10 things I want my daughter to know about her body
You'll wish your mother had written this to you
My mother thinks I’m crazy. I breastfed for “like, a really long time,” I dress my daughter as a different version of Beyoncé each Halloween, and every time I bathe my girl, I hoist her still-wet frame up in the mirror Simba-style, and together we chant, “Look at this beautiful body!” She squeals with glee at her reflection, kicking her naked limbs around as I nightly remind myself what a terribly dangerous ritual hoisting a wet wriggling toddler above my head is. She then jubilantly slathers lotion on her gorgeously round belly, and we get her ready for bed — but not before I rock her with a sweet serenade of my favourite Sweeney Todd lullaby, “Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around…” as I weepily snot onto her sleep sack. So yeah, my mother thinks I’m crazy. Go figure.
There’s so much I want to bottle about my baby — the way she throws her head back at the prospect of being tickled, the way she sings herself to sleep for a full hour, and the way she sees herself in that mirror. While there is so much I fear about raising a child — especially a girl — in this world, one of the things that scares me the most is that so much of what can “harm” her is staring right back at her in that mirror, and I won’t always be around to stop it. The only way I can try to keep her safe is to teach her. And so, my girl, here are the top 10 things your mom wants you to know about that beautiful body of yours. Hopefully they can lift you up when I no longer can.
1. Know your parts.
The only time I ever got kicked out of a class was in sixth grade. I was president of the honour society and secretary of student government, but the minute my science teacher used the word “testes,” I laughed for the next 23 years. It made me so uncomfortable I never even saw a teste (ha!) until my 20s (let’s say that was the only reason). Still, I felt like the names of male genitalia were less taboo than the names of my own parts, and I want you to know yours — what they’re actually called and what they do. I want no shame or stigma to be a part of anything that’s a part of you, and I want you to be equipped with the language and knowledge to effectively communicate when something doesn’t feel right. It was your labia on the ultrasound that let me know you were a girl. I cried. The technician pointed it out and I told her it was the most beautiful labia I’d ever seen. She looked at your image and chuckled, “Girl, your mama is crazy.” But it really was. And I didn’t laugh at all. (OK, maybe just a little.)
2. Put your parts in a swimsuit.
As I write this, a box of 13 one-piece swimsuits sits unopened on my desk, waiting for me to try them on before Water Tots tomorrow because apparently the bikini I wore last week wasn’t appropriate. It’s not that I felt even remotely comfortable in the bikini; it’s more that I haven’t been able to stomach (bad verb choice) the thought of trying on new swimsuits postpartum. My husband usually does swimming class, but he recently had a bunch of stitches and now has this huge gauzy bandage that can’t get wet, so lately, it’s my turn. When I went last week, though, awkward bikini and all, I did feel a camaraderie in that kiddie pool with a whole bunch of other new parents with their new-parent bodies that sort of let me forget about the swimsuit and enjoy the swimming (until the subsequent email with the gentle one-piece suggestion). We swim because you love it. You’re never as happy as when you splash in the water and I’d never want a swimsuit — or 13 of them — to keep you from smiling like that.
When I was in high school, my mother told me I could look like Britney Spears if I exercised (she meant well). Blissfully unaware of the dangerous implications of unrealistic body goals, I immediately went downstairs and walked on the treadmill while watching Family Feud. Did I look like Britney Spears? Survey says, “X.” But I did realize how good it felt to move my body. Family Feud walks became jogs, which turned into joining a gym. I felt strong and at home in my body for the first time, and exercise became an integral part of my life. My OB told me she thought I had an easy labor because I kept up with my exercise and had a remarkably powerful vagina. (She also told me to never tell anyone about said easy labor.) I want you to feel that your body is powerful, that it never weighs you down, but instead makes you able — to swim, and have fun, and surprise yourself with things you never thought possible, like birthing a child in six pushes. (Oops, I think I did it again.)
