I was preparing dinner the other night. I still had my coat on and I was balancing a cat dish in one hand and a frozen pot pie in the other when Charlotte came into the kitchen. She had been in her room changing into her pj's. She pranced into the kitchen wearing only her favoritest undies- with the words SUNDAY emblazoned on the rump. She called out my name and I distractedly and tiredly looked in her direction, making eye contact. "Mom," she asked me, grabbing the soft, doughy skin above her waistband, "am I fat?"
I dropped to my mental knees. I barely knew what night it was, I actually couldn't have told you in that moment what town Andy was working in on that particular evening, and all I wanted to do was take my bra off and her question stopped me in my tracks. I looked at her again, really taking in her body. Her beautiful, perfect body. I have loved her body during every stage of growth- from a chubby baby legs and round bottom to the freckle on her chin and the backs of her ears. My greatest wish and hope for her has been to love herself and her body in the way that I have loved her, unconditionally, with compassion, forgiveness and pride.
I know that my hope and wish for her would be pushed and challenged, I know it would have to fight the odds. I just hoped it wouldn't be pushed so soon. She's in third grade. She's only eight, EIGHT and she's asking me if she is fat. FAT.
Looking back on the moment, I can't even remember how I answered her. I wish I could say it was thoughtful and impactful, that it made a difference, but it was instead brief, inarticulate and likely did not leave an impression on her. She quickly moved on to other things and we didn't discuss her body again that night but I've been thinking about it ever since.
Parents often talk about parenting the sexes and I know many women who have commented that they might have initially been sad to learn about having a boy, but then felt relief because parenting a boy is "easier." Sure, parents of boys miss out on the hair bows and cutesy headbands with the flowers on top, the Hanna Andersson dresses with matching tights and dining with the Disney Princesses but, you know, girls are... complicated.
When I have engaged in these conversations I have never really taken it beyond that level of complexity as though the complication of raising girls is unspoken yet well-known. Those parents of girls just hang onto those moments of flowery head bands and cutesy Easter dresses for as long as we possibly can until something changes, at some point in the future, and the complication sets in.
So, why are girls so complicated? Is it all of the emotions? Is it that they get nasty with each other? Is it that they call each other fat? Cut each other down and get catty? Is it that they struggle with body issues and eating disorders? Is it all of this? Is it all of this and more? And, why don't we say boys get complicated? They are hormonal, too. Their brains are developing, too. Why the difference between the sexes?
I was a teenage girl. I experienced all of the things I just mentioned...and the "more" I mentioned, too. Now, I'm starting to watch my daughters go through the same things I went through and I am particularly worried about the "more" that they'll experience that I didn't because of the way technology has changed, the way women are perceived in the eyes of our government, and the laws being enacted or taken away that add layers of control over their bodies and their rights.
We should stop staying that girls are complicated. We make girls' lives complicated and their emotions, behaviors and reactions are a result of that complication placed upon them. Maybe, as parents, as society, as a community, we can try making life less complicated for girls. Here's a short list of ideas.
Let's stop filtering and airbrushing our photos so that little girls can see realistic women role models and can start celebrating their curves.
Let's push the definition of femininity and stop calling our daughters tom boys if they don't want to wear dresses, they like to climb tress, or they prefer a pixie cut. Let's just call that being a girl, or you know, a person.
Let's stop body shaming each other and ourselves. They see us looking in the mirror at ourselves and they know what we are thinking even if we say things to them like, every body is different! It's not about your weight, it's about your heart health! Start believing what you are saying and maybe they will, too.
Let's stop imposing dress codes targeted at girls, and while we are at it, let's stop telling girls that what they wear distracts the boys around them.
Let's stop blaming emotions solely on hormones and start actually listening when girls express any sentiment other than happiness. And yes, let's definitely end telling girls to smile more, unless of course, they feel like smiling.
Let's stop pretending women aren't women when it's not convenient and making girls and women hide their womanhood with shame.
Let's stop emphasizing gendered careers for girls and asking girls to take on traditional gender roles in the home.
Let's stop blaming girls and women for the poor actions and behaviors of boys and men.
Let's start holding boys and men accountable for their poor actions and behaviors.
Let's create a society where girls and women feel comfortable being by themselves while walking, running or going to a party.
Let's create a society where girls and women lift one another up instead of cutting one another down. (Yes, I'll be taking Charlotte to tour Mount Holyoke in a few years. She already knows this.)
Let's create a society where boys and men lift girls and women up instead of cutting them down.
I could keep going. What ideas are on your list?
Could I make a list for boys? Sure. I'm not trying to down play that boys and young men have it easy or that there aren't things we can do to better support the boys and men in our lives. I know they struggle with body image and peer pressure. Because growing up is hard. Being a person is hard. But, it doesn't have to be so complicated, especially for girls, and our first step is to stop blaming girls for it being so complicated and to start taking responsibility for what we can do to support the young women in our lives and remove as many complications as we can so that they can just focus on being the girl they want to be, the person they want to be.