“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” -Simone de Beauvoir

I clearly remember the first time I realized that my body was being viewed sexually by my male peers. I was in middle school. I had hardly entered my teen years and I never walked out of my front door freely again.

I began to worry about the gap in the back of my jeans when I would bend over and the lack of a gap between my thighs. Were my hips swaying in a frumpy manner or a sexy one? Not too sexy, I’d hope. Was my hair too oily, my nails nicely cut? Were the stretch marks from where I grew quickly too disgusting to wear shorts? I didn’t care for makeup, but surely I had to conceal all the pimples. Was all of my naturally growing body hair groomed to societal norms?

I remember my first year of high school when I finally found a skirt that I liked – a shortish one that still covered my fat thighs. It was shorter in the back because of my curvy frame. I remember the principal walking up to me while I was eating my lunch. I was sitting on the ground, my backpack beside me and my legs stretched out. This grown man walked up to me and told me to stand, told me to put my hands at my sides and prove that my skirt met his standards. My skirt, the one skirt that was typically feminine and I was comfortable in. Was it really so distracting, so inappropriate? It must have been since it had caught the eye of a grown man from across a vast courtyard.

He finally decided that I had towed the line carefully enough and turned his leer elsewhere, but not before the shame crept in. The little bit of flesh I had felt comfortable showing in that Texas summer heat reminded me that how I felt in my skin was secondary to how others viewed it.

I hardly wear skirts to this day. I like them, but my mind still tells me they are improper on my curves. Society taught me about my body before I could understand the words. Decency, modesty, slutty little prude. I have learned a lot about how twisted those lessons were and yet the instant I see a man when I am walking alone, I feel caught between the urge to protect myself and present myself. I feel guilty when I’m not ‘in the mood’. Part of me still wants to take catcalls as a compliment and I have grown six sizes since my grandmother told me to lose weight.

I was told for so long that my body was not truly my own, that even now I search for the barcode.

I have made sure that my daughter knows that her rights are not lessened by her gender. I have made sure that she knows that she can like whatever she wants. Yet I still see her struggle with what society tells her. Her school has a dress codes too and girls get an extra page. Don’t show shoulders, cover up those knees. Her peers have told her that her favorite shows are for boys. And they must be right since she has to go to the boys’ section to find the characters she loves on a shirt. She is being made to fight for gender equality at the tender age of six and she’s been doing it for almost two years.

I will do all I can to ensure that my son knows that white, cisgendered, heterosexual males are not the default. He’s about to turn four and is trying to figure out the differences between boys and girls and I’m just trying to make him see that we are all people.

They know the names of their body parts. They ask me questions and I answer them honestly. Yes, even about masturbation and menstration and sex.

I was so freaked out about my own body for so long. It didn’t belong to me, so I didn’t get to know it. I didn’t explore. I want them to know themselves. I want them to take ownership.

I didn’t circumcise him or pierce her ears until she asked and the biggest reason: consent. The biggest ideal I want to instill in them is that their thoughts and their bodies are their own, to do with as they please.

When our family plays, things get rough. They enjoy wrestling and battling and tickling. I have one rule: when someone wants to stop, stop. Listen to what they say. No means no. I encourage them to look for body cues too. Is everyone having fun? If you aren’t sure, ask.

This isn’t just to curb the whines and meltdowns, this is to prepare them. I know my body is my own, but it is hard to believe it. I don’t want them to ever doubt it. I want them to know that the bodies around them belong to the minds inhabiting them.

11 thoughts on ““One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” -Simone de Beauvoir

  1. One of the lessons I have come to teach myself is that society will judge you whatever you do and will least help you when things go wrong. The best lesson then to learn is to be able to say to society fuck you.

  2. Madalyn, your children are so fortunate to have you as their mother.

    “This grown man walked up to me and told me to stand, told me to put my hands at my sides and prove that my skirt met his standards.”

