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.