While many parents are becoming increasingly aware of the importance in teaching their daughters consent, girls are still learning and internalize messages and actions that undermine their bodily autonomy. According to Dr. Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist, body autonomy "refers to the human right of people to have control over their own bodies." Again, "human right." Still, that human right is violated at alarming rates. In today's world of rampant sexual assault of women and domestic violence, teaching little girls to respect and take charge of their bodies is not only necessary, it can be crucial for their survival. Sure, we must also teach boys to grow up to be respectful men, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't arm our daughter with power and confidence.
Two years ago, I was interrupted at work by a phone call. Typically, I don't pick up the phone when I see an unfamiliar number, but on that particular day I did. It was the nurse from my daughter's school. After she assured me everything was fine, she proceeded to tell me that my 6-year-old came to school with transparent leggings and needed to change. I had no idea what my daughter wore to school that day because she dresses herself for school and her grandfather drops her off at the bus stop since I am already at work. The nurse told me my daughter's leggings were inappropriate and that my daughter could not go back to class until someone brought her a pair of pants. Until then, she was forced to sit in the nurse's office, covered up by a blanket, likely scared and confused.
Not until two years later, did I realize what effect that day has had on my daughter and on her confidence. That day, she came home distraught. She cried from embarrassment; she clearly did not realize everyone could see her underwear; she was 6. My dad said she looked fine that morning. Now, she wears shorts underneath her dresses. Now, she covers up her belly and shoulders. Now, she is worried someone will think her body is embarrassing. So, while I do everything in my power to teach my daughter consent, a healthy body image, and bodily autonomy, a single day at her school, and the ridiculous way the totally benign situation was handled, put me 10 steps behind.
Parents should teach their daughters the importance of consent without undermining their personal choices or forcing them to dress a certain way or to look a certain way. While we cannot control other people, we definitely can control what happens in our home, because if we don't at least try, our girls will definitely learn the following:
Whom They Give Affection To Is Not Their Choice
Many children are forced by their parents to kiss and hug family members. While, for decades, this type of pressure seemed like "teaching manners," it actually undermines your child's bodily autonomy. Why should anyone be forced to have physical contact with anyone? It is not rude to not show affection to someone just because that someone is a family member. Airial Clark, M.A, the founder of The Sex-Positive Parent and a sexuality educator and community organizer says, "affection should be freely given, which means it needs to be freely withheld." Sure, Grandma Mary may become visibly upset when she feels rejected by her granddaughter, but Clark adds that,"this idea that rejection should be avoided at all costs is really harmful and a vital part of rape culture."
Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention adds the following:
"When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend's feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them. This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so 'he'll like me' and kids enduring bullying because everyone is 'having fun.'"
They Don't Control Their Hair
I take both of my children for haircuts. I've taken them since their hair naturally grew into mullets and I thought that needed to change. However, ever since my daughter was old enough (around 3 or so) to tell me how/when she wants her hair cut, I have respected her wishes. That doesn't mean I love her choices. Some days I really wish she'd cut her hair much shorter so it's easier to handle, but I have to remind myself her hair is not my hair and her choices are not my choices.
Dr. Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist and a Getting to Calm author reminds parents that they "sometimes have big opinions about 'what looks best.' However, if we dig deeply enough, we know that our notions about physical appearance and hairstyles are culturally constructed, influenced by our identities (not respect for our children’s budding ones), and potentially biased by our needs to bend our children toward conformity." And personally, as Dr. Kastner puts it, I don't want my children conforming when it comes to their bodies and to "subjugate themselves to others’ opinions about their bodies, desires to touch their bodies, or others’ beliefs about crossing personal boundaries."
hey Don't Control Their Bodies
In my culture, it is a tradition to pierce a girl's ears when she is an infant. But, since I'm often defiant when it comes to "cultural norms," I did not pierce my daughter's ears. I believe in letting her make her own choices about her body. Sometime after her third birthday, my daughter said she wanted earrings. Excited for this milestone, I took her to the mall to get her ears pierced. A few months later, her ears got infected and she was in so much pain we had to take out the earrings and she now wants nothing to do with them. The holes in her ears grew back in and she is totally fine with not wearing earrings, even though most of her friends do.
