This past summer, while watching a parade, my 4-year-old turned to me with a look of surprised disgust. There was a man, on stilts, without a shirt.
“Why is that man naked, Mommy?” she asked. I told her without thinking, “Because boys don’t have to wear shirts.”
Because boys don’t have to wear shirts.
And just like that, I had inadvertently exposed my daughter to the ever-present sexualization of girls’ bodies. I could tell my daughter didn’t fully understand, and to be honest, I didn’t have an answer prepared for her question. I couldn’t launch into a conversation about how society sexualizes the bodies of girls from toddlerhood and onward — from the very first time we force them to put on a shirt while allowing our boys to run around half-naked and free.
Do we ever stop to recognize that we’re the problem and take steps to fix it? I know I failed that day. Our young daughters are no more sexual than their male counterparts, and yet we impose these strict rules around modesty starting from as young as, well, age 4, in my case.
Recently, I came across a question asked by a well-meaning mother in a Facebook group. Admittedly, some members of this group are more religious than I am (I’m pretty much agnostic, and in times like these, even more so), so posts about “modesty” come up fairly often. A poster asked for advice on how to enforce modesty. Her rule was “Reach for the sky, now touch your toes. If anything shows, go change your clothes.” Included with the post was a photo of a beautiful, smiling young girl dressed in shorts and a T-shirt.
Her daughter was 9. Nine years old. “She is going to be a stunning young woman,” her mom stated. “Tall, with curves like her momma, legs to her neck…short of a shotgun, I’m open to any advice….”
What the ever-loving eff.
If anyone was sexualizing her daughter at all, she was. The child is 9 years old. We don’t describe boys that way, do we? So why do we do it to our girls?! Why are we sexualizing them when our “intention” (veiled or otherwise) is to do anything but?
I admit my 4-year-old looks like she got dressed in the dark these days. While I try to lay out her clothes for her, she has been getting more and more creative and independent, throwing my choices by the wayside. She mixes patterns, wears pants under dresses, pairs shorts with sweaters. It’s what kids do. But do I EVER say anything about her fashion choices (other than giggling to my fiancé that her outfit of the day is “interesting”)? No, because even at 4, how she chooses to dress (as ridiculous as I may secretly think it is) is her first true expression of self. Will I crush that and insist she wear the outfits I’ve curated for her? Never.
How about instead of commenting on the length of our daughters’ legs, or joking about having to get a shotgun, or judging their appearance based on their “curves,” we treat them the way we treat our sons. How about instead of sexualizing their bodies based on the length of their hems, we celebrate them for being confident and fiercely independent? How about we all take a stand against outdated and sexist dress codes?
I don’t think we realize that the problem starts with us. That, in many cases, we’re the first body-shamers our daughters encounter. The first people to judge them based on the clothes they choose to put on their bodies.
I will tell my daughter that she is beautiful. I will tell my son (if I ever have one) that he is beautiful too. I will tell them both that their worth is not defined by the clothes they choose to put on their bodies, or the makeup they apply, or the shape or size of their bodies.
I will tell them they are strong, fierce, and capable when they wear shorts. I will tell them they are strong, fierce, and capable when they wear crop tops. They are the same person underneath the clothes they wear. Their choices in clothing change nothing about my opinion of or expectations for them. Their clothing is their choice — not mine.
I will not comment on my daughter’s curves or legs. I will not sexualize her. I will congratulate her for feeling confident about her body and for her ability to make her own choices.
You should too.