4. Food is good.
It’s so good! Enjoy it — let it nourish your body and your soul. Let your great-grandmother’s chicken soup heal you, let the pretzel sticks you share on the bus be the start of a friendship. Let food give you memories, bring you joy, and not become an obsession. Eat food that makes you healthier and food that makes you happier. Sticky, dripping, and still somehow in your hair the next day, ice cream shared with you is the best I’ve ever tasted. And while I appreciate your eagerness to share your can of sardines with all the (gulp) stuff, I want you to enjoy that all yourself. (For the record, I did try it; I just don’t want to deprive you of any of the stuff.) Eat good food. And take a good bath when you’re done as needed.
5. Choose healthy over thin.
Part of what can be so uncomfortable about swimsuits stems from our society’s obsession with being thin. Part of what can be so beautiful about swimsuits is that when we can get beyond ourselves, we can see that no two bodies are alike — that healthy bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. We’re fuckin’ snowflakes, my dear. I want you to know the difference between healthy and thin. Strive for the healthiest version of yourself instead of an idealized version of somebody else. There’s so much to resist in the world, but when it comes to you and your healthiest body, you’re on the same team. Don’t fight it.
6. Your body, your choice.
You were 17 months old when I brought you to the Women’s March. Dangling from the carrier with a sign that read, “Be Kind,” you instead picked up on the “My body, my choice” chant and ended up leading the crowd in what had to be its most awkward-turned-awesome rendition. While it’s a great party trick, that phrase also has come in handy as a very early (and kind of hilarious) way for you to assert yourself and be in control of your body. Though, like all of parenting, it’s easier said than done, I try to never force you into showing physical affection if you don’t want to. I want you to know that your body is yours and yours alone. When more outwardly affectionate kids try to hold your hand or hug you, I let you pull away, because I want you to learn what doesn’t feel comfortable for you and feel secure in communicating that. Plus, it really went over great at your preschool tour when they asked if you wanted to sit and sing a song, and you stomped off with a book chanting, “My body my choice.” We’re a work in progress.
7. Know pleasure.
Just as I want you to know what doesn’t feel good and right to your body, I want you to figure out what does. I want you to feel comfortable exploring your body in private — I want you to learn yourself. And when you feel safe and thoughtful and in control, I want you to know the joy of sex with someone who is also safe and thoughtful. I want you to know what it feels like to love and be loved physically. And the only way to truly feel good with someone else is to feel good about yourself first.
8. There will be blood.
Don’t ever apologize for your period. Period. Sorry. Sorry.
9. Things change.
The female body grows and slows, pimples and dimples, and leaks and creaks. Your dad always says that getting old is better than the alternative. You will grow, and you will change, and as impossible as it may sound, I want you to embrace those changes. Every laugh line, every gray hair, each stretch mark and scar tells the greatest story — the story of you. If you ever feel lost, your ever-evolving body is a roadmap of who you are. So who needs tattoos, right? (But OK, yeah, “your body, your choice” and blah, blah, blah.)
10. Don’t wait.
Like so many women, I have struggled to see my body in a positive light longer than I want to admit. I remember in detail the time in third grade when the popular kid nicknamed me “cow” because of my buckteeth, the night at summer camp when a “friend” joked about the bump in my nose, and the endless taunts and glances at my breasts that I refused to get reduced because I knew I someday wanted to breastfeed for, like, a really long time. I could never look in the mirror and see past those things and more.
I never realized how good it felt to touch my own stomach until I felt you move inside me. I never had such a healthy relationship with food until I was eating it to nourish us both. I look at my huge, saggy breasts with pride for the first time because they now tell the story of how they fed you. I see you in the mirror developing some of the features that I once hated in myself, but I look at them in you and know I’ve never seen anything more perfect. You are my mirror. It took your body to let me love mine and I don’t want you to wait that long. I wish for you to never stop looking at that beautiful body with as much joy and appreciation as you do now. I know I can’t always be there to hoist you up, I know I can’t always keep you safe — to think that would be, well, crazy. But know that as much as I’ve lifted you, you basking in that mirror has lifted me even higher. That beautiful body will always be staring back at you — I hope you never stop seeing it.