Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Discuss

Last night my daughter shrank away from me as I gave her a hug. Why? She was bare-chested and had been examining her "new growth" in the mirror. She was embarrassed by her own nakedness.
"Look at them", she said, "they wobble". Then she asked me, "Why are nipples bad?"
'What do you mean, bad?"
'Well, men can go around with no top on and they are in magazines and on adverts with their nipples showing but women have theirs fuzzied [sic] out."

My daughter is eleven.

I had picked her up from school to be told how the Health lesson that day had been all about personal hygiene. The teacher had told them they were disgusting if they wore the same shirt two days in a row or if they didn't shower every day. Now, I understand, we want our kids to have pride in their appearance and to stay clean and healthy and not pong out their class mates - nobody likes sitting next to the stinky kid - but to call a child disgusting? Really? There are levels of self-loathing being taught and to fear and loathe your own body smell is one of them, I think. 

I read two thought provoking essays by Ethel Rohan:
http://therumpus.net/2012/06/bodies-in-bikinis-are-you-buying-it/
http://ethelrohan.com/2012/07/brave-how-princess-merida-might-have-saved-me/
The comments are as interesting as the essays.

This winter I have grown all my body hair to show my daughter what women look like. I have worn vest tops and let my under arm hair protrude in public. Too much info? Too much show? Or too little too late? Admittedly, I resemble something akin to a merkin display stand, but disgust?






33 comments:

sarahelaing said...

Oh dear, this is what I have to look forward to. Funnily enough I was talking about that with my kids today too. My 3 y/o daughter was pointing at my nipples and telling me she wouldn't grow any of those until she was a woman. She seemed quite excited about the thought and I wished that she could hold onto that excitement on not let the shame seep in. And I was telling my 6y/o son about how in the olden days, women used to wear lots of long skirts and never bathe, instead hanging lavender bundles at their waist. If their under-skirts got too crusty they'd take them off and wash them. Thanks for another thought-provoking blog post, and I'm off to read the articles now.

Rachel Fenton said...

Sarah, what you say about the shame - that's key, I think.

The scale of body-hatred bombardment my daughter received from her primary peers shocked me, I have to say. I wasn't prepared for it so young. We need to tell our daughters empowering stories and teache them to love their bodies by loving our own, I think.

I haven't resorted to lavender bundles (yet!) but I don't think anyone can be seriously environmentally kind by wearing a clean shirt every day!
Though, I dread anyone coming to visit at the weekends when I lounge around in my PJs all day to write!

Rachel Fenton said...

How did I get an 'e' on the end of teach?....

Donna Hosie said...

This kind of crap needs to be raised with the Head Teacher. It is appalling.

Rachel Fenton said...

It is appalling, Donna, but I know from past experience of speaking out (I complained of inequality in her primary school - she's now in intermediate), it can make school life a living hell. So I go at it from a resillience angle now and encourage her to formulate her own opinions and we talk about it lots.

helencaldwell said...

Hey Rachel,

Good on you being a positive body image role model for your daughter. I read Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman last year and was (largely) convinced by her arguments for not removing body hair. (With regards to underarm hair she said it was fine to shave it, but also fine to leave it long and women should enjoy the freedom of choosing different looks to match different outfits :))
I say largely convinced because in practice it's very hard to feel body confident in a bikini at the beach when everyone else round about you is smooth legged and hair free.
I tried out the natural, unshaved look recently at the beach but felt so self conscious that I huddled under my towel for a while before dashing to the water when I thought no one was looking :(

Rachel Fox said...

Oh dear. I had heard NZ was a bit behind the times... sounds like that's what you're dealing with. Teachers here wouldn't talk to kids like that... or if they did they would expect some comeback!
x

Rachel Fenton said...

Helen! I need to get hold of that book. By all accounts it sounds like a great read. I think you just have to remember that most of the hair free are only doing it thorugh lack of confidence in the natural state of their bodies - usually because they want to attract a man and this is how the media tells us we are attractive to men...

Cast off that towel, wade victoriously and hirsutely into the sea! If not for yourself, DO IT FOR YOUR SISTERS! :)

Rachel Fenton said...

Rachel, I think there are generally a lot of thoughtless people working in schools and throwing words around like litter.

Every word has meaning - that's why there are so many of the things - you'd think a teacher would choose more wisely.

Thomas Taylor said...

'Disgusting' is entirely the wrong word to use, so I hope the teacher did just stumbled in her word choice. If not then a few carefuly chosen words to the Head might be needed. Or a stink bomb on teacher's chair:)

Childhood is beset from all angles, and shrinking faster for girls than for boys. More power to you, Rachel!

