Our Daughters’ Bodies, Ourselves
My daughter, who is five, knows where babies come from. She knows what menstruation is. She knows the word “vagina” and we do not use any cute euphemisms for that part of her body.
My daughter sees my naked body all the time. This is partly because she doesn’t really get—or doesn’t really care—that I might like a little privacy when I’m dressing and undressing. But one of the reasons I don’t police my own privacy too much is because I want my daughter to know what a woman’s body looks like. I want her to know that my soft, roundish, un-waxed, basically healthy forty-one-year-old body is an acceptable shape for the female form to take. I don’t make my body a mystery to my daughter, because I do not want her body to be a mystery.
My daughter loves my body. Not too long ago, it was a source of nourishment. Once upon a time, it was home. It’s still a source of comfort. My daughter has no idea that my body should be anything other than what it is.
Since the day she was born, my husband and I have shaped our talk about her body to emphasize health, strength, and agency. When she was tiny, we praised her for being so big and strong. Now that she’s big and strong, we let friends, family, and strangers coo about her gorgeous eyes and amazingly long lashes, while we marvel at the powerful legs required to pedal a Big Wheel so fast. Our daughter’s body is not something for other people to look at and admire. It is hers, to nurture and use and enjoy.
I’m thinking about all this because, like a lot of my feminist fellow travelers, I was dismayed by the recent episode of Dance Moms in which girls between the ages of eight and twelve perform a burlesque routine, and the essay from the April issue of Vogue in which a woman describes putting her seven-year-old on a diet.
I don’t watch Dance Moms, so I can’t say that the mothers on that show are living vicariously through their daughters, but I have watched enough clips to know that they have basically abdicated responsibility for their children and accepted the authority of their dance coach. Given that “reality” shows are designed to create conflict and controversy, I feel confident in suggesting that the dance coach has embraced her own monstrosity at the encouragement of the show’s producers. If there weren’t actual children being hurt by her desire to shock, she’d be a rather compelling character. But she is hurting actual children, and her apparent desire to teach these children that they are commodities is repellent—and particularly perverse, since little girls who have worked so hard to become incredible dancers should be able to take some pride in and ownership of their achievements.
The Vogue story is even more troubling to me, because I really don’t think either the author or the publication intended to be provocative. Ostensibly a mother’s own account of helping her daughter to achieve a healthy weight, it’s actually a profoundly upsetting portrait of a woman trying to pass on her own dysfunctional relationship with food and her own body. It’s made all the more harrowing by the daughter’s resistance, and the mother’s steely insistence that new-won thinness is a kind of existential rebirth:
For Bea, the achievement is bittersweet. When I ask her if she likes how she looks now, if she’s proud of what she's accomplished, she says yes... Even so, the person she used to be still weighs on her. Tears of pain fill her eyes as she reflects on her yearlong journey. “That’s still me,” she says of her former self. “I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.” I protest that, indeed, she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek... “Just because it’s in the past,” she says, “doesn't mean it didn't happen.”
My point is this: If we don’t want anyone else to own our daughters’ bodies, we need to be the first ones to teach our daughters that their bodies belong to them. We can care for them. We can nurture them. We can help them learn to make good choices by presenting them with healthful options. But we can’t own them. We can’t shape them. And we sure as hell can’t live through them. And if we want our daughters to be strong and happy in their bodies, we need to show them how to do that by being strong and happy in our own bodies.
Here’s the thing about women: They are, by their very nature, loose.
While men are like tempered steel—hard, unchanging, complete, perfect—women are in a constant state of flux. They are fluid, unfinished, always becoming. They are permeable, designed to be penetrated by men and inhabited by babies. They bleed without being cut.
Women are, obviously, dangerous—to themselves, to everyone else.
Women need fathers. They need husbands. They need careful governance and physical restraint, male-defined codes of behavior and the sheltering walls of the domestic sphere.
These ideas are as old as Aristotle and as current Rush Limbaugh’s attempted slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke. Critics—myself among them—have noted that Limbaugh’s attack had nothing to do with Fluke’s actual testimony, but this excellent piece reminds me that, yes, of course it does. A woman speaking as a public citizen is, in Limbaugh’s worldview, essentially the same as a woman making herself sexually available, and a woman who assumes her own sexual agency is, by definition, undiscriminating in her pursuit of partners. She is out of control.
Consider the word “slut” itself. When it entered the English language in the fourteenth century, it meant an untidy or slovenly woman, and we can still find it used that way in Victorian literature. But the shift from that sense to current usage was a minor one given that a woman who is sloppy in her housekeeping will, of course, be sexually sloppy as well. All female sins can be reduced to same one: a refusal to allow men to define and control female sexuality.
Or maybe it’s this: a refusal to accept that a woman is defined and controlled by her sexuality. When Limbaugh cast Fluke as a whore, he was putting her back in her place—the place where he wants her to stay, the place where he has the power to tell her what she is and what she should be. Limbaugh ignored the content of what Fluke had to say because the very fact of her saying anything at all was, as Bady points out in the aforementioned essay, a threat to his privilege. It is, in fact, a threat simply because it calls attention to that privilege (and, by extension, the privilege of the Congressmen who also chose not to hear Fluke speak). When men like Limbaugh call women sluts, it’s because they’re afraid of them.
They should be.