use the words “dirty thing” for my vulva (yes, I said vulva – I’m helping you get used to it) every time we took a bath. I was shocked and embarrassed when she would say those words to describe my body. Like any stunned parent, I would nervously laugh which just meant that she would laugh in return and say it again (and again!). It took me some time but I finally realized that she was confused why I had hair down there and the hair made it look “dirty” to her. My solution? Talk about what happens when you get older and play the heroic and dynamic Kimya Dawson! She sings a song “We’re All Animals” that Madi loves about body hair. Body hair is something that is natural and yet, it’s so uncomfortable for most of us to talk about.
Love Your Body and Yourself
I suffered from Postpartum Depression after having Ali. It was hard to love my body when I didn’t even love myself. I tried to focus on the miracle of my body being able to breastfeed. I nurse in public regularly and Madi knows that breasts are for feeding babies. I smile whenever I’m at Gymboree and a toddler sits down next to me when I’m nursing. Sometimes their parents will apologize but it’s nothing for them to be sorry for. I think it’s very important to be open about the purpose of women’s breasts. I developed early and this was extra awkward because I was smaller than my peers and thus looked younger than I was. I was humiliated by my breasts and thrilled by the attention I received at the same time. I would pray that my breasts would shrink to eliminate all these feelings. Bodies can feel so awkward, especially during puberty. I want to help my girls stay at ease with their bodies as they change.
Your Body, Your Choice
When I first became a mom, I was gifted with the book 8 Great Dates for Moms & Daughters. That sounds very sweet, right? I originally thought so too. Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I cringed. I guess if I had read the subtitle, I would have seen this word: modesty. That word brings back so many memories from my teens of my own Southern Baptist youth minister who told us that our bodies belong to God, not ourselves, and so we don’t have the right to make choices about them. My youth minister has even made news here, here, here, and finally here. He would make many cry by telling us the choices we make lead us to become worthless. Of course, this was all directed to the girls because, poor boys, they just can’t help themselves around a girl. I don’t want my girls to feel that they are any less of a person because they choose to be intimate with someone. Or wear spaghetti strap shirts. Or skirts above their knees. Or wear a bikini. Their body, their choice. This book, just like the words I heard from the youth minister, echoed how girls are shamed for being a girl.
8 Great Dates for Moms & Daughters includes a quiz to test your daughter’s submissiveness. Some of the questions ask what you would do if someone you are hanging out with wants to do something you don’t want to do (“correct” answer: do what your friend wants you to do) and what to do if someone does something wrong, (“correct” answer: wait for an adult to make things right). Wow. That sets you up for all kinds of trouble. Rape? Well, just go along with it. An adult will help you out later. Scary. I would never want my daughters to give the control they own over to someone else.
When visiting family, I ask if Madi wants to give hugs, but she doesn’t have to. I want her to feel free to stop anything that she doesn’t feel comfortable doing with her body. I don’t want her to have any guilt of hurting other’s feelings because she gets power over her own body. While Madi was a baby who loved attention and being held by others, Ali doesn’t. Ali, to this date, is only comfortable with my husband or me holding her. I see disappointment in their eyes when people ask to hold her. I was confronted early with teaching Ali that her body is hers to make choices that make her feel safe. While Ali doesn’t want physical contact from people, she loves smiles and people cheering her on as she takes steps and will give smiles and giggles in return. This is how she currently likes to communicate gratitude instead of hugs and that’s totally okay.
Madi and Ali love being tickled and tickling each other. Eventually they will let me know they are done either with words (Madi) or signs (Ali). I model to both girls, “She’s telling you that she doesn’t like that. She gets to make decisions for her body.”
I want my girls to trust their instincts and only do things with their bodies that they want to do. I want my girls to know that no one gets to make choices about their bodies except them. I want my daughters be able to embrace their bodies as I embrace mine. Your body is yours, not anybody else’s. I’m teaching my daughters that bodies are fun and exciting because they are in charge of them.