Friday, June 5, 2009

From Mother to Daughter- Navigating Feminity in a Hostile World

My daughter is growing up.

She turns 13 this summer-- entering the dreaded years of adolescence. Just as she's somewhat advanced in science and English, she's already got a jump on some of the key aspects of being a teenager. She's unbelievably lazy, will talk to her friends on the phone for hours if unchecked, gets really giggly when her friends tease her about a boy in her Spanish class named "Fai" and can stretch the simple word "Mom" into four syllables of indignation, annoyance and disgust.

This year, I watched her body change from little girl to young woman. She went from a skinny collection of bones covered with skin to a shape that I'm rather intimately familiar with.

You see, my daughter has inherited my behind. It sits out from the rest of her body just like mine does, advertising something my child is far from ready for. The sight of it stirs up all kinds of maternal uncertainties and reminds me of the peace I still need to make with my own backside, which started attracting me unwanted attention around the same age.

Maturing raises a host of problems for girls that boys seem largely exempt from, one of many unfairnesses we just have to accept until the entire male gender learns some respect-- something I don't think we can hope for, given human nature and the nature of the male animal in particular. Grown women rarely yell out of cars at 13 year old boys walking down the street; but men of any age think nothing of accosting a female child of that age. Unfortunately, black men seem to be among the worst offenders. As a result, young black women have to learn early to cover up, to keep their heads down, to try to shrink inside their own skin lest they appear to be "encouraging" this attention. Or they learn to embrace that attention even though it serves to validate only what's on the OUTSIDE, offering nothing for their gifts on the inside.

I see my daughter's friends responding to this difficult and unfair choice. Some have opted for baggy boyish pants in dark colors and hoodies even on the hottest of days-- in attempt to conceal their burgeoning feminity. Others experiment with skirts and tops so small very little is left to the imagination. And then there's me and my daughter, and millions like us, trying to a walk a line in the middle where it's okay to show what you've got... but not too much of it.

I know I absorbed more than a little shame about my body's shape-- and endured more than little unwanted attention. It's hard to teach my daughter to walk a line I don't feel I have ever navigated well-- especially since it's only now, in my mid-forties that I can appreciate how cute I was at 15. At 15, I didn't feel it. I felt uncomfortable. I felt embarassed when men yelled out of cars or tried to talk to me on the street.. I wished I were invisible so they'd leave me alone. And worse, I was made to feel as though I had invited that attention by what I wore or how I moved. It's as though it's the girl's FAULT that she's changing and not like a natural thing.

But as a mother I now understand these criticisms of dress and movement: at the mall the other day, I caught a man-- my age at least!-- eyeing my daughter with interest. She'd taken off her jacket and underneather wore a T-shirt. She had neglected to put a bra and her little buds were sticking out. I shot the man the nastiest look I could muster, yanked my kid out of his line of sight and started fussing with her. "Why aren't you wearing a bra?" I hissed. "Don't you know how you look?"

My daughter looked both surprised and hurt by my sudden explosion. I explained to her about her "admirer" and told her she would have to be more careful. "When you go out, you need a bra," I told her. "Always."

Her eyes welled up with tears. "That's not fair. Why do I have to be uncomfortable because some guy is a pervert?" she wailed.

She's right of course. It's not fair... but it is a fact. And the fact there's far more to fear than being looked at... and it will take more than a bra, more than my watchful eye, more than her own awareness to protect her from it. I hate to teach her fear... but sometimes, I confess, I don't know what else to do.

At that moment, though, I just felt bad. I'd made her feel ashamed of being a girl-- as was done to me. It wasn't what I intended, but in my concern and fear, those were my first responses. Later, at home, we had a more detailed talk about it all and I did my best to talk her through what had happened, agreeing with her about the unfairness of it all. We talked about the burka in the Middle East, we talked about her friends and their mini-skirts, and we talked about bras.

American women have accomplished so much in the last hundred years or so and we are among the most liberated women in the world. But even for us, biology remains the ultimate underlying issue that each of us must come to terms with in her own way.

Today, she went out of the house for school in a pair of jeans that hugged her little round behind. I bit my lip and said nothing.

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