In ancient Rome men and women wore earrings as a status symbol and later, during the English Renaissance, ear piercing was more common "among refined gentlemen" than among women. In the Western civilization, between 1920s and 1950s, earrings were worn by "good girls" to illustrate their "conformity to societal standards of the time." Now, however, approximately "83 percent of men and women in the US have one or both earlobes pierced." So, if ear piercing is so ordinary that both boys and girls get their ears pierced, why do so many parents pierce their daughter's ears in infancy? As parents, we know that the gift of choice for our children is one that can greatly benefit them, so why do so many parents believe it is their right to make that choice for their kids? But, because so many parents choose to pierce their daughter's ears, their daughter's may believe they are not the only voice in deciding what happens to their bodies.
Their Personal Boundaries Are Up For Discussion
Tell me if this is a familiar scene: your daughter is playing with some kids, they start getting a little wild, and your daughter becomes visibly upset because the kids are treating her in a way she doesn't like. You, in order to save face in front of the other parents, say something like, "Oh, they are just playing, honey," or, "Don't be so sensitive." Instead of respecting your daughter's boundaries, you tell her that her boundaries aren't really important.
Or, your daughter comes home and tells you a boy has been pulling her hair or pinching her. What do you tell her? Well, some parents say, "Oh, that means he likes you." Dr. Lisa Kaplin, a psychologist, says it is important to explain to our daughters that when someone hurts them it's "about control, not liking or caring for someone.” If that distinction isn't made, girls will think abuse is a normal part of a loving relationship.
There Are Hundreds Of Different Terms For Their Genitals
I taught my daughter the proper terminology for her genitals as early as I could. I believe avoiding proper terminology assigns a shameful connotation to those terms. Research suggest children should be taught the proper names for their genitals before they even start talking. Sandy K. Wurtele, a professor of psychology and an associate dean at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, says that children who know correct terms for their genitals are "less vulnerable to sexual abuse; prospective offenders may understand that children who are comfortable with the right names for body parts are children whose parents are willing to discuss these subjects." Furthermore, if something were to happen, "without proper terminology, children [would] have a very hard time telling someone about inappropriate touching."
No Doesn't Necessarily Mean No
Admit it: you've ignored your daughter's "no" many times. You want a kiss and your kid isn't in the mood to be affectionate but you kiss her anyway. Or her brother wants a hug and she doesn't feel like it but you force her to hug him anyway. Your daughter doesn't want a picture and you still make her pose for one. She says she doesn't want to play with certain kids but you force her to do it anyway because you are friends with those kids' parents. You've done it. Many of us have. I have. But all people have boundaries and kids are no different.
When parents undermine or ignore or dismiss the important "no," they send a message to their kid that adults can do whatever they want to them. Carol Horton, a Texas psychotherapist and works with children who are the survivors of abuse, suggests that parents should respect their kid's "personhood" and give "the opportunity to make choices and have opinions." This teaches children their opinions and their rejections actually matter.
They Exist To Be Consumed
Parents and others tell little girls to smile. Schools create modest dress codes for girls. Girls are taught they exist so others can take pleasure in looking at them. Music videos, television hows, and pretty much all of pop culture turns women into objects to be desired. Then, schools tell girls their bodies are distracting and parents follow suit. Joel Baum, senior director of professional development at the nonprofit advocacy group Gender Spectrum, says that dress codes "imply that a student’s body is shameful" or that girls should dress modestly to prevent "sexual arousal in boys." He says, “Some kids have vulvas and some kids have penises. It’s OK to see one person’s belly button, but not the other’s? What are we saying to our girls? It further objectifies them, further sexualizes them.”
In a world where "boys will be boys" and girls must "dress like a lady," undermining our daughters' bodily autonomy is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous.
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