In the car, on the way home from preschool, my four-year-old daughter enthusiastically informed me, "Today on the playground, we played naked doctor."
I took a deep breath and tried to find an appropriately nonjudgmental response that would discourage public nudity without humiliating her. Thinking fast, I bought myself some time with a question. "What did your teacher say when you took your clothes off?"
The scornful condescension in her voice was an eerie hint of what she'll be like at thirteen. "We didn't take our clothes off. That's the name of the game - naked doctor." All it lacked was a Wynona Ryder eye-roll.
Apparently, the kids now refer to the vaguely naughty sort of playing doctor as "naked doctor," whether or not there's any actual stripping involved. I never could get a clear answer on exactly how one plays naked doctor, except that one boy wanted to look at another girl's underpants, but she wouldn't let him.
Franny is blissfully unconscious of body image, propriety or prudery. She sheds her clothes at will, and takes thoughtless, sensual delight in all the pleasures her body can afford her. I know this prelapsarian state won't last much longer. Her childish glee will soon be replaced with self-consciousness and embarrassment that her body doesn't measure up to the standards set by Victoria's Secret models.
I wish I knew how to prevent this fall from grace. I want to teach my daughter to be proud of her wiry, muscled little body. I want her to know that she is beautiful just as she is and that she doesn't need to aspire to some air brushed, sterile perfection in order to be attractive. I want her to appreciate her body for all the joy and wonder and pleasure it will bring her through the years - not just sexual excitement, but all the physical delights that are considered vaguely suspect by our puritanical culture. The slice of her body into the water in a clean dive. The creamy decadent taste of chocolate mousse. The burn of her muscles as she pushes her body to its physical limits. The lazy sensuality of a baby at her breast. And yes, someday, I want her to enjoy guilt-free sex. (I never want to hear any details about her sex life, you understand, but I do want her to enjoy it).
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But I also want her to know that her body is her own and that it's private, that no one else has the right to look at her or touch her without her explicit consent. I want to keep her safe from the sorts of predators that haunt all mother's fears, and that I know all-too-well from my own girlhood.
How do we teach our daughters to take pride in their bodies, and yet to be private with them? How do we teach them to be safe, but not afraid of their sexuality?
I've been through some of this already with my older son, but it feels different, more personal with my daughter; it dredges up painful memories of my own adolescent shame and humiliation. I was an "early bloomer" and needed a bra and maxi pads several years before most of my peers. The boys teased me about my big breasts and the girls spied on me in the bathroom. I had read the Judy Bloom books - "normal" girls were supposed to look forward to those early signs of womanhood - but I didn't feel womanly, mature, or sexy. I felt grotesque, monstrous; not Beauty, but the beast..
Whatever I thought of my appearance, it didn't take long for boys and men to begin to pay attention to me. I wasn't entirely comfortable with this attention, but it reassured me - I wasn't a freak, I was desirable. The stares and catcalls, the lewd jokes, and even the inappropriate touches from teachers and older men convinced me I had something to offer (even if it was nothing more than a pair of 36C breasts). The awkward make-out sessions offered me a limited kind of power, and of course, the thrill of sexual excitement, spiced with a goodly measure of guilt and angst.
The good news is that I came out the other side with a relatively healthy body image and no serious sexual
hang ups. The bad news is that I had to go through some dark and unpleasant experiences to get here. And I don't think my adolescence was particularly unusual. My mother did all the "right
things." She talked frankly with me about sex and setting boundaries. She portrayed sex as something for adults, but as something enjoyable and exciting. She was resolutely matter of fact about the changes in my body, and never said or did anything to make me feel disgusting - and yet I did. Talking to my girlfriends, it seems that good, bad, or indifferent, our parents' attempts to explain and prepare us for puberty made very little difference in our feelings and attitudes. Almost universally, we experienced our teen years as a cruel and perverse freak show.
More than anything, I want my daughter not to feel this way. But I have no idea how to prevent it. When I asked my mom about this recently, she confessed that it's the area of her parenting that she felt most dissatisfied with. She wishes she'd been more forthright and had talked to me more, rather than giving me books to read. But I have to wonder if it would have helped. There's something so private and untouchable about the dawning awareness of your body and your sexuality, something we all have to figure out for ourselves. Franny's fumbling towards it now with "naked doctor," later she'll probably try spin the bottle and truth or dare, and ultimately it's something she'll have to work out on her own.
In the bathroom, Franny's getting ready for her bath. She's singing a little song of her own invention, repeating the same lyric over and over,
"Nake-y is fun, nake-y is fun, nake-y is fun!" I can't help but grin at her self-satisfaction. Maybe there's hope.
About the Author:
Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and
husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's
just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Send feedback for Melissa to firstname.lastname@example.org
and visit her blog