Training the world – on little girls and body image.

I maintain something of a bi-cameral approach with regard to writing about my children: I write about them, but I don’t use their names (their last name is different to mine, which helps); I write about them, but I write only happy things, or uplifting things, or things that are far in the past. Nothing that would embarrass them, nothing that is truly personal and private. I owe them that, I think. They didn’t ask to be born to me.

Today I’m going to break down that wall, though, because I believe my own daughter’s well-being actually, in a very broad way, depends on it. If you know my girl, or if you ever meet her, I’m asking you here and now: Please don’t discuss the following with her. It would, genuinely, make her sad.

The girl.

The girl.

But how am I to remain silent, when she sits in the back of my car, tears streaming down her face and wondering, in a tiny and strangled voice, if anyone will ever love her?

The girl is tall, and broad, and strong, and round. She is 10, and as she has throughout her young life, she has a belly. It’s not small – it’s a real belly. The kind of belly that many young girls have until they reach puberty, and which is usually eclipsed by the appearance of breasts. As girls grow into women, our shapes change — but they don’t usually change entirely. Mine didn’t. If you were born big and soft (9 lbs 3 oz, and she was four weeks early), you’re never going to become anything much different, unless you literally do physical damage to yourself in the effort.

“Do you think I’ll ever be skinny?” she asked in that same car ride.

No, honey, no. I do not think you will ever be skinny. “Skinny” (like “fat”) has no real value, it tells us nothing about the worth or even the health of the person, it’s a descriptor. It’s like “tall” or “blue” or “left handed” – it describes something, it doesn’t tell you that thing’s worth. Or, worse yet, we’ve made “skinny” (and “fat”) into a weapon, a weapon we use to wound people.

These are almost exactly the words I used with her in the car, words very similar to words she’s heard her whole life — or, at least, since the first time she was called “fat” and understood it to be intended as a cruelty, when she was 4. When she was 9, she could already use the phrase “objectification of women” correctly.

And the other day, in that car, tears streaming down her face, she finally said “I know, but you’re training me. You’re not training the whole world.”

My daughter is exactly as God and her genes intended her to be: She is funny and lights up a room and won’t take no for an answer. She is very smart and loves being very smart and can sit in a corner and read for two hours at a stretch. She will spontaneously dance to just about anything, and will run around the playground with her friends all afternoon if time and homework allow. She is a person of healthy appetites, in all senses: She would like a bigger bite of the world, please, and also some more ice cream, while you’re up. She thoroughly enjoys her food, except when she doesn’t, at which point she can’t be bothered to have another bite. She knows that too much ice cream isn’t always good for her body, and she is learning that sometimes “no” is the best answer — but she’s always heard “no” from time to time, and always had that “no” acted upon. Her diet is healthy, and she knows that, too, and likes it. She is also, if I may, beautiful. Gorgeous, in fact, with milky-peachy skin and deep brown eyes and hair that falls in waves all around her beautiful smile.

But the girl lives in the world that her father and I cannot reach, she doesn’t live within our arms. She lives in a world where 10 year old girls are already so bone-deep aware of how we treat women who do not fit a certain, very narrow, paradigm that they worry they will never be loved. She worries — a lot — what strangers think of her when they see her from a distance; she worries that the people who know her are kind only because they know her.

She is 10. She is healthy. She is strong. She is wicked smart. And she sat in my car, weeping about her body.

There is only so much her father and I can do, only so much real science we can bring to bear on the lies and misapprehensions peddled by the diet industry and swallowed whole by those around us. There is only so much we can do about the fact that every adult woman she comes in contact with is steeped in the same lies and misapprehensions, the vast majority of them openly bemoaning their sacred bodies and bonding over self-loathing. “I’m getting fat!” one of the girl’s friends said at school the other day, a friend who is so slight she might blow away on the next strong wing.

There’s only so much I can do. It’s already in her. And even though I never say it out loud, it’s in me too. I hate it, but there it is, telling me how little I’m worth because I refuse to punish my only body for being something other than that which I am told it should be. I cannot tell you how much it hurts me, how furious it makes me, to know that this is what she feels and what she faces. I’m weeping as I type. And there’s almost nothing I can do. I cannot train the world.

But maybe, maybe – if we all work together, maybe if we’re kinder to ourselves and each other, more loving toward these fabulous machines that move us through our lives, less willing to accept shaming that cloaks itself as wisdom – maybe together, we adults can make the world in which our little girls are growing into wonderful women a better place. Maybe.

Please help me. We’re the adults. My daughter, and probably yours, needs our help.  They need our love.


