When I was 7 years old, two girls in my neighborhood told me I was too fat to be Catwoman in our game of Batman. I came home crying and my mom asked me what was going on. When I told her, she didn't comfort me, or tell me those girls were awful, or fall over herself to assure me of how extraordinarily gorgeous and skinny I was. She neutrally, but warmly told me, "You're just right."
She said it with such casual authority that I believed her without question and felt better. I'm now 32 years old, and I can still tell you exactly how I felt in that moment. It was like a wave of happiness had washed over me, taking with it any self-doubt. My body was what it was supposed to be. It was just right, like Baby Bear's porridge in Goldilocks. I've thought a lot about that moment since then, and see it as a turning point in how I would go on to feel about my body in the years to come. My friends' telling me what I couldn't do based on my size wasn't the first hurtful comment lobbed at my body, and it certainly wasn't the last, but my mom's response — "you're just right" — anchored me.
As I got older and thought about having children, I knew I wanted to be the kind of mom who could do what my mother had done: create a foundation upon which the statement "you're just right" could be accepted as an answer and believed as a philosophy. Because while I credit this one particular comment as being pivotal in how I would feel about my body throughout life, I know that, in truth, it was just one of thousands of body positive messages I received over the years. I knew that any "Eureka!" moments my children would have about their own self-esteem would have to spring from fertile ground. A lifetime of confidence building.
I wanted this for all my children, boys and girls, but knew, practically speaking, that this would almost certainly be a more important message for any daughters I might have: they would be faced with much more scrutiny, expectation, and judgment about their bodies than my sons. It would also be harder to convince girls that they were "just right." We cannot shield our daughters from the cacophony of mixed and harmful messages they will hear about their bodies over the course of their lifetimes. But as their parents, we have the opportunity to be the loudest of those myriad voices. Whether it will be louder than the collective others remains to be seen.
So what messages do we send?
She does not owe anyone hugs or kisses just because they ask. She does not have to look or dress any particular way to make others more comfortable. No one is allowed to touch her without her consent. Her body belongs entirely to her: she makes the rules.
It's not a "tutu" or a "wee wee" or whatever cutesy, imprecise word we've squeamishly applied to our lower halves. She has a vagina, a clitoris, and labia. "Vulva" is also a perfectly acceptable term if you want to speak generally.
Body diversity — shape, size, and ability — is a beautiful thing. Parents try to teach this to their little ones a few ways. They strive to present a wide variety of bodies of body types in the media their children consume. They simultaneously de-emphasize the importance of bodies as aesthetically pleasing while encouraging self-esteem in their appearance. It may sound contradictory or tricky at first, but it's a cinch once you get the hang of it. It's fine to delight in physical appearance, either our own or someone else's. Fabulous! Encouraged even! What feminist parents do is stress the line between "you're beautiful" and "you should strive to be beautiful" or "your primary value lies in your beauty." This can be achieved by giving varied compliments rather than sticking to simply looks-based ones. So "You're so pretty!" is fine, but make sure they're also hearing "You're so smart! That was so clever! You have such a kind heart." We also try, in our praise of our daughter's bodies, to commend them for (or remind them of) the things their bodies are capable of and achieve rather than simply what they look like.
If that fails, just try playing Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" over and over until the message sinks in...
Since all bodies are good bodies, we don't speak ill of anyone's. We certainly don't say anything negative about our daughter's bodies, but it goes beyond that. We don't offhandedly snark at another woman's "muffin top" or someone else's "enormous schnoz." Not even celebrity women on TV. We don't stare into a mirror and bemoan our "saddle bags" or disappointedly poke our bellies, either. In fact, we don't even call our body parts by anything other than their medical name or neutral, colloquial (so, like, "butt" is fine) term. And we're not going to prefix neutral terms with horrible descriptors. Know why? It's literally dehumanizing.
So of course we will be choosing our daughter's outfits for a while. Because I'm pretty sure newborns don't care what onesie you stick them in (they're going to poop all over it anyway). Also, have you ever tried to have an infant choose an outfit? They can't. They just sit there, and occasionally they'll make a gassy face or spit up or something, but that is neither an endorsement nor a rejection of whatever clothing you're showing them. You'd be waiting forever. So for the first few months at least, go ahead and have your daughter be an extension of your own personal style and preferences. Hell, you may even get a few years before she gives a crap. But once they start showing a preference, feminist parents let their daughters pick their own clothes and hair styles. When it comes to dying hair, policies vary, but it's usually permissive. (My policy is "if you're old enough to buy the dye yourself and properly apply it without making a huge mess in the bathroom then be my guest.") Tattoos or other body modifications? They'll probably have to wait until they're 18 (at least for the latter two) in order to comply with the law. (Though piercings have more wiggle room.)
Feminist parents don't describe their own make-up routine as "putting on my face." Your face is, hopefully, already on the front of your head and not something you have to put on every morning. Unless you're like the creepy witch from Return to Oz who had a collection of detachable heads.
Cosmetics can be fun (I myself am a sucker for red lipstick), but they are not a requirement for a girl of a certain age to walk out of the house. We don't tell her, "You look so pale; put on some rouge" or, "Use some concealer under your eyes, you look really tired." We also don't say, "Wipe off that eyeshadowy, you look trashy."
C.S. Lewis is credited (falsely, apparently) with coining the following quote...
"You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."
Your body is where "you" live. Your brain, your soul (if you believe in souls): that's the important stuff. Now, bodies are cool; I'd rather have a body than be a brain in a jar. I'd even rather have a body than be a brain in a human suit, like Krang, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which would be pretty effing sweet.
Bodies bring us a lot of pleasure, physically and aesthetically, but bodies change a lot more than the elegant mix of brain and soul inside of them. So when it comes to defining who we are, it's better to go with that electrical synapses and intangible goop than the blood, bones, fat, and muscle that we can see. It's like the Fox says in The Little Prince (or what any of your arty friends had as their away message on AIM back in college):
"What is essential is invisible to the eye."
Images: StillVision/Flickr; Giphy (8); Gifsoup; Tumblr