Living

Raising a Woman

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Being a woman is difficult. From the moment we become aware of our female-ness we struggle between the desire to be the adored princess and to protect our dignity. The virgin/ whore dichotomy of the female sex is universal and as old as time.  If managing my own womanliness has been difficult, raising a woman is proving to be a constant revision of my own morals, hopes and expectations.

When my daughter was born she all loveliness and beauty which seemed like a blessing. As a woman I was well aware of the dangers and pitfalls of all that loveliness and I straddled wanting her to feel empowered yet cautious without scaring her- I didn’t want her experience in the world to violate the trust and faith about how beautiful life can be.

But the truth is that being a woman is difficult. When she was little I worried about pedophiles… what parent who hasn’t watched Law and Order hasn’t? We live in a world where after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean one of the biggest concern was all the children at risk for human trafficking. According to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, of which 80% are female and half are children. Trafficking primarily involves exploitation which comes in many forms, including: forcing victims into prostitution, subjecting victims to slavery or involuntary servitude and compelling victims to commit sex acts for the purpose of creating pornography.

I consider myself someone who escaped the treacherous waters of childhood and adolescence somewhat unscathed; there was the man who exposed his penis to me in the park when I was 9, there was the man on the crowded bus when I was 12 who stuck his hand between my legs and gave me my first feeling of shame when I found myself too stunned to move or cry out, there was the ‘friend’ in college who pressed me against the pinball machine in a crowded bar and told me that for his birthday he wanted to rape me ‘Jodie Foster- style’. This is what I consider unscathed. Many of my friends- middle-class, University educated, strong women- have been raped, some by even several men at once, some by men they considered friends. Their stories weren’t made into Lifetime movies of the week- some of them said nothing, feeling that it was easier to forget, to move on. Now that my daughter is growing into womanhood I worry about everyone.

While I was at university, a ‘walksafe’ program was implemented and women were cautioned against walking alone after dark- in Canada after dark in the winter is 4pm! We thought this was normal. I found comfort studying Women Studies and feeling grateful that I wasn’t living in West Africa where female genital mutilation is still practiced (More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia) or Saudi Arabia where women aren’t even allowed to drive. I read Andrea Dworkin and Camille Paglia for guidelines on how to interpret this lurking feeling of persecution.  I listened to a lot of Ani DiFranco…. I still do. I struggled with wanting to feel sexy yet dignified.

People haven’t changed but our culture has. An article on how female athletes in the Olympics get more comments about their appearance than male athletes recently circulated. This is a nice safe subject compared to the one about the 16 year old girl who was raped in Rio by over 30 men (7 have been charged). Female sexuality is more pervasive than ever; Kim Kardashian posts nude selfies and gets called brave, Fifty Shades of Grey made submissiveness mainstream and with a marketing sleight of hand turned it into some kind of distorted version of empowerment.

Growing up in a world with ‘walksafe’ programs at least we were talking about the issues. Raising a daughter in the Kardashian age can make you want to punch someone in the face. Sexuality today is not something to protect, it is something every girl can own and feel empowered by….Really? I have my doubts. Paglia wrote that we can’t count on morality to protect us, while it seemed extreme and bordering on ‘blame the victim’ in the 90s I think it is a must in today’s Kardashian age.

At my daughters school last year there was a petition because a girl was sent home for inappropriate dress; too revealing. ‘We should be able to wear what we want!’ my daughter exclaimed like she was Rosa Parks fighting for a seat on the bus. I didn’t sign the petition. I don’t think it is fair to put the ‘choice’ on fifteen year old girls when we are raising them in a culture that has sexualized them from such a young age. Is it really a choice when societal values are so crass?

My daughter is growing up. She is beautiful, a very good and nice person. Sometimes she wears short shorts and tight tops that accentuate her breasts. I sometimes make her change her clothes. I want her to feel beautiful, loved and powerful. I want her to make good choices, but I know how difficult this must be in the Kardashian age. There is a lot I am sure I don’t hear about, but I hear about enough to know that my daughter cannot make these choices on her own. I have heard about other parents playing beer pong with fifteen-year-olds and letting them go to nightclubs when they are supposed to be having sleepovers.

I don’t care if my daughter is mad at me for being ‘strict’, for the midnight curfew- it was good enough for Cinderella-, for occasionally making her change her clothes, for taking away her phone when she is caught lying. My job as a parent is to protect and educate her so that when she is out in the world she is making choices that afford her dignity and self-respect. Because while she may look like a woman, she is still very much a little girl- we all are.

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