UPDATE: My Twitter friend Kris Lindbeck sent me the lovliest essay I may have ever read about human bodies — all of them. Please click through to read. “I’ll tell you what people look like, really: they look like flames. Or like the stars, on a clear night in the wilderness.”


UPDATE 10/6/13: All of a sudden this post is getting a ton of love from Facebook, and I’m very grateful — and Facebook is not the easiest thing to search, so I honestly don’t have any idea why today, or what the source(s) is (are). If it’s you – thank you!

A few notes on Girls [& not just that one episode] because apparently that’s what everyone does now. anyone who pays attention to pop culture knows, Girls has raised something of a ruckus since its first airing. At first the ruckus was good, then it was a little back-lashy, then Girls had the weight of American culture placed on it, and that’s never helpful. That’s pretty much why I never wound up watching the first season — too much ruckus.

But I got on board with the second, thinking (I think) that maybe the noise had died down some? Heh.

The ruckus continues. As is so often the case with pop culture phenoms, the noise surrounding last week’s episode had nothing to do with the actual content of the episode, the humor, the drama, the knowing sorrow, but with bodies. Specifically: Lena Dunham’s body as the 24 year old character Hannah, and that of Patrick Wilson, who played the hot 42 doctor with whom Hannah has a sudden, typically explicit, two-day love affair. Naked bodies everywhere. The general consensus among many was “he’s so hot, he would never do someone who looks like Lena Dunham.” Which oh my god.

I’m not going to get into that, though! Because better people than I have handled it already, and also I just can’t go down that rabbit hole. It’s too awful.

However! Last night I discovered that Dagmara Dominczyk, Patrick Wilson’s own wife, had weighed in, and done so kick-assed-ly: “His wife is a size 10, muffin-top & all,” she tweeted at one hater, “& he does her just fine. Least that’s what I hear. ; ) rule #1 – never say never.”

And this led to me thinking about the power of Lena Dunham’s naked body.

Which led me to the other things I’ve been thinking about Girls, which led me to decide to write them down. And hereunder be random spoilers (and approximate quotes, as I’m working from memory), if that matters to you.

Going back to the first episode of the season, we see Thomas-John present his brand new wife (Hannah’s friend) Jessa, whom he married on a whim, with a basket full of puppies. Surprise! Big happy gift! Then he runs out the door to work. Jessa and Hannah take the puppies to the park, Jessa says she’s “really well,” better than she’s ever been. In a later episode we learn, completely in passing, that the puppies were all returned, and then we go on to see what starts out a very sexy evening with the newlyweds but turns into an absolute nightmare as the two go out with Thomas-John’s parents. Jessa gets annoyed with their upper class judgmental natures, and lets fly with all her sordid past, in pseudo-pleasant passive-aggressive style. They go home, Thomas-John declares her the worst mistake of his life, calls her a whore, copious tears, breaking of things, he demands “how much will it take” to make her go away.

Much has been made of the fact that Jessa’s essentially a grifter, but a) there’s this wonderful pause when she’s storming up the stairs and she turns to look at Thomas-John as he says that hateful thing – and she decides she might as well get something out of what was clearly the worst mistake of her life, too. We have no reason to believe she’s lying when she tells Hannah she’s “really well” in the park – but b) let’s look at Thomas-John, shall we? I think the puppies are the key here: He picked up something he thought would be fun and delightful without really thinking about the consequences, and then when the consequences turned out to be too much for him to handle? He returned it. I think Jessa is a puppy in a basket for Thomas-John, and her failure is only in her inability (apparently consistent with her past) to recognize that ahead of time.


In one episode, Hannah’s holding a dinner party for friends, the kind of dinner party you hold when you’re in your twenties and still have roommates and your apartment is tiny and adding fairy lights and matching chairs makes you feel like you’ve really spruced the place up. The party falls apart around her ears, as all the guests are awful to each other or themselves or storm off or whatnot, and through it all, Hannah’s really trying to be calm and collected and a grown up – she keeps serving food, and talking calmly about the upset as if it doesn’t matter, and then there’s this one moment when you see her with the dessert, a bundt cake (a bundt cake!), and a fork, and she’s just eating it, her enormous brown eyes looking up at the insanity around her, and I just want to say: I loved that moment so much I wanted to give it a hug.


In last week’s Patrick Wilson episode, the affair starts to fall apart when Hannah starts to reveal more of herself than she has heretofore, the side of her (which is kind of All Of Her) which insists that she gather life experiences, the weirder the better, in order to write novels about Life later.

