Sunday morning, the (almost) 10 year old and I puttered about the kitchen. As coffee flowed freely from its pot into my waiting mug, I heard a tentative “Mommy?” I looked up at my child who was peering at me with a look of concern (and maybe a little gentle reproach). “Um… I think you forgot to take off your makeup last night.”
I finished making my cup of coffee (I have priorities) & trompt off to the bathroom to take a look.
Looking at my reflection, I snickered. Mascara was nigh on everywhere. “Total walk of shame makeup,” I muttered to myself, more reflex than actual thought.
And then I was like, “What the HELL?!”
Because in that moment, just right then, I realized that no one ever refers to a guy’s venture home after a wild (and possibly slightly regrettable evening) a walk of shame. A conquest, maybe. But more than likely, just a regular Saturday night.
Women, though? Walk of shame.
For me, having a little girl has made me rethink everything. The way I ingest the misogynistic bullshit society turns out. Diet culture. Body image. The words I use. Everything.
I have definitely had to reckon with shame. Because, for me, shame was persistent & pervasive in the messages I got about my body. My breasts? Not big enough. My ass? Too big. Ripe for either jokes or objectification. But always up for discussion. In middle school, I quickly got the message that eating too much showed too much need & desire. Besides it could make me fat. In high school, when all that internalized shame about my desires (which I wasn’t supposed to have (because Jesus), and I certainly wasn’t supposed to act on) and my body manifested itself in abject panic about having to literally chew & swallow food, I was either praised or scorned for being too skinny.
Holy shit, that’s a lot for one adolescent child to process.
I remember being so ashamed of my body in middle school that, on a canoe trip with our youth group–which was mostly kids older than me–I cowered in a tent too small to stand in trying to change out of my wet bathing suit, which took forever because I was shaking with fear that someone would unzip the tent and come inside. That’s how much shame I carried about my own body at 13 years old.
So what did I do with all that shame?
Spent graduate school sleeping around. Of course. Because isn’t that how you demonstrate that the shame has been put to rest? That you are the master of your own body and your own fate?
(Spoiler: No. The inverse of shame isn’t wild promiscuity*. Because, oh, there’s slut shaming, too. So I just traded one brand of shame for another.)
I was 30 years old before I figured out how to have any respect for my own body. I was 35 before I learned to love it. That was the same year Jane was born. The year I realized I had to go all in on loving myself, because parenting is a lead by example situation. And I want that girl to love herself to bits. And to take care of herself. And she’s looking at me to show her how.
As Jane enters puberty, it’s even more important to me than ever to be conscious about how I talk about my body and about sex and intimacy in general. I don’t think that sex should be a taboo discussion. Because, if it is, how is she supposed to be comfortable asking questions when she’s pondering having sex (or has had sex or her friend has told her something patently absurd about sex)?
Since the day Jane was born, we’ve been striving to teach her to think independently (except when it comes to cleaning her room. Then she should just do as she’s told). Which means that, in this instance, I’ve tried to lay out the broad spectrum of choices people make about when and with whom to have sex (high school, college, not until marriage…people they are in love with, people they’re fond of, the guy or girl on the barstool next to them). And for different people, those are all valid options.
But what she really needs to know, what would have saved me from a world of shame, is that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It only matters that she does what is right for her. And that can change… week to week or even moment to moment. And, when the time comes, she needs to be honest & transparent with her partners about her expectations and follow the campsite rule (which Dan Savage coined to as a guideline to protect a younger person engaged with a more experienced partner–but I think should apply to everyone).
This is 2021. And folks are still shaming women for their bodies and their sexuality. As a mother, in my house that stops with me. I want Jane to understand her inherent value as a person–not an object (no matter society’s subtle & not-so-subtle insistence otherwise). And that starts with helping Jane find her inner compass, her own True North, that will guide her in all decisions–even the ones about S-E-X.
She may be only (almost) 10, but what she hears from me will be with her for the rest of her life. The very best I can hope is that my words guide her away from shame and toward total, radical self-love.
* Nothing wrong with wild promiscuity. But it’s not an escape hatch. It’s a choice, one that you should be able to make with a clear head. It should never be just one of multiple, concurrent paths to self destruction–which was all it ever was for me. Know thyself and all.