    This brought back memories of when I was in 6th grade. My Nana had made me a dress, but I wanted it to look like a skirt, so I put a shirt over it to change things up a bit, expand my wardrobe, so to speak. I guess with the shirt being over the dress it hiked up my dress a little, though not much. The principle saw me in the hallway and called me into his office. He was angry. I had no idea why. He told me to put my hands to my side. I did. My dress length came to the tip of my forefinger. But because it did not come to the tip of my middle finger, he slut shamed me. I was 11 years old.

    Like you, I never thought my body was my own. It took me a couple of decades to realize that it was.

    1. Isn’t it insane what a centimeter means? Only, they’ve already judged you. I still don’t know how to feel about a lot of it. People get up in arms over there being bikinis for girls because it sexualizes them. I don’t think any amount of flesh shown on a child is enough to sexualize them, they are a child. It’s stuff like this that makes me glad I’ll die because I hope the next generations do better, that they figure it out.

      I’m rambling, I think. Thank you for sharing, V.

    1. I’ve been really happy to see the backlash from some students. Girls have been posting flyers in their hallways adressing the double standard. Misogynistic slogans on shirts are just fine, but tank tops are immoral and distracting. Skinny jeans are just clothing for boys, but sexually provocative for girls. It all goes back to the puritanical thinking – boys being helpless sex drives while girls are sexual bait.

      That’s the sexism that really bothers me, the stuff we don’t even think about, just par for the course. We’re so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.

  3. Beautifully written, though horribly sad in some ways. Thanks for this; it seems like it must have been hard to write, and you’re brave to do so. I don’t think I’ve ever had something like that happen to me, and I feel lucky. I’ve seen it happen to others, but only ever with female teachers – the men at my school wouldn’t have dared. I guess laws about inappropriate conduct are stricter these days. Jesus, what a dick that principal was. I’m sorry that happened to you.

    It’s horrible how early society sexualises young girls. I once saw a twelve-year-old, who was in my class at the time and wearing trousers, get told to close her legs when she sat down. Again, by a female teacher. Is this shit so entrenched in women by now that they’re used to perpetuating it? I’ve been overly aware of being watched or ogled since I was about eleven, and often feel self-conscious about it. It makes me angry I feel that way.

    I was raised by a second-wave feminist (and her feminist husband). Mum was the breadwinner of the house. I was told that my body was mine and mine alone; it was my choice what I did with it, and only mine. I was given good, responsible information about sex – because while my school was carefully avoiding the topic (the first time a lot of my friends heard the word “vagina” was at the age of eleven), my parents were explaining the biology and psychology of it; they placed a lot of emphasis on consent. I asked where babies came from at five; I got an honest answer. I was told that stuff being “for boys” was bullshit – I hated dolls and grew up on comics and Tonka trucks – and was aware of gay rights from a very young age. (I grew up in a very homophobic area; a lot of people thought I was “weird”, or possibly gay myself, for thinking that gay/bi people were just people, not immoral or unnatural sinners. Said area was not majority Christian, either.) The way you described raising your kids reminded me of my own upbringing (which I’m still proud of). Sounds like you’re doing a very good job. They’re lucky to have you.

    Her school has a dress codes too and girls get an extra page. Don’t show shoulders, cover up those knees.

    It was a similar situation where I was, too. We were a uniformed school, and there was another half a page about regulation wear for girls. Teachers even made awkward, half-stammered statements about how “we don’t want the boys to get distracted, do we?” As if only boys could ever be sexual beings and the onus was on us to cover ourselves, lest we show gasp some thigh. I genuinely protested to teachers about it.

    1. Thank you for reading it. 🙂

      I’m not surprised at all that you’ve mostly seen women perpetuating the sexualization and double standards. It always hurts worse too, to see and hear women disparage others for simply dressing how they want. The truth is, I catch myself having those thoughts about strangers from time to time. I do my best to catch it and alter my thinking, but it certainly speaks to how entrenched it is. It took years to get to this point, so it’s no wonder to me that there are so many that don’t give it a second thought.

      Your parents sound pretty awesome. I do hope I’m doing right by my kids. Mostly I’m just doing my best not to pass on my baggage and biases. I only hope they’ll have the courage to speak out about it as you did.

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