Rachel Fenton said...

Last year my daughter asked me what paranoid meant. I explained. She told me she wanted to know because that's what her teacher had called her in front of the whole class, and because it was a teacher, didn't that make it the truth?

Honestly, the stupidity and irresponsibility of some teachers astounds me.

I complained - at length - about this and many other issues there. My complaints were not passed on to the board - that way the school got to keep its "no bullies" perfect record.

I'd go with the stink bomb this time!

sara crowley said...

I don't even know where to begin! Firstly, I have noticed how careless people are with language. "Mental" "Disgusting" "gay" and so on. So, that's one issue right there. Secondly, prescriptive advice on how often to wash/change shirts etc is ridiculous as we're all different. Some people, those with sensitive skin, eczema and so on may actually prefer not to wash as it can aggravate the skin and dry it out. I remember my son having a similar talk at school and asking for deodorant. I didn't want to encourage him to unnecessarily use it at all. (Now he has more cans of Lynx than I can count!) BOdy hair on women - ooh, now, this is something I have been thinking about a lot since reading this http://vagendamag.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/hair-not-musical.html
Women are getting so far away from natural it's criminal. No pubic hair, no armpit hair, no facial hair (apart from perfectly groomed eyebrows - anyone know why we are "allowed" to keep them?). Plastic breasts, whitened teeth, fake eyelashes, fake nails. So many of the girls in my boys schools (13/14 year olds) are fully made up, fake eyelashed, fake nails, while the most the boys do is gel their hair. So sad. So wrong. I applaud you for teaching your daughter in the very best way. Yet, it is excruciatingly hard to go against the grain especially at school when kids are desperate to just fit in at whatever cost. (Unless they are stunningly confident or beautiful in which case people forgive far more easily any deviation from the "norm".

Rachel Fenton said...

That's a very funny blog post, and impressive. Thanks for the link, Sara!

By the way, I have way more underarm hair than her, and mine's black! Plus, my body hair generally seems not to have a genetic switch off - perhaps I could offer it on loan to film studios as Tarzan vines...

I hate the way women are made to feel like we have to apologise for having body hair!

I am aware of raising a child who won't fit in but I figure the benefits of raising a strong, healthy minded child who rubs against the grain outweigh the downside of a child who nods and bleets and feels like crap inside.

With the disgust and shirt changing - I think it also doesn't take into regard some poor kids whose parents cannot afford enough items of (very expensive) school shirts to have the luxury of changing them every day.

As for eyebrows - if we didn't have them we'd look like blow-up dolls and someone would have to go to all the trouble of finding a way to get blow-up dolls to carry children and use the washing machine.

sara crowley said...

I think the point I was badly making about fitting in is that whilst you saying "I am aware of raising a child who won't fit in but I figure the benefits of raising a strong, healthy minded child who rubs against the grain outweigh the downside of a child who nods and bleets and feels like crap inside." is fab sometimes no matter how well we have taught our kids they desperately crave fitting in to a point that to deny them that would be more harmful than allowing it (whilst still keeping that dialogue going, of course.)

Also, in my previous post I left off the "so often" to the sentence about people with eczema. Sigh.

Lori said...

Well, if I am not mistaken, there was a time in history when women did shave or pluck the eyebrows and then painted new ones.
I have been thinking of doing without any hair removal, just like you, in order to empower my daughter. Haven't had the courage yet, but I am building up to it. I have a lot of internalized shame connected to body hair. It helps that I have a few women in my circle of friends who are braver than I am. This is such an important topic, Rachel. I want my daughter, when she grows, to feel as free as she feels right now when she goes to the beach: just throw on a swim suit and no other worries.

Rachel Fenton said...

Sara, I get that too - and she totally has the choice, but it is a choice. One thing that's been of interest is, her last school was predominantly pakeha, white European, decile ten. Her current school has a greater Pacifica and other demographic, decile eight. The beauty norms are a little different and I'm glad about that.
I also think that a lot of that changing herself to fit in happened at Primary school and now she's questioning some of her choices. I just let her talk, always let her give her opinions first, and answer truthfully.

All the above said, however, she's swimming competitively and will probably "have to" shave at some point.

Rachel Fenton said...

Should I have been painting my moustache back on, I winder, Lori :)

I think the main benefit of doing it is that nobody has noticed. Nobody has commented. I am not as obviously garlanded with a tangleweed of pube hair as I believed. Really, what my daughter is seeing is that no one really looks beyond their own hang-ups to see or worry about mine.

Rachel Fenton said...

Wonder, even. Typo week....

Rachel Fenton said...

