“One is not born, rather becomes, a woman.” – Simone de Beauvoir
And what is it, exactly, that makes you, finally, a ‘woman’? Is it your breasts, or the hair that grows? Is it in your style, in being able to walk in heels, look good in a skirt? Is it makeup, hairstyles, nails? Is it not farting, belching, taking up physical and verbal space? Is it motherhood, or sex appeal? Is it learning how to manipulate, to achieve by proxy? Or is it, simply, what you decide? I wonder if there is any such thing as ‘woman’, beyond a series of boxes to be ticked. And likewise, is there such a thing as man? Aren’t we all, you know, people, at the end of the day?
These are not original thoughts. They are questions that make up the entire politics of feminism, problematic as it is. Feminisms really… Everyone’s definition differs, and so there is no one concrete thing that makes feminism. Perhaps this is because of the line of questioning above. If there is no real definition of woman, at the root of things, it makes a muddle of any attempt to outline solid feminist principles. That is not to undermine the continuing value and necessity of a feminist discourse to the arena of human rights, where it continues, globally, to be fundamental to the futures of girls and women victims of some of the harshest sexism and gender-based brutality across the world today. However, this post is not designed to tackle these great issues head on, but more a discussion on how my role as a feminist takes form.
I raised my daughter as a single parent until she turned six, and though I now live with a partner, I am still primarily responsible for her parenting. Her father was absent until she was four, so I have had a pretty good run of things in trying to bring up a happy, intelligent and well-rounded daughter on my own terms. For that, I feel blessed. Single parenthood is hard, but I’m not sure I’d like the challenge of trying to do it as part of a couple. That’s a whole different shitstorm. I have always tried to be as conscious as possible of the example I set her, and the world I create around her, as I am all too aware of the implications of early conditioning on the adult self. As I have learned more about feminism(s), the world and myself, I have been able to feed what I have learned into my parenting. I haven’t always succeeded in doing the ‘right’ thing. Like every mother, there are plenty of things I look back on and cringe. But as time goes on, I grow more confident that I’m doing it right.
I was brought up by parents who believed in the importance of being ladylike. To sit correctly, to speak correctly, to behave correctly, were high on their list of priorities for me. I am not sure when, exactly, I rejected this. I can pretty much remember thinking the whole notion of ‘ladylike’ was pretty condescending from a very early age. This is not to speak ill of my parents. My mother, in particular, was completely dedicated to making me the best I could be, and she has never ceased to be behind me, regardless of my inability to practice elegance or to be demure any more than an elephant can walk a tightrope. I’d always beat myself up about this unrestrained and total failure to keep it all held neatly together until I read Caitlin Moran’s hugely life affirming book How To Be A Woman a couple of years ago. With her writing, it was like a weight had been lifted. Turns out, there’s nothing wrong with me for not being ladylike, for enjoying drinking, swearing and thrashing around to drum n bass, laughing about my bodily functions and growing out my bush. Suddenly, it was all okay!
I don’t want my daughter to go through the years of worrying that there is something wrong with her for not scoring between those narrow girly goalposts. I want her to enjoy everything there is to enjoy about being human, without even the merest thought of what anyone else might think. So long as she plays the game to a level that makes her happy, then that should be the end of it. So, I am putting to bed a few pressing concerns that have bothered me:
Should she be allowed to paint her finger/toenails?
Yes, she should! I was always taught that it was vulgar on a child. But why, exactly? It’s just colour… Maybe a few decals, a bit of sparkle here and there. Is nail polish, in any way, a factor in sexualising a person? I don’t think so. Maybe a vampish red on long nails is taking it into sexual territory, but pastel coloured rainbows? Little bunny rabbit decals? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle themed toes? I don’t think so. If the argument against is to dissuade paedos, then, well, seriously? For every paedo that gets hot under the collar for a six year old’s toenails, there’s at least another who is more interested in the bare innocence of childhood. You can’t win against paedos with bare nails. And, anyway, should we really be restricting our daughters’ self expression out of fear of sexual predators? If we do, then they hold power over us.
Should I colour her hair with felt tip pens to make it look dip dyed?
This is much the same as the above. She wants pink streaks, just like mummy. So I bargain with her. If she lets me wash her hair, I’ll give her a few pink streaks with a felt tip, and it’ll all wash out the next time she washes it. No dangerous chemicals, no crazy sexualisation. Just a punk ass kid with DM boots and a denim pinafore dress, rocking her way into school like a boss.
Should I let her wear a cropped vest under her t-shirt?
This is a tough one, and one I haven’t got an answer for yet. I’m not talking about the miniature frilly brassieres that received so much hoo hah in the press. I’m gonna go with a big, fat NO on that one. But a cropped vest. Hmm. The reason she might want one would be to simulate the bra that mummy wears. However, the cropped vest does not resemble a bra. It does not do the job of a full vest though, either. There is about half the amount of warmth being delivered. So, what’s the point? So she can feel more ‘grown up’. That would be the exact same reason a child would want one of those little frilly bra horrors I talked about above. And my first reaction to that is NO. And the reason I automatically go for ‘no’ without hesitation is the notion of premature sexualisation. In a society where females are being reduced to sexual objects from an earlier and earlier age, it is our duty as parents to nurture their whole being and steer them away from the patriarchal sexualised image of woman for as long as possible. They need to learn fully their intellectual and emotional value over and above their sexual value if they are to achieve autonomy in the adult world. A child bra undermines that effort, and the cropped top is the same thing repackaged. It’s sneaky sexualisation, that looks more innocuous by being plain, white and disguised as a vest, but robbed of its practical value.
Should I let her play with Disney Princesses and Barbie dolls?
There are many ways to express yourself with clothes, hair and other physical adornments. It’s fun, and something that little boys are sadly robbed of by the oppressive patriarchy very early on. That is why kids like Barbies, and Disney Princesses too, with their elaborate gowns and intricate hairstyles. However, they do carry a very narrow expression of what beauty is. With little to no variation in the body shape, skin colour, hair or style of dress, these toys inhibit our children’s imaginations and sense of possibility for the self. That the body shape, in particular, is a repeated carbon copy in doll after doll after doll, speaks volumes about what society permits a woman’s shape to be. Their flesh is hard, taut. The breasts are vicious, gravity defying bazookas. That shit ain’t right, surely? I’m relatively slim, but those girls – sheesh! And yet, I still allow my daughter to play with them. Doing a quick mental scan of her bedroom, I can scarcely think of one female-replica toy that has anything other than a slim body shape. It’s a real shame, and I cannot actually think of a justification for allowing her to play with toys that perpetuate this myth of the painfully skinny, bazooka breasted woman. Other than she simply uses them to create stories, using her imagination. Perhaps any potential damage those dolls hold can be significantly undermined by the very strong vocal message of self love I teach her. If we create a home where no body shape is mocked or undermined, then she will be safe. However, jokes about ‘mummy’s fat bottom’ are commonplace in our family. The only way to deal with these jokes, in front of her, is to jiggle my booty and dance it around with pride. Pride which, luckily, I have in spades.