If you’re watching closely, you’ll see the moment it happens: Hannah says something about possibly being touched inappropriately as a toddler, and Joshua, trying to connect with her, reveals that he “let someone touch my penis” when he was nine — and Hannah poo-poos it, because he “let it happen” and she didn’t have a choice. Patrick Wilson’s face reveals it all, the attempt to understand, the instant distancing when someone rejects your (likely pretty painful) story, the desire to not have this be happening, and that’s it: He’s gone. And then she drives the final nail when she insists on calling him “Josh,” which he’s repeatedly asked her not to call him. Everything else she says in that moment is more of the same, and it really is who she is (at least in this moment of her life): a person so busy trying to see her own life that she can’t be bothered to really see anyone else’s. Sometimes this leads to humor (Girls is a comedy, after all), and sometimes it leads to that kind of painful moment, where I literally had to cover my eyes.

And finally!

Lena Dunham’s naked body.

I’ll be brief, because (again) a lot of pixels have been spilled on this already but it boils down to this: In a world in which conventionally beautiful — nay, conventionally gorgeous — women like Beyonce, Megan Fox, and Penelope Cruz are regularly photoshopped (to see what I mean, and how ridiculous it is, click here), the vision of an un-retouched, un-butt-doubled, un-apologetic female form that does not conform to the standards set for us by someone’s photoshop version of Penelope Cruz is borderline revolutionary. It shocks the sensibilities in a way that threatens to re-wire thought, and has power in ways that I don’t think we really even know how to calculate.

And that’s what I have to say about Girls.

…like a girl. (Re-up)

It’s spring vacation in these parts, and that means I’m spending a lot of time with the kids — today involved, among other things, a trip to MagiQuest. It also means I’m having no little difficulty focusing on/completing anything longer than a 140-character tweet. So I decided that today I would re-up a post I wrote a while back but which is, sadly and entirely unsurprisingly, very much still relevant.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, about the ways we use words that mean “female human” to insult each other.

There’s “scream like a little girl,” of course, which, you know — ok. Little girls are high-pitched. It’s meant as an insult, but there’s some grain of reality to be found in it. Perhaps I will someday “scream like a linebacker” or “like a South Pacific Islander.” Or something.

But once you get past “scream,” there’s:

  1. Throw like a girl.
  2. Run like a girl.
  3. Hit like a girl.

Not to mention:

  1. Pussy out.
  2. Be a pussy.
  3. Be a little bitch.
  4. Be X’s bitch.

And so on.

In the largest, broadest sense, I believe that these kinds of insults hurt us all, male and female alike. The recent bullying-related suicides of several gay-or-maybe-gay boys have their roots deeply buried in our fear of males behaving in anything but a society-approved-manly fashion. Witness the clear discomfort experienced by adults when five year old boys choose to wear girls’ clothing.

Witness that, and then think about women in pants suits, or girls in jeans. When women adopt and co-opt a traditionally male form of dress, we are empowering ourselves. When men adopt and co-opt a traditionally female form of dress — they get beat up. Because we do not value women as we value men, and we are frightened when men choose to give up the prerogatives of their gender. So, yes, everyone suffers when we continue to maintain and perpetuate misogyny.

But women and girls suffer more. Because we are the ones you shouldn’t be like.

I’ve known this for years, of course. I’m not new to noticing misogyny. I’m not new to feeling its sting and pushing at its edges. But it’s suddenly struck me how powerfully we telegraph our contempt for women merely by opening our mouths and starting to talk.

You throw like a girl. Don’t pussy out on me, bro! I’m gonna make that job my bitch! Close your eyes for a moment, and substitute any other person-naming noun/pejorative for the words “girl,” “pussy,” and “bitch.”

You throw like an Asian. Don’t Hymie out on me, bro! I’m gonna make that job my nigger!

Suddenly, the mind reels a bit.

Good lord, like most non-racist white people, I had a hard time just typing the n-word — but absolutely stand-up folks, men and women alike, without an otherwise bigoted bone in their bodies, will insult each other with words that describe me and my body, with nary a second thought. They will do it loudly, among friends, in print, on television, in movies. It’s just, you know: The way we talk.

But I cannot help but believe that we hear these things, we women and girls, we hear them, and we steep in them, and they go in and down and twist and burrow into us, and they damage us. They leave vapor trails in our thoughts and scars on our hearts. They tell us, day in and day out, that we are weak, we are not worthy, our bodies are the stuff of mockery.

When you’re someone’s bitch? You’re under their violently-wrested control. When you’re a pussy? You’re untrustworthy. When you’re a girl? You are just plain weak.

And who the fuck would want to be any of that?

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

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