Just to add to your point, Sara - I think really it's the dialogue I'm glad for.

sara crowley said...

I agree, Rachel, the dialogue is key. If you can keep that going then even if she does go along with some of the things that convention dictates she'll do so with an awareness and understanding. Go you!

Rachel Fenton said...

:)

helencaldwell said...

Thanks Rachel, I know you're right. I'm glad it's winter now though so I've got a good few months to build up to beach body confidence. Yeah, Caitlin Moran's book was great. Do you have a kindle? I have it on mine so I think that means I can lend it to you...

Kass said...

Such an interesting post. I read all the links and comments and feel objectified, yet resigned to the fact that unthinking/unfeeling people will always react to media influence and social pressure. Thank goodness there are women like you and your friends (and the producers of Brave who are educating children to be natural and proud.

(I just checked by comment in preview and it came out double-spaced and outside the margins. Hope it is readable. If not, don't post it)

When I was eleven, I started my period and began growing boobs. I was ashamed of both events. I refused to look at my chest, even in a mirror and was aghast a year later at how they had grown. I couldn't believe how boys stared at my chest as I walked down the halls at school. My mother added to the discomfort by undercupping one of them and exclaiming, "Aren't they cute?!"

Somehow my daughter has become a strong-minded individual who balks at societal pressures to conform. She's 33 and says she will NEVER marry, so perhaps she's gone too far, but at least she has her sanity and dignity.

Rachel Fenton said...

Helen, apologies for leaving your comment dangling there. I don't have a kindle but I think I have a kindle reader thingy on my i-pad. I'm still trying to work out what I have to do with it though!

Rachel Fenton said...

Kass, it's astounding how insensitive mothers can be. Even me; I'm sure I have messed up a lot. I'm grateful my daughter can be open with me and talks to me about her concerns thou, still, I hope that continues. I can only hope she grows into the confident, self-assured woman your daughter seems to have become.

Parrish Lantern said...

I have an 11 year old daughter, who I hope will not suffer such problems of image, but with what is constantly pumped out by the media, all I can do is be there & offer alternatives to this perceived "norm". As to disgusting, to much etc, not really, perhaps to a few, but merely that.

Rachel Fenton said...

Hey, Parrish, good to have your input. We don't have telly and I still feel my daughter has no escape from the media. I can imagine how difficult it is for you and your daughter to keep a sense of perspective. Sounds like you're doing a great job though.

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

This makes me mad. I hope you tackled the school and got a result. Hugs for daughter.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks. The Health teacher was a visitor. Many of the teachers I've encountered have generally used innapropriate language. It's an issue.

Ethel Rohan said...

I'm late to the discussion, Rachel, sorry. Thank you for the shout out and for continuing the discussion. The comments here are also as interesting as your post. I've often cursed the first women who shaved--what a bloody legacy! You've touched a nerve with female body hair. My two daughters HATE their body hair and my oldest started plucking and shaving at 10! 10! My youngest, now also 10, also wants to start shaving. We continue to struggle with how much to conform and how much to rebel. Absolutely, the predominant messages for girls and women re the body are extremes of 'disgusting' and 'sexual object' How to find a better way? To respect and honor the body as sacred?

Hooray for hairy you, Rachel, and thank you. This post and the interesting discussion that follows have given me more to think about as a woman and mother, thank you.

Rachel Fenton said...

No worries, Ethel - thanks to you too.

Sara Crowly and I have actually continued the conversation here:

http://womenhavehairgetoverit.blogspot.co.nz/

If you'd like to guest post/comment over there, we'd love to have your in put.

There were definitely kids shaving at my daughter's primary. Now she's at intermediate, I suppose I'm anticipating her wanting to start. But I'm just happy she's talking to me about it rather than shaving just because, and feeling bad about her body.

Thanks, Ethel.

chillcat said...

Hi again haven't been over here for a while and what a great discussion. My daughter is 17 and has already been through various stages of conformism and rejection with regard to her peers. Over here in Italy young women are fed blatantly sexualised role models and it is quite frightening to watch a girl begin to negotiate her way through this. Mine has already been blonde, rejected this, has shaven/waxed and has rejected that too. I think her self-awareness is admirable in the face of such off-putting role models, and I hope this will last. I wrote my silly book partly because I couldn't stand the women present themselves in this country!

Rachel Fenton said...

HI Cat,

I haven't been about either. Don't worry about it.

Your daughter sounds like she's shaping up to be a formidable woman - like her mum.

It must be very difficult to find her own way in such a traditionally patriarchal country but I'm glad she's walking tall.

And your book is ace, not silly - though it is quite hilarious....which reminds me....